A shocking thing happened to me last night. D and a friend of ours, Kevin, were in the dark watching the new TV adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s brilliant and timely The Handmaiden’s Tale – the first episode surpassing all my expectations (this is one of the best novels I have ever read by far: I could not breathe properly throughout – I have even referenced it explicitly before on here in relation to Byredo’s Tulipe and the subjugation of women in perfume), a date of release that feels somehow perfect and utterly relevant because what is depicted in the story – women being kidnapped, raped and forced to be the fertility concubines of their masters has already happened with the Nigerian women captured by Boko Haram and in many other places; brainwashed, enslaved; baby machines for blood-lusting thugs in the name of religion. With the Christofascist movement in the U.S also a major force in politics, affecting women’s ability to make their own reproductive choices, and backing the dystopian nightmare of Trump being in power – which still, six months on, feels utterly surreal (I can’t actually accept, still, that this dangerous monster is ‘the leader of the free world’, that his catastrophic policies, both in terms of international politics – pushing and provoking adversaries deliberately closer to war; destabilizing efforts to contain global by petulantly pulling out of the Paris climate accord, a man who genuinely seems to be mentally unstable and who has the true potential to wreak destruction not only on his own beleaguered nation but the rest of the world as well); The Handmaiden’s tale just feels so apposite and so quietly condemning of those that fall under the tyrannical spell of organized ‘religion’, no matter what the origins of that religion might actually be; so very far from any of the realities of their central tenets; how the words are twisted and perverted; how ‘Christians’ can be so full of hatred for their fellow man, so lacking in compassion; how ‘Muslims’ can blow themselves up at concerts full of children, or plunge knives into human beings just out and enjoying themselves at Borough Market and London Bridge. While my optimism for humanity ultimately remains undimmed – the reactions and caring shown by people the world over for their fellow human beings is always cheering and wonderful to behold; the fact that the fury against Trump’s deliberately oblivious environmental attack and denial has already resulted in waves of new regulations across US states vowing to adhere to, and even go beyond, the limits set by the Paris accords, shows that the human spirit is very, very strong indeed and refuses to be held hostage by evil and violence, the concert held by Ariana Grande and others in Manchester last night, One Love, being further proof of this, I don’t believe that the world is doomed to disaster. But what is occurring right now certainly is extremely unsettling and desperate. These truly feel like volatile, violent and angry times.
We can say what we want and add to the dialogue, but what can I, personally, do about any of it? I am trapped inside my home. It feels as if the world is marching into madness somewhere on the other side of the rainbow. In one sense, it all has absolutely nothing to do with me.I spend the vast majority of the day on the bed in the kitchen, only hobbling outside, just about, to sit on the chair and read about all of these atrocities and maniacs, powerless to do a single little thing about it (I can’t even vote: neither in my country of origin or the one that I live in: I am truly the dreamy disenfranchised). I am frustrated by my lack of progress, and by not knowing whether it even is a lack of progress. Once you have left the hospital, there is no further contact to ask for advice, there is no physiotherapy. I am not supposed to ring up my former rehabilitation ward (I tried once, and it didn’t go down well; they have other osteotomy patients to deal with now, it’s neverending, they don’t have time). I understand that, but I also feel abandoned in some way, unsure of how to proceed; is the exercise bike I have bought and started using the right thing to be doing? It feels good, but am I overdoing it? Should I be trying to walk outside around the neighbourhood, eleven weeks after the operation? Or should I be resting? Won’t inactivity, though, just lead to the atrophying of my legs? What, exactly, am I supposed to be doing? Several of my kind Japanese neighbours have offered to take me for a walk when Duncan isn’t here, and have done so; I have managed to walk the block, very tentatively, with my cane, about five times now, very nervous about falling over, or tripping, and sometimes it really hurts and I have to grip the wall of someone’s garden before I recommence…….It feels great to be actually doing it, though, to be walking again outside, because I sometimes getquite claustrophobic, always being stuck in one particular room; I feel confined (the neighbour across from us has offered to just take me out in the car twice a week just so I can get a change of scenery, particularly as where I live now is just so beautiful. Perhaps I am doing better than I think. There are plenty of people out there worse off than me, I know: limbs blown off in callous explosions, bodies ripped into with cruel knives by crazed, masked marauders. But still. I am here and they are there….
I really do feel that I want to MOVE. Go out, go to the city. Not just malinger, here, inside. I have done these walks, or finally actually sweated from doing some real exercise on the bike while blasting out music (the endorphins! the clarity of thought and positivity that comes from doing heartbeating exercise, I love it), but then I often find that later on I am as stiff as a board, that my legs contract and won’t move; they ache, they sometimes throb, they buckle under me, and I have no way of knowing if any of it is actually ok (my next appointment at the hospital is June 15th, which will mark about the three month mark since the operations. I will find out then when I am xrayed and examined by the surgeon, and it will be my first exploration of the outside world for an extremely long time. I am nervous, but also strangely excited…)
And Japan, though it is also heading in a very disturbing right wing direction like many other countries – the government under Shinzo Abe seems to be veering defiantly into an increasingly World War II Imperialist agenda- is at least relatively safe. No guns. No terrorists (so far, in any case – we’ll see about the 2020 Tokyo Olympic games). There are large numbers of crazy people lost in their own worlds, yes, and the occasional very psychotic one, but Japan does have the lowest murder rate in the world among the developed nations, you never worry, there is none of that tension and slight, suppressed apprehension of other countries where you have to be aware, and look over your shoulder, and I look forward to just gliding within its super-efficient gleam, and flow.
A person can be engaged with the world, yet still powerless. Interested in it, but divorced. Extricated. Alone. Right now I find myself in a vastly diminished universe that much of the time only revolves around my space, myself, my legs. And the recuperation. The concentrated effort to get stronger and be able to walk again. I immerse myself in documentaries, cinema, reading, writing, music, in sitting outside in the green of the June leaves and the beautiful sunshine. I occasionally have visitors, though contact is far less than I was having when I was a hospital patient. Last night, as I said, Kevin, an American friend of ours, came down to our house from Tokyo to visit me, and we had dinner, and talked, and they danced around the kitchen a little bit (I did so on the bed), and we then settled on The Handmaid’s Tale. I think it is great. Remarkably well done. In fact, I was very leery of seeing it at first, despite many of my friends’ recommendations, because I worry about my mental image of the book being destroyed. Instead, what the makers of the series of done is miraculously preserve the central emotional feeling of the novel, but rather than try to capture the inwardness and singular viewpoint of the central character, June/Offred – the creators have made a convincingly paranomic, widescope version of a story that needs to be told; a world where individuals, and women particularly, are stripped of all power and reduced to second-class citizens, as they are in much of the world in reality: merely housemaids, slaves, and reproductive robots.
I sit, or lounge, on the bed, a rented bed for people in my position, my walking stick hung on a nail on the wall. It is imperative that I don’t fall over. This is crucial. I am not to fall over. I was continually lectured on that point when leaving the hospital. Korobanai yoni; korobanai yoni, don’t fall over, don’t fall over (as if I would try to), emphasised over and over again that I mustn’t fall down and hurt my healing bones which are still in the process of knitting themselves together and vulnerable to breakage or shock; it is this that makes walking anywhere so terrifying and why I must always have somebody with me as I simply can’t risk doing it alone when there is nobody to fall onto or grasp. In the house I am very careful. Yet, sometimes, no matter how much care you take, things really are beyond your control.
I was sat on the bed. So was Duncan. Kevin was on a chair. We had projected The Handmaiden’s Tale onto the wall. Huge. It was a tense, dramatic moment. The music had crescendoed to something sinister and threatening. Our nerves were on edge like taut strings, waiting to see what the sex-prisoner Offred was going to do in a particular, oppressed, situation, breath bated, when suddenly –
‘Oh, Mori’ says Kevin as our cat suddenly ran and lunged into the air from nowhere, released something trapped in her mouth and we were besieged by the beating of wings; flapping, aggressively, throbbing – something, a bird, flittering in the projector light; a hideous, overwhelming fluttering and darting that was petrifying and in that instant, before I knew it, as we all shouted and lurched into reaction and confusion, I found that I had unconsciously, on pure primitive horror and instinct, tried to run from the bed – launched myself towards the floor to escape and my legs had given way and I hit the floor in a contorted position as we realized it wasn’t a bird but a giant moth, vibrating at hideous speed, whirring in the magnifying light, and I was conscious of the fact that oh my god I have fallen, no; no, no no this can’t have happened – kill it, kill it, just kill it! flying around the room dive bombing and me on the floor….I don’t know why it was so foul and unbearable – I don’t usually even hate moths that much – but I was cowering behind Kevin grabbing some clothes on the floor to protect my face and imploring Duncan to get rid of it. Usually we are not the kill the insect type – they have the right to live just as much as we do, and he tried desperately to trap it beneath a mug on the floor as it zigzagged through the air but he was worried about what else might happen to me as I was stuck in the corner on the floor in that twisted position……..there is a rock from the garden we use as a door stopper, and making a swift decision he finally crushed it to death on the floor.
