Category Archives: Incense


At night I often sleep clutching a bottle of frankincense oil in my right hand. A reflex perhaps from when I was a baby, a clenched fist – the tucked thick glass of the essence fits perfectly into my hand and is comforting : pale streams of olibanum dematerialising into my palm.

Whenever I think of this essential oil, oddly perhaps, I think of Boy George. Known to wear pure frankincense as a perfume, the singer of Culture Club and a personal icon from my childhood has, despite his litanies of controversy over the years, always, like Madonna, been fascinated by spirituality, incorporating visual and lyrical religious themes into his work from the outset, particularly in his excellent 90’s incarnation as the singer of Jesus Love You.

A bizarre incident from ten years ago or so confirms this. A Greek Orthodox Church representative, Bishop Porfyrios, was apparently sat one evening at home, watching a BBC documentary on Boy George (as you do), when he suddenly spotted, to his astonishment, hung on the pop star’s living room wall, a stolen painted icon of The Jesus Christ of Pantokrator, looted forty years ago (- not by Boy George, naughty as he always was) from the church of Charalambos in Neo Chorio-Kythreas in northern Cyprus. Startled, he immediately set about contacting the former George O’Dowd through his Cypriot composer friend John Themis – and the precious artefact, without contention, was promptly returned to its original source. According to a legal document published by the University of Geneva, ‘during a personal meeting between the singer and the bishop, appropriate certifications for the ownership of the icon by the Church Of Cyprus were presented to Boy George and both parties orally agreed to a settlement’.

When I worked in the leafy, ultra wealthy area of Hampstead, North London, in the mid-nineties, I used to sometimes deliberately walk past Boy George’s house on my way to the Heath back home – noting wistfully and nostalgically all the graffiti and chalked kisses on the walls scribbled outside the house from still obsessed fans (Japanese particularly – he was a superstar a megastar, here; worshipped by screaming stadia of young teenage girls who fell in love with his kabuki androgyny) and reigniting my obsessional adolescent pop enthusiasms in my bedroom when I would play both Culture Club and Dead Or Alive on repeat and do pastel paintings of both lead singers – I went to their concerts, out of my mind with excitement, shrieking hysterically with female friends from school (and for Pete Burns even wearing an eyepatch as he did in Spin Me Round): I even once somehow actually persuaded my dad to go in costume as Boy George – a combination of the Victims sleeve – see top – and the Miss Me Blind/It’s A Miracle cover – below – for a fancy dress party where his colleagues and acquaintances were quite horrified by his camp mutation into the Karma Chameleon, but where I was, obviously, the reverse and rather ecstatic.

Keeping it in the family, another interesting Culture Club anecdote: : one evening in 90’s London, the very same Boy George was giving unambiguously come-thither bedroom eyes to my brother (a sound engineer/ mixer at clubs in London) when he was guest star DJing there and Greg was working his graphic equalizers ; flirting with him outrageously and trying to take him home – to no avail. I was very jealous – not that I could ever see George that way; to me he is more a rebellious instigator, a gorgeous singer, and a bitch-tongued melodicist who loves or loved the limelight and who I looked up to because he was just so out there, ‘gender bending’ along with the divine Annie Lennox and others of the period and almost terrifying when he first appeared on Top Of The Pops singing Do You Really Want To Hurt Me?…. Like other icons – David Bowie, Bjork, Prince, Kate Bush, Lady Gaga – I could never see him as a sexual being (to me they are more like extra terrestrials and he was more like Mother Theresa). I would have loved to have swapped places with my brother through, to have the opportunity to meet and chat with the Church Of The Poison Mind, to tell him what we meant to me, perched on a leather banquette in the venue with a couple of drinks, if not necessarily – as he was apparently hoping with mon frère – in the sack.

George receiving the gift of an icon in exchange for a bigger one.

But back to frankincense.

Saint George

Like the man himself, at night I sometimes put some frankincense essential oil on my wrists (in my case for sedation purposes – it changes the mental calibration), but there is always also a medicinal rush of terpenes too sharp on the skin at first, transposing to more spectral octaves only a few hours later, when the smell has a hallowed purity to it that makes you understand why it is vital to the rituals of so many world religions. It really is a kind of sanctuary.

