2020 was an ouroboros; a snake eating its own tail.
Time itself has felt compressed, elongated, stretched, quickened; repressed:
Christmas/ New Year 2019 feel like eternities ago to me, and yet just like yesterday. More recent than the summer or this Autumn. Whole swathes of time feel irretrievable, as though our brains themselves went on lockdown; pouches of time put away; stored. The spring feels like centuries ago. The usual, graspable continuity trashed. Our emotions mushed. Mangled. In survival mode.
How wonderful it would be to be able to just say phew, we got through the year. But despite the excitement over the vaccines, those syringes of hope that I am looking forward to having injected into me as soon as possible, the coronavirus continues to rampage its shitty way through the world, causing untold misery for hundreds of millions, billions of people, whether from struggling to survive economically because of the damage the pandemic has caused, contending with the symptoms of the disease itself, or mourning the loss of people who have died from it. I know that I am stating the obvious.
I must also say that I do feel very lucky to have been here in Japan. The country does have its strict, suppressive tendencies sometimes, but overall it is a rational, civilised, and really quite sensible place. The US has roughly three times Japan’s population but one hundred times more deaths. The UK has half Japan’s population but a far, far, higher mortality rate. Purely from the self-preservation perspective, being here in a country where masks are worn at all times inside, and out – with the crucial exception of eating and drinking – has been a blessing. The policitization of mask wearing- is surely one of the main reasons for this, as it is just so obvious, even for one as unscientific as myself, that the virus would thus have been otherwise constrained. This was a heinous blight on humanity, and so unnecessary.
What has also become more clear to me recently though is how truly complex so much all of this is; what we can realistically expect people to actually endure. What the limits are (Sorry, also, if this post is an incoherent ramble; I don’t physically have the capacity today to go back and edit this post too much, as I mentioned previously, I seem to have some kind of shoulder/arm/wrist/hand/tendon problem – possibly repetitive strain injury, and although I can write more easily on a computer as I can type very quickly – it has become almost impossible on my phone at this stage; each tap of the key too painful – it is obvious that I definitely need to see a medical professional about it at the earliest opportunity if I can do so safely in Tokyo. So frustrating. . I literally can’t even spray a perfume with my right hand – the very height of effeteness. So it would probably be better for me to just sit staring at a screen rather than posting on one. Just riding out the rest of 2020 with yet another TV show. It is just that writing The Black Narcissus all through this year; being able to express so many different sides of (my) life and feelings and thought processes in a way that has been so stress-relieving : interacting, having a space where I am able to vent, knowing how others have themselves been doing, has been a wonderful experience in itself. I have felt connected. ‘A room of one’s own’. A world apart from the grubbier, shabbier, aggressive, and cell-ravaging real one. So today, on the last year of 2020, I just wanted to really say thank you, and to wish everyone a much happier and safer 2021. Our communication has meant a great deal to me. And I hope that it will continue.
Where was I?
Oh yes, I wanted to write about my hypocrisy.
One thing that I have realized, recently, as I was saying, is the fact that it is so easy to make pronouncements, nonchalantly, about various aspects of this difficult time, particularly in relation to other people: one of mine being, what is wrong, precisely, with having to stay in the house? Why are you bored? What’s wrong with being at home all the time? Isn’t it better than being out there and risking dying from asphyxiation and virulent fevers? It is, but I don’t think I have quite taken into account the strain that many people have been under, nor the individual character traits that make different people react as they do to being denied stimulation and human contact. Extroversion/introversion. Physically active, vs physically lazy (like me). Everyone has been under pressure and stress: each, with their own particular predicaments. For me, teaching in a mask, sometimes several two hour lessons at one time, in environments that have been very far from safe, with almost no ventilation, and zero social distancing; a viral hotbed (both D and I have had students or their family members who have tested positive; we know it is in the population and must be in the air around us, and this has caused me to just zone out, pretend it isn’t real, which I know is a great stressor in itself, that lie ——the consequence of which being that any free time, any days off just spent here, feel like bliss. Just dancing alone in the kitchen to old records, a big middle finger to Miss Corona.)