It had happened, though. We had all been drinking red wine. Relaxing. Was this to blame? I don’t think so. We weren’t drunk. I swore, semi-seriously, in my Seventeen Things I Have Realized In Hospital piece that I wouldn’t drink for the foreseeable future as it could endanger my legs too much in case of falling, but in fact, the sheer monotony of always being inside necessitates a change of mental feeling from time to time so at weekends we have indulged a bit (red wine, and you can check for yourself, is actually recommended by the Arthritis foundation for knee pain). When I have had some, I stay on the bed, and am escorted by Duncan, so I wasn’t endangering myself- in fact, it is possible that the relaxed state I was in made my fall softer and protected me. In a totally unalcolized state I might have jumped and fallen even further actually. Everything had flashed by so quickly that I wasn’t even entirely sure what had happened, whether I had actually stood up and my legs had collapsed under me or whether I had somehow just launched myself, flown, if you like, from the bed and somehow landed in the position that I did, which is what Kevin thought happened. Three screaming gay men and a moth: it just seems so pathetic, doesn’t it? I am not even particularly afraid of insects, or birds, but there is just something so primeval and in the human DNA I think about flapping wings near your face – the projector had also made the creature loom much larger, intensifying the experience – we all assumed it was a bat, or a bird – as did the fact that this had happened just at the moment of extreme tension in the drama. We were startled out of our skins and just flew. Fused together it led to this mayhem in the kitchen which we could laugh about later on again in the evening before he went back on the train up to Tokyo, but which actually took me quite a long time to calm down from : my heart was beating quite rapidly not from the moth horror but from the danger it had put my recovery in…..I read somewhere something once about how many people die a year because of their cats than any kind of shootings or terrorist attacks.. (a few years ago at work, something similar happened. I was in the middle of doing a teachers’ English conversation class one morning when I went to the school’s miniscule kitchen, about the size of a large closet, to get a drop of water and wash my hands. Suddenly, and it always seems to happen in these occasions that you simply can’t register what is happening at first – something monstrous; great wings flapping about my head and bouncing and bounding against the window and door and claws…..I was flailing my arms around hysterically shouting (the classroom was at the other end of the school and the teachers had no idea what was taking me so long). A pigeon had somehow got in through the tiny window at the top and I was having a genuine Tippi Hedren moment – Alfred Hitchcock tricking the actress, when making The Birds – incidentally Duncan’s favourite film of all time – into thinking that when she entered the room where one of the pivotal scenes of the drama was to take place, fake birds would be thrown at her by the production crew, when in fact he unleashed real seagulls that thrashed against her face with their wings….she was hospitalized for a week from the shock of it, the trauma; and I can tell you, that even having just one big bird, panicked itself, trying desperately to get out, in hyper reactive survival mode, so close, and both of you trapped in that tiny space, was quite horrific……I eventually managed to get out of there and slam the door shut and went back to the classroom where I couldnt’ speak for a while, and the teachers seemed perturbed at my change of demeanour. When I finally could tell them, we all went down the corridor together, and with various tactics, including broom and mop handles, they managed to guide the poor creature back outside into the air).
Are my legs injured? Has something happened internally? I hope to hell not. Initially I just lay on the floor and they asked me if I had any new or severe pain, and I didn’t. I felt some extra discomfort, perhaps from the way I had landed, but nothing too severe, and they lifted me up onto a chair and then onto the bed where I sat for a while dumbfounded and worried, but slept a long sleep and here I am now, writing this. I think I landed ok and wasn’t hurt. What a shock though.
Today, actually, I find myself clear-headed and happy. Perhaps last night’s real life horror moment was strangely cathartic in some way. I am outside: the birds are singing, the sun is out, I am back to that happily cocooned solitude feeling, happy to write and just bask in the quiet, covered in scent, allaying my senses. I wrote earlier about my immersion in music and the visual to embellish my reality, to make it less stifling and one-dimensional, but I do think that in fact, perfume has an even greater role in many ways, I love it, and I want to ask you: do you ever find your perfume obsession to be trivial in the face of our greater realities? When the world is the way that it is? Are we right to indulge ourselves so much in this way, to be paying so much inward attention to the sense of smell or, as I instinctively feel myself, is this more of a necessity, a vital part of life and happiness for the person for whom this sense is at least as important as the others and which gives so much sensual, cerebral, and physical pleasure? Do the jihadis of the Islamic State deprive themselves of perfume, as they do music, as a frivolous distraction from their god, even though the Islamic, Arab tradition is the finest, most intense and beautiful perfumed culture of all? Do the fundamentalist Christians, like Offred in The Handmaid’s Tale, strip themselves of all frippery and wash their Christ-stricken skin only in pure water, as she does, as she prepares to be sacrificed and fertilized, and cleanses herself in a bath of the unscented ‘purity’ to ready herself for insemination? Is this love of the sheer overwhelming beauty of perfume and smell, in their eyes, a ‘sin’? Or is it a gift: yet another beautiful part of this world of sensorial pleasures that I just can’t get enough of while I am here, even when incapacitated and stuck, for the majority of the time, in one room ?
More dextrous and mobile than before, I can get myself in and out of the shower now. When I have sweated on the exercise bike, how I love to just get in there and soap down – right now the dregs of an old Chanel No 19 soap that has lost much of its greenery but still has a beautifully vetiver lactonic edge to it that is the perfect later skin setting for high quality perfumes, especially Guerlain. Shalimar, Vetiver, Ylang Vanille, Terracotta, all together, but in different places, smelling just prickly with powdered luxuriantness and threedimensional splendour; they smell just glorious on me, I feel like living art. I just sit here alone and radiate. I resonate. And Duncan will come home and say wow, you smell amazing, and I do. Is this shallow, and frivolous? Perhaps it is. I don’t know. But it enhances my spirit, it velvet-cushions my well-being, it is a boon. I love it. It is essential. Out there might be madness and chaos, but in here, where I am trapped, I can at least embroider the air around me and my own skin with the spirit of these inspired elixirs that keep me anchored in a world that still believes in beauty.
Although I am at home alone for most of the day, when D comes back at night he quite often brings me presents. The other day he had gone to Ofuna to a recycle shop called Julien that we sometimes frequent and brought me a perfume I had never even heard of, Ingenue by Kanebo, a scent that must have been from the seventies or eighties but which I can find out no information about but which is fantastic : the Duncan is a truly scent-literate person who knows what smells good and what doesn’t, which means when he comes across things on his thrift shop after work rummages he can come back with not only treasures he knows I will want, but also ones I didn’t even know I wanted until he presented them to me. Ingenue, an exquisitely green, Bulgarian rose chypre in the manner of Armani Pour Femme (1981), it is almost a copy, but with finer ingredients, including a beauteous green seventies top accord – cassis, hyacinth? – sheening with marigold that reminds me of the original Cardin de Cardin and the first perfume by Ralph Lauren, and is possibly the best perfume of this type that I have ever encountered. Not that you will, but if you do, and you love this type of scent, promise me that you will buy it; the powdered rose of the base blooms delicately in the amber of the perfume’s later stages, and I just know that this is something that I will adore to wear out on special occasions when that intricate, baroque rose type of perfume is truly called for. It happens quite a lot to me in winter Check it out on ebay if you can- I guarantee 100% that you won’t be disappointed. Sometimes the Japanese really do imitate things and improve on them, and this is a perfect example.
Friday, though. My god, Friday was a shockingly fantastic windfall of vintage perfume. And I want to share it with you. A couple of days before, as I lay on The Bed with my nose glued to my left arm inhaling the wonders of Ingenue, I lazily asked him as he was going upstairs, ‘so was there anything else there at Julien the other day when you went?’, and he said, ‘no, not really, just the usual crap, Salvatore Ferragamo etc, and some Chant D’Arômes’ …….’some WHAAATTT ? ? ? !I exclaim leaping up into the sitting position, ‘Chant D’AROMES?? ? ? ? ? ?oh my god was it vintage what was the bottle like what the box like was it the gold and black box was it the pink textured packaging of the vintage was it parfum or eau de toilette how much was it when can you go back and get it why didn’t you consider buying it and calling me’ and he said that he couldnt’ remember, but that he would go back and take a look for me some other day this week and send me a picture…..’when, when’ I don’t want anyone else to have it…!
You can see my review for Chant D’Arômes if you just search for it. But trust it to say, I love this delicate and distinctive perfume, one of the far lesser known of the Guerlain classics and would love to have some more, as long as it is not the same version as the one I had after knowing the vintage perfume; a re-issue in Japan that was given free to people who spent enough money at their cosmetics counter, but which had a nasty synthetic smell running through its entire composition and which I wasn’t interested in because I have no time for eviscerated, skeletonized, bullshit.
