We all have good and bad periods in our lives, times when we feel things are right and we can believe in the present and the future, and others when we feel lost. Much of the beginning of the twenty first century was like that for me.
Coming to Japan in 1996 for no other reason than pure escape, even though I had, in fact, virtually zero interest in the country (it was truly a do or die situation for me at that time, it could have been Timbuktu), I went through a period of deep isolation and desolation before beginning to slowly bloom again when Duncan joined me here (we had briefly split up for a time beforehand, at my instigation, in my post-university London desperation).
Japan – alien, bizarre, yet simultaneously unsurprising – took quite a while for me to settle into, but as its pleasures began to take hold, we made friends, and were soon in a drunken gaijin (foreigner) late-twenties bubble, working at low-reputation language schools and watching Japan from the outside while working and partying within it. This was great for a while, even if, as ‘Cambridge Graduates’ – an albatross of expectation that ultimately just makes a young person feel guilty and horrifically underachieving unless they have scaled the career heights and ‘made their mark on the world’, deep down, we both felt unanchored, vaguely embarrassed, and consistently anxious about the future.
I think that unless you have a solid ambition from a young age – to be a doctor, a journalist, a fashion designer, an entrepreneur- and are a liberal arts graduate – in my case so pragmatically specializing in twentieth centry Italian and French literature, with a special focus on existentialism (meaning that I could see through everything and could not believe in the value of anything whatsoever) – upon graduation from those ivory towers you can be really plunged into what is, essentally, a terrifying and all encompassing black hole.
For me it was like drowning. There was literally not a single job in the world that I actually wanted to do. Nothing appealed to me. Of course I realise that this is one of those ‘first world problems’, ‘white privilege’ and all the rest, when half the world doesn’t even have food to eat, but I was me, in my own situation, and my own milieu, and being aware of all that didn’t detract from the sheer angst my lack of direction engendered in me. I could see no future ahead of me. And that can be devastating for a young person.
I have never had any interest whatsoever in business, in just working for companies that make money for executives and stock holders – and the existence of Donald Trump and everything he stands for just vindicates my instincts in this regard – these soulless, evil fucks. And so all the twenty three year old students rushing to get jobs as investment bankers during the so called ‘milk -round’ in the last year of Cambridge, when you are sucked up by the City Machine and all the Big Companies just left me bewildered and at a loss. I was never going to even try doing anything like that. I would literally rather have died. But what else was there? As a language graduate, you could say that the world of the EU (weep, I am still fuming), and diplomacy, or translation, and interpreting, beckoned, but that was about as likely as me transforming one fine morning into a llama. Fakeness, excruciating politeness, the exchange of small talk and schmoozing among well dressed reptiles with underlying motives and blank-faced foreign counterparts and all that diplomatic goo is as alien to me as tilling the bank vaults and advising clients on their portfolios would be; and even translating, which sounded vaguely impressive in a way, seemed to me to be simply transforming another person’s words like a machine. I am too egotistical and selfish for that. I like my own words.
And so what else was there? The media held no appeal. Mainly because anyone I met from the TV, film, art or music sphere just seemed like such pretentious, insecure assholes that I couldn’t bear to spend even a minute with them. I had so many miserable evenings in London I can’t tell you. Publishing, another option, just seemed the same. I considered counselling and psychology for a while but then realized that realistically, I am just too porous and sensitive (I would have absorbed the clients woes too much, like a sponge). I even considered the idea, for a while, grasping at straws, of becoming an aromatherapist – at least closer to my passions. It was just that I didn’t want to ever touch anyone.
One exciting option seemed to be perfumery. There was a chink of light. Perhaps. And so with dreams of perhaps opening a shop one day and becoming world travellers sourcing ingredients, my best friend Helen and I enrolled in the Plymouth University Perfumery diploma course, a long-distance qualification that involved assessing aromatic materials (which I found I was quite good at), essays (the first one, on the essence of perfume itself got me good points), and then, as you might expect, just reams, and reams, and reams, of chemistry (100% impossible). The whole project, which we had been so frothing about the mouth about initially, was dead in the water before you could say opoponax.
It was just not to be. Although I infinitely prefer to associate with positive people – I have no time for negativity in my life any more, because what’s the point?– at the same time, although I deeply respect idealism and optimism in people – I have never had any truck with the ‘anything is possible’ idea personally, particularly when I know that for me, certain things are truly not. To me, rather than pessimism, it is just enlightened, intelligent, realism.