At the same time, now that I can’t spend my days writing, and am off work, I find myself waking up thinking how the hell am I going to fill up my days. Writing on here is my lifeblood; but for the time being I probably can’t actually do it. This is a great blow. Even lifting a book or a newspaper is painful, so I can’t really even read. All I can do is watch Netflix. Which is great, but also after a while, more than a little stultifying. Or go for a walk. And I suppose this is what a large majority of people have been feeling all along , as well. Especially those who don’t necessarily feel the need to express themselves publicly like this. For the more active type of person, the more naturally socially cooperative, not being able to go anywhere or do the usual things you do must be extremely hard to deal with, day after dull day. Wake up. Repeat. Go to bed. In this regard I myself am the opposite: my work days require such a great deal of exertion that I am always contented to be at home. Until now. Now I understand more how my and D’s parents have been feeling; my friends stuck at home working on Zoom, just trying to hold their family households together but without any letup. Boredom is not something I usually suffer from. But in these new circumstances, I can feel it slowly encroaching.
Another way that I have been hypocritical – very – is about going out.
I have berated my parents for going to a restaurant on my mother’s birthday, when they were gasping for some kind of social atmosphere, to properly celebrate the occasion, and have a meal cooked by somebody else (we all know that these are the most dangerous places for infection) – but despite what I said to them in warning, I can’t deny that D and I have been eating out all along since the end of the first lockdown – and even before. Partly because it simply hasn’t been as dangerous here, for whatever reasons, but also because in my case, greed overcomes common sense – and everyone else has been eating out too. True, compared to a normal year there has been virtually no socialising at all. We don’t really meet friends. No one has stayed over at our house (very unusual). We haven’t been to Tokyo at all. I have seen people socially in the flesh maybe five or six times all year.. So in that sense, we have been very careful.
Recently, however, it feels as though it has been unravelling. I tut when I see the pictures of people out on the streets in the UK, shopping for Christmas, but then I myself have an event in a department store where I can’t help hugging my friends, and then end up asking a group of ten of them if they fancy a cocktail on the top floor because I just wasn’t able to stop myself ; a place where we were all sat together with our masks off, next to a margarita Mexican lounge thronging noisily with people laughing and eating and drinking. I think we were even sharing some nachos. Insanity. And this includes an older friend of mine who has some serious respiratory problems and should be taking the most serious of precautions but was out having a drink anyway because he just really thought fuck it – I need this, and it was so nice (but in retrospect so very stupid). A different part of your brain takes over. The Pleasure Principle. You forget how much you have missed doing it; talking to people face to face; how integral other people are to your existence.
A week later, my Japanese colleagues and I went for a lovely walk in the forest overlooking the temple complexes of Kenchoji and Hansobo as arranged; there was Mt Fuji, and the ocean – the sun was bright, and it looked incredibly beautiful. We had a lovely lunch at the soba place one minute from our place. And they came back to my house to listen to records and drink wine. Talk and eat English mince pies. Wearing masks just didn’t seem right. And so we didn’t , except intermittently. Again – foolish. And then, just a few days ago, on the way back from Atsugi we met Michael – who we haven’t seen for a year, since making the ‘Martin’ video in Osaka (which is in a state of emergency): Kamakura was packed; we went to a bar, a restaurant overlooking a Japanese garden at night that we chose for its sparsity, but then after for a nightcap there was another place, maskless with young women and each other; talking for hours. I feel that we have been reckless at every turn, and a part of me hates myself for not having been stronger; having had more will power to just be clinical and logical. Not risking infection with a terrible disease. What is the psychology of this? Have you been at all similar? Or have you been dutifully locked away the whole time? Have you been a perfect model, coronacitizen? I have tried, but I definitely can’t claim first or second prize. I think in my own case, it is partly the fact that I am constantly in a swirl of people at work with no protections, and can’t avoid taking crowded public transport, although always masked, masked, masked (I can’t wait not to wear a mask any more! ) – so I suppose being constantly immersed in this congested, human soup I have become a little gung-ho. We even went and stayed at a hotel at the seaside.
Admittedly, the New Fujiya Hotel, a classic institution we have never been to before, very popular with couples, extended families, all kinds of people,was strict about Covid-19 prevention measures. Sanitiser everywhere, preordained masks; obviously the mass breakfast buffet was hands clean first and then rubber gloves before you could touch anything, but still, everyone there, to some extent, was taking a risk (again, why? Should we not all just have been stuck in our houses? Then again, the number of deaths is far less than the annual flu here……….).
