Monthly Archives: July 2019

BLACK PEPPER by COMME DES GARÇONS (2016)

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Black Pepper is peppery.

REALLY peppery.

As in, tumultuously, treacherously peppery – a trail of crushed peppercorns that lingers in the air in sinisterly suave fashion for an entire day  (this scent is a miracle of modern technical perfumery);a light, invisible muslin of discreet coumarin, agarwood, cedar and musk giving dryness, arid heft..

 

Whenever Duncan wears this (I bought it him for his birthday last year at the Comme Des Garçons boutique in Aoyama), I tune in to the unrelenting black spice, the precise smell of the Kampot black peppercorns I bought at a market in Cambodia, and cracked the other night for food.

 

Not fresh, nose tingley, or slicey, like some of the recent pink peppercorn florals, Black Pepper is completely unique in its fidelity to the theme ; the scent palette spectruming from light grey to pitch; a low registered, masculine thrum.

 

 

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the air

 

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– photo by Helen

 

 

 

The political air may be foetid and menacing, but on my bike ride this morning it was rich : humid, green; steamy; fragrant with memory. Weeks of rain, swollen skies, sometimes strange and cold, otherwise fungal and clammy, tropical : and yet I go back to twenty four and the melancholy of a particular summer listening to Under The Pink and the soundtrack to The Piano, not knowing what to do with my life but taking solace from the music and the sky; the way clouds drift along so rapidly in England, a particular scent of hedgerows and trees that I nevertheless was just plunged into as I rode past the local forest entrance that leads to Kamakura; before, a little earlier I was immersed in my thoughts about the dangerous and alarming climate the world is foolishly entering into but suddenly I passed into another realm; I was in my maternal grandmother’s garden in summertime; her yellow dress; the fierce smell of roses that I would lie amongst and sunbathe, happy as Larry, the sprinkler on the lawn, her bird baths and gnomes and garden fairies; a kitsch paradise of flowers and natural perfume aerated by cloudless blue; how odd that we don’t consciously conjure these memories with a sought out association but PASS INTO THEM, unknowingly, like chambers (does all of our life still exist within us, rooms to be unlocked, at random?) My heart lifts, I keep pedalling, down past the beginnings of winter oranges growing solemnly in oiled, dark green leaves, flowers whose Japanese, and English names I am unfamiliar with but whose scent reminds me of now; and the LILIES, wild, flowering from gardens, in the mountains, by the side of the road… perfumed, insane, oblivious …….

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AFTER DONALD TRUMP SAYS PEOPLE SHOULD GO BACK TO THEIR OWN COUNTRIES IF THEY ARE NOT HAPPY IN AMERICA, ONE WOMAN IMMEDIATELY BOARDS A ONE-WAY FLIGHT TO SLOVENIA

 

 

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a tantalizing glimpse of Rome, ‘82

 

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SUMO WRESTLER by J-SCENT (2017)

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Sumo wrestling is one of those quintessential and uniquely Japanese experiences  I have yet to experience. Although in and of itself, the sight of willfully and dangerously obese men nudging and pushing each other outside a ring does not hold much appeal, I realize of course that there is also much more to this revered national sport in terms of technique, history and symbolism; the pomp and  highly ritualized sense of ceremony and almost sombre seriousness of all the Japanese traditional passions always something to behold ( see my piece on The Smell Of Kabuki).

 

 

 

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Sumo wrestlers themselves are rare sightings. They are usually confined to their ‘stables’, where they live, train and eat in harsh circumstances, the sites of scandals involving beatings and even an unwitting murder a couple of years ago by overzealous trainers ; recently there was another incident in the news about a female paramedic ‘defiling’ the sacred circle in order to see to a senior official who was having a cardiac arrest : this stirred debate throughout the country.

 

 

 

 

But sumo wrestlers are respected; they are like superstars – and there is almost obsessive coverage of them in the national media ; whether the Mongolians, who are begrudgingly accepted as repeat champions again and again will prevail once more this year  ( we were thinking  about going to Mongolia this August, incidentally, on a whim:  I fancied karaoke in Ulanbataar and the vast blue skies of the plains: just somewhere completely unexpected –  but the visa application seems too complicated for UK nationals: with its fully established sumo relationship, travelling for Japanese citizens is much easier ); the tracking of the sumo wrestlers’ rankings in the annual tables consistently receiving painstaking, feverish attention.

 

 

 

 

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I have seen, and smelled, sumo wrestlers less than a handful of times up close; on the train once or twice, where everyone is trying not to stare or get their phones out, and otherwise lounging elegantly in the doorway of some hotel lobby or other;  almost surreally imposing and gargantuan, yet, in their luxuriant silk kimonos and the gleaming topknots of  fragrant, oiled hair, simultaneously flamboyant, even feminine.