Friday came. He has been out and about these last few weeks on occasion after work, up in Tokyo ( I sometimes spend morning until night entirely alone), but a man can’t be at home playing carer and shopper the entire time, and he has discovered some fantastic new performance spots and odd, Lynchian dives that we will have to go to as soon as I am better. On this particular occasion he was taking some new friends that he had met recently at the screening of his film, to a place where Tokyo’s diva of rope-tying, kinbaku, the Japanese art of bondage, was holding court. He just about had time, between leaving work and coming home to change to go and check on the Chant d’Arômes before heading out to the silkier universe of Tokyo’s ‘scandalous’, hidden demi-monde.
The picture on the iPhone came. And it looked just like the bottle I had and not liked, as well as being quite expensive for a recycle shop – 6800 yen (about 47 pounds or fifty something dollars), 100ml. I knew I didn’t need another bottle of the cruddy remake but at the same time something about the lettering on the box suggested that this was an older model, still a remake but a decent one, and although I said don’t buy it, a few seconds later I said no I need it, please get it, and thankfully it turned out I was right. YES. This Chant D’Arômes is much closer in spirit to the parfum I tragically spilled – one of my very worst perfume catastrophes and something I don’t want to really dwell on -the gentle, sunny mosses intact, the fruity pear- apple dappling orchard mellowness downing peachily to the beautiful honeysuckle and mirabelles……..DELIGHTFUL, and as I lay there, with the aforementioned ratio of Guerlains already lilting gently, lustfully into their later stages, I found some skin space for the Chant and it blended in perfectly, the warm chypric tenderness of its introverted optimism sidling up perfectly next to some base notes traces of vintage Shalimar eau de toilette. Oh, and he also bought me another, much bigger, bottle of Kanebo Ingenue just for good measure. I might never see it again, it was there, and now I have a stash….
I was happy. Who wouldn’t be. I did of course wish that I could have been out finding out all these new intriguing corners of Tokyo, but I was at home contentedly watching some Netflix drama or other, when suddenly the familiar ringtone of Facetime came on, Duncan saying, ‘I got to Ebisu quite early and… guess what…….THE SHOP is open again!’
Now THE SHOP, is, for perfumistas who have an appreciation of the superiority of classic vintage perfumes, an absolute treasure trove and Aladdin’s Cave of perfume that makes your eyeballs pop out, your throat stop in terror and bewilderment and engender semi-cardiac arrest (if we were all there together, you readers and I, as the cardboard boxes are wearily opened by the strange man that owns the place and NEVER OPENS IT, EVER, there would be shirts ripped off, hair, and wigs, flying, as we tore at each other and grabbed and clawed at this or that vintage Calèche or No 5 selling for the equivalent of a chocolate bar….this is, after all, the place where I found Nombre Noir for next to nothing and all manners of things that are crazily underpriced, sometimes over; it is all a very haphazard arrangement; you grab what you can, as he always says ‘we are closing now’ and looks at you suspiciously, god knows why, and you take it to the counter wondering how much he is going to charge you on this occasion; if the perfumes are current ones, say a Gucci, or something that seems ‘fashionable’ he will charge much more, but I have had beloved vintage parfums of, say, Caron Infini, or No 19 for ten dollars apiece, an old Givenchy Gentleman for virtually nothing – he sometimes seems to just toss things in for free, but as I said, he is NEVER BLOODY OPEN. I have gone there on my days off and it has been shut; I have gone there on the way to engagements in other places in Tokyo hoping he would be open, I have tried several times recently and it was always, always, always shut, so I have given up, essentially. And yet here is Duncan, as I am already losing myself in the pleasures of the perfumes I have received just an hour and a half before, telling me, completely unexpectedly, that it is open. And there is the camera, blurred and swishing from side to side as he surveys the shelves and I say hold on, slow down, what is that, focus in, please get this, can you get that, can you ask him if he has any unopened boxes (where the hell does this loot come from, I wonder, for it to just be loaded into receptacles as though it were trash: who is giving away this stuff, why doesn’t he pay more attention to it? Answer: probably because his main line of business, like most recycle shops in Tokyo, is second hand Louis Vuitton handbags and other designer crap that people are still obsessed with here after all these years and the perfume is just a touch of flotsam in the corner….)
BUT NOT FOR ME.
‘The man’ was in a characteristically even worse mood than ever: apparently, he ‘was closing’, there was a very limited window of opportunity, and he also charged more than he might have usually. 7200 yen. In total. Still, only just over fifty quid, or around 60 dollars, and it was pay day, after all (I am supposed to be trying to be very careful with money seeing as I am not getting paid from now until the end of September you see and have to eke out my money to some extent), but when this place is open, trust me, you just have to.
Slung unceremoniously into a big plastic grocery bag, much later in the evening, around 1am, when he finally got home from some very hilarious shindigs, at a bar in Roppongi, were these, handed out to me like Santa around the Christmas tree, serenaded on The Bed with yet more perfumed treasures:
: Two big 100ml bottles of vintage unopened Lancome Sikkim eau de toilette: a very stylish, delicate and suave green leather chypre that the D took to immediately and which we will definitely enjoy (any comments and further info on this perfume, please do, if there are any Sikkim lovers out there)
: a classic Patou Joy parfum in the black bottle and red cap (it was unopened, but I have a thing where I just can’t resist twisting the hymen of the wax that seals the mouth lid and discovering the true identity of the contents). I am wearing this today. Although the initial smell was like mothballs, the classic rose jasmine of the vintage original, once the perfume was released from its endless imprisonment, is entirely intact. Persolaise, when you and Linda come over to stay in July, I will give you this as I know how much you love it.
: a Courrèges Empreinte pristine parfum. I have reviewed this one before, but it is a curious, peach-leather chypre from the seventies that I find inestimably chic and aloof. I had used up much of my previous bottle so I am very pleased to have it again. Once in a blue moon, in a particular, offbeat mood, only Empreinte will do.
: a beautiful original Nina by Nina Ricci eau de toilette, a perfume I love and which I often keep by the bed as a night scent as I consider it to be one of the best green floral aldehydics of the eighties and a scent that really soothes my spirits- there is something forever pure and happy about this scent, and this was in perfect olfactory condition in the gorgeous original Lalique (is it?) crystal flacon
: a vintage sixties or seventies eau de cologne by Shiseido – More, that I had never properly known before and which is completely and unexpectedly BEAUTIFUL. What initially might just seem like a typical ‘old lady’ Chanel No 5 rip-off – very, very powdery; very, very aldehydic turns out to be extremely cultivated, almost peerless; both fresher and more lively in the top with a gorgeously uplifting fruit note that lasts into the drydown, which in itself is more delicate than a meringue with a note of vanilla that keeps it from the usual musky boredom that I easily tire of. D might find this one unacceptable on me, and I can see why – I probably just smell like an octogenarian transvestite ballerina in it, but there is something in this scent, some real sense of soul, real intelligence and emotion, that I can imagine having a day here just by myself, the doors bolted and locked, and post shower, just dousing myself in the stuff and spending the rest of the day just floating on the tulles of a cloud, happy as Larry, cut off from the horrors of the world like a cut in cotton wool.
: a full bottle of L’Artisan Parfumeur’s parfum d’ambiance,Mimosa Marin, which is the interior equivalent of the original Mimosa Pour Moi, whose reformulated bottle I have never been happy with ( I used to love the original). This is perfect, and has the drifty baby chick pollen of the first formulation from the nineties – I adore the scent of mimosa – with a slightly oceanic note (but not really….it is delightfully aerated though) and this was the first thing I was saying yes that, definitely, definitely, get the mimosa, get the mimosa, in those closing moments in the shop when the D was desperately trying to hoover everything up into his arms and reach the cashier. I am also wearing it today, and it smells pleasingly airy and light.
Oh yes, a vintage bottle of Diane Von Furstenburg’s Tatiana, a lovely green, beachy white floral in the manner of Alfred Sung’s Sung and Rochas’ Lumière, a seventies/eighties style that I still really admire; all hyacinths and galbanum and gardenia, gorgeous, even if I don’t think I can really get away with it; still, sprayed on a t-shirt on a summer’s day it could be really rather enjoyable, as could something, another perfume that D grabbed for the sake of it called Rêve Voilé by Avon, which smells incredibly good for such a cheap perfume house, beachy and made for Californian sunsets as well.
