- Could you tell me a little about your background, where did you grow up and when did you embark on your professional journey?
- What captivated you about perfumes and perfume-making?
- Travel seems to be an important part of your life, how do these journeys inform your work?
- Why did you choose Japan as your current base? Does Japanese culture inspire you in some ways?
- Can you describe your day-to-day life – How does the day usually start and end for you? What gets you out of bed in the morning?
- What keeps you focused and passionate today?
- Has your relationship with your job changed over time?
- Any new upcoming project you would like to share with us?
1 I am from Birmingham in the centre of the UK and I lived in London and Rome before coming to Japan. I have always loved reading books, and was known by my friends for being an avid letter writer ( I would quite often send people thirty page letters from wherever I was), but it wasn’t until I started trying to capture smells and perfume in words that I realized where my real niche as a writer lay. One day I just started an evocation of Guerlains’ Mitsouko on a paper and found it incredibly exciting – the challenge of making something as ephemeral and ungraspable as a perfume come alive on the page. I then came up with an idea for a book, a guide to perfume note by note, found a literary agent, started my perfume blog The Black Narcissus, wrote some articles on olfaction for some magazines and then ended up publishing ‘Perfume: In Search Of Your Signature Scent’ last year.
2 Perfume is something unnameable (if you don’t know its identity), yet very emotionally arresting. It stamps itself on time, meaning that you can relieve moments in life with it, accentuate feelings and experiences with other people: it is a form of invisible bonding. Aesthetically, it should be appreciated the way music is – as an art form. One thing that fascinated me as a teenager growing up on perfume was its volatility and changeability; if you take a pair of shoes out of a box, or a record out of its sleeve, it remains the same, every time, but the second you put a perfume on your skin, it is already evaporating and evolving; shedding layers and revealing meaning . I would be obsessed with the top notes of a particular perfume and then be perplexed how different it would be a few hours later, trying to understand the inner workings and coming to enjoy each scent in all its stages. The best perfumes are like mini chamber symphonies.
3 From a young age I was very interested in other countries. I was perfectly satisfied where I was growing up, but also had a boundless curiosity about what other places were like as well. Studying foreign languages at school was like a gateway into another consciousness, and going to Paris for the first time as a twelve year old was mind-blowing for me in terms of taste and smell, as were the arid smells of eucalyptus trees in the hot afternoon sun of Crete when I was seventeen; each place imprints itself on you in unique ways; the scent of the plumeria trees down by the Mekong river in Laos; the pungent plum blossom of Japan in January; they are signifiers that make your existence. It is not only childhood smells that evoke emotions but for me an ongoing process that perfume allows me to self consciously punctuate in time. I guess in some ways I am trying to preserve time in the way that photographs immortalise visual memory.
4 I came to Japan on a whim in my late twenties as I wanted to immerse myself in a culture that was totally different from the one I was brought up in and was nothing like any other I had ever experienced. Japan is fascinating on a number of levels in that it is an ancient and very complex culture that was sealed off from the rest of the world for centuries and thus retains an inherent ‘mystery’ which my naturally very analytical nature is always trying to decipher. Sometimes I admit I am flummoxed and frustrated by the impenetrability, but in general I am always in awe of the dignity and finesse of the people as well as the fine tuned aesthetics that are ingrained in this society. It is a place I feel safe, inspired, and creative.
5 I teach English for university entrance examinations part time at an evening preparatory school. The other days I research and write about the perfumes I get sent by independent perfumers in the post, the fragrances I discover at departments stores and specialist perfumeries in Tokyo when out and about, or the vintage perfumes I collect from flea markets and antique stores. My perfume reviews are not hermetically sealed but absorb everything that is going on in my life and in the world; they get absorbed into my Black Narcissus posts like a diary.
6 I am naturally passionate (Neil actually means ‘passion’). On days when I am tired or feeling less naturally energised I just read the New York Times or a novel or watch films on my projector, but there are always ideas for new pieces circulating at the back of my brain and then usually a new perfume that I smell will stir me into writing something. Life itself always provides new impetus.
7 Sometimes I feel a little jaded by the sheer volume of new perfume releases (it seems now that anyone can be a ‘perfumer; if they just mix a few oils together and come up with a ‘concept’, when the true geniuses of the art form like Jacques Guerlain or Edmond Roudnitska were more like alchemists that created real magic. There is a huge difference for me between a masterpiece perfume and something just reads as ‘quite a nice smell’, but on the other hand, there is always that promise of the next ‘holy grail’; I don’t think I am ever unexcited when the postman knocks on the door with a new scented parcel.
8 I am writing a book on Japan, and how living here has impacted my life in a profound and unexpected ways (like becoming a cabaret performer!)It might even become a whole life memoir, I am still pondering different angles on how to approach it all; my life thus far has been very intense and I don’t know how I would fit it all in….