 

 

 

 

J-Scent, a Japanese brand that makes perfumes based on Nipponesque themes – fleeting, more for momentary rushes of memories and novelty than for fully western daytime wear, is a little too coy in its rendering of the rikishi, the sumo kings who in reality, in the intensity of their perfume, actually really reek of powdery red flowers in a manner that is almost unseemly in its decadence  (transforming the flab and the obscenity of the grappling, buttocked,  loin- clothed giants into seduction – I remember my heart racing slightly as the majestic mountain of floral cotton print,flesh,  and the concentrated odour of flowers sashayed by); Sumo Wrestler, its perfume rendering,  a light, powdery amber with brief flashes of fresh violet, anise, and eucalyptus that is very easy to wear, soft and pleasant, but is perhaps lacking in the full intensity of the strange dichotomy at the heart of the towering strength of these warriors, and their shining, thick long black hair drenched in perfumed camellias.

 

 

 

 

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JAZZ by YVES SAINT LAURENT (1988)

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It has been a dreadful term.

 

Dire.

 

 

Where usually I eventually adapt back to the reality of work after our adventures elsewhere, this time, the gulf between the excitement of the book launch – that mad week in London: being on the radio, playing the piano with one of my favourite pop stars, all of it, etched something into my spirit that cannot be erased,  a chasm unbridgeable.

 

 

But reality is reality. Changes are not always easy to make. You have to count your blessings, and not be reckless, nor dangerously throw away hard earned privileges in a fit of hedonistic, childish yearnings to be a scribe and sybarite : you have to work, to pay the bills.

 

 

 

Still, it is gratifying and liberating (and amusingly subversive, actually), to have stumbled upon a fantastic little club – the Gabana Latin Lounge – in the building right next door to company headquarters, in the basement ; a whole world away and yet so close ; from classroom to dance floor in just a few anticipating minutes.

 

 

 

 

This time we invited our friends down from Tokyo – and they loved it; the  naive unpretentiousness of it all; all ages practicing their salsa and moves in line formation, but then ceding the space in waves for Prince, rare groove, funk and ZZ Top – , all kinds of stuff, a velvet buzzsaw of a blender, Stevie Wonder : I shook offthe mildew of the compression chamber, the shackles of ‘education’ and just danced (like a maniac ) with friends and strangers, the pulse of the music like pomegranates splitting open to reveal the corpuscles of a beating heart : what you might call escapism : what I call life.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the bathroom they have a bottle of Jazz.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I remember. When Yves Saint Laurent first released its monument  to tense masculinity, at the end of the eighties, it was in a different bottle to the museum piece Classic Collection reliquary seen above ( expensive, now, it has been brought back and given vintage classic status; generous to leave such a scent for sweaty dancers to spruce themselves at will like that, I think – in the UK it wouldn’t last five minutes)…… The crisp,  brutalist fougere  that was the original incarnation – though this new version smells very similar; clarified perhaps, less fuzzy; one of the few perfumes that would make me ANGRY as a teenager : like Charlton Heston, who similarly represented some form of clench fisted manlihood I loathed and rejected from the pituitary gland to the blood, I had an actual phobia of this scent; would grimace and moan when I came into contact with it ( you can imagine I wasn’t an easy adolescent: struggling with my society/imposed inner demons), but this philistinic savage of a muscled devil – mindless, materialistic, mulleted, Miami-Viced, felt truly representative of that era’s Transatlantic politics : homophobic (oh, how it reasserted the caveman’s right to wield and smash the bonehead club); to me, as pop schismed into Indie vs Mainstream, this intrusive, and spiritually invasive, ‘aftershave’ was like an era’s bullying national anthem.

 

 

 

 

