MEMORY POD

 

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It’s funny how a perfume, even a relatively insignificant (for me at least) scent such as Gucci Rush 2, which I found the other day for next to nothing at a used goods centre in Fujisawa, can set off chains of memories and associations; plunge you back into periods of time and places you had recently forgotten about, both in the physical appearance of the bottle – jolting you into a different pocket of spatial experience, remembering it visually and rationally – as well as the scent itself and its more abstract, emotional content:  :  :  :   A far more watery, deeper, rabbit hole of remembrance.

 

 

For me,  Rush 2 – a pleasant, subtle and unobtrusive green floral based tentatively on the original more vanillic/gardeniac/patchouli amalgam, Rush, that was a big hit in the 1990’s and more of a night bird –  this being warier, sharper, hinting vaguely of that original perfume but with lighter flowers (freesia, narcissus) and dominantly green notes (palm leaf) – more reminiscent in fact of Gucci’s other successful scent from that period, the ubiquitous and verdant-as-stinging-nettles-Envy; for me this perfume  is nothing but Taiwan. Taipei was where I first smelled it and experienced it, in the apartment of my Chinese Canadian friend Katherine, who had just bought the perfume for its lightness and unspoken chicness – a gently persuasive and understated smell that just perceptibly scented the rooms in which I found myself staying.

 

 

 

Taipei is a city that is underdiscussed, crushed under the weight of the mainland hegemony, the country not even recognised by the majority of the world, almost a secret metropolis that I found very engaging, easy to be in, safe and relaxed, yet tropical and humid in summer and early autumn, with a bird caged green fuchsia loveliness; long, trailing plants and liana-like tendrils hanging beyond the wet vicious cycle of air conditioners stacked up on balconies; night markets and fruit sellers hawking the most delicious mangoes I have ever experienced; the mangoest mango juice dripping down my face, a fraction of the cost of the extortionate fruit in Japan, imported and cosseted in cradling fruit nets to up the exclusivity; here they were everywhere, and pungent with green and orange mango-ness.

 

 

While Katherine was at work, I would wander the city at my leisure, noting the similarities with Japan but also the differences. The National Palace Museum, housing the biggest collection of Chinese art in the world – all smuggled out of China during the People’s Revolution – was cool and dark and utterly beguiling, with 5,000 year old exquisitely crafted ceramic animals, cups, pots; I completely lost myself within these other worlds, and the seraphic beauty of the contrastedly sunlit upper floor tea rooms where I wrote postcards and drank jasmine and looked out onto the ever stretching vistas of the murmuring metropolis.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I almost didn’t get there.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This was 2001, just after the September 11th attacks, the very same month, and the world was jittery, shocked within; afraid. There was a darkness, a pall, both inside and out ourselves, a profound disturbance, not only the humanitarian catastrophe of the World Trade Center destruction itself and the sheer sense of grief and disbelief, but also at the ramifications of what was to come, a sense that that was that; that everything would change irrevocably from now on,;that the world would react badly – wrongly- which it did; that there were almost premonitions palpable in the clouds, in the air; a schism.

 

 

 

 

The night before I was due to fly and spend this long weekend with a friend I had made at a language school – and who I have since completely lost touch with – we had also heard that Aaliyah, an R n B singer who both the D and I loved listening to in the hot summer months and who had  a voice like an angel, had just died in a plane crash in the Bahamas, burnt to death in her seat after recording a pop video there just after it had taken off and we were very shocked: just 22, uncliched and fresh, her music had formed a soundtrack to recent times and we couldn’t believe that her life had just been severed in one horrifying moment. Flying, after the attacks in New York, had therefore taken on entirely new ramifications and feelings – you just didn’t want to. I almost cancelled, but had paid the money, and love to visit new places, and wanted to see Katherine, and so eventually decided to fly to Taipei as originally intended.

 

 

 

Already feeling deeply uneasy because of everything, at the airport, my passport was questioned, the ground staff insisting that I couldn’t get into Taipei on a standard British passport, that I needed a visa. They were refusing to let me board the plane, despite the fact that I had repeatedly checked beforehand to make sure of the visa and entry requirements, and, already rattled and nervous by the month of upsetting global events, as I stood there arguing with them at the check-in desk as passengers went on ahead before me, I was verging on a meltdown.

