The last time I wrote about a perfume called London it was by Guerlain: a fruity little nothing from Les Voyages Olfactifs by Thierry Wasser that, to my knowledge, is no longer available. The vast majority of that piece, however, was not concerned with the perfume, but was instead spent savaging a city I have never really liked, have hated, even. I have always felt instinctively within myself that there is a shroud, a pall, an alienating hauteur and aggression, a coldness, to London that has always, even when I lived there, kept me at arm’s length.
That said, the sheer levels of vitriol levelled at the place on that occasion were rather excessive, even for me (not that those who read The Black Narcissus come to this website for the minced, the pastel, or the polite.) Still, some Londoners and London-loving Anglophiles were I think a little taken aback by my dark summations, which were probably overtinged by personal reminiscences, very subjective impressions, and the fact that I haven’t even lived in the country, let alone London, for over twenty years.
Splurging at will about a place where I am almost permanently ill at ease, for whatever reason, seems almost quaint and blissfully ignorant in my memory now. At that time, at least I was still a European citizen,meaning I could live anywhere I wanted on the continent. I liked this. I took it for granted. And I had no idea that this apparent certainty – the idea was possibly for us to retire to our apartment in Berlin, where we would have had free health care – would change at the whim of a pompous and privileged politician – David Cameron, now happily making a fortune giving paid speeches and living the high London life, who would gamble all of our futures on a wanton and capricious parliamentary game, betting that a national referendum on whether or not to leave the European Union would lead to a clear verdict of Stay, just so he could give his Eton educated middle finger to his similarly clueless fellow conservative ministers, people who were truly born with compassionless silver spoons in their mouths and have not a jot of an idea of how the majority of people actually live. David Cameron gambled. We lost. And all for NO REASON. For me, ‘Brexit’ was an infuriating catastrophe on a number of levels.
Like the Trump voters ( oh, that man, that maniacal Mango Mussolini who could lead us all to nuclear destruction soon with those deliberately mindless outbursts from his mouth!); like those people, the nationalistic, tabloid reading, Union Jack -munching ‘Brits’ who voted to make us leave an organization – the world’s largest economy, to which we need access in order to remain relevant in any viable way – just so that we could stubbornly retreat into a backward-looking, petty, Rule Britannia island mentality of ‘keeping them out’, leaving Europe behind, and continuing down the inevitable, class-ridden, stultifying quicksand of rich vs poor; those people have condemned us, unthinkingly, based purely on primal and atavistic impulses led by the ‘newspapers’ of Rupert Murdoch, to a future of shrinking international importance and financial hardship; a parochial, us vs them island mentality that I personally can’t relate to.
Yet despite my continuing mourning of the Brexit result and my very real feeling that it was absolutely a wrong ( and such an unnecessary!) decision that will ultimately prove disastrous for the country in the longrun as we gradually fade into global oblivion, from an exterior, and aesthetic, perspective, the shutting of the gates to Calais, Amsterdam, Bruges, and the rest of the outside world will, I think, ironically, in some strange ways, make the country (I am referring to England specifically because I am from there; Scotland, Wales and Northern Island have their own identities to contend with), more ‘exotic’, more unique and, ultimately, English. Like Japan, an obsessively ethnocentric and deeply xenophobic place that last year accepted a total of 28 refugees in crisis, the closed-offness of both nations – in its heart, Japan, an ancient and historical, imperialistic island like the ‘United Kingdom’ will always see itself as apart from all other cultures; it doesn’t remotely even see itself as Asian despite the undeniable influence of China, Korea and India in its history – this reserve, monomania, and sentimental clutching onto the trinkets and realia of culture- decorative fans, kimono, wooden dolls, teapots – will also make the twee and pretty Englishness of the fine bone china gift shop even more special and peculiar to our green sceptred isles; the London red double deckers will seem more significant, Big Ben will intone ever more commandingly, and ‘Englishness’ will be fetishized and its quaintness adored by visiting Americans, correctly visa’d Europeans, and ‘hordes’ of credit card wielding Chinese.
