A writer in New York one day came across a copy of Perfume in a book store, which led her to The Black Narcissus.
Monthly Archives: April 2022
Eucalyptus is a rare note in perfumery, especially as a bracing and prominent top note. Intensely therapeutic; mind clearing, a pulmonary healer, and all round regenerating, I think of this essential oil as more of a medicine than a perfume – although I do like its beautiful green and refreshing scent (particularly of the eucalyptus globulus variety) – rather more than the sweet pungent, Myrtacae family-related oils of niaouli, cajeput and ravensara.
Art De Parfum’s curious, and rather original new proposition for spring and summer, is a green tea-infused eucalpytus, a light and aromatic fragrance featuring gently metallic and aquatic notes vaguely reminiscent of 90’s neo-Japonisme – the magnolia and water lotus of L’Eau Par Kenzo and L’Eau Issey Miyake – but less forceful : more restrained. Geranium, mint, plum and a cedar chypric light base of patchouli round off a peculiar but convincing combination of energies, theoretically clashing, but in fact androgynously serene.
Japan Postal Services has always been extraordinarily efficient. Sometimes I have sent something – in the past it would often have involved perfume – and it has got to England within three or four days: the British equivalent presumably also very effective the other side. It can, it must be said, also be very stressfully officious and pedantic about the most minor of details in a way that borders on fascistic – I will often leave and wait outside while D takes over because it is not good for my blood pressure – but the reliability of the system itself is absolutely unquestionable. Recent regulations have bordered on the ridiculous and ultra-inconvenient nonetheless, and I never quite understood why so many obstacles were being presented every time you went to post a gift: to send anything abroad,you had to first download a special app with special forms and other pieces of paper, print out an itemized description of every single thing inside the package – once I found myself listing the exact chocolates and sweets and Japanese snacks for my sister’s birthday present with laughable exactitude – it took an eternity – with the result that any birthday or Christmas presents in recent times have, instead, been courtesy of Jeff Bezos and Amazon. Just press and go.
It is not the same, though, as receiving a personalized and lovingly prepared parcel in the post, where you can feel the person who sent it to you; the familiar or unfamiliar scent that is always concealed and sealed in inside, waiting to be opened; the very tactile sense of communication that you can physically breathe. Before the post 9/11 liquids on flights rules, which changed everything dramatically, I used to send friends and family and occasionally my new-perfumista amici a lot of carefully wrapped vintage finds; I would cover everything with magazine collages and art and graffiti like address labels and perfume it all vividly and watch the wide-eyed and wide-nostriled staff at the local post office weigh and process it all; wondering where to adhere the air mail tags and stamps other administrative affixatives……but those days are gone. Now, as we discovered yesterday, between Japan, and most countries in Europe, there is no longer even regular air mail.
Given the great depth of suffering that is taking place in Ukraine and among displaced citizens taking refuge in other countries right now, this inconvenience is obviously a great nothing : but it did bring home just how profoundly disruptive this military aggression has become to the world order as a whole, from grain shortages to rapid inflation, to street protests, to travel, to rising societal instability worldwide because of fuel and commodity prices. One man’s obsolete obsession causing all of this just for a vainglorious void of nothingness and carnage and destruction. All the heinous waste. And of course, though very trivial in comparison, it also does mean that D’s mum’s eightieth birthday present for this coming May, the contents of which he has spent time collecting and assembling over the last few weeks, could apparently now take an unbelievable six months sent by the only available option : snail mail, when before we could have guaranteed it to arrive exactly on, or before, the day. Things have changed so dramatically; there are simply no planes now to take the mail now that the airspace over Russia and Ukraine has been closed. Flights are very few and between, and also quite bizarre to contemplate. If we do, for instance, manage to go back this summer, which is the plan, rather than travelling for eight hours over the serene, vast stretches of Siberia, which I used to love gazing out over, watching the sun glinting on the ice as I nursed my gin and tonic aboard a Dutch KLM flight just watching the snaking blue of pristine rivers and snow before eventually reaching Finland and Sweden and then down to the UK, now we will be going in the opposite direction, an anti-instinctual shift that does something to the brain because human beings are programmed to know when we are going the ‘wrong way’: in this case east rather than west, as has historically always been the case. Over the Pacific to Alaska and northern Canada; over Greenland, Iceland, and then back down to England: all new territory, so part of me is excited; the thought of seeing the new and unfamiliar trajectory on the flight board as we float in the darkness above glacial expanses and ocean. But it all does just goes to show how extremely serious things have become though; geopolitically shifting ,at an alarmingly rapid rate.
I been taken aback by the reality shock of it all. I must admit that I have dipped in and out of the news, unable to take reading about every detail from morning til night when there is nothing I can do about it, though it is always there in my mind as a gnawing backdrop and I have still been reading quite extensively- reportage on Bucha and so on – the besieged people in Mariupol. It is hard to reconcile that it is all really happening (do you have this : are we still in shock? ) From my own selfish, daily life, perspective, I just also could not quite get over the fact that the cancellation of air mail service is such a sad retrogression in this ‘modern age’, a going right back to the age of pre-flight mail delivery, to the time, pre-Caron en Avion (1932), when commercial and private aviation was still a new, exciting discovery and the technology of the future (and which I found myself really craving this morning for its archly gentle, poetic stoicism: there is nothing else like this perfume: an aridly aloof, peppered violet leather; dry as a bone, yet achingly romantic (I have never had a bottle, only sample vials); and, of course, the incomparable Vol De Nuit, which was created by Jacques Guerlain in 1933 , just as the brooding clouds of war were gathering over Europe in the dark years before the beginning of World War II.
We have gone back in time.
We have a gong on our wall, but can’t remember where it is from. I quite like it though, just hanging there.
Unlike Marc Bolan, we rarely bang our gong. I think D may have used it once in an onstage performance, but in the grunging lounge lizard classic glam rock sing along sleazefest that is T Rex’s Get It On, the louche, long-haired singer is seemingly quite the opposite:
“Well you’re dirty and sweet
Clad in black, don’t look back and I love you…
You’ve got the teeth of the hydra upon you.