I know myself. I am not an especially modest person – I know what I am good at. But I also know my limitations and what I can’t do. This extended from studying physics at school – so utterly dull it was hard to even be in the classroom let alone concentrate on what was in front of me (one classic punishment, which I think I have related before, was when my teacher at the time, Mrs Lakhani, who I actually liked, and who liked me as well in a bemused kind of way, just said to her wilting, languorous fourteen year old yawning student, oh for god’s sake Neil, just go and water the flowers at the front of the school or something, will you? – cue an embarrassed school boy with a watering can, caught giving the geraniums at the front of that Orwellian building some water by the head teacher – ‘Chapman, what on earth are you doing?’….Mortified, yes, but at least I was close to the flowers, something I have always, since very early childhood, completely and utterly adored, and which could at least allow escape from that hellish, bunsen burner prison – from history, chemistry, mathematics….I had no interest in any of it.
But perfumery without chemistry is like being a fingerless pianist (yes I know you can use your toes, but I was never that resilient or determined: I am a lazy bastard at heart) and even though I knew it was impossible, I did try for a little while. Helen, fearing the chemistry, wisely saw the light earlier than me and gave up immediately. I, stupidly, vainly, tried to learn a few basics about the fundamental elements of our earth, and nature, with a very patient friend of mine living in Japan called Soraiya, who I taught basic French to in return after work in Yokohama cafes, but she quickly had to let me down gently (when I didn’t even know if the sun went round the earth or vice versa), that this probably wasn’t going to work.
It was the same with Japanese kanji. As a supposed linguist, you might think that by now, after two decades in the country, I would be a fluent speaker, someone who can compose haiku in Japanese or write a Tokyo-based novella in the language of my home country. Nothing could be further from the truth. While I can converse in the language fairly well up to a point (if I said to people I had been here four years, say, they might be mildly impressed, but for an expatriate of twenty years my level is shameful), I cannot write a single sentence. Literally. And I knew I never would…
DEFEATIST ! I hear you cry.
I don’t think so. I know my brain. And I respect it. I was born with what I was born with. In Japan the crushingly prevalent idea is that if you try hard enough, you can do anything. I don’t agree. I actually hate that ‘Impossible is nothing’ bullshit. While mind over matter, endeavour, and the power of sheer will have led to remarkable achievements the world over I am sure, if you have ever sat through a four hour mammoth piano recital, the way I have, with the pupils and protegees of my piano teacher all rattling off pieces – Bach, Chopin, Beethoven – of enviable technical proficiency but with no soul – dry, robotic – you will realise that it doesn’t matter how many hours of practice you put it, if you haven’t got it you haven’t got it. God……..it was like being raped with a hammer, actually, and D and I couldn’t take it any longer and just had to go out and get totally smashed, drunk out of our minds, to get back even a modicum of spiritual equilibrium.
And you can forget about Kanji, or the Chinese characters that form a great part of the Japanese language. That was NEVER going to happen. While I can read a katakana menu (wow how impressive), to this day, I am unable to distinguish the hiragana お (o) from あ (a). Even sitting here looking at these two symbols right now, which I have just copied and pasted, and which most foreigners here can memorize in one look, I am still literally unable to distinguish them. I think, thus, that I despite the obvious fact that I am not illiterate (like, say, the president of the United States), I am possibly a little bit dyslexic. The Roman alphabet – fine. I picked up Italian very quickly and was almost fluent within ten months of living there. Japanese takes me about twenty times longer to remember, and I think that this is partly because of the syntax and grammar, which still makes very little sense, but more the way it is written. If I can’t mentally imbibe even the a b c of the language, there is no way in hell that I was ever going to be able to read, let alone write, words like these with their ultra complex kanji, which just look to me like mangled, intricate insects :
躊躇（ちゅう・ちょ） – hesitation
朦朧（もう・ろう） – dim, hazy
憂鬱（ゆう・うつ） – depression
瀟洒（しょう・しゃ） – elegant; trim
You yourself might have different basic abilities and attributes to me, and thus think ah yes, but if you tried, if you really tried, you could probably do it. Er, No, I couldn’t. And I knew this the very first week I was here. I remember staring out at a building opposite from where I was teaching, with ‘words’ like these on the walls, and my brain just said nah, that is never going to happen: and that was that. I gave up upon arrival, but in a way I think that was sensible, because it saved me unnecessary heartache and hassle. I do occasionally think of how beautiful it would be to be able to read Japanese novels in the original, or enter the bizarre world of anime and manga in the same way the Japanese do, to read newspapers in Japanese, but at the same time, not wanting to enter too deeply into this culture is honestly a conscious decision. I retain the right to live like this, to be in Japan, but to not even vaguely attempt to be Japanese. Both D and I like, and insist on, keeping ye olde Nippon, which doesn’t really want us here, at a distance. We want to preserve the floating neon dream, not to understand every insidiously repressive intricacy of the real thing. We are dreamers, and it took us a while to truly accept that. I like not understanding advertising – something I have detested from the bottom of my heart for decades- it has always just instinctively felt like pollution to me, real brain toxin – and Japanese TV commercials are literally unbearable poison to me from every caricatured, racist, sexist, ageist stereotype imaginable, to the saccharine sheer stupidity of it all………..no, this is not anything I need to understand any more than I do already. Let me edit my experience my way.