I never liked the division. The goths and indie kids just seemed ridiculous to me; wan, painfully self-conscious as they shuffled, shoe gazing at the floor in their complying death makeup and uniforms: I tried half heartedly for a while, but didn’t fit in. And yet at the Ritzy nightclub, or whatever it was called, in the center of town, under the strobe lights it was even worse; like existing only on potato crisps and Twix bars; junk,; tacky, Sharon and Tracy in their gleaming white shoes reeking of Impulse or Exclamation! : while ‘Kevin’, shirtsleeves rolled up,  had  doused himself, gelled backperm slip-ons;  meat-market aggressive, in Johnny Hates Jazz.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I can’t possibly tell you how much I loathed this perfume. Only Tsar, Dunhill, and, later, Safari vyed for my teenage contempt – a migraine of the soul every time we mutually came into contact. It made me scream.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Smelling Jazz again the other night – where, ironically, some of those same songs were still playing, over three decades later – I realize that to the new generation, this well-regarded composition probably just smells gentlemanly, stately; with little of the action-movie wisecracking and granite-jawed thuggery I inherently associated with the perfume the second I smelled it thirty years ago. Perhaps this is because, if only in terms of ingredient quality, Jazz smells so much more expertly blended and elegant  than much of the commercial, chemical dreck aimed at the young man today ( in a fight between this and Sauvage, say, I would certainly be egging on Jazz, even happily spearing  the latter through the heart with a Poison-tipped bayonet to do the world a favour).  As with its musical namesake, I now feel that Jazz has a looseness, a joviality, that I was too young, flinching and new, to appreciate at the time of its release :: when it felt, to a sensitive chrysalis of a gay boy, like an existential threat.

 

 

 

 

 

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LOVE, IN THE AFTERNOON : : : AGUA FRESCA by ADOLFO DOMINGUEZ (1993)

 

 

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I have always had a problem with petitgrain. Extracted from the leaves and green twigs of the bitter orange tree, like basil and aniseed, the essential oil of petitgrain pierces straight to the headache centre of my brain and brings pain.  If neroli is the bride, and orange blossom the dream, then petitgrain is the cortex; the bark: the gnarled and chlorophylled  life at the heart of the being (sometimes I have so much of this power I don’t know what to do with it – and the pithing exuberance of petitgrain represents this).

 

 

 

Used in perfumes, though, in well-judged pinches, petitgrain, not diluted, but distributed through other citruses and herbs and woods, can be utilised to deliciously crisp and snap-gathering effect to the senses. Agua Fresca, by the Spanish designer Adolfo Dominguez, is one such scent: I picked it up eight years ago or so in Barcelona, where we had gone for a weekend with Duncan’s parents in a blanketing, sweltering heat wave.

 

 

 

I love the traditional European perfumeries, the profumerias; little corner shops painted white with glass cabinets stacked high with all kinds of perfumes, old and new – those places where you suddenly espy a scent from your youth tucked away in a top right hand corner slightly dusting in its cellophane box waiting patiently for use. We had wandered aimlessly down some stoned, shadow-canopied street escaping the heat and chanced upon one such premises: as I love random and spontaneous holiday scent purchases, those that douse your perfumes in experience – when I saw the word ‘fresca’, and realized that this was a clear, and convincing modern cologne I could happily wear, with one spritz on the back of the hand I was immediately sold. If crispness is a virtue, then Agua Fresca is a saint.

 

 

 

 

You will know already that I hate men’s fragrances: and yet there are days when I want a scent that nips things in the bud: no flouncing or olfactory flamboyance, no drama – just some pleasingly constructed discretion. Agua Fresca is one such scent. The initial spray is always bracing, though not sharp: petitgrain in profusion and at the centre, with other citruses – bergamot, mandarin, tightened with small doses of herbaceous reverie in the form of leaves of marjoram, juniper berries, rosemary, artemisia, and pine (but only scattered like miniature, verdant seasonings throughout the liquid of the scent – not the lothario herbariums of more bolstered, classically Don Juan offerings): rather, a Greek chorus centered around a column of light –  softened, for a more diffuse harmony, by gentle murmurings in the base of vetiver, cedar wood and coriander, the whole having nothing more than a clean, no strings attached, lemon-scented benevolence.

 

 

 

 

I used up all of that first bottle on that weekend, fusing the scent irreparably with my memories of us sitting in a basilica square at night, in red tapas bars covered from floor to ceiling with framed pictures and hams; or strolling with thousands of others down Las Ramblas and up to the celebrated fountains and fireworks at night.  This was a scent that could fit into my pocket and that I could spritz continually for those mood-binding top notes and the cleanliness they instantly bestowed, but also, equally (and rarely), enjoy the entirety of the base in its no-nonsense, no fuss, cold cream simplicity.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Waking up yesterday I had one of those sudden, arbitrary, olfactive turnabouts when you realise you want a totally different scent model for the day and evening. I had a hospital appointment in the morning in Oguchi, Yokohama, but later in the afternoon was planning to do some record shop scouring and some perfume reconnaissance before going to a barbecue party in the evening at the house of a well-to-do Tokyo society friend of Duncan and Yukiro’s who invites all the art crowd and fly by night types and models, dancers, who last week lent us some spaces (for a wild day of filming – my goodness), While apprehensive about what to wear from my jumble sale heap of a creased and unlookedafter clothes wardrobe, I thought I might at least smell good – I was planning to later in the day go to a sento or public bath, and then change clothes and scent completely – like Clark Kent – and had settled, eventually, on Les Parfums  de Rosine Roseberry, a green wine-lees and blackcurrant rose scent that always garners good reactions from people when I wear it; again, that crispness that for some reason I was craving yesterday, but with some romantic, Bulgarian rose flourishes that would bring people I didn’t know closer. Agua Fresca would have been way too ordinary,  too male, too prosaic.