Get it on. Bang a gong. Get it on.
Get it on. Bang a gong (repeat to fade out)’.
What is being referred to here is unclear ( and at parties I always preferred Twentieth Century Boy), but perfumer John Biebel, for his January Scent Project, perhaps not coincidentally, also bangs a lot of gongs on his latest release. Literally. The multi-talented artist – perfumer, painter, musician – actually produced a spontaneously decided on ‘soundtrack’ for his perfume – Gong – that I received out of the blue on vinyl the other day in the mail from Canada. Delighted to open the cardboard box, and welcoming the unexpected interruption to the day, I listened to the record in its entirety the bath, marvelling at the fact that he could just rustle up a record like that to go with the scent.
January perfumes are often experimental and ‘weird’ – as is much of this music (these are not ditties you will be whistling to the bus stop). Like the ‘dirty girl’ in the T-Rex song, in perfumes John usually tends to plumb the pitch, bitumen, oils and and embers of the sylvan perfume spectrum with leathers, resins, herbs and wood notes often prominent; woodland sacrifices and tar-like smoke (have you smelled Smolderose? It is quite something). I somehow imagine him wallowing about naked in rum, sodomy and the lash levels of essential oils while splattering paint on canvases, trombone in hand, his tattooed arms covered in never-before combinations of prime essences, making sounds of keen approval as he guffaws to himself while blasting out Dead Can Dance albums on speakers around his elegantly appointed Rhode island abode (his paintings are impressive, and all the company’s artwork is also self-designed).
Presumably, then, the first track on the album, Smoke and Banners, is an ode to his favoured charredness – which is (gratefully for me), toned down in Gong: actually an uplifting, very fruity, zesty, multicoloured smelling ‘green musk’, but still there, present in the rainforest undergrowth from the sandalwood, musk and ‘amber’ that resides beneath – (such a couched word now it could mean almost anything) : the familiar, forested murk that anchors the blend, portrayed musically by the first piece of music. This is dissonant, foreboding, dense, and could easily be the theme used for a film by Lars Von Trier, with its layered, Bjȫrk Volta era brass —- and indeed, lashes of gong, with that instrument’s naturally sonorous vibrations.
(“For some reason this particular fragrance suggested so many sonic elements that I felt it needed this side project to go along with it……and before I knew it, I was out in the garden recording birdsong at 4am. ..
I went back and bought a slide trombone.
I used to play in a jazz band YEARS ago when I was young. The intro piece is primarily electronic, but there are bits of trombone embedded throughout the record, along with santur (Iranian dulcimer) that I play ”
John told me in an email this morning, and the portentous opening of Gong (the music), which I take to represent the base notes of the perfume, soon brightens and funks on up into a more Bill Laswell like dub n bass instrumental (the mid notes), before the lush gorgeousness of my immediate favourite track Bamboo Temple, which put me in quite a spell as I lay drifting in the water, and reminded me of the ambient atmospherica of my youth : the b-side instrumentals of China Crisis, my beloved Japan/ David Sylvian, and the inimitable oddness of Dalis Car. This, Ferns and Twilight Taipei, eventually point the way musically more precisely to the main olfactive theme of Gong the perfume: essentially a very tart fruity scent, almost tropical, with a jungly, dour musked zing.
The green top accord of Gong is forceful and fresh, with an unusual combination of green pepper, Japanese daikon radish, lime, bergamot and Thai galangal and ginger compressing a blueberry heart that makes an immediate brain impression, with the contrasting, almost chypric bite of the leather and the more cold-hearted wood notes in the base creating an anti-intuitive harmony that works . I am the kind of galbanum bitch who can take a lot of green – I could have taken even more – I want my green almost piercing and chlorophylled as a trepanation to the frontal lobe – though this will, in truth, already be verdant enough for many. The overall effect, though, is immediate and memorable; modern, young, but with nods to the Grès and Balmain past in the top/base paradox.
IN SEARCH OF TEA……..ANANDA CHAI by MICALLEF (2017) + EAU PARFUMÉE AU THÉ BLEU by BULGARI (2015) + WÛLÓNG CHÁ by NISHANE (2015) + ENCORE DU TEMPS by MEO FUSCIUNI (2022)
If you had told me, in the nineties, that I would become a wearer of tea, I would never have believed you. Although I immediately recognized the iconoclasm of Jean Claude Ellena’s groundbreaking Eau Parfumée Au Thé Vert when it was released in 1992, and admired the aura it gave, at the same time there was always – and still is – a slightly bourgeois, smug, almost passive aggressive ‘zen’ to its ‘just back from yoga and off to the farmer’s market’ nonchalance that made me feel it was definitely more ‘them’ than ‘me’. In London you would smell it on yawningly predictable people of a certain class: it felt wan and slightly brainwashed.
Yet I still like it, and sometimes crave it. It’s just….relaxing. Easy. Like taking things down a notch when you need to detach. Irrevocably pleasant. So yesterday, on the way to my school in Hiratsuka – a hill-surrounded, ‘uncool’ city plagued by the yakuza with wide streets and a retro, red-lanterned vibe I am far more drawn to than the mall-infested pristine hell of ‘Center Minami’ in the north of Yokohama where I worked last year – I couldn’t resist a quick dart into Wattmann’s, a recycle emporium that has a locked glass perfume cabinet and sells contemporary, and occasionally vintage, perfumes at very reasonable prices. I was delighted to be back. The first thing that immediately caught my eye on the shelf was a brand new, unopened bottle of Bulgari’s Eau Parfumée Au Thé Bleu for about £22 that I knew I had to have even though I had never smelled it: the white tea variant is a Bulgari I sometimes reach for after a night shower – the most masculine of the tea collection with its crisp white musks, Himalayan white tea and cardamon, coriander and artemisia : almost numbing, depressive (but in a pharmaceutical, good way) – and D really likes it on me. I thought I should definitely add the blue edition to my collection.