Just in front of this blue neon sign on the front of the hotel was a rotenburo, an outdoor hotspring that was good for my aching skeleton, even though it was strange to be walking stark naked in the cold afternoon onto a balcony little sheltered from the strong winds. The thermal waters themselves were very soothing, even if soaping down and showering beforehand felt anti-intuitive and a little chilly.
Pre-bathing, as J-hotels usually do, the establishment had its own selection of signature toiletries; available for sale, of course, at the hotel gift shop in the lobby; a honey shampoo/conditioner/body soap, a camellia one, and my favourite – horse oil and cherry blossom, a bottle of which I even took home with me as an Atami souvenir. On a poster, they even went to the trouble of breaking down the shampoo into top notes, middle notes and base notes, a la perfume.
The smell is lovely, actually. Not quite vegan, to say the least, or of that ilk, but with the sakura and rose and cherry and almond it smells like Loutens Louve and Elizabeth Taylor’s Diamonds & Rubies, and I am always on the look out for new shampoos that suit my remaining follicles. Glowing from the waters, soothed deeply in the muscles and skin, we went back to our room, got dressed and went out to our favourite Chinese restaurant (oh the chicken ) wandering the always delicately run down and haunting streets of Atami, a deserted if tourist-populated place that stems from another time, but nevertheless always bids us return.
Down at the beach, Christmas Eve, as scattered crowds gathered, stood apart, on the sands, there was, to our surprise (we only heard about it ten minutes before) , a special Covid-19 Christmas five minute firework display. Despite the winds, we decided to huddle with the other people there, socially distanced. At first, after rampacious Queen’s Thank God It’s Christmas had echoed strangely along the coastline, ghostly reverberating in the delayed feedback promenade tannoys announcing the beginning of the show, those there looked out to sea, the harbour, expecting the horizon to be lit up with colour. Instead, as a J-pop christmas hit about the Holy Night began on the radio station and the fireworks began, we had to adjust our expectations to economic reality, as a rather small scale celebration of Christmas ‘fire flowers’ took place to the right by a jetty.
As the voice over the loud speaker thanked us for being there and urged us now to go back to our hotel accommodation for virus safety, I felt a little desolate for a few moments as though in North Korea; while the old song from Pinocchio, When You Wish Upon A Star came on unexpectedly to the sound system; , its timbre perfect, its timelessness and emotivity potent as I thought back over past Christmases with my family and I found myself crying – sad, yet perfectly happy to be alive in the moment.
On Christmas Day and Boxing Day, D was wearing Rogue Perfume’s Mousse Illuminée. He also wore this scent this time last year, when we went to the hot springs in Hakone, where I remember its red-coloured woody mossiness being perfect in the cold, mountainous air. This year, with its coniferous tang over cedar, it smelled, to me, purpler, in tone, like grapes ; regal ; a celebratory aspect that went ideally with our walks around the neighbouring hot spring towns of Yugarawa and Manazaru.