Oh yes, some Fendi by Fendi, that glorious spiced Italianate classic, which I like on a winter’s day when I am in that more ferocious and uppity state of mind and last, but certainly not least, a very exciting,vintage parfum bottle of
SHOCKING by Elsa Schiaparelli, darling of the surrealists, friend of Dali, and author, or at least originator, of the iconoclastically titled Shocking. Although the top notes have long gone in this bottle, a full 7ml vintage extrait, the body and soul of the perfume remains (unlike a miniature parfum I also once had that had resorted to nothing but mushrooms). This juice, in this bottle, does smell equally fusty, musty and old, but also undeniably erotic. It is still so dark, rich and potent. I don’t know what this says about me, but there is something about say, the unapologetically carnal trio of Dana’s Tabu, Lavin’s My Sin, and Schiaparelli’s Shocking that is just so almost damningly femme fatale and filthy that I feel slightly endangered in some way, as if they are breathing down my neck and coming in for the kill; thrilled, at the thought of long and beautiful fur coats tinged with these perfumes, filled with their nitromusks and civet and the furry anthers of moths and satin underdresses and the newfound freedom of these times when some women said no to dainty white flowers and bathed themselves in the thick, oilpaint tinctures of opulent, dense, unguent-ridden spiced perfumes with balls. I have only just found out, while looking up information about Shocking, that the legendary perfumer Jean Carles, was also the author of Tabu, but that definitely does make sense. Both perfumes have similarities, in the same way that Cabochard, Aromatics Elixir and Aramis do. The perfumer’s signature style underlining them all. In these perfumes’ case, a thick lasciviousness. I do find Tabu unbearable, I will admit. I also, contradictorily,think it is brilliant, with its marron glacés, plum pudding relativity to Caron’s Nuit De Noël – just tripled in strength, and depth, and laden with animalics and a truly fantastic Mysore sandalwood – once, after we had found a bottle of vintage Tabu down the Isezakicho shopping mall, I got Duncan to wear a bit for me as a dare, because it was so utterly out of character and wrong for his self image, and although he did, as expected, absolutely hate it, he loathed it, and couldn’t wait to get it off, the trail of tawdry but beautiful sandalwood that he was giving off behind him as he walked in front of me down the street was so good that I wished I could trick him into wearing again – not that that is ever going to happen. Tabu is so thick and buttery and suggestive to the point of obscenity- it really is the quintessential hooker scent – which I have no objections to whatsover except for the fact that it is so creamily blocked together I find it ashyxiating both physically and mentally, I can’t stand it, really, even though I kind of love it, and it is hard to imagine many people being able to get away with wearing it convincingly now (but if you do beg to differ on this point, please tell me). The Schiaparelli, however, the earlier template, is less filled-in, and less lipidly seamless and splayed out stark naked, there,on the bed. This number is still her in her black, made to measure negligee. Musky, full of patchouli, amber, white honey, sandalwood, civet; a lick of tarragon to twist up the floral absolutes, this is a perfume full of nightime, cigarettes and seduction. You can imagine a woman, beautiful in her way, lying on her bed before going out, touching her inner thighs and intimate places with the stopper from the bottle, laughing to herself at the thought of what might be to come later, the somewhat androgynous but unequivocal sex of it all. A woman in control of herself, between the wars, in that decadent stage just before the fascists took over for a second time, when the balance of decadence and good time debauchery shifted once again, as it is now, towards damning conservatism; the negation of woman as free, public entity; and murderous intolerance.
Still, there she is, right now, in her room, by herself, bathed and tipsy from a glass or two of champagne, negligently applying her perfume to her person, and this woman is perhaps unaware of any of this, of what is about to happen, or whatever as happened before. She is quite simply enjoying her mood, deciding on what she wants to wear, no matter how risqué, quite simply, just because she wants to. Applying her perfume to her own skin, because she desires to: and she loves how the perfume envelopes her, her louche but cleverly constructed and marketed perfume, a liberating dose of accomplice.
She goes out, unattended, unchaperoned; confident in her own body, emanating confidence and sensuality, the traces of stealthy, animal perfume rising up from her occasionally in heavy breathing wisps of anticipation. A woman in control of her own destiny, far from the clutches of the zealots who wish to quell her and bring her to heel to fit their own unreligious, brainwashed and brainwashing dictats. A woman with autonomy and agency, master and mistress of her own body.
Goodness, what a shocking thought.
Vintage Chanel Nº19 soap
Yes, I do think so. I had been saving this beauty for some unspecified future special occasion, but I think this is now going in with me.
It is in the auxiliary products of this perfume that the differences between the vintage and the gutted, debrained reformulation are even more glaringly obvious and damning: the new soap is a flashy yellow citric vetiver thing with an unpleasant undernote I can’t abide and would never buy again (the same with a body cream I got as well that was quite vile).
The original soap, though, is glorious and really beautifully scented: deep, leathery suds combine with vetiver and iris and a touch of the floral green notes up top, forming the perfect layer for the perfume.
In truth, this will be a bloodied, wounded man on crutches trying desperately to salvage some smell dignity in the confines of the disabled hospital toilet but so be it: the savon is so strongly scented that it will tint its surroundings with Chanel, and that is no bad thing.
My personally remixed vintage Chanel Nº19 eau de toilette
In thinking about what perfumes I should be taking into hospital and should have as ‘my smell’ (aside the foul one I will have from lying in my bed all the time and not showering or bathing), it didn’t take me long to settle on this, one of my top three holy grails. Not because I always feel like wearing it, not by any stretch – I go for sweeter, more tropical scents on the whole – but because the vintage is just so good, and so multi-faceted, that I feel it will give off exactly the sillage I want (it is already drenched all over my dressing gown – that’s bath robe to you North Americans) and all the other clothes I am taking.
I believe that this perfume will confer on me some kind of immunity to embarrassment. And the supercilious, Parisian greenness of it will absorb some of the mortification of what I know in advance is going to happen from being The Foreigner in the hospital.
As for the remix, well it was necessary. I acquired the bottle you see here ( LOVE that thick, oblong bottle): a vintage that had quite nice, rich, base notes, and still enough iris to still merit buying it, but it wasn’t quite good enough to wear. I therefore added some bergamot and galbanum essential oils ( I know!) and then varying amounts of other extraits that I have in my collection to turn it into something like my own private parfum de toilette.
It is pretty much perfect now; very green ; irisian, with all the penetrating and lingering vetiver base notes there as well.
This is my hospital scent.
Chanel Nº19 vintage parfum
Because when certain visitors come, I will still need the thicker paint to dab on the wrists.
My personally remixed Guerlain Vetiver Cologne
I know: the arrogance. But I basically know what I am doing. I have yet to do a full review of vintage Guerlain Vetiver, which I truly think was an extremely beautiful, mellow, smoky perfume that was a vital part of the Guerlain canon; emotional, intelligent, crepuscular. One day I will.
This old bottle of cologne from a flea market was given to me half full, slightly turned, but in dry-down, redolent enough of the original I remember so fondly to merit me adding a third of the current eau de toilette (not so bad, really: just as though the original had had some of its most important memories extracted but were still, basically, the same person).
To body it up, I added specially chosen vetiver essential oil for depth; black pepper (in the original notes) to rev it up and add vitality, plus some bergamot and lemon.
I have possibly made it slightly too citric (but then you see it was a cologne), but I basically do love this new reconstructed version of mine. I also think that it won’t clash too much with the Chanel, but will rather add to the Noel Coward charm I hope to cultivate while hospitalized.
My snake skin case of specially selected essential oils
More important than perfume in fact.
With all those germs flying about and the danger of hospital infections so prevalent these days you can bet your bottom dollar that I will be surrounded by an aura of bactericidal essences that smell nice (lemon, bergamot, lavender), soothe the spirits and senses, kill infections before they get anywhere near my person, or are cicatrising agents.
I don’t intend of course to sabotage the doctors’ work, don’t worry, but I know for a fact that thick, viscous, Biblical essences such as myrrh and benzoin, and particularly frankincense, are great wound healers and will be self-administered.
I will use them if I get a chance to have a bath, or else put them in other places on my body in areas not directly connected to the operated area.
Like Lazarus, I will walk again.
In fact, what I was planning (and this might strike you as quite abnormal, somewhat), was to enter the operation theatre bathed in vetiver essential oil; not so much as to interfere or interact with anything, nor to be overtly there on the skin, interrupting the good surgeons’ work, but to have imbibed and macerated myself in it beforehand, for days, like a Hindu yogi.
About twenty years ago I was in Melaka, Malaysia, one of my very first experiences of Asia – and it is a memory that has stayed with me forever.
I was alone, staying with some friends in a business district of Kuala Lumpur, but had then come to this alluring, ancient town for a couple of nights, entranced just wandering around and breathing it all in.
The highlight though was undoubtedly one street, which seemed to be some kind of microcosm of how the world might be today and always if people weren’t so stupid and so full of hatred of difference, and almost unbearably idealistic in retrospect.
There was a Dutch colonial Christian church on the corner in one part of town, and then, when you went down the road a bit, there was a Hindu temple next door to a mosque next door to a Chinese temple, all the sounds and smells comingling to the extent that you could never fully escape your neighbour……….but to me it was a beautiful cacophony.
I actually spent that afternoon recording the sounds on my tape recorder, interviewing people in some kind of naive ecstacy of exotic excitement, felled by the smells and aromas and atmospheres and musics, but one of the most vivid recollections I still have was when I finally went into the Hindu temple and was assailed with the deepest, coolest, almost minted, earthen vetiver that filled every cavity of that space and my head as the holy man, naked save for a loin cloth, sat there in a meditative pose, silent, covered head to toe in vetiver khus: pasted on his body, I just stood there and savoured it, inhaling the roots, lost in the moment and becoming vetiver. It was exquisite.