The idea of ‘blue tea’ is rather alluring and removed. Tea itself is somehow dreamy and more ‘experiential’ than coffee, which I ultimately possibly prefer for the delicious jolt it gives- but tea always has the upper hand when it comes to that sinking above or below the membrane of consciousness to a momentary awareness, which is why Japan, with its culture of ‘appreciation of small things’ and the highly stylized ceremonies based around matcha, not only reveres its own traditions connected to how green tea is presented and imbibed, but the drink itself is deeply embedded in the conscious and subconscious : cold, bottled green tea from vending machines the most popular consumer item in train stations. If Japan adores its own tea, it also almost fetishizes other teas from around the world. Tea is a ‘hobby’. A luxury, and a rip off: ironically, the very best tea I have ever found here is also the cheapest: a rather unattractively packaged (in aluminium foil), not individually paper-sachet-wrapped Darjeeling, Ceylon Dimbula (D’s of choice) and Earl Grey from Sri Lanka that you can buy for about ￥150 from my local supermarket. It is ideal. Perfect. A friend came round the other day and actually asked what it was and I laughed, because the same, or actually inferior tasting ‘English’ tea dressed up in British Colonial trimmings à la Fortnum and Mason or any other of the fancy imported brands you can purchase from luxury mecca Seijo Ishii will cost you ten to fifteen times more, (but, admittedly does look much prettier on your shelf). Chinese tea – the most ancient of the tea traditions – of course has its own speciality shops and sometimes tea houses here; French tea the most ludicrously expensive of all (the most extortionate pinnacle of tea worship in Japan to my knowledge probably being the legendary Mariage Frères, which actually does sell a Fujian blue tea that can be sampled at its chichi little upscale den in the centre of Shinjuku if you are prepared to wait in line.
A brief inhalation from the Bulgari box before arriving at school, where the students this year are fascinatingly unfashionable and ‘pure’ – once you cross that river on the train you know you are entering a different zone further south that is ‘not Yokohama anymore’ – told me that this would in many ways be similar to Thé Blanc: and both perfumes do in fact share the same zoned out tea and Bulgari musk base, which couldn’t possibly be more innocuous if it tried (and this is why I like it: sometimes I just want unthreatening and safe). After an evening of teaching, though, with hot, unfresh skin – this time of year, the beginning of term, requires a phenomenal amount of effort on the teachers’ part in order to get the students on your side, to ease their nerves – all of Japan basically has a huge complex about English and thus so many of the students are literally terrified on meeting me in case they are shown up, humiliation being the worst thing imaginable here; this requires me to totally behave as the key force in the room and the instigator of it all to rev them up and be on my Greatest Showman best, ringmaster Chapman, and it is exhausting, but thoroughly necessary to pave the way for the rest of the year; everything is based on this foundation, of establishing a positive atmosphere: it kills me but I jusr have to do it.
Clearly, though, a rather peculiar, unusual combination of very pervasive grey blue lavender, mint, shiso leaf and a Guerlain Lavande Velours-like striking powdery violet note on top of the tea and musk were smelling very odd indeed on me (if slightly mesmerizing) as I sprayed some on just before boarding the train back home last night :compelling in a weird way, but not entirely me. Vestiges of diaper and baby powder, at least on that occasion. Also cold: robotic. Do I regret buying it? No, because I love just owning it – the box is lovely too- and this morning, more importantly, it smells very different. Perfumer Daniela Roche Andrier, the creator of Prada’s Infusion D’Iris and Guerlain’s Angelique Noir among many other gentle, neat, designed to be wearable perfumes but still with a certain enigmatic twist, has a recognizable signature, and in fact, traces of her star iris perfume for Prada are recognizable somewhere in the mix here, lending the heart a certain familiarity: looking on Fragrantica I see that many seem to worship this scent for having captured the ‘smell of calm’, and in a matinal, ironed shirt kind of way, I think this could be quite nice as a work scent. The dry down is very laundresque, dry; like a new bar of soap.
While perfume at home and when going out are a much more extravagant affair, Work Scents are also extremely important to me. Now that in Japan it seems that people will be permanently masked for the foreseeable future (where you are, they just haven’t worked; people refuse and pay the consequences: here, they are de rigeur not only inside but also out, in the fresh air; all the time :only when in restaurants bars and cafes are they removed, briefly: it is a horrible thing to have to get used to but better than being bombed or shot in the head). You can never entirely breathe. From the perfumaniac perspective though, it does mean that, with windows largely open, I feel it is fine for me to go to work scented. Not excessively, but this carries me through the day and makes my – I was going to say ‘borders secure’ but that might be overdoing it – delineates my sense of self in a way I find ‘approving’. Right now it is Parfums De Rosine’s Roseberry, but as the weather gets warmer I might move into tea as I always do in summer with Roger & Gallet’s Thé Vert, a summer staple, but it is always nice to refresh the palette a little, branch out to pastures new, and at Nose Shop Yokohama, Turkish cult brand Nishane’s Ode to fruit-laced Chinese oolong tea seems to be at number one or two in their popularity list whenever I go (things are always ‘ranked’ here to make it easier to choose and be swayed by the greater herd). And I also rather like it. Plus the fact that there is also a lighter, bigger, and less expensive bottle of ‘hair mist’ available which might be nice as an overall spritz when things get muggy has also caught my attention. I am not sure that this scent is 100% suited to me – it is quite multi-levelled;: an ‘experience’: a bracing tea and nutmeg heart; a fleshier fig and musk base, but also a very florid and fresh upper parapet of bergamot, orange and litchi. It might end up being too much, but I think I am going to investigate further, as it attracts me.
Tea is astringent: revitalizing, uplifting. And I think that my prime reason for being drawn to tea fragrances is their clarity (yet also their ruminative hint of melancholy). They bestow a certain dignity. A quiet rectitude. Which is sometimes what you need. Yet : they can also, of course, veer into the gourmand and the gooey – like Chai by Baruti, which is too much for me ( I don’t take sugar and not too much milk), or Five O Clock Au Gingembre by Serge Lutens, which never quite lit my candle. Likewise, though fascinating, with its potent central note of an almost lurid green tea extract set like a jewel amid a sea of gummering sweetness (vanilla, amber, heliotrope, spices, rose, ylang ylang, thyme), Ananda Chai, which came originally in a hideous brown bottle but which I am hoping has been replaced by the one pictured above) is great for doing the dance of the seven veils perhaps, but not really something I could ever wear myself. It is so insistent and needy. On the other hand, this perfume is so unusual and so perfectly rendered, that smelling it makes you wish that more people in the world were experimental and nose-literate or at least interested, so that you could spend your day being stimulated by different individuals wafting by in indecipherable and head-turning fragrances such as this. I am glad that it exists.
