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.