Perfume and chemistry were the same. It was just not to be. The chemistry was fully impossible. And it always will be. I picked up Luca Turin’s The Secret Of Scent again the other day, thinking it would make good toilet reading, and I was really enjoying the first section about Nombre Noir and Chamade and all the rest of it and how this perfume love started him off on his path, but I had to give up by about page 10 when he started on all the chemistry (I imagine that some of you had exactly the same response).
Frankly darling, it bores me to death.
So there went the perfume dream, anyway, at least in the traditional lab-coated sense. By this time (why am I telling you all of this?) I had left NOVA, a chain of language schools that sank in an explosion of infamy a few years ago with English teachers left starving with no salaries as the whole thing went under, and had immersed myself in a fully Japanese company of preparatory schools where I am the only full time foreign teacher ( I say ‘full time’, when really it is only four days a week, fulfilling perhaps the only ambition I ever had, to have a three day weekend): a decision that on the professional level was definitely the right way to go – real teachers, pedagogically sound, even if the Japanese teachers themselves are treated like slaves – I could never do what they do in a million years – but emotionally, I can’t deny that it was incredibly difficult for me for a long while; making me experience deep and lasting culture shock four years after arriving in the country and having done nothing but play in the seductive, and immersive, gaijin bubble.
I could write an entire book about my experiences of teaching in this company along with all the other things I have lived in this country, and one day would like to, but being the kind of person I am, and being weighed down in what I found an incredibly oppressive environment, so impersonal and rule-bound I found it demoralizing up to the point of dehumanization, I have to say that the start of the millenium really wasn’t the best time of my life.
Why didn’t you just leave? I hear you ask. Yes, but I had no idea what else to do. I didn’t have an MA, the requirement to work at Japanese universities – which, in truth is said to be quite unfulfilling in any case as students in Japan basically use up all their energies in junior high school and high school in cramming endlessly for entrance exams, university being their moratorium, a four year playground where you are essentially guaranteed to graduate and can just party and chill, explore fashion (killed dead the second you leave and get a job when you become a salaryman drone), and live the four years of freedom that you will spend the rest of your life yearning back to, absolutely the definitive honeymoon period for most Japanese, and not a time that anyone takes studying seriously; teachers I know who have jobs like this say that half of the students present at any lecture are asleep at any given time, the rest on their smart phones, and I am such a control freak I know I would find this quite intolerable. I want my students to fully engage with me. But anyway, aside university positions, there were only school jobs with curricula I didn’t want to be bound by, or gabba gabba language schools where you talk to bored housewives and half-dead businessmen and hardly get paid anything, and in my job I have one hundred per cent creative freedom in what I teach and virtually zero interference. Perfect.
Except that I immediately felt so incredibly isolated and alone. Sitting there in that teacher’s room, paranoid and trapped inside my ‘Englishman’s’ head, I eventually started to slide into depression (went to counsellors too to explore some past and current traumas but was told that I was not clinically depressed, but was perhaps suffering from something called ‘depressed mood’). You don’t say. Then September 11th happened and things got way, way blacker and I could hardly see the wood from the trees. I knew things would never be the same again and I felt even worse, floundering. Lost. The culmination of all this was 2002, when my heart was black as tar, I felt deep inside myself that I was instrinscially unloveable, and after flying back to London, came down with a very serious case of pneumonia that saw me hospitalized for eight days, followed by a lengthy recuperation period at my parents’ house that was my own personal ground zero. This was a strange time for me, when I felt adrift and so very mortal, unfulfilled at the molecular level, anxious, and with very little, in truth, my relationship with Duncan aside, to cling to.