As a perfume though, it doesn’t quite cut it. Serenity notwithstanding, unlike patchouli, vetiver or sandalwood, it is just too volatile and vaporous – always rushing its way towards the heavens. To be worn aesthetically, for me it needs to be fixed with other materials to do it justice, to anchor it more in the real world. I like how the substance is handled in the majority of the best ecclesiastical niche incense perfumes on the market, particularly those by Filippo Sorcinelli, who treats frankincense quite beautifully, with an almost masochistic, devotional transparency: I can also enjoy it though in much more secular ‘oriental’ settings, sweetened with amber or vanilla. Goutal’s Encens Flamboyant was always compelling to me but a little too harsh and burnt among the sweet embers of the crystals; scents like Heeley Cardinal a little too self serious. More sugared, and gentle frankincense perfumes include the lovely Baiser De Florence by Ella K – heliotroped and fluffy, eminently wearable, and the rich, crimson cushioned frankincense-amber that is Herve Gamb’s wonderfully simple Rouge Cardinal, one of the best in the genre. Now, another delightful addition to the frankincensian canon, (finally, he gets to the perfume, exclaim the billowing readers) is Encens Suave, by Matiere Premiere.

What is so nice about this extremely wearable perfume is the central note of Somalia Resin Incense – beautifully clear and balanced in terms of translucence and radiation and always at the core of the scent throughout – muffled ethereally with an interesting note of ‘Venezuelan Coffee Extraction’ Andalusian labdanum absolute, and a steadily sweetening but nicely tempered base accord of benzoin absolute from Laos and vanilla absolute from Madagascar ( a real ‘culture club,’ in other words – boom boom ). The frankincense stays throughout, though, like a jewel in the centre of a gold ring, even as the benzoin, ever so slowly – on my skin at least – I wore this last night – starts to dominate the whole. By morning, rather than comfortably ghostly and resinous, it was much more vanillic and sexy – probably more like the church choir’s floozy. The point is, though, that there were no cracks in the development, no gaps – all was contiguous and smooth and expertly blended. In other words, whether you take to this particular frankincense will depend entirely on your tolerance/addiction to the benzoin and vanilla – D was loving this on me last night I have to say and I also found it very pleasurable – but which at times take on an accent that is redolent of Prada Candy ( – if it was doing Holy Communion).

The Boy aged 9.


Filed under Incense










Nefertiti is independent perfumer Shawn Mayer’s tribute to/ interpretation of Miles Davis’ 1968 ‘post-bop’ album Nefertiti – a record I am unfamiliar with ( I am not a jazz buff, nor a Davis collector, even if I love Kind Of Blue, the psychedelic freak funk of On The Corner and Bitches Brew,  and in particular,, the exquisite Sketches Of Spain). I can’t comment on any aural/olfactory similarities.











For me, the perfume – a strange, cavernous, and mysterious scent, musty, subdued, cool and green, with notes of kyphi incense, ‘jazz cigarette’, oud, musk, vetiver, a lingering heart of immortelle absolute ( a note I am never comfortable with, too sweet and medicinal); jasmine, and, in the opening accord based on the unique perfume that the queen Nefertiti herself is said to have worn – orchid leaf and honey  –   is a cool and wreathing, enigmatic oddity that rather than the pioneering brilliance of the experimentalist Miles Davis, puts me more in mind of a day I once spent at the Altes Museum in Berlin a decade ago, one of the institutions on the ‘Museum Island’  that controversially houses perhaps the most fascinating and mesmerizing artwork I have ever seen : the bust of Nefertiti created by Egyptian sculptor Thutmose circa 1345 BC.












Encased in glass, in a black space by itself, I was utterly stunned by the eerie, pulsating life force this work exhibited; a magnetic pull that felt like magic. This was a physical sensation of alarm, vulnerability and fascination simultaneously; my heart racing as though it were knowingly casting a spell on me. There was a power. I would keep encircling the statue,  from back to front, unable to tear myself away.












The pictures here do not remotely do this creation justice. The reality is both much smaller, slender – yet also bigger. Commanding. In fact, when the archaeologist Ludwig Borchardt came across the perfectly preserved bust in an ancient craftsman’s underground chamber in 1912 , he was so overcome by its life force, commenting, as he held it in his hands, that  ‘it is ALIVE. It cannot be described in words. It must be seen’.