 

 

 

Suddenly, out of the blue, as if by miracle, and by unbelievable coincidence, I spotted a face that I recognized, in an airline company uniform – Shizuka! – a student I had taught at an international language school in London six years previously and who I had not seen in the interim period and who I had no idea was even working at Narita airport. Astonished, I beckoned her over, she equally surprised and pleased to see me, and breathlessly explained the situation, that the staff were mistaken about the visa, that I had to get to Taiwan, and within minutes she had talked me out of the problem and I was on board.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I love staying at other people’s apartments or houses, languidly taking a bath and soaking up the unfamiliar surroundings, especially when they have gone to work and you have the whole place to yourself and feel deliciously and irresponsibly cut off from reality. Gucci Rush 2 was the subtle scent of the air, the music the new Radiohead album of the time, Amnesiac, which I recorded from her CD onto cassette, and sprayed all over the tape card with the perfume to set the memories firmly in place (contrived; yes, but effective – for years the scent subtly lingered, even on the plastic of the music tape itself as I put it in the machine it would give off scent and I love that; I love the commingling of music and perfume, a double anchor of temporal marking, indeed a memory pod, a time capsule that can be unearthed when you least expect it – like suddenly coming across a bottle of the perfume in Japan, seventeen years later – seventeen years – that reality astonished me, can that much time have just slipped by so rapidly and unexpectedly? – a fusion of  taste and of visual memories encapsuled within a simple, but precious, cassette case.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The heat and the unfamiliarity of Taipei wavered outside, while I lay languishing in the bath water, listening to the electronical miserabilia of England’s greatest nihilists, never my favourite music by a long shot, but still technically excellent; incisive – knife-like, cold as ice, this album more suited to my personal tastes than the anthemic guitars of the more popular earlier material, but crucially, crucially  – an insurmountable barrier – my own experience of listening to this group had been tainted – no, fully traumatised, by a singularly awful experience I had had on a bleak day in November the year before, at my local train station in Kitakamakura, the sky grey and white and unforgiving, one of those days when life feels that it has completely lost its savour, the wind too cutting, the joy sucked out of existence.

 

 

 

 

I had walked down the hill to the station and on my headphones was listening to Radiohead’s previous and similarly desolate album release, Kid A, something of a masterpiece of its type, hinting at the loneliness and perhaps pointlessness at the heart of things, if you choose to look at life that way (I am a person who tends to listen to music that accentuates the mood or atmospheric conditions rather than alleviate them; on happy sunny days I blast out pop music that fills me with a heaven like ecstasy that the years can never dampen, I layer optimism with optimism, but for me the reverse is also true – on grim days I wallow in the dark, as it is soothing, somehow, and on that particular day, having no idea of what was about to come, I had intuitively chosen the Oxfordshire professors of doom as my music of the day.)

 

 

 

 

I was listening to the song National Anthem, a chaotic, sardonic rock track filled with a grinding guitar riff and maniacal brass, and had the music on so loud that it drowned out everything around me;  I was entirely immersed in my world of grey as I sat down on a wooden bench at the station waiting for a train bound for Kamakura to see my friend Yoko for lunch, and was semi-nonplussed when the person next to me kept looking at me in a curious way as if to say how can you be listening to music at at moment like this? I carried on with it, unaware that the train across the tracks where I was sitting had stopped moving and that people seemed to be reacting to something terrible and dismaying.

 

 

 

 

 

Finally, my eyes strayed across the tracks, the music still pounding, and then I saw it. Or rather, her. A middle aged lady had jumped in front of the train and committed suicide, and her dead body was slumped against the wall, her eyes closed as if in the x shape of an extinguished anime character, but faced in my exact direction as if she was looking at me. 