Perhaps this is universal, this cultural alienation having such a profound physical effect on the individual. In fact, upon returning to Japan after my convalescence, I remember coming across a novel, the fascinating Foreign Studies by Shusaku Endo, in which the protagonist had had almost precisely the experience I had, just in reverse. I know I have written about all of this somewhere (but I can’t remember where or when), so forgive me if all this repetition of my quite unremarkable life is dull, but this story, which I remember reading in a Starbucks in some Japanese hicksville town on the way to some school near the mountains where I had to teach roomfuls of eleven year olds I didn’t want to teach, blew my mind with its similarities to what I had experienced myself personally as I sat there still feeling frail from my potential brush with death and read of this neurasthenic ‘aesthete’ with literary and artistic pretensions, fulfilling the bohemian obligations of the day by going to live in Paris and ‘live the life’. Unable to shake off his innate Japaneseness and disappointed by the French realities, the monolithic heaviness of the stone buildings (I myself felt initially profoundly internally disturbed by the opposite flimsiness of Japanese architecture), the writer eventually finds himself so alienated by his adopted culture that he withdraws from society and succumbs to pneumonia just like me (the chest and breathing apparatus is definitely the most vulnerable area for sensitive people, no matter where they are from!)
In any case, I had survived, I was back in Japan, yes, but what was to become of me now? Was I simply going to malinger as an English teacher? Oh, the shame and failure. Yes, I enjoyed certain aspects of it, and it wasn’t as though we weren’t having fun or doing anything creative ( I had the odd piano recital, and we still had our themed parties twice a year or so), but at heart I felt dissatisfied. I know now that this was because I wasn’t expressing anything – not really, I wasn’t creating anything, not writing about perfume, not transcending anything – which I now know I do absolutely do need to do, and which, even just writing the Black Narcissus, has saved me in many ways. I live for beauty and pleasure, for the infinite, the beyond, the essence of what we are,and I can’t just passively consume the banal crap that constantly comes our way and be happy. I need more. I can’t and won’t be brainwashed by this crass, capitalistic, simplistic and moronic world because I know that what we are presented with as the ideal, is a lie.
LA VITA E BELLA.
Does any of this rambling chime with anyone? Have you ever come through a period of malcontent and emerged the wiser? When even the ‘friends’ you were associating with for extended periods of time weren’t even making you happy?
During the beginning of the 2000’s I was, in truth, quite often bored with our weekends, not stimulated by the company we were keeping during these years if I am honest – 2002, say, to 2008 (WHEN I WROTE MY FIRST PERFUME REVIEW! MITSOUKO, I BELIEVE), which totally started things in a whole new direction….
People had sometimes said to me over the years that I should write, and I thought that maybe I should, but I could never think of anything to say. A novel was out of the question, as I could never imagine anything from a perspective other than my own (such a self-absorbed creature!) As soon as I felt perfume flowing through my pen nib, though, it was an entirely different matter. It would only be a slight exaggeration to say that it was akin to being reborn.
Around this time, though, we were living a fairly staid and quite ‘grown up’ (so overrated, as a concept!) way of life. A lot of our social occasions involved frankly dull English teachers, quite a lot of overly conventional gay couples and their female friends, where no one ever really said anything interesting and where the conversation was usually grounded in such dull reality (Jesus, conversations about gas bills, ‘property’, visas, the daily ins and outs of schools, the price of fish, I was bored out of my skull). I like eccentric people, individuals, alive, real, vital; those that might have been hurt but have put it behind them, people who revel in the beauty of life and the world and know instinctively not to talk about the realia of daily and all the tedious rubbish that can bog us down. Those who can see beyond all that. Beyond their bank accounts.
Now, at this time of my life, mid-forties (easily the best, despite some problems – but then who has none of those? – I think we would both quite honestly say that; both professionally fulfilling, but also artistically, socially often quite frankly thrilling), I can hardly imagine being so mired in, as I often was before, in what I superciliously, and quite snobbishly sometimes refer to as the ‘quotidian mould’….
You know, I think I should stop here. This piece was supposed to be about something different entirely – I don’t know where all this retrospection has come from. Perhaps I just needed to say it. I don’t know.
I came across some old notebooks the other day in a drawer – notes I had taken on perfumes while out and about in Paris, London, Berlin and other places (there are so many reviews I have never completed or put up on this blog), and I thought that, for a change, rather than full-fleshed perfume reviews it might be amusing to put some of them up for your casual perusal. Often just one liners or quips for later reviews that never happened, but which sometimes say all I have to say on the matter. Some of them amused me. Some of them were quite pleasingly succinct. And the more perfume reviews, I say, the better. I have written so much on perfume already on The Black Narcissus, some pieces pored over for days, the majority just splurged out and put up immediately, but I want to keep writing more.
I will continue this confessional later.