 

 

 

 

 

 

It was perfect, though, for the hospital ( I suddenly remembered, or noticed, in one of my  cabinets, that I had found a bottle again of this perfume last year or so ago at a Tokyo recycle boutique but it had somehow slipped my memory). A specialist had recommended this place – I need to have a stubbornly lodged left kidney stone lasered: it is causing no trouble, but is growing and needs to be got rid of, so I had travelled up to the clinic to schedule an operation – just a morning procedure – in the summer holidays when I can just relax at home and drink water and not worry about classroom excruciations (I have a terrible fear of being floored and humiliated by a random decision on the part of the stone to just exit itself while in front of the students – I have yet to experience this renal mortification – touch wood –  which is why I am determined to get rid of the damn thing before that happens). Naively, I had optimistically anticipated a wait of an hour or two at most, before my journey up to Tokyo.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It is the rainy season here in Japan right now, and god is it gloomy. Almost no sunlight; intermittent torrential rains (parts of the country evacuated; floods widespread); sometimes, in these parts, it just pours downs for hours in huge, glassy raindrops, but most of the time it is just grey; white clouds and oppressive humidity:  unmoving. Then it suddenly feels cold, then pressured again- all the rooms dark, or just white sky through glass, through blinds, like in the hospital waiting room, where I ended up yesterday finally spending seven hours waiting to see the specialist, and being moved around the wards of the building for various x-rays and tests.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Some alligators, those that live in places where the rivers run dry and turn to desert, have the ability to burrow down right through the sands to a cool space of temporary dwelling and slow down their heart rates to about three beats a minute –  for months – in a state of extreme hibernation, or torpor, almost resembling death- until once again the rains come again and they retreat, slowly and vertically, back to the surface,  in order to rehydrate; open their eyes again, wallow; bask.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I am not very good in administrative, rigmarole situations. Hell, for me is a bank, a post office, an immigration centre: I too have to control my own heart beat and breathing, so as not to go loopy, the suppression I feel in such places so great ; psychically hibernate in order to deal with all the people facing forward with their public expressions in close proximity: waiting, self-consciously blinking: mutually frustrating, palpitating; dummy.

 

 

 

 

 

I was very glad for perfume. It astonishes me quite frequently how many people seem to just not care how they smell to others, yawning and stretching like warm, musted old camemberts…………to me it is  insulting. There were several such people there yesterday, consciousless slobs out of autonomic control, but at least I was all dressed up for the occasion (if dressed down – Agua Fresca is very subtle); a citrus and shampoo-soaped shower early in the morning; my lemon hand balm I always make myself with essential oils; the air conditioning too fierce, snuggling into a jacket in various seats in the blank space of a room as I was called up and sent to one place or another – but all along, my scent accompanying me nicely, like an invisible friend. If the compressed light through the wan, frosted window panes slowly filtering through this drab suburban neighbourhood of Yokohama was mournfully lacking in life, it also allowed a strangely comforting, cushioning escape into the self that was offset by my shell of Iberian petitgrain and herbs; a delicate, if assertive virility, that made the process of waiting, and waiting, less objectionable.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The television was on throughout. I hate television. J-pop, banal variety shows, concert performances, opera – without it I suppose, the audience in the waiting room would have soured to pulp –  catatonically bored out of their minds; for me, also, it was sometimes occasionally diverting, to puncture the non-ticking continuation of the out of sight clock,  but essentially, as it always is for me in its sheer stupidity, as the hours went by, slowly, it became intoxicatingly maddening; invasive.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fortunately, in my bag I had brought along with me Territory Of Light, the novel by Yuko Tsushima, which I had found at the Kinokuniya book store in Shinjuku two weeks ago while looking for my own book there (it was out of stock, but had graced the same shelf) – and like eggshells within eggshells, I read almost the entire book – strange, interior, the dream-like diary of a woman trying to keep it together when her husband leaves her, or she leaves him, trapped in her dreams and nightmares- while sitting and occupying my own space, the edges of my consciousness dimmed, distanced, but also contoured cleanly  – with the galvanizing scent of bitter orange leaves.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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