One of my favourite ‘standout’ fragrances, those that mystify and intoxicate, of recent times is Meo Fusciuni’s Odor 93, a fungal, powdery tuberose that is amazing and which I love on myself but would also have loved to discover on someone else : that whole oh my god what is that phenomenon where you are immediately smitten. The new release from this extraordinarily passionate Italian perfume house, a small bottle of which I received in the post the other day, is Encore Du Temps: a rich floral green tea scent with masculine leanings based on the founder’s travels in Laos and particular the city of Luang Prabang.
This is indeed a glorious place. I have amazing memories of being there myself – in fact, if you look up my reviews of Shalimar and a strange piece I wrote there called Tropical Malady, I was also in a state of bliss just sitting in our bungalow by the Mekong watching the water go by and writing; the scent of frangipani petals falling at the temples: the sheer slowness. Meo Fusciuni also seems to have been completely transfixed by being in Luang Prabang, and the new fragrance is his capturing of certain sensations and feelings he felt while in Laotian reverie. A distinctive, deep, green tea note is matched with a slightly animalic absolute of osmanthus here (with other flower notes of magnolia and champaca), with a resonant note of maté tea extract, sandalwood and benzoin in the base that is quite compelling. For me, though, I must admit, this scent is more ‘sexy man in business suit’ than anything conjuring a particular spirituality ( like the brand’s own Varanasi). D wore it last Monday, when we met after work in Yokosuka for a late showing of Leos Carax’s prize-winning bizarro film Annette so I was able to experience it in proper close-up. Getting lost by somehow taking the wrong turning in the road, we ended up encircling the outskirts of the entire city like mini automobiles carving out new scalextrix tracks in space, walking miles against the clock and quickly wolfing down an Indian when we finally found our bearings – which only made D even more disorientated – and got to the (empty except for one other person) Multiplex just in time. Encore Du Temps was the constant soundtrack to these shenanigans, and it is an extrait, so quite potent – and perhaps he sprayed on too much. But the musky, synthetic final accord was very persistent, too much so – next time he will have to wear less, I think this was three sprays – and I was in a certain state of vague anxiety despite my pleasure at being out because it was just before the busiest week of my entire term and we really shouldn’t have been out in truth, it wasn’t sensible. And the film…….well we walked out. Quite a rarity. On the one hand, it was darkly captivating and aesthetically quite exquisite at times, like nothing else I have ever seen (a musical about a violently toxic male comedian – Adam Driver, who falls in love with an opera singer – Marion Cotillard – who then fall out of love while co-parenting a……..marionette). With odd, monotonous but occasionally riveting songs by 70’s group Sparks, some ear-worming their way into the dark recesses of your brain, others just plain repetitive and annoying, I immediately found the too-obvious French philosophizing (look! we are drawing your attention to the artificiality of the process! This is not real!) extremely irritating and each time I looked at my other half in the seat at the back of the cinema beside me, reeking of Meo Fusciuni, his blank expression with glazed eyes – you could see the film going on in his retina with no reaction inside as he had closed off : this told me that we should abort. And so with one hour and twenty minutes still to go, we headed home, depleted, not talking and headache-induced by all the almost laughable nonsense.
What touched me deeply about this episode, though, I must say, was the fact that even though D had absolutely hated the film (neither of us could remotely tolerate the animatronic and deeply ugly and boring puppet child, like some nightmareish mix of Pinocchio and Pan’s Labryinth, nor the theatricality), I am pretty sure that D would have stayed until the end for my sake nevertheless if I had been enjoying it. I am not sure I could have returned the favour, and so I really appreciate his sweet unselfishness. Granted, it was a naturally precarious choice to begin with ; We both detest musicals, although I loved Dancer In The Dark – he didn’t – butin truth, had I been alone, and it been earlier in the day, I probably would have stayed until the end because a part of me was pulled in. Adam Driver was kind of spectacular. And just to see what happened. And because actually, afterwards, I kept thinking about the pitch black neon LA uncanny atmosphere of the film, which penetrated into my inner mindstream despite the deliberately goonish artificiality. I think I may actually have liked it. There was something quite emotively unsettling about it, and I would like to see it again: alone. I am pretty sure, also, that the bottle of Encore Du Temps, still in a pocket in D’s workbag, when I smell it again, will stir something in me, fused immediately with that night’s experiences. With its pungent, almost haunting and reverberant note of osmanthus oils and green tea. I look forward to Meo Fusciuni’s take on Japan…
There is something undeniably pleasurable about an all natural extract. Classic parfums I rarely inhale from the bottle : for me the enjoyment with Bal A Versailles, say, in the most concentrated form, is all in the wearing, from the development from A, to B, to Y. You will rarely, if ever, get such subtle morphing and creamy, purring roundedness without the use of some synthetics and/ or natural animalics (civet, castoreum). I doubt it is olfactively feasible. And I still maintain to this day that the iconic Jean Desprez is possibly the most perfect base accord ever created, particularly for those who love musk ambers. I am wearing it right now, and it is delirium.