I don’t mean all this entirely facetiously. England is actually very beautiful. It is all still within me. It will never leave me. The countryside, the Shakespearean heritage, the old pubs, the wit and the wonderfully irreverent and rebellious art culture, all of it will remain alive and well I am sure, magnified and marinaded triumphantly inside itself now those pesky Eurocrats won’t be able to touch it. There will be an insularity, an Englishness, a clannish implosion where the garden gnomes of middle earth come alive, and pixies and fairies once again roam free in our glorious, forested woodland, and little blonde haired alabaster skinned children will hold hands joyfully around the maypole. Little England will be reborn.
But what will become of London ?Will the secretive, lavish, tax haven still be the centre of global capitalism, as it has been in recent years, where the megarich of Russia and Saudi Arabia have bought up vast swathes of land and property and invested (= hidden) unscrupulous assets undemonished? Or will it lose much of its financial clout, seeing that many countries, Japan included, saw The City as their gateway into Europe? Will they not simply transfer their wares and their services to the continental mainland, resulting in great losses in jobs and revenue as manufacturers relocate there in order to have immediate access to the European market, as they have, hassle-free, until now? Will the result of Brexit not be a huge drop in political and monetary influence? Who knows (who cares?)But even if immigration is curbed, I imagine that our great metropolis will still, for a very long time in the future, remain a multicultural hotpot of a myriad ethnicities and backgrounds, the ultra-wealthy, the destitute; royalty and the sex-trafficked; the trendier-than-thou and the homeless; comfortable, semi-detached boroughs for the ‘yummy mummies’ and their mollycoddled offspring; the ruthless, smartsuited financiers, the Rastafarians of Brixton, the Orthodox Jews of Golders Green all Moulinexed together in the unfathomable city they call home.
Bitter ex-pat pontification and over-seriousness aside ( I have actually had twinges of homesickness recently), how to capture all this, all of this history and complexity, this flux and change, in perfume?
Gallivant ( love that word : I am often accused of ‘gallivanting’ about the place by various people in my life),is a brand new perfume house that seeks to encapsulate the founder’s favourite world cities in scent. There is nothing new in this of course, as the idea has been executed several times before, but it is still always novel, somehow, sniffing a selection pack of topographical olfactive evocations and seeing if any travel bureau light bulbs light up in your head. Brooklyn, not a city, obviously, but just one neighbourhood, and thus the anomaly in the collection, is for me the most pleasing, a very upbeat, lemon-meringue white musk that is sweet and quite sassy and which puts me in a good mood. Simple, but nicely constructed, it is an easygoing blend of a lemon peel infused soufflé and a freshly washed white tee. It is perhaps easier to encapsulate just one particular zone of a city like this with an olfactory conceit than its entirety, and though I have never been there – but would like to – this kind of semi lights up my polaroids.
Istanbul, as you might imagine, is a creamy ( and moderately dreamy ) modern oriental, with all the spices, coffee, amber and opoponax you might expect; familiar, competent, quite sensual – it fills up a room – but nothing the Turkish tourist board will be promoting any time soon I don’t think; there is a flatness from an overwieldy dose of Ambroxan or something similar that negates – if unifies – the simmering possibilities, even while the general gingery goodness is still worth a sniff to the curious. I might ask my friend, Zubeyde, an Istanbul native, if this is remotely Istanbulish or not – I can’t judge.
Not too far away geographically, but quite different in terms of perfume type and temperament, we find Tel Aviv: a brassy, and trashy, white floral with endocrinic, metallic woodnotes that puts me slightly in mind of the old XS Pour Elle by Paco Rabanne. It’s kind of sexy, suggesting a lot of bared tanned flesh, dyed hair and thickly applied makeup, but it certainly isn’t classy. I know Tel Aviv is supposed to be quite the party town though so maybe for some people its perfumed namesake will have some resonance, who can say. I somehow doubt it though.
As for Gallivant’s London:
“It’s addictive, big, soaring, down to earth, and has a wicked sense of humour. It’s a wet spring. Roses from Columbia Road. Georgian architecture. A hint of dustiness. An earthy, lush wetness you can almost taste. East End Boys and West End Giris. Second-hand leather jackets. Creative, new, old, beautiful, ugly, rich, poor. All rubbing along.”