 

 

 

 

 

It was a moment of the purest horror. Thrusting off my earphones I stood up, wide-eyed, gasping, my hand across my mouth, the solemn passengers on the train staring out from the windows and seeing, but not seeing, my obvious reaction to what was lying beneath them on the tracks, as people at the station looked down not knowing what to do or where to place their eyes.

 

 

 

 

 

Quickly, and effectively, so as not to disturb the commuting of thousands of people, the Japan Railway staff came running, up and down the tracks looking for the body, even though she was staring me right in the face. I was numb with the hideousness of what I was witnessing, as they finally located her, and dragged her across the tracks, a severed limb coming loose as people screamed on the platform and she was placed, in a shroud, a a white sheet, stained with red, on the tracks and I suddenly started running.

 

 

 

 

Pure adrenaline, running, running, as fast as I could, I just had to get away from there, I couldn’t stand there watching it any longer, and I ran and ran until I got to Kamakura station, where my friend had been looking at the train boards and the fact that there had been an ‘accident’ and was worrying and wondering if I was alright.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As dreadful as this experience might have been, in fact, though you may be shocked to be reading all of the above, this is practically a daily occurrence in the Tokyo region, commuters jumping in front of trains a regular ‘nuisance’, but nevertheless one of the most popular ways to commit suicide. Scorned and reviled for the ‘inconvenience ‘ it causes pain to hundreds of thousands of commuters, as well as the financial burden it gives to the remaining relatives, who are forced to pay fines and give extortionate amounts of money for the ensuing ‘clean up’, I sometimes wonder if, the clear despair notwithstanding, it is all in fact just a big middle finger, a final fuck you to the establishment and a final act of notice me, willingly oblivious rebellion.

 

 

 

 

Rather than the tut tutting irritation of many passengers ,though, who consider such acts as the ultimate in selfishness, as I masochistically put back on the Kid A, perhaps to just swallow myself up in her death and not just brush it away, and one of the saddest songs of all time, How To Disappear Completely came on, I was just hit with the most profound sadness I had experienced in recent memory; sheer sympathy that that lady – well dressed, with her greying shoulder length hair, should have gone to such extremes. I remember tearing up on the train to work that evening, temporarily lost in an abyss of great sorrow and shock.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*

 

 

 

 

In Taiwan, hot, lush vegetation everywhere, with Katherine, who showed me her favourite Taiwanese restaurants, and took me to the coast where we walked along the promenade eating ‘stinky tofu’ in the sweltering late summer heat, going to cafes together and meeting her Taipei friends, wearing her green, delicate floral that permeated my days ; and even with the distinctive and unavoidable voice of Thom Yorke:: that follow up Radiohead album, more rich and layered and less skeletal than their previous creation, didn’t sadden me…….it was a new era, the incident at Kitakamakura station was something from two years before; and though each time I went there again initially I just couldn’t get the events out of my mind’s eye – I would move down to the end of the platform to get away as far as I could from it all and pretend it hadn’t happened – it was a new day, and hot, and I love summer and can hardly be depressed at that time of year no matter what has happened. I lose myself in that shimmering feeling, that to me feels like endlessness, even when you know that Autumn is soon approaching. It was just one long weekend, full of new cultural and personal stimulations, but it was very enjoyable, and although I only saw Katherine one or two times after that – she has since gone somewhere but I never got the address -I think I would like to go back to Taipei again.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I can never listen to Radiohead though any more. I do think that what happened to me while I was listening to their music (surely the ‘ultimate’ Radiohead experience; actually witnessing a suicide while having their music as the ‘soundtrack’ ) made it impossible for me to ever want to hear another song of theirs again as long as I live. Temporarily, in Taiwan, it had seemed ok – it was brand new music and I was so stimulated by my surroundings I didn’t care- but now,  what I saw and heard on that horrible afternoon are so seared in my psyche that I have no desire to ever revisit it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I had thought about none of all this for a very long time until I saw that ten dollar bottle of Rush 2 standing there on the shelf of the massive emporium among thousands and thousands of other goods for daily life; clothes, bric-a-brac, furniture, kitchenware the other day; I couldn’t even quite precisely remember now what it had smelled like: just that it had been green, and fresh, and that someone I had long ago spent time with – -Katherine, had once worn it.