Thus, sadly bringing you back round to my current Japanese reality……I wanted to replicate that exact sensation by bathing all this week in vetiver essential oil, to the extent that it would just breathe from my pores while I am being operated on (the plant is naturally anti-februge; prevents fever; is bactericidal as well as mellowing down the heart rate, and calming the nerves)….
It would have been perfect, but me being me I overdid it a bit last week with the citrus oils in the bath ( I should have known better; I know which oils suit me and which don’t; I can bathe in bergamot and never have problems – I find it so re-equilibrating as an essence, and emerge lucid and clear, but should have remembered that I can’t tolerate even very small amounts of orange or grapefruit near my skin as I immediatley hive up and come out in red patches. Lemon I thought was different but uh-oh: I hadn’t dispersed the water properly and, shit! I have come up in a big sensitized burn on my right thigh where the oil had collected in concentration, and this week, on top of a hundred other panics, I am now worrying that this might prevent the surgeons from operating (although it is now, thankfully, beginning to fade) .
They were very clear, however, on the fact that I couldn’t catch a cold, as you will recollect from the post from the other day (in the end, just for your information, I decided to stay at home, as the threat of potential viruses outside just assailed my consciousness way too much and I thought it better to relax here: which I have, when I haven’t been sucked into hysteria, usually in the dark hours of the middle of the night): but anyway: this sensitized patch – why couldn’t it have been on a different part of the body?!!!, such bad luck) – seems to be going down now and I don’t want to risk any more sensitization.
I did have a bath yesterday, actually, using the Tasmanian lavender you see in the box (fantastically relaxing!) and I think it has had a positive effect on the patch, but vetiver I don’t know.
But in tribute to that otherworldly Malaysian Indian man, I will have some oil placed strategically in certain private places, just to emit, silently – while under,; but it will not, sadly but sensibly, be the full Melakan fantasy. I wouldn’t want the surgeons in a state of oneiric hypnosis, in any case. They have their work cut out already.
In the snake case you will also notice some lotion, and some vaseline. The latter is lemon-infused lip balm – divine! – just standard vaseline with lemon essential added to it, but it is so uplifting and cheering and germ killing that it is perfect for when I get a visitor or a nurse comes and I want to evince a sudden burst of lemon peel (the effect is almost holographic). I will also need seriously lubed up lips for the anaesthetic as I know that when you come round (I will be under for five and a half hours, yikes), your lips are as dry as dead leaves: I would prefer to begin the proceedings glistening and citrussy than stoically dried out and desiccated.
For skin – because just I don’t do leather face, and take these things seriously, we see in the photograph my home-adultered Shiseido Lait De Beauté, familiar to all friends who have ever come to stay with me who usually end up stealing my moisturizers and taking them home with them.
This is a very effective, but inexpensive lotion (500 yen, or about five dollars) – unscented, to which I add whichever oils suit my skin (and mood) best at any given time. Over time, they have included palmarosa, patchouli, ylang ylang, geranium, neroli (amazing), galbanum (- a recent addition), myrrh, but perhaps most effectively, frankincense, which just soothes the face so beautifully at night and helps you to sleep as well. The only other skin products I use are pure coconut oil – just lather me up like a Thai banana fritter and eat me: you might think it too greasy and pore-clogging, that you would just wake up the next day like a greased up, zit-tastic teenager, but nothing could be further from the truth.
I have a strange intuition about when and when not to moisturize: my skin just tells me not tonight, please, or else it just says slather me in coconut. A more immediate wrinkle eradicator I can’t imagine, the stuff is nature’s dream, and it is well known on The Black Narcissus that coconut is probably my favourite note in all of perfumery anyway so I am quite content to just lie there like a sweet Thai dessert and see rich, oleaginous dreams.
Yes….so this case of goodness will be beside me at all times: I shall be self-dispensing; a drop of sweet marjoram on the tongue when it all gets too much, here, some hyssop oil, as well – one I have never tried before but which is good for bone healing and which smells very strange and intriguing and so I bought it at the shop in Tokyo, Tree Of Life in Harajuku, my favourite haunt for such things: (I also think that essential oils are so instinctive and intuitive; some really suit you, and others don’t, and you know immediately: if you were to replace my selections here, for instance, with my migraine- inducing nemeses : basil, aniseed, petitgrain, sandalwood, pine, helichrysum (immortelle- hell in a bottle!); fir, cinnamon leaf, tea tree (brilliant stuff therapeutically, but I just hate the smell of it so much); carrot seed, cumin, citronella (mosquito horror personified!) and lemongrass (so rasping!) the oils would actually have a detrimental effect on me, despite their proven qualities; be head-splitting and rough, but hyssop…. my body just said yes.
Same as it does with eucalyptus. Oh that stuff is good in the bath….
Some new perfumes
Because I will need something to do and I want to review for you.
This new range, to be launched later this year, is very good…
And then some old familiars:
Roger & Gallet Gingembre Cologne
This, I would say, is the perfect remedy for slovenly piss-in-pyjamas modification: the kind of scent you can just spray on when someone is coming to the door and you want to smell fresh as a daisy.
I love ginger anyway (but not really the essential oil, I forgot to add that one), but this gentle creation is not especially gingery; that note is just there somewhere among the classic cologne notes, that are nevertheless not too classic colonia/cologne a la 4711 or Acqua Di Parma (and which I don’t really like).
No, this is a modern interpretation; clear; uplifting, a touch staid and unexciting, perhaps, but clean, loveable, long-lasting, and good.
Vol De Nuit Cologne
There is no point in taking any orientals with me into hospital. In fact, I am very particular about what perfumes work in what circumstances
(…another aside, just for a moment…………one very surprising thing I learned the other day while undergoing a ‘battery’ of hospital tests, was my blood type…
In Japan, blood types are used in the way we used zodiac signs in the West. There is a deep belief in the differences in people’s characters according to what blood type they are here, even direct prejudice (some people won’t marry someone of the ‘wrong’ type, and it is one of the first questions people apparently ask when dating; many people I have met here in Japan have been very surprised that I didn’t know mine…. but do most westerners?
Type B is apparently considered extremely eccentric and selfish, does its own thing only; O is strong, boorish, headstrong, based in reality; A is boring and careful, conservative, finnickety- the majority of Japanese are proudly A – while AB is considered freakish and odd.
Skyping with my parents last night, I asked them what type they were because I couldnt’ remember if they had ever told me (my mother had lost the records that contained my own type and I have often wondered).
Apparently my dad is a very rare B negative, my mother A. My brother is AB, we don’t know about my sister, and I, it turns out, am A. My Japanese friends were extremely surprised, even horrified. You, A??!!! But you are so not Japanese?!
I agree: I assumed that with my big-bodied aggressivess I might be O, or with my obvious weirdness, B or AB (Duncan is B), but never A…..but then a friend pointed out to me quite rightly that my attitude towards writing (careful, pedantic, if violently spontaneous) and perfume (obsessive, comprehensive) is actually very A)..
Of course, all of this is probably utter bullshit, but then so is the Zodiac, except for the fact that it isn’t – simply because through empirical experience I know that a lot of what is said about the signs is literally true, from my friends, family and other loved ones to my colleagues and students. Who knows: perhaps something about blood types might be true for all we know as well…..
My attitude towards which perfumes work in what circumstances, though, in many ways, is ‘very A’..
I am never going to just spray an oriental perfume onto dirty unwashed skin, for example. Some people don’t think about these perfumed points enough. But if you want to get it right, you have to. Some perfumes go great on skin and clothes no matter what their state (that Gingembre I am taking in with me is a good example). Others, emphatically do not. You have to be clean.
Do you think I will be lying there sweating and seeping on my ‘cot’ and ladling on Bal A Versailles to my seeping sores? God no. I hate that beloved perfume unless I have scrupulously bathed first and added talc in the right weather – for me usually the depths of winter – and then, and only then, is it heaven on earth. On unwashed skin? Skanksville. Grubby. Invasive. I would just be desperate to wash it off, as I would Shalimar or any amber or any vanilla or anything cloying or sweet that just will not go at all with my surroundings. No, they would be vile in hospital.
Vol De Nuit cologne, though.
A thing of beauty is a joy forever, and I fear I will be smelling a tad unsugared in all my lemon and vetivered finery – get bored with it, eventually, so I can imagine a time, a quiet evening on the ward, the old men asleep,when I just wash my hands and arms thoroughly, add some Vol De Nuit cologne, and let my spirits ride a bit…..
This is very different from my treasured parfum, which is by far my favourite incarnation of Night Flight, but I do like it much better than the vintage edt, which is darker, a bit too moody and standoffishly daffodilian.