The Nefertiti bust is pictured during a press preview of the exhibition 'In The Light Of Amarna' at the Neues Museum in Berlin






Maher Olfactive’s perfume is of course not as bewitching nor compelling as this magnificent work of art. Nothing could be. But it does, I find, also plunge you straight into a different sphere and shadowed headspace, like the airless darkness, the hushed intrigue you often experience as you pass through the atrium of a museum and move through to the exhibits. The perfume has its own peculiar, resinous glow that in the gentle, persistent, if quite eloquent and melancholic base is almost redolent of old Christian Diors such as Diorling –  even Rochas’ Mystère.










A curiosity.


























Filed under Incense










Sometimes you must hide your partner’s perfume. Confiscate it so it can’t be worn. This is something I had to do recently when D had been overdoing his Nebbia Spessa, which I bought him for his birthday and which seems to be his favourite perfume now but which I simply cannot for the life of me tolerate in this cold weather, when it makes me feel as if I were being whipped by cruel,  iced ocean winds next to the desolate rocks of the Japan Sea. The scent – though brilliant – is a fully fledged marine ozonic: algaed, and sea herbed, and god knows what else (krill? plankton?) ; bracing, saline, complex, quite mesmerising, but it is also a very intense parfum extrait and is probably the strongest perfume I have ever known. Three sprays of it the other night (about eight hours after application) were killing me in the hotel that we were staying in : I could hardly breathe. A bit like drowning. So no – this one is staying out of current circulation and is going to have to wait until the broiling heat of August I am afraid, when it will cut through the air like a blade of sea grass under a salt blue sky and serve its original purpose. But there will be no Nebbia Spessa this Christmas.






What instead I would like to be smelling him in is Comme Des Garcons’ limited edition Beads, which is a collector’s edition of the original CdG 2 from 1999 by Mark Buxton, housed in a very appealing, shiny magenta design that fits in the hand and looks cute even if you don’t wear it (I picked it up at a recycle shop for very little a few months ago, the way I buy most of my perfumes). I was slightly confounded at first by the smell of it: typically obtuse and deliberately weird as you would expect from this house – designed to smell principally of Japanese calligraphic ink: a luminescent, aldehydic sheen; Chinese cedar, magnolia, mandarin and juniper among other synthetic details. This stage of the perfume is odd, to say the least. I move away from the wrist,  keep it pointillistic (I prefer the mirage, from a distance.) So fresh, but so obviously ‘man-made’ – there is no smell remotely like this in nature and I always think :  ‘Is that really how I want him to smell? Can I take this fantasma all day?’ And yet………later on, as the notes of the scent evolve into his skin – good lord – I think this might honestly be the most swoony thing he has ever worn. It makes my heart melt. Cushion. Like curling up into a ball. A cat by the fire. There is a goodness to the scent, a trustability and sensuousness as it softens into the most gorgeous, lingering balsamic incense – an ambered labdanum,  and just the right impression of animalic musk in the perfume found in the base of the highest quality Japanese coil incense. It is this, where senses and cerebrality are coupled; you are lifted off the ground, beyond banality and into your own mind and inner space, that I love in this tender perfume full of light that will most certainly be requested over the Yuletide break. Yes. Beads for Christmas please. 







Another hazy maze of powdered richness I picked up cheaply the other day while doing the rounds in the Yokohama thrift stores was Caron’s much vaunted cult perfume Parfum Sacre (in reformulated eau de parfum), but what an emotional perfume nevertheless. Not having had any access to Caron perfumes at the time of its release in 1991 when I was still a university student, the first time I ever came across this curious anachronism was on a shelf in a perfume shop in Kamakura, back when pharmacies still bothered with recent perfume releases, and I remember picking it up and smelling it and thinking wooooh, this is a fulsome lady,  who she? ; so big; dramatic, operatically emotional but hidden under the guise of religiosity; genuinely enigmatic and affecting, if simultaneously slightly off-putting (like a great mwah mwah lipstick kissing diva of giant proportions who keeps mussing your hair and squashing you inadvertently with her boundless cleavage while swinging her rosary on the way to a baptism). I do remember that this perfume glowed, though; it was as if the perfume were alive. Throbbing, within itself. Had secrets to tell. Relentlessly. And I don’t know the precise release date of this bottle of Parfum Sacre I now own, but I can tell that to some extent it has lost some of that original synergy, which was unmistakeable. And yet: even in this iteration this is still something of a gorgeous scent that perturbs the emotions with its heart of purring myrrh, and musked, Damask roses, studded with peppercorns; swathed in old-fashioned  aldehydes, cinnamon, clove, and vanilla . I have been wearing it around the house these last few days; spraying it on my bedclothes at night as it strikes me as so mollifying , particularly as the temperatures are dropping outside; each time I smell it I get taken to a different place. I shall squirrel it away lovingly in the depths of my finest bedroom wooden closet for special purposes, perhaps save it just for this time of year (like Nuit De Noel). I am not sure if would ever actually wear Parfum Sacre out of the house though: I would feel as though I were endowed, unwillingly, with great strapped down metaphysical breasts, an embonpoint stretching the limits of an angora sweater to its maximum capacity before bursting open like a Niki de Saint Phalle under the blue, star studded sky (she closed her eyes and her head filled with stars), which is not a look that I am necessarily going for. Hail Mary, though, that Caron still make this kind of thing : Gina Lollobrigida curled up asleep, tight, on the seat of a Catholic confessional.