 

 

 

 

 

I didn’t hesitate for a moment in buying the perfume, though, taking a work break on a sunny day in Fujisawa and killing time by just looking round the shops – this place once in a while yielding something interesting and cheap, the translucent pink bottle in the right pocket of my work coat, waiting for me to try it on me when I left in the evening. A blast from the past. A pleasant anomaly. For some strange reason I was quite excited to see it again.

 

 

 

 

But I am not sure that it is exactly as I remember it. It certainly smells different on a Chinese Canadian girl who only wore light florals and was kooky and intellectual and savagely ironic about everything she came into contact with : plus, we were also two decades younger. On me – well my skin is actually very male, it kills flowers and sprouts woods, which is why I cannot bear anything ‘woody’ or acrid -and so, amusingly, this perfume, while smelling delicately, intelligently feminine on a woman, almost strays too much into my dreaded zones of sports fragrance ‘manhood’, would you believe and yet, spritzed lightly over the head and settling in microscopic droplets on my hair and onto my work clothes it does, definitely, smell rather intriguing. Rather unexpected and suave ( perhaps from a slight hint of vetiver and oak moss in the base). Duncan thought so when he met me at the station, the big freeze that happened suddenly, yesterday, as the Tokyo region was blanketed with its biggest snow fall in years and most transport slowed down or came to a standstill, commuters lining up by the hundreds for taxis and buses as the winds howled and the big snowflakes came down and settled , as they stood shivering, on their heads. Snug in my multilayered clothing, the icy atmosphere surrounding me, the anti-intuitive choice of this more vernal, discontinued perfume somehow worked nicely; the leaves and imagined flowers could breathe uninhibitedly in the lung-piercing air, a very urban, and self-contained abstraction; as some of the thoughts I have just related to you swirled about me, like the snowflakes in my mind.

 

 

 

 

16 Comments

Filed under Flowers, Green

16 responses to “MEMORY POD

  1. Filomena

    Every time I read a post of yours similar to this, it just fortifies what I already know…or at least what is important to me besides family, friends and work…and the answer is “music and scents”, both of which have been very meaningful in my early years, my adolescent years, my younger adult age, and now my much older adult age, You put it so beautifully and completely “en pointe”. Music and scents are two things that evoke memories and feelings of our earlier years and experiences. I can only speak for myself, but when I smell a fragrance or hear a song that I related to when I was younger, no sooner than I smell the fragrance or listen to the song, I am transported to the time I first smelled the fragrance or heard the song…and I actually get an image of where I was when I heard the song or smelled the fragrance (and the fragrance/scent was not always a perfume, but even someone’s dank basement where we would put on the stereo and play our selected tunes). Thank you so much for this post! And enjoy the perfume while it’s still potent.

    • You know exactly what I mean then. It has almost become a truism now, about perfume and memory, but bad or good, they can open up whole buried vistas, and we are lucky that is the case. It makes me feel that life is there, continuous within, even when it has gone.

  2. My GOD, Neil. I don’t know where to begin. This is one of the best things I’ve read from you. From anyone. I actually read it last night before I went to bed and had to read it again first thing this morning to be able to absorb it fully, and had vivid dreams in-between. All I can really say — words can be cumbersome — is that I was fully with you throughout. Your sensitivity and ability to express difficult and nuanced, abstract things is such a gift to us.

    Little things, so perfect: “The heat and the unfamiliarity of Taipei wavered outside . . .”

    I went and listened again to How to Disappear Completely and imagined your experience. Jesus, man. I can see how that experience and Radiohead would have been fused together, and why the association would end your relationship with their music.

    I love that the fragrance you rediscovered brought all of that back and you shared it with us. I am wearing vintage Must de Cartier now and am back in the skin I wore in 1981. Proof that the olfactory lobe and parietal lobe are intimately, powerfully linked.

    • Freakish and telepathic. I was literally going to write in the article (but just forgot) that the relationship between Rush and Rush II was equivalent to Must and Must II Eau Fraiche, how utterly bizarre.

