The perils of editing a post on your phone on the bus.
The perils of editing a post on your phone on the bus.
‘IN THE MIDDLE of the journey of our life, I came to myself, in a dark wood, where the direct way was lost. It is a hard thing to speak of: how wild, harsh and impenetrable that wood was, so that thinking of it recreates the fear. It is scarcely less bitter than death: but, in order to tell of the good that I found there, I must tell of the other things I saw there….’
I always think of Dante’s Divine Comedy when I think of Alpona. Like the opening canto of the Inferno, in which Dante Alighieri finds himself awakening in the midst of a dark green canopy of trees, Alpona, though ostensibly a citrus chypre, has something inchoate, resinous; boscous, as though one were being transported through a temporal portal into a new, but vaguely terrifying, world.
The effect is achieved with a highly unusual combining of accords that are most inventive. Most present to the nose is the deep essential oil of the green bitter orange, its oil glands piqued and pressed and accentuated with furtherings of grapefruit rind and thyme, unsweetened and verdurous, leading down dark, umbrous paths of forested pine trees, dry myrrh; santal, cedarwood, earthen patchouli and rich, Ernst Daltroff murmurings of oakmoss.
Alpona is a most peculiar and fascinating perfume. And I can think of nothing else that remotely resembles it. Once the base notes come into play, with their, soft, poisonous caress of what almost smells like bitter almonds (a strange note of raisin also making its unusual presence known), the scent becomes more knowing, comforting: a tree shaded, fir-needling papousse. But Alpona, perhaps Caron’s most impenetrable and ambiguously androgynous perfume, never really lets its ultimate intentions be known.
My mother’s perfume, and in my opinion a late modern masterpiece.
Released in 1976, Jean Claude Ellena’s uncharacteristically neo-classical ‘First’ took on the classic aldehydic floral, but maximised, reordered, and fresh-orchestered it with a gorgeously lush, green jasminesque bouquet centered principally on roses and jasmine – not just one, but three varietals – taking all the best cues from les grandes aldehydés but just adding more of everything (orchid, muguet, carnation, hyacinth, and tuberose in dazzling profusion). A quite brilliant creation was the result, irrepressible and magnetic, with extra lift and vitality in the top notes given in the the top notes of blackcurrant bud cassis, (the first perfume to use this note, hence the name); peach, mandarin, and a sharp, green-leafed kick of raspberry.
In pristine form, this is a very beautiful scent – vivacious and extrovert, yet with gentler strokes of introversion that lie within the soul of the perfume like the silk lining of a beautifully tailored coat: a feminine duality that makes the perfume so fully rounded. Quietly lingering, the perfume dies down later to an understated, yet sensuous, accord of vetiver, honey and musk.
For me, always an essential part of the pantheon.
Ps. Happy Birthday x
A snowy vetiver vanilla drenched in a mandarin scintillation of tuberose and stephanotis, lucent, champagne aldehydes, and soft, dressed-to-kill murmurings of balsams and amber, Caron’s Nocturnes, in its original vintage form, is a beautifully balanced perfume both in olfactory terms and in character.
While the orange-fused jasmines, vivacious and alive, touched naively with glinting sharp lily greens, do at first make the fragrance an ostensibly shoulder-bared extrovert – gorgeous, delicious, beautifully turned out in black satin and white ruffles and quite ‘perfumey’ – there is none of the blaring, over-sugared American eighties about this ultimately delicate Parisian creation.
Rather, there are more internalizing shadows; those contradictory crepuscular memories, that rise up subconsciously within her; a netherworld, surreal, and quiet introversion, that gives Nocturnes her rather precious, but in my view quite apposite, name.
The first time I discovered this perfume – along with Infini probably the Caron I have worn the most (and which ultimately probably suits me the best: the base notes are really quite nice on me), was in a boxed, miniature eau de toilette that I was thrilled to pick up at a flea market. I had seen the bottle before in perfume books and had always coveted it, but rather unimaginatively, and overly literalist of me, when I actually wore the scent for the very first time, it was when literally performing some Nocturnes, and in the evening, at a piano recital.
The soft harmony of the blend – classicist, dreamy, but not showy, in style and packaging more akin to the twenties of Les Ballets Russes than the depths of the Cold War – was nonetheless, despite my obviousness, quite perfect for the ambience that I was in. The chiaroscuro of the stage lights and the darkness surrounding us; the white of my shirt cuffs somewhat implicated and succumbed to in the sweet, clandestine dabs of my scent; ascending with my body heat, previously unused and unopened, boxed for decades until rediscovered, melded soulfully, and undisturbed, (and internally), with the music.
Unfairly maligned and scorned by several a perfume critic, Nocturnes is in fact a very beautiful perfume in my book, and for me the very the apex of the aldehydic; the mandarin/ orange/tuberose/stephanotis infusion shorn of the more fusty, moss-laden träumerei that make other perfumes of the type, while perhaps more exquisite and ‘artful’, feel more touching, poetic, but familialy melancholic.