Filed under boobs, Incense

‘Those are pearls that were his eyes: nothing of him that doth fade, but doth suffer a sea-change; into something rich and strange………………’ SALARIUM + V from THE PERFUME LIBRARY by LUSH (2019) + UNDA MARIS from the Extrait De Musique collection by FILIPPO SORCINELLI (2018)

















Last Saturday I attended the opening of the new Lush megastore in Shinjuku, busiest station in the world; a throng of people darting and threading (to be more exact, gliding in various directions – there is a choreography; people rarely collide with each other here); emerging from stairs of stations, crossing en masse,  meeting and parting and entering and leaving the reefs of unknown buildings – the animation of Saturday; thrilling in some ways, that weekend rush,and yet you do have to be in the right state of mind for it – the sheer numbers of people filling up every available space, slipping and pulling you along.





It seemed to me as if half of the people on the streets were crowded into the four story brand new Lush store, opening that morning, in which an extraordinarily potent olfactory cacophony of bath bombs and soaps, perfumes, body sprays, cosmetics  (including a beautifully innovative sushi conveyor belt going round selling freshly made concoctions for face and body) gelled and glowed with neon signage, a hip, cosmopolitan crowd, congratulatory flower bouquets, and a range of fragrances currently exclusive to this retail space  (they are stocked as well at the flagship store in Liverpool, which will be selling my book at the Fragrance Library, with Shinjuku also hopefully to follow).







My companion for the morning was Catherine, a perfume lover like no other (this woman truly lives for perfume – I have never known anyone else quite comparable – she lives and breathes the stuff). We met at the station – or rather I retrieved her from one of the labyrinthine exits – so easy to get untethered and lost in this warren, which can be disorientating if you don’t have your wits about you or get pushed, led along in the wrong direction – and we busily, once doing the tour of the place – an entire floor seemingly devoted to bath bombs and soap; another for sundries, intriguing books and esoteric vinyl (Lush even has its own record label), oceans of face products and shampoos, became firmly ensconced on the perfume floor, where, alongside familiar Lush/Gorilla Perfumes classics such as Lust, Vanillary, Breath Of God, Imogen Rose, and Cardamom Coffee (one of Duncan’s signature perfumes), as well as many, many others – I couldn’t help picking up the Old Delhi station perfume oil, all cinnamon, clove and jasmine, from this section; Catherine fell for the hardcore indole jasmine blast that is Lust  – we found ourselves eventually more intrigued by the Perfume Library and its enticing range of perfumes from past and reworked to edgily brand new – that which perused, and smelled ad nauseam on each other, and on ourselves, and on paper strips until we were through.