Yet to also have the fresh possibility of a clean, clear, more modern amber – a deceptively simple, but sensually pleasing formula composed of essences of cistus labdanum absolute, tonka bean and peru balsam oil with a hint of vanillin for the drydown, spiked with a headclearing opening of bergamot, juniper berry and prominent pink pepper from the island of Réunion for a reflective dot of benevolence (and who doesn’t need a shot of that in these deeply cruel and shocking times – I think I have personally gone into denial, hence this post); a concentrated, more lathed, version of the original scent, housed in an ergonomically designed and palm-nudging little square bottle nestled in white paper box —- it all strikes me as very welcome. Cobalt Amber extrait is the ideal scent to secrete somewhere on your person – a pocket? – for a weekend away at the house of a friend; to wake up to a brand new day and want nothing, after showering, other than to be soothed and surrounded by your own private and gentle protective cocoon. While the duration of this perfume on skin is not in reality comparable to an endlessly, erotically orchestral odalisque such as Shalimar – to which this perfume bears some resemblance, the spice of the pepper note excepted – that legendary Guerlain extrait in fact usually burns my skin when I apply it (what we suffer for the things we love); whereas the minimalist, but lingering, clarity of Cobalt Amber feels like much more of a safe ally.
The other new release in this series I have tried (and I am now quite eager to smell the extrait versions of Grey Labdanum and White Vetiver when I get a chance) is Green Cedar. For a gracious, soft and uplifting, all year round coniferous Christmas Tree, this one catapults you straight from the city into the fresh air of the rural; therapeutic. Unlike the more arid, sawmill-like Virginia cedar essential oil I am more familiar with, or the sweeter, denser, redder, Moroccan variety favoured by Lutens in the Bois, which I am quite drawn to as it is one of the boisé notes I can wear with ease (I am a huge fan of Cèdre), Isaac Sinclair, head perfumer for the creations of this Amsterdam-based perfumery here utilizes a special ‘double-distilled’ Texan cedar oil bonded together with some cedar from the Atlas mountains for the forested pungency, as well as a proportion of guaiac wood and ambrette for skin grounding. But what is especially interesting for me in the extrait version of this new scent is the beautifully fresh and unexpectedly aerated top accord of natural magnolia oil from China, two different cardamom essences (from India and Guatemala) and a touch of Belgian angelica, for a herbal, purifying sensation; resinous and calming, and carefully (and aesthetically) calibrated so that when you apply the bottle mouth to skin, only a little emerges at a time, preserving the integrity of the volume – it is vital that an extrait feel precious – and allowing the scent to open up naturally at its own pace, uncluttered. I am very much a forest person, but not one who likes to smell of one, so I am unlikely to choose this as my own scent identity for the day when out on the town. But I would imagine that Green Cedar is probably one of Abel’s best sellers here in Japan, where there is an inbuilt audience receptive to all scents hinoki, hiba or pine-like (and something also potentially erotic about the almost sour, uric element present in oily, conifer cones, something edgy while simultaneously trustworthy). For me personally, this is more the kind of scent I will conserve and occasionally enjoy just a dab of here or there for relaxation, or for the delightfully fragrant, decontaminating sense of goodness I get from the opening accord (quite beautiful) : : : to just uncap and inhale directly from the bottle.
I was too busy gazing at Mount Fuji floating above the clouds the other day to remember that April 2nd was actually the ten year anniversary of The Black Narcissus. Then the next day, I had an absurdly busy day in the freezing rain doing all my pre-work errands in one day, including getting my third Moderna vaccination booster somewhere in the middle of nowhere in Yokohama – lost and drenched; then yesterday I was pretty much out of action because of that, curled up under the covers, unable to move.
Today it is sunny again, though; I am back to almost normal energy and thought that maybe I should rectify the situation. After all, a decade isn’t nothing.
In 2008 I started writing about perfume. Just one day, I sat down and did it. And I loved it. Prior to that, having been an obsessive of scent all my life since childhood – like music, perfume has been the soundtrack of my existence, as I am sure it has been for most of you – once the Internet became more commonplace and readily available, I would sit down and feast my brain for hours on all the classic perfume review websites that became popular from the beginning of the 2000’s. You know the ones: Bois De Jasmin, Perfume -Smelling Things; Olfactoria’s Travels; Now Smell This, Fragrantica: there was just something so utterly compelling and absorbing and addictive about being able to read about what is essentially invisible and ephemeral but which I had been buying and wearing and smelling myself for decades in beautiful wording; I would read and re-read certain descriptions of perfumes again and again – and it almost felt like meditation. Divorced from everything else in the world, just one perfume at a time, in its own context; described; embellished; sometimes captured.
Before this, in the late nineties I had only had a couple of books on perfume – John Oakes’, which I read until it collapsed; and Susan Irvine’s, in which I first saw the Caron bottles that made my eyes stand out on daffodil stalks of lust (Caron was never available in the UK, at least where I grew up, and I had never even heard of it until I saw the pictures of Nuit de Noël, Nocturnes, Tabac Blond in all the illustrated photographs which must have accumulated many hours of ogling and coveting in total: perfumes, in the pre-digital age, beyond my grasp and knowledge. Scents that felt like magic talismans to me; untouchable.
Around this time – I can’t remember when, exactly; to me, pre-writing feels like some inchoate darkness of nothingness where I was still alive and overly sentient as ever but just floating in the ether, unanchored by any testimony – my friend Helen, who I grew up with listening to Prince and dreaming over perfume back home – she lived just five minutes down the road – rapturously collecting our free samples from the department store or scratching the perfumed strip Christie Turlington and Linda Evangelista adverts in Vogue and opinionatedly holding forth about those that we esteemed vs those that we scathed – one day out of the blue sent me a photocopied version of Luca Turin’s original; Le Guide which she had carefully downloaded and printed out, and which became practically a sacred text to me. The fact that it was in very difficult French made it even more potently out of reach; some parts I immediately set about translating, almost as an academic exercise, like the ones I would do at university; if the translation came out well and sufficiently, beautiful I would feel a great sense of personal satisfaction and pleasure and then enjoy sending it back to H who enjoyed it just as much – it sent us off floating into dreams. Where the sites on the Internet were entertaining and exciting treasure troves of information, this – from twenty years earlier – took it to an entirely different level to me, to the level of extreme beauty. Something beyond the everyday – to a place sealed off in eternity.