      As for the piece, I tapped it out this morning before work, and felt that it was truncated and severed in some way – I wanted it to be more fleshed out; but then it was what it was (and it somehow suited the music and Taiwan).

      Amazing, also that you had vivid dreams because of it. I had FANTASTIC LESSONS. Such catharsis. I don’t think I have ever properly related this story before; even Duncan this evening said that he had no idea that such an unmemorable perfume had so many linkages.

  3. Tara C

    This was such a fantastic piece. Like you and Filomena, music and scents have always been touchstones in my life. I remember buying my very first CD player when they had just come out, blasting the latest Dire Straights album and hearing things I’d never heard before on radio or cassettes.

    Living in Montréal, I fear one day witnessing a suicide in the métro like you described. I heard announcements often when I was living in Paris but thankfully never saw anything. I would have run like hell just as you did and avoid that part of the station. Horrifying sights seem to stamp themselves much more indelibly on our brains, leaving traces that flashback for years.

    • I actually thank Radiohead and the weather that made me blast the music out so loud because it meant that I didn’t actually witness the moment of impact nor hear the sickening noises. I was blissfully – or nihilistically – unaware until I took those headphones off.

      And what I saw was truly horrible. At the same time, like I say, it happens so often here that it barely merits a trauma here in Japanese society (although I am perfectly willing to cede that I might be completely wrong about that). America has its guns and its opium deaths, Mexico its beheadings and drug murders; England…..something (liver failure?). We all have something, and like I said, I had hardly thought about this at all until I happened to come across Rush II.

      Amazing though what these things unearth.

      • Tara C

        Oh yes, you were mercifully spared by the blaring headphones. (Shudder)

      • It really is a dreadful scenario in my mind though. I DETEST those freezing, grey white skied days (snow is an entirely different thing). On such days my mood is inevitably reduced by at least 60% because I just fucking hate it.

        And then to see that shroud on the rail tracks……

        But as you say, the music truly was merciful.

  4. David

    I look forward to your posts so damn much because you connect so much in one piece. I can’t think of any other writer I read and then re-read and then re-read again.
    Taipei is such a special city. There is a 24-hour bookstore there. Any city that has a 24-hour bookstore is my kind of place.
    I’m sorry that you witnessed a train suicide (or the aftermath).

  5. I read this post last night and it just utterly haunted me, everything about it. I guess what really haunted me was the whole suicide image you described. You described what you saw so vividly that it even haunted my dreams.
    I was particularly moved by the way music and fragrance can be so intrinsically tied together, especially how they have the innate ability to trigger memories, both good and bad.
    Glad Gucci Rush 2 has the ability to bring back memories of Taiwan, it sounds like it was a wonderful place.
    You really are such a phenomenal writer. You share your memories so perfectly, they feel like they have become my own memories.

  6. Your writing is lovely Neil, I wish I could be express myself as eloquently as you.

    I was in Taipei last year on business, we have an office there in Taoyuan, they put me up in a hotel at the top of a skyscraper, which felt even more alien than normal, I enjoy visiting even though I long to come home to the Lancashire rain and cold, the heat kills me. When I think of Taiwan it’s a hot night market, with a giddy, queasy, unholy smell and me fighting inside, don’t faInt.

    This time, at the airport I recognised someone waiting for a taxi, had a moment to decide whether to approach, I don’t mind looking silly, ‘hello mate’, turns out to be an old friend who emigrated to Australia seventeen years ago. We had two minutes to chat then off, ‘hope to see you again before we die’, what are the chances?

    • An amazing coincidence and thanks for writing.

      The Lancashire cold and rain though?

      (shudder )

      • Lill

        Yeah, twenty years now, I lived in a village on the edge of the West Pennine moors which was stark, brutal and beautiful, I loved it but it was a bit Royson Vasey. Now we’ve moved to more sedate climes near the coast, feels tropical in comparison. Having a dog helps, got to go out whatever the weather..

      • I wish I was of that more robust frame. The moors are exciting – all those tones of green, the bracing air

        ( but only for a day trip !)

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