There are shuddery vibrations to many of the more extreme Lush perfumes; like poisonous odorous flowers that forbid you to be touched. This comes, I think, both from the high percentage of natural essential oils that pervade the blends and give them a sense, almost, of being living entities rather than merely fragrance compositions, but also from perfumer Simon Constantine’s firmly idiosyncratic, almost waywardly fierce approach to making perfumes; perfumes with provocative names and sometimes quasi barbaric aromatic intensity that usually deliver on their promise. Some of the more virulently masculine scents in the range such as Smuggler’s Soul and Lord Of Goathorn are commanding and potentially quite erotically intoxicating on the right individual (but that individual quite obviously isn’t me – I can’t do burnt, smoky, or perfumes that remind me of woodcutters or Nicolas Cage chasing forest demons in the recent horror classic, ‘Mandy’). Still, they demand attention; they do feel alive. And much as I loved the name, Sweet Grandma
























could only remind me of the Mother at the end of Pyscho – both Catherine and I exclaimed aloud how it smelled just utterly like mothballs; truly Gothic and ancient – naphthalene, when someone has taken out their winter clothes from storage and sits next to you on the bus :a becoated sarcophagus facing forward; hollow skull; eyesocketless; with a stroked and carefully brushed bun of  natty, flaxen hair.  Not having tried this one on skin  – which apparently has notes of orange blossom and rosewood as main features – I can’t comment on its progression or structuring, but I will certainly be going back to the store when it has quietened down a notch as I think it is one of the most singularly strange perfumes I have ever encountered in my life.






















The extensive wares in the Perfume Library vary in price, from standard niche cost up to the levels of Tom Ford and the like; Secret Garden, an intensely animalic and earthy perfume composed of osmanthus absolute, myrrh and immortelle was the most expensive of the line at 36,000 yen, while others (Cocktail, Assassin Remix, Two More Hearts) fell in between. Catherine was rather drawn to Death And Decay, which I have reviewed before – a light and slightly perturbing evanescence of lilies and powder, but though we both quite liked the violet cassie party girl vibe of Tuca Tuca, and the spriteliness of Pansy, it was V – a quite mesmerisingly velveteen violet perfume that hovers on the skin in a way I have never experienced before  (for me it was like a retreat from everything in the later afternoon light of lace curtains; sun still emitting warmth onto your cotton sheets but not enough to give you the sense of a complete and utter escape from everyday responsibility, just you and the sense of your body in the bed, and the soft bedclothes, and the violets  – downy, vanillic as a retort to the bitter green oddness of the top accord, which I find difficult, but not enough to prevent us from finding this perfume too singular to ignore – we both got a bottle); a mix of Ghanian ylang ylang, cedar wood, cinnamon, clove, and plush, plush violet flowers with the tang of the greenest violet leaf up top, V is a re-release of one of Lush’s first perfumes from 1995 especially for this event.
















As is Salarium, a reorchestration of another original Lush perfume (though under a different brand name at the time) from 1989 that for some reason I find engrossing and addictive in its sheer saltiness and sexual intensity; although composed of oudh, neroli, oakmoss, and rose, you would swear instead that this is an eighties fougere along the lines of Drakkar Noir, with a dash of Kenzo Pour Homme ; like a cop from Miami Vice who has been brought back from the dead with mouth to mouth resuscitation after falling into the bay …..a scent that lashes and douses you in sea spray, leaving you strangely suspended. As usual, there is something that ambivalently affects me at the chest level in the initial spray, but the magnetism of the perfume is undeniable. I had to have it – and Duncan wore it the next day, leaving rock pools of planed and saline mistscapes in each room that he had been in, he leaving, again for Tokyo, a couple of hours before me.
















Again, the train journey to Shinjuku. This time to film a scene for his new film, he with vast and heavy prop-filled suitcase in hand, me bringing up the rear later (the night before we had gone to a Thai karaoke bar in Yokohama to meet Michael, where an entire kickboxing team and their entourage had descended; fascinating, but as I enjoyed crooning Falling, from Twin Peaks, and Do you Really Want To Hurt Me? with a stranger, I was too tired; burnt out, actually; ; work has got progressively better as the term has gone on; more involved, but also more straining on my central nervous system; all the performing). It decentralises me, and the next day I woke up feeling subdued; you might even say subterraneaneousor at the very least just encased in my own self: : : needing solitude and space.













Odd though it may have been, given the gloomy and rainy weather outside, the humidity oppressive through thick clouds, contrasted with the glassy ice gleam of air-conditioned air on the trains – I could feel it, from mouth down to my ventricles, that unnatural way of breathing, like snorkelling, which I could never do (always drowning in salt water immediately; I prefer to just dive down deep as far as I can with my natural lungs before returning to surface); the contradiction of moisture and dryness in the atmosphere complemented by my own choice of fragrance that day as I dreamed alone back up to Shinjuku, that strange hub of government, finance, pleasure, crime, and irrepressible energy; Unda Maris by Filippo Sorcinelli.