I remember at that time last year I was going to write a full review of this perfume, but somehow the days passed over the New Year holidays into 2020, December bled into January and then everything happened ; first in China, then over here, with the cursed Diamond Princess docked in Yokohama back in February, a time when none of us had any idea of the global ramifications of it all but I was here, ranting and raving on the Black Narcissus about the incipient dangers to us all like a deranged Cassandra. The stress was mounting. There was a head in the sand evasion among the authorities in Japan, a pretending nothing was happening; then all of a sudden we went into lockdown, a strange and unnatural-while-totally- natural time that passed by so quickly and yet so slowly, days repeated, a grip on life, the anchor of the daily routine fallen to the sea bed of subconsciousness. You never really knew what day it was, or even the date or the month; time, as we knew it, had definitely changed. Some of you reading this have probably been in this situation ever since that time ; some alone, not even with the comfort and psyche-preservating bedrock of a partner to talk about it all to and share meals with; I do realise that people who have truly been isolated have had it really hard. But even for those in more fortunate positions, the uncertainty, fear and worry of it all as you ‘grimscroll’ or whatever the expression is through bad news after bad news has taken its toll; an ‘end of days’ panic; even if you were in relative comfort and could enjoy the new quiet, the stepping back from the frantic alarm clock normality, there was still that underlying apprehension. Always. Like a lump in the psychological throat. For me, these blocks of time; abnormal, extreme, were something I just plunged into like everyone else ; the initial doom-of–dark-clouds lingering above wherever your mind went in order not to go mad, but thus, losing track of time in the process; then, for me and D and all the sweating teachers of Japan, the contrasting havoc of plastic face shields in boiling hot July when I was thrust back into it all or else lose my job (being the only person in the company refusing to go in to the office had put in me a precarious position), and going back – though part of me thrilled to interactions in the classroom, it was still a time I only could get through each day, with my eye on the finishing line of each term, exhausting (relatively, of course: I can only vaguely imagine what it must have been like all of this time being hospital workers fighting to keep patients alive day and night. In fact I can’t imagine it. And I know have no right to complain). On top of it all, though, to really fuck us in the head and heart and soul and everywhere else, of course we then had to have the truly torturous, extended electro-convulsive shock treatment of the American Election, which in its future Orwellian implications – actually more dangerous to humanity in the long run than the coronavirus – left me truly battered, quasi-lobotomised; bound for intense and longing hibernation the moment it seemed that we might finally be out of the water.
Perhaps this is why last Christmas feels more recent: because the subsequent ten months were just too much for the mind to take in. I remember D and I walking along in the crystal cold air of Hakone, at the end of 2019, waiting for the bus to take us up to the hot spring, the comforting semi-new school aroma of the Rogue Perfume hanging in the clarity of the trees around him. Fast edit in my mind clip to just a week ago, and he was still wearing it, like a continued moment (A little too Ralph Lauren Polo-like to be a regular feature, I did still really enjoy smelling this on him this year and I think it might become a regular Christmas Scent. I was wearing my vetiver oil – my staple of this yea – and some Maitre Parfumeur et Gantier Racine).
This Christmas Day itself we wandered happily and aimlessly, out in the open air; a warm December day, by the sea. In the evening, after a fantastic meal in a French restaurant (again taking risks…..my god the crispy crab quiche and perfect pumpkin soup though .. ) we Facetimed with our families; D’s grinning nieces and nephews and his brother and sister-in-laws and parents in the kaleidoscope of the Zoom frame; my parents in their red jumpers and Christmas hats; my sister, in London, unable to get home – wrenching, but, again, also a reminder of how much technology has been an absolute godsend this year. The true isolation, otherwise, would have been hellish.
It has been an indelible year: terrible. Yet despite the distress of it all , I feel that I have been extremely lucky. The effect on the world of this virus has been huge. For different people in different, and unique ways. We will be talking about it for decades to come. Monumental. And I personally have had it comparatively very easy, even if it hasn’t been a picnic for me either, I have to say: each of us has their own problems and issues to contend with: I have in fact had other experiences unconnected to this, connected to some close family members, that have been truly like nightmareish horror – convulsions to the spirit that have made me ill – but which I can’t discuss. My parents have suffered terribly, but continually managed to have a brave and cheerful face whenever I have called, and if you are reading this, I must tell you I love you for it. It has been very tough for both of them. It has also impacted my own health, and my mind. Work has not been easy. Being a ‘foreigner’ has its challenges. Simultaneously, I cannot deny that me and D have had a blast: making films, writing, going on short trips, binge-watching TV series, smelling perfumes, walking around beautiful Kamakura, dancing around the kitchen; . I feel appreciative of things; the important things. Yes, it has been a maelstrom, and I sincerely wish, for all of humanity, that next year is far, far better. More peaceful. More stable. Let the vaccines work; let some sensible, decent people take control, and let’s put 2020 behind us. We do not need a repeat. What this mad, bad, dangerous year has also taught me though, is how resilient people are; and how exhilarating life can be on a daily basis, how precious. And, because of my naturally hedonistic tendencies and what might be described as reckless behaviour – as detailed above (and the inherent desire for physical contact: which you don’t even quite recognize in yourself after a while – you know, some of us just couldn’t help giving each other a hug the other week at the talk I gave because we did it even before we had a chance to even realise we were doing it ) – a deeply keen awareness of the vast, messy, contradictory chaos of being human.