The cologne, on the other hand, has a tingly, bright-burst beginning like the white of afternoon sunlight, the oriental facets kept effectively at bay until the end of its duration on the skin, when the powdered cremeuese of the classic Vol De Nuit base comes to the forelight. I need this. Just for private moments.
As I do my
Puapuakeni and Poison
These two will not really go with my featured hospital smell identity (but who knows; when D brings in my washed garments after a week or two I might switch and go all Bora Bora – at this time of year I always start craving tropical florals anyway); but even if I don’t, and I just sink into foetid vetiver realness, having these lovelies just there on the side will remind me that one day I am coming out and that my perfume collection will be waiting for me.
This is important.
I don’t know about you, but when I am away for any length of time from home, I really crave my perfumes; I want them, I need them, I have to smell them or just have them next to me by my bed.
And a scent craving is a strange and unusual craving indeed. It’s different from a food one (caffeine, meat, sugar, fat, citrus), gut-driven and physical, base; an alcohol one (psychological); a visual one (sometimes I need to see certain films in my collection, but it’s different), or just an intense craving for cosmopolitan stimulation (I know I will really miss the city when I am cooped up in the hospital), but something more.
With perfume it’s all of these things. It’s psychological yes, but it’s also very much stimulation, and I would also say, physical, to be honest – from the gut, the heart and brain – a very three dimensional experience, something you feel and internalise intensely, even spiritually, not just some random evaporating liquid on the surface of the skin.
In delving back into the past yesterday I found this morning that I wanted to pinpoint more precisely the exact moment when things started to fall more into place for me (I don’t want to give the impression that I am now ‘sorted’ and that everything is hunky dory and spectacular and I lived happily every after: I have no pension, virtually no savings, and have various health issues to boot – more on that anon), but at the same time I can’t deny that in the last few years I have begun to feel significantly more fulfilled and stimulated – and relaxed, funnily – than ever before. Who knows how long this positive period will last: I began the piece yesterday with the seemingly obvious truism that we all have ups and downs, have light periods and dark periods, and I know full well that they will happen again. While this ‘glory-days’, ‘second adolescence’ current epoch lasts though, I can tell you that I am certainly going to make the most of it. It has been a time of unbridled creativity and hilarity for me, sociability and self-fulfillment (making the horror comedy film last year, which will have its première quite soon in an old fifties cinema in the north of Tokyo, was one of the best experiences of my entire life, a truly memorable time that I will never in my lifetime forget. I loved every minute of it).
I think that the one thing I have learned, in recent times, is the utter beauty of having an idea or a concept and then just putting it into action. It sounds so simple, and so obvious, when in fact it is not. How often do we think of something we would like to do but then just dismiss it as stupid, or impossible?
I suppose this enactment of fantasies did begin earlier, with our first big themed dance parties in Yokohama, which drew wild enthusiastic, costumed crowds from both foreigners and Japanese people out for a good time, and whose planning and execution thrilled me to the core. I have never, in all honesty, entirely recovered from the ecstatic excitement I felt at school discos when I was twelve or thirteen: the music, the lights, the seeing friends in a different context, the submersion of it, it was all like a dream to me and it is a feeling that I have wanted to repeat in my life intermittently ever since. Hence our events in various locations through the years here, including The Rite Of Spring, Voodoo, You’ve gotta say yes to another excess, The Taxidermist’s Half Pint (now that was a strange one), and Delicate Delinquents, among many, many others.
A more unusual example of putting ideas directly into action though was when a friend of mine, Denise, and I were watching Luc Besson’s Fifth Element one evening at her apartment, adored the Blue Alien singing Donizetti’s exquisite aria from Lucia Lammermoor, and decided that somehow we would perform it (sadly not in costume: I think the elderly citizens of Kamakura city hall, where we took part in this all day music recital, where the performers paid to be on stage rather than the audience -so you can imagine the general quality – would have been just too flabbergasted and horrified had Denise come on stage actually as the alien, but the fact was, we did perform it: I accompanied her on the piano and she did quite an amazing job considering that she had never had any opera lessons). For me this felt like some kind of advancement in my life, not merely being a passive retainer, but actually doing something.
Somehow I know that when I was just out of university, something like this just could not ever have happened. It just wouldn’t have. I felt paralyzed and overwhelmed by everything, like I had been spat out into the world with nothing to fall back on. I was hollow. I was defensive, reactive, volatile (still am, but more then) and could hardly deal with anything at all. Much as I am obsessed with cinema, one of the true love affairs of my life, the idea that I might actually MAKE a film myself would have been utterly inconceivable. Because how?
Yet this project, Girl Goned, simply came one night from an idea one night that Duncan had when we were watching the brilliant seventies cult film The Wicker Man (set in the northern islands of Scotland among a religious cult community) and he just suddenly started chuckling to himself as he then imagined a pastiche/ parody version of the story, but set in the drag queen cabaret venues of underground Tokyo.
The next thing I knew, he and filmmaker/ performance artist Yukiro, a beautiful Swede we have become very close to, and who often comes round to our house to watch movies, were writing the script, skyping each other laughing their heads off as they did so; actors, camera people, sound people were being assembled with no one charging for their services, just doing it for the sheer love of it, and before you could say Suspiria we were actually making it.
Just being there on the streets of Tokyo early on a Saturday morning with D and Yukiro shouting ACTION! as we freaks performed our stuff without any shooting permits was so exciting (Japan is wonderfully laissez faire and liberal, even permissive in many ways, which you might be surprised to hear considering all the formality I am often talking about……..that, though is the official work space: when you sink into the demi-monde of Tokyo, the pleasure districts such as Asagaya and Koenji, a downtown area of the city we adore (and which yields a lot of vintage perfume, I can tell you!!) you see an entirely different aspect of Japanese life, one in which people, who party as hard as they work, lose themselves in the red-lanterned, glowing, open but secretive streets, night time honeycombs of libation and laughter that you can sink into like a vampire. Hardly anyone batted a weary eyelid.)
Ten years or so ago, all of this would have been unthinkable. I was asking Duncan this morning about when we first got the internet, because it seems to me that all of these positives that I am discussing now, in particular my writing The Black Narcissus, which I love, stem from the fact of being online and connected to people; being able to ‘talk’ to people at the touch of a computer key, when for a while back then I was slowly drifting into an abyss of despair and isolation that was stunting my pleasure receptors and filling me with a vast black lake of self-loathing and emptiness.
The responses to yesterday’s post really amazed me. I had no idea that just writing about one’s personal experiences, even when to me there is nothing especially interesting about them, could generate such reactions. I do feel more inhibited today writing as a result, more self-conscious that I have to produce a ‘Part Two’, and I don’t really know where to start, especially when I don’t consider the source material – my life – to be particularly interesting in the first place.
And why did I suddenly start writing about all this yesterday in any case? Perhaps it is because there is something really looming in my brain, my impending hospitalization on March 21st for six long weeks in a miserable Japanese hospital followed by three months or so more at home for rehabilitation ( I have serious knee problems: I wrote about this three years ago or so, post Sexual Emergency (now that party was a blast) when I seemed to have nothing more serious than a torn meniscus in my left knee. I suppose I have been putting it off and off and trying not to deal with it all, but it now transpires that I have quite serious damage to both legs, zero cartilage in the front of both knees, torn meniscuses, internal bleeding – my left leg is also apparently ‘deformed’ (I have never been called that before!) and in truth, I am now in constant pain. Each step, bone on bone, like the Little Mermaid, is extremely painful, and it can be delayed no longer. I will be having double osteotomies, a nightmarish sounding operation in which my bones will be sawn and cut, my embattled legs rearranged and wedges of some kind inserted. I am too young for full knee replacements apparently (great story: my dad also had double knee replacements, the whole thing is hereditary, was in a wheelchair for a while unable to walk at all, yet a few months after his surgery he was in a dance contest at a hotel shinding in Havana, a fact that never fails to give me hope when I feel myself sliding into grim imaginings and self pity), but it is not going to be easy for me.
The hospital I was originally going to have the surgery at, much nearer my house in Ofuna, is bright, breezy, has great feng shui, and I know I would have been much happier being hospitalized there. However, a man cannot live on aesthetics alone – the surgeon there seemed inexperienced, had never done a double osteotomy before (he said he would ‘have a go’, but that didn’t exactly inspire confidence, and so the whole process was delayed further (agonizing referral letters and delays and obstacles that have driven me to the point of distraction), I am now addicted to painkillers as the condition further deteriorates (right now it is really bad, actually – I can hardly walk, and don’t know how I am going to last until March 21st), but in any case, the surgeon who will be doing my operation is apparently the best in all of Japan and internationally renowned, and so I do feel comparatively safe in his hands.