Although D and I in our time together in England and Japan had always been creative, organizing themed costume parties, art events, immersive piano recitals and the like, for a long time, I still felt very stunted internally – I think he did too until he started doing performance art and making films – without even entirely quite realizing how or why. Friends had often told me I should write, but I didn’t have a subject (apart from myself!) ; I think they said this because of the famously long letters I would send to them from various locations, Rome, Cambridge etc, probably unbearable to look at now). However, when I surreptiously started on my perfume reviews, at that stage a combination of intuitive blurting and meticulous editing that I honed like a miniature sculpture, I felt a sense of achievement and happiness I had never felt before, and I kept doing it on a regular basis until I had described every scent in my possession and had made something I called The Menu, literally a thematically categorized, nerdish guide to my own collection – including all the samples (!) that I would offer up to guests when they came round for dinner. What would you like to try? Wait here a minute. Or : come upstairs and let’s try that one on. All great fun. People loved it. And then I started to get the idea for a full book.
At this stage, developing confidence, I was planning to try and get a publishing deal the old-fashioned way. Get a literary agent; find someone willing to publish; pick up my work at a bookshop. Feel delighted. Gloat. Which is pretty much what happened, actually, although it was a lot of hard of work and a lot more difficult than it sounds. Firstly, most agencies are primarily looking for the next fiction big deal – and I am strangely incapable of investing time in fictional characters – there is just so much going around me and inside me in real life that I can’t even contemplate creating non-existent entities as vessels for my themes: I love literature – it was my specialization at university – and personally feel that I learned the central tenets of existence through it, my philosophy hugely shaped by the writers I read against the clock and wrote fraught, deadlined essays over.
But I can’t come up with such works myself. And perfume is not an easy sell. Fragrance itself, as an everyday luxurious, but essential commodity, is, obviously – it is a multibillion dollar industry. But most people don’t want to read books on the subject: the odd, typically realized magazine PR-type article will suffice for most people, who, in my opinion, on the whole just sniff something they find at the airport, at their local retailer, or on a friend and ask what it is and then buy it and wear it for a while: they don’t need all the wordy fragrant verbiage we perfume lovers churn out, it is actually quite an odd idea for a lot of people I have found, as though you were writing in ancient Sumerian or Sankrit. Somehow, though, with the help of Helen who sent off a lot of very nicely presented applications for me, because I would have made a pig’s ear of it all, after a whole series of rejections, one London-based literary agency – liked my writing style and my idea of a perfume book on scent divided into a note by note thematically organized structure (original at the time and since taken up elsewhere, but before that most books were either alphabetically or chronologically ordered), showed some interested in my project: I was convinced that this would make perfume more relatable to the general public and be a commercially viable idea, and one that I could make appealing and enjoyable to read – and my agent eventually agreed.
The problem at this stage was that I had absolutely zero web presence. The Luddites, or the original technophobes, emerged at the time of the Industrial Revolution, which started in Birmingham – which happens to be where I am from and perhaps explains my uselessness when faced with modern technology. I had made no inroads on the internet at this stage, and we just had the crappiest dial up which took an eternity to connect. The book idea was still pitched at various bookfairs by my agency though, and apparently almost got signed, but my complete absence online was deemed too problematic – and understandably so (it almost seems quite arrogant of me now to have presumed otherwise! Who the hell did I think I was ? I was just an English teacher who had sniffed a few perfumes – hardly Michael Edwards). The thing was that I didn’t especially like the word ‘blog’ or being thought of a ‘blogger’ – it just doesn’t sound particularly impressive or interesting, almost denigrating, like a geek slogging away at their computer day and night for minimal gain – who knew how rich the Youtubers could get – or so I snobbishly thought at the time. I just wanted to be somehow launched on the world and ‘discovered’. But this was completely unrealistic.
And so at some point, D proposed, insisted, I start a ‘blog’ of my own. I resisted. I didn’t like the idea of being instantly read by strangers; it felt too close to the skin. Too immediate (precisely what I love about it now: and he absolutely knew instinctively that this is how I would feel). So one day, ten years ago during this very same spring holiday, he dragged me into the front garden, took a picture of some narcissus flowers that had opened and then another of an old Caron Narcisse Noir box from the collection, got on WordPress, typed up one of my reviews from the Menu: and minutes later we were live.
In the same way that I wanted nothing other than Burning Bush for my cabaret alter-ego, if I had a blog it was always going to be called The Black Narcissus. Firstly, since childhood I have been captivated by Greek and Roman myths, which feel removed and eternal, existing on an immortal plane somewhere beyond: for me, they are sometimes a form of refuge. (When I went to Crete as a seventeen year old I was completely ravished by it: in heaven. Just everything about it: the ruins at Knossos. The searing sun. The food. The men, wearing Kouros. The scent of eucalyptus. Duncan’s mother’s family is also from Cyprus, birthplace of Aphrodite, and one of my dreams is for us to go there one day and just revel in that environment for a whole summer: maybe meet some Greek Cypriot relatives and eat bucketloads of oregano-feta salads and yoghurt spooned with thick honey – is anything actually more delicious? ).
Secondly, since very young childhood, when I was always reading books in the garden next to the rosemary, I have always adored flowers, and the words ‘narcissus’ and ‘hyacinth’ are somehow especially resonant for me: wet and green and delicious sounding; the sybillant ‘s’ sound exquisitely floral: onomatopoeic in their lexical representations of the living flowers. The origin of the legend – of both flowers, actually – is of course quite a sad one, like many ancient metamorphoses, and whether I am narcissistic or not is not for me to decide: (probably, to some extent). I am certainly introspective and not afraid to stare into the reflection and the inner abyss, though I like to think I am also immensely interested in other people and the world outside, but I do have a melancholic side and a tendency to love music in a minor key, and horror films, and not to shy away from the darker side of things in genral, and so thought that a ‘black narcissus’ was perfect in this regard.
I have, I will admit, sometimes wondered whether there might have been writers who are ethnically of African/ Afro-Caribbean heritage who might have been understandably surprised that I took on this name, but at the moment of deciding on my blog identity, I felt that the obvious references to the Caron classic – that this was simply a direct translation of the iconic orange blossom perfume’s name – as well as the shrill, technicolour histrionics of the Himalayan monastery melodrama Black Narcissus from 1947, which I love, encapsulated everything I wanted to express as my personal perfume writing space, and seeing that no one else was using it, I didn’t hesitate.