Nocturnes is not ‘moving’. The perfume is far more knowing, and self-insulated. Shimmering, but secure. Sensuous, but not ‘erotic’. Gentle, and romantic, certainly, but undeterred – and with a frisk, gleaming core.
I love it.
Although most of our physical and emotional energy has recently been sucked up by the demands of the school new term on top of the exhausting (but marvellous) complications of making a sumptuous and ridiculous comedy horror movie up in Tokyo, there are still times when a relaxed and quieter weekend here in Kamakura are what the doctor ordered. The other weekend was just that: a Saturday spent just pottering about at home, and the Sunday a walk down into the small but ancient capital of which we are so fortunate to be residents.
I had noticed a small bottle of scent that I had somehow become oblivious to. I suppose there are so many perfumes just lying around in various nooks and corners of the house that I sometimes just overlook them. This one, though, I didn’t even realize I had: an extrait sample bottle of Hové Parfumeur’s Pirates’ Gold, that I had received, along with Spanish Moss (now where has that one got to?) when I bought the delightful Vetiver and Plage d’été from that glorious shop in New Orleans back on New Years Eve, 2015.
That city still haunts us and we want to return. This time, in summer perhaps, to drench up the heat and the atmosphere even more – I don’t mind how sweltering it gets; it couldn’t be any hotter or more humid than Japan is in August and we can both handle it fine – there was just something about that place; so spirit-filled and weird, that I think we both have ‘Southern Gothic’ now permanently infiltrated as part of our psychic bloodstream.
I had just been reading Daphne DuMaurier’s page turner Jamaica Inn (1936), a surprisingly violent but very exciting thriller set in Cornwall about pirates and all manner of plundering, murdering and generally fiendish devil-doing, and so the sudden sighting of Pirates’ Gold, a small bottle standing on some furniture in the piano room, seemed opportune. Prising open the lid (I don’t think I had ever smelled it, even though it had been there for over a year) I was greeted with a warm, dense, rich and golden smell of aldehydes and spice; of leather and old-fashioned hunk papa and thought to myself yes, this refulgent specimen might make a very nice Sunday afternoon scent for the D – I’ll get him to try it when we go out.
And he did. It was glorious on him, (he now keeps the little bottle tucked inside the change pocket of his wallet, which was scented by me with pure patchouli oil and gets people swooning when it is opened; you can see pupils slightly dilating when he gets his money out to pay), especially when then pared, later, with a dose of vintage Amouage Gold Man, a bottle of which is available at a Kamakura antiques shop I frequent for 20,000 yen (about 200 dollars, but she says that it would have originally cost about 100,000; this is a boxed set with soap in the almost ridicuously adorned gold Arabic bottle) and which she allowed us to spray on Duncan even though I wasn’t planning to actually buy it. I think I have bought enough things from her now that she knows that I can be trusted and that when it comes to perfume, I am the real deal.
We went to a Turkish restaurant. The food in Japan, whatever you eat, is always high quality. Whether you are an aficionado of washoku traditional Japanese cuisine or not ( and I am not, on the whole, I like about half of it), whatever you eat is delicious, fresh and aeons better than anything you can get back home or in the majority of other countries. The French bread is as good as that in Paris, the Chinese food unbelievable, even cheap, basic Japanese eateries incredibly well made and good value, and this is why eating out here in this country is always such a pleasure. The simple fact is that a mediocre establishment just won’t get any customers (as food is basically life here in this culture, to an extent that annoys me if I am truthful), and so to survive, you have to be good and incontrovertibly oishii (delicious).
And so it was. But what was stimulating my senses far more than the delectable beef in yoghurt and tomato sauce that I was eating along with some very fresh and piquant meze was the smell, from across the table, of Duncan’s combined gold. Amouage is an aldehydic, floral, and very animalic sandalwood, resplendent and regal, that wasn’t quite his actual cup of tea for its rosy, almost ruinous sourness, but which I can tell you from my end where I was sitting, smelled very erotic (was it the civet, the rock rose, the glorious dryness of the blend, whose tenacity was getting on his nerves, particularly when mingling with the male repleteness of the Pirate?) I don’t know. But what I do know was that it made me realize quite profoundly how little perfume is consciously and intelligently used these days as a purposeful object of desire: that a well chosen scent selection can be a genuinely seductive swirl of odours that discombulate the senses and scythe effortlessly through the resistance of the rational; that the inhalation of a beautifully made perfume emanating from the body of a human being can root you in a moment of sensory perception that has nothing to do with politics or logic or the everyday and for a few seconds at least can plunge you into something that feels like eternity.