It’s just that I have turned out to be more of a coward than I thought I was. I am not abnormally afraid of pain (but I am not a masochist either), and I do admit that I lie in bed at night these days really quite afraid of what is going to happen. I am a neurotic individual: I am panicking about everything from not being able to sleep at night (because I won’t be able to : I can only sleep in dark, silent places, not in the chest rattling wheezing of dying, Japanese geriatrics); I am hysterical about what is going to happen in terms of the toilet and smell (already planning my perfuming in GREAT detail: the main scent will be N0 19, which I will be emitting from my person during the operation, but I will also be taking Roger & Gallet’s Gingembre (thanks, Nina), which is a great, generic, trustworthy citrus cologne that you can spray on when you stink (how the hell am I going to wash? I HATE the smell of dirty hair, oh jesus, if any of you have any advice on any of this I would really appreciate it); the thought of shitting in the bed is just…….too unbearable, far worse than the genuine anguish I feel at the idea of waking up alone in a Japanese hospital in agony and unable to move……..just sitting here writing this I can hardly breathe. I wake up at three in the morning in a panic at the thought of being totally immobile and vulnerable, dragging myself across the hospital floor like a pitiful, human slug.
I panic about water, as I have a serious dehydrophobia fixation, worsened after the Great Tohoku Earthquake, when I stood at the wall of the gym I was in, clutching my bottle of cold green tea, thanking god, or whoever, that at least if I was about to be cast down into the rubble (which felt like an authenthic possibility), I would at least be able to stave off death from thirst for a while, which is my absolutely biggest fear in this life, alongside the cold, which I am also quite deeply concerned about. Being naked, like a blue slab of meat as they cut me up in those freezing temperatures…..I worry about not only waking up pulsating in pain but also on the verge of catching pneumonia again. Cold is my mortal enemy…..I can deal with extremes of heat (just call me Burning Bush), I am a fire sign, and worship the sun. But cold, for me, I equate with death. I can’t even imagine how I am going to feel when I wake up after this ordeal and they touch the rehydration gel to my desiccated lips and I throb in excruciation and anaesthetic nausea.
If I wake up, that is, and therein lies the crux. I know this is a ridiculously melodramatic statement to make (moi?), and I know that death on the operating table is very unlikely given that the surgery I am going to have is not supposedly life threatening; aside slightly high blood pressure I am basically healthy, my blood tests usually all come up fine; I am a bit overweight but not obese, I am sound of mind (maybe) and will be in the very best of hands (god I hate that idea, though, of being so helpless; of being manhandled like that against my will, well not against my will, exactly, because I have finally realized that I cannot put off this operation any longer now; he has told me that, and I know it instinctively at this moment: this is the time to do it, but still, that oblivion, that helplessness, the fact that anyone can do what they like with me (there have been some cases, I kid you not, recently, in Yokohama hospitals where some mad killer nurses have murdered their patients by poisoning their drips : no, this is not a story line from Duncan’s crazed Girl Goned but actual fact, but anyway); of course I am not actually expecting to be executed a la Daryl Hannah in Kill Bill, with some sexy nurse with an eyepatch whistling down the ward in killer heels and a lethal injection, but you know what I mean……I know that what I am describing here is commonplace, but I do think it is going to be like a nightmare. The food (yuk! You probably all think I love Japanese food, well yes, I love the food you can get here, but not all of washoku itself, slimy fish heads and seaweed and fermented business served at room temperature……..someone save me, but don’t worry, I have a week after finishing this term before I go into hospital and oh yes mama you had best be assured that there will be a giant, pre-planned rucksack full of essential oils, my essential perfumes, reading matter, and tasty treats like nuts and chocolate treats. Don’t be surprised if I secretly order in a pizza or two as well, though I am sure that that would really get me into trouble.
In any case, ENOUGH. Just thinking about it all is making me shudder, and I wasn’t even going to mention any of this. I am just trying to get to the bottom of why I found it necessary yesterday to start relaying back my life to you in such a way that the majority of people would find it difficult to do (something, in truth, I can’t relate to). Maybe it is that slight fear of not waking up on the operating table (it does happen, I read about someone my age dying in the middle of a standard knee procedure STOP IT STOP IT STOP IT, sorry), but I think it must be this that has made me write all of this up, you know, just in case.
As for the comments put up after yesterday’s post (oh the gorgeous freedom of sitting here in our house in Kamakura right now, sunlight on the balcony, the sound of children playing outside, Duncan in the other room doing final edits on the film (they are trying REALLY hard so that I can be at the première, if possible on March 19th, which is cutting it fine, but I am one of the essential characters (a ‘mute low-life’, according to the script), so yes, Duncan doesn’t let me utter a single word in the film, but you had best believe that I am by FAR the most terrifying entity in that film: in fact, seeing Burning Bush in the finished product kind of scared me: is that really me? I don’t think that you will like it. My epitaph.
Who knows? But as I said, reading the comments yesterday it seemed as if many of you are surprised that I am able to just……express my own ‘story’ on here, that I can just be so ‘honest’ about my own life. Though I was delighted with what you were saying, in a sense, as you seemed to be reading what I wrote with some kind of pleasure, at the same time it makes me wonder if I am not in fact some kind of freak. Is it really that unusual to just relate what is there inside your mind ? Is it emotional pornography? Are we really supposed to just keep things inside ourselves and live out our lives like closed vessels marinading in secrets? How hideous. Of course there are things that are mine alone, that I wouldn’t share with anybody (are there, I wonder?!), and it is true that in the past when I have put up posts that are confessional/personal/ revelational I have felt splayed open and raw and wondering why I had done it in the first place, and even pondered whether I should immediately delete them. I think though, that although my day job is teaching, which I enjoy to a certain point as I love people, and kids (particularly teenagers, who I can relate to because mentally I still am one) and get a lot out of it, at heart, I am probably some kind of artist. It has taken me a long time to realize this, but I literally cannot live without some form of self-expression that touches other people in some way, particularly if it can be beautiful in the process. And that, essentially, is surely what art is. I think it was sublimating this, or not realizing it for so long, that caused me such emotional pain in the past, as though I was trapped or unrealized in some way that I myself was possibly also unaware of.
I can’t believe that I am now going to delve back into my childhood once again but I do think that, as with almost everybody, that precious time in our lives holds the key to everything that we are today; in my own case my need for honesty, and my absolute refusal now and forever more to be anything other than myself (god this all feels so self-indulgent now, and because of all the comments yesterday I am hyper-consciously aware that I do have an audience: yesterday I felt as though I were just writing it all down for myself: now I can feel you, but you brought this on to yourselves, you egged me on, you want me to stand naked here before you so here I go….
If you look at photographs of my brother and I, you can see that he was essentially born melancholic. I like to think that he wouldn’t mind me saying this about him, because it is true. He is a pure and poetic individual who feels everything so keenly; at least as sensitive as I am, but in that heterosexual (sorry to stereotype), Nick Drake, tortured artist way (even though he has a hilarious sense of humour). A brilliant musician – though he himself doesn’t seem to realize it (I was always the lauded pianist in my childhood but he taught himself guitar and other instruments, writes music himself, and is fact incomparably more talented in that regard) he nevertheless, while still loving what he loves, as you can see from those pictures, one of which I put up the other day in my Bohea Boheme review, sees life through a constant mortality-aware, sorrowful, lens.
I, though tortured in that classic Proustian mother’s kiss kind of way, trembling over shadows in my bedroom at night (and I do think that there is nothing more petrifying than childhood: sometimes I was quite passionately nervous and could hardly cope with anything) was essentially more the vibrant, joyous creature, receptive to everything, alive to all my senses, a ‘fairy’ if you like (I played Peter Pan in the school play), and I do see these early years of mine as something inimitably beautiful and happy: playing in the garden, reading books from the library among the rosemary and the pinks, days and days spent playing in the forest with my brother and our friends, delighted to play the piano and have a natural talent for it (up to a point : I was never going to be a concert pianist: I never had the technique nor the will power, just the natural sensitivity); good at school and enjoying it, immersed in my imagination ( I would imagine that I was a warlock, or a black panther), popular but never in any clique – I never have been and cannot be – skipping about, basically as gay as the hills.
And that was the problem. I think with universal human joys and pains we sometimes diminish them because of their very universality, be they the experience childbirth, death, falling in or out of love: all the wrenching human experiences that sear through us and mould us become almost like clichés, standards; everybody or at least half of humanity goes through them, so no matter how painful or joyous they might be, they become like experiential common places. And yet, if you are love sick and heartbroken, it doesn’t matter how many others have gone through it, because in your own world, which is ultimately the only one you will ever know, it really does feel like the end of the world: you might even want to die. The same with bereavement: I have never really been through it, but I know of course that it will one day be coming and I can’t imagine how terrible it is going to feel.