In a word: thrilling. As an impulsive person by nature, being able to think, photograph or trawl images, write, and post within seconds was, and is, like a dream come true. If that sounds incredibly naive, you are probably right, but although many of the pieces I wrote initially were very thought out and properly considered, as you know, many others are not; just a snap here, a sentence there, a ramble, a splurge – whatever is happening and whichever perfumes I smell and how they fit into the immediate environment of a particular emotion on a particular day. Write. And press publish. And although at first I had no idea who was reading – if anyone – (as those of you who also have websites, you will probably know how difficult it is to recruit readers, or ‘followers’, which I always think sounds unpleasantly acolyte or disciple-like: but without anyone reading you are ultimately just a tree falling silently into the forest; and it all definitely takes a very long time, unless you are the hot young latest thing who taps into the ‘beauty’ zeitgeist and you do makeup tutorials and videos and this is so sexy! kind of posts – but I myself am actually rather camera-shy).
Gradually, readers did emerge from the cosmos, though, and started commenting. Perfume maniacs, people who liked a good story: and I thrived off the interactions – and still do; even more than ever if anything – particularly in these ever increasingly difficult times we are living in. Back then at the beginning, The Black Narcissus was more exclusively perfume-based I would say; Neil Chapman slightly more in the background as I tried to create wordpaintings of perfume; sometimes perhaps too self-consciously, but I was often pleased with the results nevertheless, and I liked carving out my own space (isn’t this the thing with having something that you have created; that you know it is uniquely yours, because no one else can do precisely what you do, even if it is only, in the grand scheme of things, a mere drop in the ocean of what is beingn said?).
After a year or so of posting regularly, one day I got a message from a writer who was setting up his own perfume magazine called ODOU in the UK. He had read some of my stuff and asked if I would like to contribute; I said yes straight away and so I reworked a piece I had written around that time that I had called Perfume Haters, which he then featured in the first or second edition. I have to say that seeing myself in print was amazing; I then also did something for the literary magazine Shooter, a paen to perfume called Through Smoke; the ODOU piece the following year then winning the Jasmine Award Literary Prize, a truly exhilarating day in London where I got to meet a lot of the most celebrated perfume illuminati like Persolaise, The Candy Perfume Boy and Pia Long, who was also in the running with me – we were sitting next to each other at the back of the auditorium when the winner was announced – and who is now making her own perfumes as well as creating scents for houses such as Zoologist.
Those first years (2012- 2016, say), feel relatively ‘innocent’ to me now. Though in hindsight, we do often see our past experiences through rose-coloured spectacles, and probably if I were to go into the archives – which I don’t very often but find very interesting when I do as I have no idea what exists there – it is an Alice In Wonderland of The Self – I would find a lot of sturm und drang and psychomelodrama along with all the enthusing over Japanese fleamarkets and ‘recycle shops’ which were lot more abundant and full of eye and heart-busting vintage perfumes at that time: I don’t think The Black Narcissus has ever been just a repository of perfume note information, as I always wanted more and just can’t help myself, but it was, at least when I first started out, a lot more parfum.
That was then though: and this is now. The last five years have been crazy. For me, and for the world, everything has been far, far more tumultuous and difficult – a real rollercoaster ride of the nerves, and this has also been reflected very clearly on here. I simply wasn’t able to divorce myself from my own circumstances. From a personal perspective, for a start, in 2016 I suddenly found out that I had a degenerative condition of the knee in which in both legs almost all of the cartilage had worn away or disappeared – a genetic inheritance that was inevitable but probably not helped by living at the top of a steep hill in Kamakura, which I used to walk all the time and which became extremely painful. Soon, this necessitated a major operation, two months in a Japanese hospital and sixth months off work during which I had to learn to walk again, a rather difficult experience that was nevertheless greatly expedited and improved by being able to post from the hospital bed – almost immediately after surgery – and having exchanges with the truly lovely people who often frequent these pages. This was an extremely positive aspect of my memories from that time (five years ago today as I write I would still have been getting around the hospital in a wheelchair, writing ridiculous posts about god knows what and having fights or a lot of laughs with the nurses). Getting home after all of that I found that having all that time was actually wonderful for writing…….and probably if I could somehow do this as full time as a job I would, although I do think ultimately that working and being in the ‘real world’ teaching high school students is also good for me in many ways as it keeps me grounded, and gives me the feeling that I am doing something good for the world, rather than just indulging in extreme perfumed decadence.
On the subject of which, after a slide into a deep personal lowpoint around February 2018 (the aftermath of severe medical situations is underdiscussed), one very cold, miserable, grey rainy day full of fear and self-loathing in Kamakura I received an unexpected email that my book had finally found a potential publisher – and thus began the whiplashed ultra-energizing into London meetings and trying to put a book together at breakneck speed while working; both deliriously exciting and indescribably exhausting, with a strong dash of David & Goliath, followed by the delight of receiving the gold-finished tome in the post – a day I will never forget – and the promotional terrors of being on BBC radio live and making a commercial with an Italian notebook brand, beloved by Hemingway: Moleskine, being in the Japan Times, and then writing for Japan Vogue, among other things – I definitely had my Warholian more than five minutes of mini-fame, and it all happened because I kept writing non-stop on here and gradually got noticed. This was an amazing time in many ways; an unforgettable whirlwind of activity, drenched in perfume; I had it coming out of my eyeballs; I was able to read Perfume translated into Italian, and even got to be published in China.
At the same time, while all of this was going on (and a whole lot more), the world was moving generally in a violent and terrible direction, and I found that it was actually completely impossible to keep it all out of my ‘perfume blog’. Perfume has been a constant throughout; either new releases or vintage, or posts on smell in general, or on Japanese culture, as I love writing about that as well, and sometimes cinema, music and art, but the olfactory has always been the main focus by far as in many ways I feel we do live through smell, even in very difficult times. And yet the Outside will have its way and infiltrate absolutely everything.