While it might be easy to mock such a self proclaimed aesthete and fashionista synaesthesiast such as this Italian renaissance man – organist, perfumer to the pope, artist – I do think that the perfumes from his extensive ranges – Unum, Nebbia, speak for themselves. They are refined; spectral, elegant. They let you dream. The Extraits De Musique, whose bottles are shaped precisely like organ stops, and whose fragrances are based on one particular sound from the church organ – are soft and inspired, variations on benzoin and frankincense and all other kinds of churchly resins just in different proportions to fit the musical note in question – are all very wearable, if not very affordable; in reflective mood I could happily wear several.










Unlike Nebbia Spessa, another marine fragrance from this perfumer, which is an almost sensurround asphyxiation under water, the concept behind the fragrance exactly this – the terror, and awe, of the ocean – Unda Maris is a far more ethereal, gentle, and unearthly experience. Like being bathed in the sound of the organ  – I could say also the celestial chorus of Neptune, easily my favourite part of Holst’s Planet Suite, a piece I would listen to as a child at maximum capacity and be awed, subsumed, abducted by sea people (though that might be taking it too far);, nevertheless, the experience of wearing the perfume definitely bathed me in hush ; as sense of going under. If most perfume is a plus sign, a yang rush, then this is a benevolently minus yin submergence of benzoin and angelic frankincense with a photorealistic vision of a bay; not just the waves but the air and the clouds as well; like being transported to a different physical and mental reality; when D tried this on once I was almost derouted mentally as I kept actually feeling as though I really were on an isolated beach, with no sunshine; too saline and rock-beaten to cast off as merely an afternoon fragrance.













In the almost empty train car of the new Keio line, I found that the perfume, which I had applied quite a lot of (it is an extrait) put me in a state of peculiar tranquillity. In many ways not me – I do like marine fragrances sometimes, but they are more what you might call my perfumes for specialist occasions – this nevertheless is a scent I would consider buying as it seems to bestow a unique experience on me; the train carriage felt like an aquarium, I felt defleshed and cool, as if I were in some underwater kingdom, accessing caverns – my rib cages as coral – drifting slowly down the space inside, and look out at fishes and the undulations of anemones; the fruited notes at the centre of the perfume lifting the sea smells, while beneath, incense and almost dirty balsams played like body smell of the organist’s fingers on the keys; Debussy’s La Cathedrale Engloutie, or The Sunken Cathedral, which I also once played for a piano diploma almost thirty years ago to this day in a huge church hall under a crucifix; the deep resonance of the drenched, submersed chords as the drowned building continues, periodically,  to emanate its ghostly music















































The next day, I woke up to a bad cold; throat and ear infection, dizzy, and have been off work all week, in bed ( I cannot teach when not able to properly hear or speak). Recovering my energy, which all but disappeared after the franticness of the teaching week and overstimulated creative and sensorial shenanigans of the weekend, I have realized that this is something I need to curb, as I need to be more respectful to the limits of my sensitivity and realise that our natural inclinations towards hedonism require temperance.










Sometimes I feel as if I am bleeding out in all directions, and feel unanchored.













Though unwell, however ( I am recovering today, the rest has done me good, my chest is clearing, and I can taste and smell again – at first I had pure anosmia, a further ‘cowering into self’… longer fully sentient, the world around you becomes ever smaller and less important); a little guilty; but not really –  – – – – – – this is the first time in a long while that I have felt fully relaxed; even serene. Cloistered at home. But silent.



































Filed under Incense, Oceanic, Violet














Leave a comment

February 26, 2019 · 11:47 am














I am something of a voluptuary. Or at the very least an indulgent, sensualist aesthete, pretentious as that must sound. A Dionysus with a healthy helping of Apollo, I like to swim in my senses until I reach the other side.





Sometimes there is a schism, though, a disturbance………the sheer difference between my ‘different worlds’ quite  uncanny.








Take Saturday. I had just finished the final pre-examination classes, an entire day of teaching,  and was exhausted, run down, drab in my salaryman Japanese black suit and coat, I just wanted to eat, grab a taxi, and go back home to bed. Sunday, I hoped to just slob in the house and do nothing, hoping there was nothing that had been artfully arranged by Duncan on the social calendar.