At least a twentieth of this planet, probably much more, more like a tenth or even more than that, also had to go through what I went through as a young child – the petrifying, and I mean petrifying, gradually dawning knowledge that I was a pervert, an invert, a ‘homosexual’, and though there is nothing remotely new or original about any of this, I can’t even put into words how much damage that secret did to my soul in those early years (from about the age of eight) even as I was genuinely happy and loving my childhood simultaneously. I have written about this before, and so feel you must be think yes blah blah blah your coming out story, but you see just the fact of having to ‘come out’ truly makes me white hot with fury because it is so fucking unnecessary in the first place. All this fucking rigmarole (and yes, the swearing is absolutely essential so you can just fuck off to a more conservative and ‘pleasant’ website if you don’t like it), of having to pluck up the ‘courage’ (which is so hard, dear god, that fear of rejection, or in my case possibly even being beaten up or being thrown out or killed as I come from the officially most homophobic town in the entire United Kingdom, Solihull); that downright terror, which lurks within your soul for a decade even as you are the teacher’s pet or the most popular boy in the class with lots of ‘girlfriends’ and you know deep down that if anyone knew the real you, the real you, they would hate you.
Anyway. Suffice it to say, that with the kind of personality I have, despite all of the possible outcomes, I just couldn’t take it any more at the age of eighteen, and even if I was killed, then so fucking be it. I had to emerge from this chrysalid of shame and be myself. Because what is wrong with that?
Aided immensely by Merchant & Ivory’s beautiful and affecting ‘Maurice’ from 1987, the homosexual version of A Room With A View if you like but which literally saved my life and was probably the reason I was so desperate to go to Cambridge – one of the most beautiful places in the world, I still think; so beautiful – it was just like a dream to go there; my heart would just soar at its beauty on a daily basis as I lost myself in literature (oh dear I am actually starting to cry now writing this: I wonder what particular part has set it off?)I don’t feel overtly sad though, more just emotional: lord this is way more, insanely open and honest than even yesterday, isn’t it? I can imagine you just closing your computer lid embarrassed for me here as if I have gone too far or something but fuck it: if I do have a lasting legacy of any meaningful kind it will be in refusing to compromise myself and telling the truth. And the truth is that although I am happier than I have ever been in my lifetime right now – the university department I moved to within my company six years ago was an absolute life changer, the teachers way more interesting, the lessons more enjoyable, no more teaching games to eleven year olds out in the sticks (my tears have dried now, don’t worry), I am really quite enjoying the teaching, I love the writing I do and the friends that I have and the family I have back home, but despite this, I think that I do, still, have an absolute rage against society, any society, that will never be quenched. Like Madonna, the death of whose mother set her off on some kind of endless search for validation, and whose rape on a brownstone balcony in New York and its robbing her of her autonomy set her off on a life time quest to be in control and to be never be told by anyone else ever again what to do (which is why she is such an absolute inspiration for me: no one fires me up the way Ciccone does), I, if on a far smaller scale, feel that is my life’s mission to not let anyone stop me from being who I am, and if possible, to impart that sense of self worth to my students.
It is harder than it perhaps seems, though. It is not just a question of society’s acceptance, but possibly much more. I am not a religious person per se, but I grew up in a basically Christian influenced environment, and the fear that I might go to hell for admitting my desires (so natural, so real to me that it seemed insane that I could be considered a pervert when I had never been perverted by anything : I had felt this way essentially from birth) was a torment that caused me great pain indeed. Thus, in my second year at university (this is the only thing that I have written or am about to write that I am actually embarrassed about), I found myself under the influence of an evangelical Christian who lived in the room next to me in the boarding house I was staying in, some maths students in lycra pants who would constantly be out riding his bicycle (to stave off sexual desire?), but whose manic ‘inner light’ had a certain strange sway over me, and I would be there at night, before a picture of the Virgin, actually trying to pray in the dark for salvation from what I had become…….
Jesus, moving on…..What can I say? How did I get through all of this? Well, through having a relationship with someone for a start, and then through sheer philosophical, intellectual will power and deep thought, and just the fact that I am not an idiot and can see through things, I eventually managed to see the light, coming to the conclusion that if god exists, then god made me (because I am very conscious of not really having changed very much since I was born: of course things have happened, and I have evolved, as we all do, but like a seed becoming a stripling become a tree, I feel that I have been on one continuing trajectory that started from birth and hasn’t been contaminated by ‘immorality’ or perversion (so seriously, fuck Mike Pence and his desire to start conversion therapy for homosexual people: nothing could be more damaging or wrong when it often takes people so damn long to where they are in the first place. A life style choice? Say that to my face and I will punch your fucking lights out.)
But to perfume. Always, I had loved it, from a young boy and the flowers in the garden to the fragrances in my parents’ bedroom, both of whom wore scent on a daily basis and which I would linger and pore over and smell and even wear, until as a teenager around the age of sixteen I started to buy them and wear them myself. What was it about them? Why was I so drawn to them? I think just the sheer, mysterious, unadulterated pleasure of it, the surrounding yourself in something invisible and beautiful yet palpable and real, that four-dimensionalizing aspect of leaving a scent trail behind and of immortalizing memories.
I have been wearing scent on a daily, obsessive basis ever since, times I have great memories of as part of my emancipation, like talismans or an exteriorization of the spirit (because that is what perfume really is, when you think about it: it is making the hidden you open; it is touching a person in a way that you wouldn’t be able to otherwise, entering their body and mind but not as an invasion (unless you are wearing La Vie Est Belle), more as an incitement, or an abstract flirtation that adds to and embellishes your personality.
Through all of the important eras of my life, from junior high school (Armani Pour Homme, Givenchy Xeryus); sixth form college (Chanel Pour Monsieur, Kouros, Givenchy Gentleman) university (Obsession) and my year in Rome (Christian Dior Fahrenheit), through my early years in Japan when I realized that gendered perfuming was bullshit and I embraced all that smelled good to me (Kenzo L’Elephant, Shalimar, No 19, Vol De Nuit), I have worn scent as an armour and as my clothing (I don’t apologize for my relative lack of interest in fashion; for me what I wear refers to my smell, as it means so much more to me). To say that I am and always have been deeply interested in smell would be a grave understatement.
It had never really occurred to me that you could write about perfume, though. I don’t mean shit magazine PR copy like Marie Claire and the like, which as perfume writing is as appealing as an IKEA catalogue. I mean intelligent, descriptive, writing on scent that through words could actually evoke the perfume in question, something that for some reason when I first came across it in John Oakes’ The Book Of Perfumes, which I got at the end of the nineties and devoured repeatedly til it fell apart (flowerly, old school writing, torrid and dramatic but still compelling).
And then I discovered Luca Turin. Helen happened to send me a copy of the original French edition of his original Le Guide, and mon dieu: what can I say, the man changed my life.
At this point, let’s say around 2004 or so, I was still in the old department of my company, travelling all over the place in Kanagawa prefecture to teach rooms of twelve year olds I had no interest in teaching, essentially lost, with no idea what to do in the future, my days filled with something like a heart of darkness which I tried to contain and just get on with my life (because what else can you do); but the arrival of this writing, on perfume, quite honestly truly did blow my mind and revamp my entire neural wiring. Although I couldn’t understand every word of Turin’s wry, sophisticated and often extremely beautiful French, I decided to undertake the translation of as much as I could, for my and other people’s enjoyment, and found that his exquisitely romantic reviews of perfumes such as Chanel’s Bois Des Isles or Cuir De Russie were just so evocative and beautiful that I would just read them over and over again while at work like clandestine love letters.
During this time, as I was discussing with Duncan this morning, we had a dial up internet connection on a crappy computer by some company or other, and it was before Facebook (which I think is one of the most monumental events in human history, but I’ll come to that later) so I wasn’t connected to any communities like I am now and was far far far more isolated and lonely than I had ever been (Duncan works in a high school and gets up at 5:40 every morning and gets home in the evening at a normal time such as 6 or 7: I work in a night time prep school so get there at 2 or 3 and get home at 11pm or even later, so we hardly even see each other from Tuesday to Friday, which now is no problem: I adore my solitude and free time to write or read the New York Times (my love), delivered every day and which I read cover to cover over copious mugs of coffee, but then, it was an entirely different story altogether.
Once I discovered the perfume blogs, though, like Alyssa Harad in ‘Coming To My Senses’, it was, for mw, like a portal to another universe, one that I felt intrinsically drawn to and exhilarated by. Bois De Jasmin, Perfume Smellin’ Things, Perfume Posse, Now Smell This, all the original perfume blogs I just couldn’t get enough of. I would read the reviews I liked over and over again until the words were stuck in my brain. At this stage, it had never really occurred to me that I could do the same myself: in life we sometimes assume that we are incapable of something when actually if we just make a slight effort we can (no, not chemistry and kanji: I stand uncorrected on those two impossibilities in my life).
Having nothing else to do though, having so much time to myself and with virtually nothing there to fill it, one day at work, I just picked up a piece of paper, and although my pen hovered over the surface for quite a while before I actually wrote anything, a few minutes later when I looked back at it I had written my first review – of Mitsouko. Why I chose that one I’m not really sure – perhaps it was the moss, and the being in Japan, but I did feel that something almost monumental had happened.
If you can bear it, to be continued……