Sometimes, it has been overwhelming. I am sure you have felt exactly the same. For me, beginning with the nationalistic fervour and lies of Brexit and then the threat of the possibility of Donald Trump becoming the president of the United States in 2016 – just writing that name has already polluted this post but it feels unavoidable to mention – was something I felt as akin to dark clouds looming over my spirit in a way that felt more than just political or emotional but also psychical, on quite a deep level – on a blood and brain level – and I know a lot of people, especially the more sensitive, feel and felt very similarly even if others close to me just thought I was going completely overboard and losing the plot. Each to their own. For me, though, it is all linked: the jingoism, the idiocy, the aggression, the bigotry, from Bolsonaro to Putin and now the unforgivably awful war that is happening as we speak – it is all in the same vein. Of macho bullshit and racist (and homophobic) intolerance. And then coupled with the excruciating two years of the pandemic, which thankfully we seem to be moving out of (hopefully?), but which was happening concurrently – precisely why kind Vladimir chose this time; cynically exploiting the vulnerability, with the madness (and it was madness) that ensued in societies as a whole, each with their own list of problems seemingly designed to drive you personally nuts, it has been a very very intense – to put it mildl – half a decade.
Fortunately or unfortunately, I don’t know, being the person I am, I have been unable to divorce all of this from the perfume writing. The impulse to express is strong, but it is of course heavily coloured by what is going on around you. And sometimes I have embarrassed myself with almost incoherent posts of rage, or highly emotional outpourings about trapped in windowless rooms pre-vaccination or about the great impotence you feel watching Russian armies pointlessly rampaging through Ukrainian towns and massacring civilians ; or the intolerable rise of the hypnotizing demagogues in general, or people attacking other for wearing masks : all of it has pushed us to the limit of what we can deal with, and sometimes I have possibly ‘gone too far’.
And yet I think of The Black Narcissus as a continuing diary, a life lived in real time documented in words and pictures through the prism of smell, experience felt in any given moment and then described, no matter how unsettlingly, which is why I never delete posts, even if I don’t think they are very good or find them slightly mortifying. To me, they are all part of the tapestry, and in any case, the more honest those posts are, the more responses I seem to get from readers. When I think of all the words that exist in this space; not just the posts themselves but all the fascinating conversations that ensue in the comments section, I feel that writing this blog has truly been a thing of wonder. It has not just been nicey nicey, politey politey perfume chat, which can be relaxing and pleasant in its own right and certainly has an important place in this world – but also extremely beneficial – and it would seem mutually. For me, particularly during the double whammy of Donald and Covid – at the height of the berserkness generally, when I was reactive as a keg of kerosene, being able to vent on here and get such thoughtful, intelligent, understanding, sharp, and often hilarious responses was incredibly therapeutic and defusing for me psychologically; others contributing to various discussions also seemed to feel the same and we would toss in a Scent Of The Day as well for good measure just to retain some sanity and humour and keen perspective. Although tougher on the soul, I think of this latter Black Narcissus period as even more important to me.
So thank you. Some of you have been reading this off and on, or even continually, since its inception (arigato; it has been amazing). Others have tuned in more recently. Thank you to you too. I appreciate it all. All the personal interactions and musings on perfume and everything else have been like a life saver for me ; the whole a precious testament, and I intend continuing ad infinitum – as long as I am allowed.
Recently I have been concentrating on my Japan book – a far-reaching memoir, wide in scope, very personal, quite intense, and which I have written quite a lot of this spring holiday, I am really pleased about it how as these things don’t always flow, but this definitely has), and I will be presenting some of it to my agent soon when I am happy with how the sample chapters sound; and then hopefully will be working on a full book release at some point in the not too distant future if anyone seems to be interested. Simultaneously, I will, of course, be writing on here, continuing the daily/weekly/monthly/yearly cycle of experience and expression with you.
For me, it is a joy.
Having a fantastic three day discovering of Shizuoka prefecture, including the cities of Numazu, Mishima and Shizuoka – all far bigger than I had imagined, with dreamy neon underbellies.
Last night was a delirium of transcendent cinema and then getting lost in the cherry blossom festival at the castle, my mind and eyes oversaturated.
This morning was a much more standard Saturday coffee and shopping type morning – Shizuoka City swankier and more gleaming than I would have anticipated: they even had a Louis Vuitton, an institution I would never enter in Yokohama or Tokyo as the levels of brand veneration there is like drinking anti-freeze for my general serenity. But as D says, the people are ‘much less twitchy’ here, a notch or three lower on the service uptight-ometer; everything more relaxed in general, so I felt fine just doing a quick hand-sanitize and sauntering in for a mooch of the perfumes; and also because I have seen so many of the Léa Seydoux posters for Spell On You that I thought I should actually finally sniff it.
What’s it like?
Very pretty; a fine quality iris and violet with citrus and acacia that Ms Prim And Proper Of Paris Or Tokyo will probably adore. To me it is a modernized mash up ( but quite seamless in blending ) of Après- L’Ondee, with some Miracle by Lancôme, and perhaps a touch of Trésor in the mix as well ( that would be all the rose and the peach ). Fantastically assembled with its crisp powder; Orthodontically pristine, behind her enameled veneer – when she laughs, you marvel, enviously, at her sparkling teeth and eyes : lower your gaze, slowly to the pleats of her coat, the bag at her side ; and the immaculately selected shoes. Getting closer to the faultless throb of her perfume , you begin to feel ill : and peony nauseous.
Of similar ilk in terms of immediate mainstream acceptability is the fresh, red-floral shampoo- sheened berried camellia cosmetic spray mist that is the new citric floral Chanel No1. Pleasant, if highly familiar to anyone used to the tropes that are common in Japanese popular perfumery ( I can imagine No1 really going down a storm here) this is a very clean, uplifting, astringent, sparkling, quotidian fashion spritz : brisk, easy – an inoffensive daily contender like Clarins Eau Dynamisante.
But I have more interesting things to think about right now. The bus has just arrived at the station on the hill with an EXTRAORDINARY vista of Mt Fuji in front of cherry blossom. I am about to go on a cable car ( vertigo ? ‘what vertigo’) and sail right past it down to a National Treasure shrine that stands overlooking.
Catch you later