There was. Carnival Aquaria, an event that he had been asked to help out at by the mysterious Mistress Maya, somewhere miles away in the north of Tokyo, which would involve trains, a hotel, a costume….








A dilemma, then. What to do? Stay at home passively, tired, absorbing Netflix and calories, or thrust myself, against my ‘instincts’, into an unfamiliar zone, with new people, even when totally not feeling up to it? Spend the day alone wondering what would be going on there while I was not ( but snug, and warm in my comforts), or be active and sociable, and just let myself get taken up by the unknown, the flux and the flow?






Somewhat unwillingly – initially – and perhaps unsurprisingly, for you reading this I imagine, I opted for the latter.








The event, a medley of different performances and a dance night, was held at an art space in Kiba, an area of Tokyo I had never been to before (this is a city that has so many train stops you have always never been to, such a labyrinth: it just takes years and years to get to know properly) and, to my surprise, we ended up spending twelve hours there, in a black box of odd people, injudiciously put on champagne duty (it was only later that I realized that these bottles were being sold at 18,000 yen a pop, almost 200 dollars, and we had been necking it back ourselves and doling out extra second and third classes to the invitees when they were only supposed to be getting a ‘welcome drink’; the owners of the event space were quite horrified I think as they watched their profits going down the (gullets and) the drain, the freaks behind the bottles clad in outlandishly bizarre outfits that had an eye-widening effect on the typically black-wearing art types who entered self-containedly, and reservedly, to watch a ballet trapeze artist, a shakuhachi flute player, bondage rope tying, some cabaret, a Persian santurist, and various other ephemera (see the top two pictures for an idea of what it was like).









It’s very strange how these things work, however. Such  a PARADOX.








I am a person who is resolutely not interested in clothes. I get criticised by friends and family alike for my boringly conventional tastes. I never buy them, just when I absolutely need to, and even then I find it an ordeal. I wear the clothes my mother sends me in the post for my birthday and Christmas. I have two pairs of shoes to my name. I just don’t choose to express myself in that way (I do that through music, perfume and words). I like what I wear – just plain black, blue, sweaters and jeans and straight coats with the odd colourful scarf maybe, and I certainly wouldn’t just wear anything, no no no and I do have some curious, snazzy ties that I like to wear to work to confuse people, but ultimately, as far as I am concerned, life is just too short to be spent continually thinking about I am presenting  myself to the world, to constantly think about clothes. I know they are important and that that is what the world sees of us, but I just can’t be arsed. I find them shallow and think that far too much importance is placed by humanity on thinking about what it is wearing. Arrogantly, perhaps, I think I hopefully have enough aura in an of myself not to need to rely on the codified, predetermined (fashion is actually really boring in many ways) outer strata.







And yet totally contradicting this is how I feel wearing one of Duncan’s creations. Again, I am dressed by other people, as I would never make the effort to go out and look for rags to stitch together for this purpose, but when D, who is a dab hand at picking up things from recycle bins and second hand thrift shops puts something together and I get in the mood, I can find it quite transformative and liberating; Burning Bush, this wild alter ego of mine, a kind of creature that elicits very strong reactions from people who come into contact with it (I feel this is a genderless being, more anima, or spirit animal, which is how people usually take it – I don’t entirely understand it myself, to be honest, I just know there is something magical about it) –  almost a form of performative alchemy and disappearing inside something that I find extremely, extremely, cathartic.






I was got up in a big powder blue babygro with fox fur trimmings, a knitted balaclava, sea green wig, and a faux-fur eskimo-like hood (someone referred to me later in the evening as a seximo‘ or a Doraemon fever dream was another onethings that had been thrown haphazardly into our bags in the morning , and which had not been fully decided on until they were put on, including the makeup, which was applied in my usual cack-handed way by just dipping my fingers into the oil pots and slapping it on in the dressing room upstairs using a tiny mirror and laughing to myself as I was doing so. As it turned out, the creature that emerged – coming down the stairs to the art space, figures parting for me to make my entrance – was something like a cuddly, and fluffy, Vishnu/Russian iconographic monster with no obvious reference points really but that somehow, I felt, stood proudly on its own. It was just born. It suddenly existed, in and of itself. A new persona. No longer me, and yet even more me (feel free to analyze and comment on this).

