The texture and the heft, the dense thickness of these scents with their varying layers of wood and ambered perception then got me dreaming back to Mexico City. We went there about ten years ago before attending a friend’s wedding down south in Guadalajara, and I still remember the joy, after the endless journey from Japan, of waking up in such an unfamiliar – and for a British person living in Japan – very exotic location, in our hotel room, and the pleasure of unpacking and taking out the new perfumes I had brought with me. All perfume lovers know this feeling. Yes, you have your essential fragrances with you in your suitcase that you know you will wear sooner or later, once you are a few days into your vacation. But what a thrill to arrive in a brand new place and after your first shower of that day to apply something you have never even tried before, a heady collaboration of sense and temporality as the perfume fuses with the sensations you are experiencing as you head out the door and let the new environment just wash over you. I remember on that sun-filled August morning I was wearing Yerabate by Lorenzo Villoresi, a lovely hay-like green aromatic citrus that was perfect with my morning coffee, but then as the evening wore on I took out from my pocket the vial of Habanita parfum that I had got from Les Senteurs on Elizabeth Street, London, and which I had saved until this sunset moment, and wore like a cloak.
The experience of both Golds on Duncan somehow suddenly caterpulted me back to this first wearing of Habanita as we recklessly explored all neighbourhoods of Mexico City, later that evening and night, heedless as to which parts might be more dangerous than others ( if this was even true) my tobacco-fused vetiver vanilla, dark and a little bit dastardly, the perfect accompaniment. And on that Sunday in Kamakura, as we sat in the Turkish restaurant by a window overlooking the main town square, my smell brain had strangely brought it back to life so completely I found that I was craving it (anyone else out there love Habanita?): that elegant fusion of smoky, sinewy richness that was so ripe, and alluring, in that new and thrilling Latin context.
In my view, perfume does not need to be just this tame, thoughtless afterthought that it is for the majority of people who just wear any old cheap commercial rubbish that has no spirit or tangible greatness. It can flood the sky and the air all around you, be the colour that cradles your brain and your day as you three dimensionalize what you are living with sight, and sound, and the memory of smell. With perfumes this sensual and rich, created by knowing perfumers who have perfected their art and filled their languid liquids with intelligence, sensuality and poetry, it can be an anchor.
Like its legendary sibling Chanel N° 5, N° 22 is classified as a floral aldehydic, and the two scents, created in perfumery’s Golden Age, are considered to be closely related. But where Chanel’s glamorous icon, still beautiful after ninety years in production, is a scintillation of champagne aldehydes, roses, and jasmine – a caress of timeless, confident femininity – her sister, the sweet, opalesque N° 22, is a very different, more plaintive creature: perfumer Ernst Beaux’s masterful dualism of warmth and cold; of wistfulness and optimism. A slow repository of calm, like a dream of white flowers falling softly from a riverbank tree on a passing swan’s down.
The perfume opens on an iridescent flourish of aldehydes and white summer flowers: orange blossom, lilac, tuberose, ylang ylang, white roses, and a sweet, powdery orchid; the bubble-bath fresh, bright aldehydes adding strength and light. This heady opening will not be please everybody, and N° 22 has the assiduous tenacity of a prima ballerina: it is, in fact, one of the most long-lasting perfumes I own – even in the deliciously delicate vintage eau de cologne, it lingers, beautifully, for over twelve hours – longer, even, than some extraits. With such a melodiously sweet opening to the scent, it might seem counterintuitive, then, to say that this perfume is thought to be suitable as a masculine, and has something of a cult following in that regard. But this is where the true artistry of the perfume is revealed. The gradation from the opening of elated flower essences, to the gentle, reflective, base is cool and poised, and perfectly calibrated; the final accord on the skin an unexpected delight: a grey, smoked incense over vetiver, and a sensitive embrace of dusted vanilla. It is a statuesque note of cold white stone that is fused to the main floral theme in absolute balance.
It is this unassailable heart that I love in N° 22. It is a meltingly gorgeous smell that I choose to wear when alone, or to close myself off from the world. For me it is the ideal scented soundtrack to days of dreaming, just existing. A far more profound creature than the exuberant N° 5: tranquil, calming, with exquisite inner resolve.
The thing about Complice is the bottle – possibly the most exquisite I’ve ever seen and held in my hand but never actually owned: a pleasurably weighty and luxurious glass flacon labelled in a flourishing Art Deco script and an elaborately cut glass headdress that rests on top like a nuptial coronet.
The scent itself though – rare, especially in the pristine vintage form I encountered it in once – also has something, despite its familiarity (the more you encounter old perfumes you realize that they too often had a ‘generic’ nature to them in the way that the current scents do: there were a lot of copy-cat, ‘generally pretty’ floral aldehyes about: not every old perfume was especially distinctive or an olfactory masterpiece).
Complice is one of these lady-like, filigréed Parisian florals, with the light, silk foulard of green and spice we’ve experienced many times before in perfumes such as the more idiosyncratic L’Air Du Temps, typical, delicate, yet affecting scents that once breathed their incorrigible elegance on air of the streets of Paris like soft, unravelling secrets. Yes, it cannot be denied that the Complice’s flacon is perhaps more memorable than its delicately forlorn contents of musk and narcissus: its exhalations of peach skins, lilacs and cold, powdered orris. But there is still, once the top note aldehydes fade, an untouchable aspect within the classically constructed blend that makes it appealing – something papery, white and pristine, like the cool breath of February snowdrops.