If this all sounds quite promising, the olfactive cold rainy dawn of reality (god, British Mondays in winter working in London, it’s a miracle I ever got out of bed), – is a slightly salty, aquatic rose : light, quite uplifting, with an almost oudhish, smoky subtext lying somewhere beneath the chemicals ( presumably the leather jacket as you huddle at the bus stop), plus cucumber, wet puddle topnotes, all fresh, bedazzled, and slightly disturbing. While I do personally associate the whole m’lady, curtsying, thatched Elizabethan Rose with England, in a very positive way -I have a thing about traditional floral talcs, for example, Yardley included; there is something so beautifully pure and uptight about the soaps and smells of a traditional English bed and breakfast ( none of the feline animality of the Parisians, dripping in civets, and in musks – we like our bedspreads and soap dishes to smell as rosy and matinal as Jane Austen novels) – I am not entirely convinced that this ‘rose by the estuary’ leather jacket malarkey entirely works, at least not for me personally. I don’t know. I think London is just too grandiose, yet also slippery and ungraspable, ultimately, to be pinned down by something so effervescent and slight.
Someone who definitely knows, and really loves, London, is Roja Dove. The former, mad Guerlainophile who famously blagged his way into the company as an obsessive young fanboy and then became England’s most talked about and famous nose, is the founder of the Harrods Haute Parfumerie, still curated by him, as far as I know, and which is a must stop for any perfume person shopping and parading their way around the Big Smoke on a Saturday afternoon. A hushed, and gilded, Aladdin’s Cave on the fifth floor of the lauded, if claustrophobic, establishment owned by Princess Diana’s lover, where a perfume lover can glide about hushfully on silent carpets and a consortium of black mirrors; sample, and dream- of having enough money to be able to actually buy something there (no, I exaggerate : yes, there are exclusives in Baccarat crystal and the likes of Xerjoff, but the rest of the fragrances are just expectable niche prices),
; still, this is certainly not your average high street counter. The eponymous fragrances are not at all bad either – well blended with a general integrity, plush; and London is recognizably yet another such perfume from the stable. Rich, luxuriant, balsamic, oriental, this is essentially an Anglified Tom Ford Noir = Guerlain Heritage; lavender, tonka, vanilla, amber, woods, and at first I did think heLLO, this is something I am going to wear come winter, probably quite a lot, my kind of perfume, even if something was niggling me in my subconscious about it as it gradated on my skin slowly that I couldn’t quite put my finger on.
That doubt emerged more clearly in the base notes later on, where a stingy fake sandalwood completely ruined for me what otherwise would have been a keeper. Where the Guerlain Heritage eau de parfum sinks into my skin like a swan feather eiderdown of quite provocative male sensuality – really, that thing is gorgeous and I have to get some more, London never reaches such heights ( or depths). It just kind of, coasts. Happy and puffed up as fat Larry ( Donald Trump might love it if you changed the name to Trump Tower). Still, it is quite nice. Our friend Karen has been wearing it during her stay in Japan this summer (she was also the recipient of the Malle Promise that is even worse in retrospect than I originally said it was), and the London, much better than that, has warmth, character, and presence that are not too shabby at all; likeable and grand enough probably to be a more convincing a portrait of London – the centre of it, the richer people’s part, at the very least. The financial hub. Each person’s London is their own though: you can live in leafy South Kensington in a big white house, or in a tower block just a few miles away in North Kensington, like the tragic Grenfell Tower that burned down in a shockingly fast inferno from neglect and negligence by the local council recently. Sometimes these extremely different worlds barely intersect, there is far less contact than in Tokyo – a far more equitable place – and it is this, ultimately that puts me off the city. When I lived there, for two long years, I always just felt pushed along the streets and the underground by the individualistic but faceless multitudes – but always lonely.
Ignore me, though. Many, many people – a lot of my friends included – do love the place:
“I had so much fun creating London, the scent of my hometown. I have tried to capture the vibrancy, dynamism and sense of surprise that pervades every corner of this great city. From the glamour of The Ritz and the naughtiness of Soho, to the power of Westminster to the simple elegance of St James Park, each element of this scent is evocative of my love for London. The iconography for London draws inspiration from the thirteen dragon boundary marks that watch over the city – the iconic winged guardians of the old gateways to the capital.”
Yes. In all honesty, when it comes to London, its charms, its pleasures, and its soul (if, indeed it has ever had one), you can, in all likelihood, trust Roja Dove a lot more than you ever could me. Really.