Perfume. To maximize the fluffiness, in scent terms before leaving the house that morning, the house a bomb site of huge proportions, scouring my perfume cabinets in my bedroom prior to leaving I had settled on Heliotrope by Perfumer H, a meringue like confection of almonds and vanilla that smelled excellent and peevishly innocent sprayed lavishly on all the soft and feathery textures I was dressed up in, plus, for an extra ironic camp factor as I served (and quaffed) the champagne, on the wrists, and the neck, some Elizabeth Taylor Diamonds and Rubies parfum, a big, orchid cherry mother that I have reviewed before and actually think is strangely gorgeous. Although I couldn’t properly smell all these through the strangely waxen perfume of all the stage white smothering my face, I did feel the effect was rather good, augmenting and embellishing the individual I was inhabiting. Projecting me further into the audience. To further the warm effect of his own prawn headdress and burnished bodystocking, the D plumped, fetchingly, for the vintage Shiseido Feminite Du Bois extrait.







Later, eventually fired from champagne duty, we were free to just mingle and dance, and I, though the biggest ‘samugari’ (person who feels the cold) in the world, did actually come very close to overheating after a while in my symphony of furs (Duncan was practically naked), to cool down, intermittently I would go outside on the streets, lurking on bridges and terrifying passers by (although this is Japan, and people keep their reactions generally hidden. They just keep their heads down. I went to the convenience store to get some water, and the clerk did her best to act normally).






I found myself in the Kiba park, in the freezing cold, and felt like something unearthly and fantastic, night time joggers wondering what the hell they were witnessing as I chuckled to myself like an arctic, mythical babooshka, coated in cherries and vanilla, and the clouds above me shone spectrally, full of magnificence.

























The next day, hungover in downtown Tokyo, skin like a dried persimmon, eyebags unconcealable in the bright light of morning, drinking oversweeted cafe au laits in old fashioned coffee shops, and after a row in the early morning, things seemed less bonny and phantasmagorical – but still, madcap though these antics may have been, I feel that they definitely, in some way, really punctured through something and I briefly entered immortality; we had danced maniacally with our friends on the dance floor joyously to Divine’s Native Love (there is a video, but I don’t think I should put it up) – – – yes you read that right, I had danced – – – although the legs still aren’t a full capacity this was most definitely possible – – – and somehow, for me, such experiences, while not happening with great regularity, beautifully stop, for a moment, this conveyor belt we call life with its inexorable conclusions and let you enter pure spirit, not that you need a bizarre costume to have such clarity and mindfulness, but for a person whose life is so not dominated by the clothes that he wears, being changed unrecognisably by the outer appearance and having the reactions that this characters almost always engenders ( I have had the coolest imaginable lesbians coming on to me in Tokyo clubs, been chatted up by all kinds of people that wouldn’t even look at me in my usual incarnation) is very……. interesting, and though this is not something that I want all the time – Burning Bush makes around five appearances a year – I think of this spirit animal, this other being, as a breather; a temporary escape, even a form of savage – and quite primal – performance art.























On the subject of art, and of artists, more and more of whom I seem to be meeting and possibly collaborating with these days, it isn’t often that a visual artist – people who are often so fully immersed in their field that they forget that they even have other senses – indulges in niche perfumery and comes up with their own scent collection, created entirely by themselves. It is easy to become quite skeptical about this (especially when there are so many Firmenich ghost perfumers), as it can seem to me sometimes that niche perfumery has become increasingly about having the means – ie. the money, to have a ‘start up’ and ‘venture’ and put out a ‘collection’ created by other people with all the usual blather about ‘precious essences’ and the like, when in fact a whole lot of it is derivative nonsense without a great deal of substance or depth or even olfactory interest. I have received whole boxes of releases from various niche companies that I haven’t even reviewed on The Black Narcissus simply because I couldn’t come up with any words, really, to fill a paragraph. They just smelled thin and boring or were dressed up with words and images that far superseded, in interest terms, whatever the liquid inside the tube was meant to convey. Last week, after meeting my friend Yoko and doing piano duet practice at a rented Yamaha hall for our one-day-we-will-actually-do-it concert (which we are planning to have a whole film made for by the end of the year by my extremely talented filmmaker friend Michael Judd, starring Burning Bush and Yoko – we will perform in black beneath it, like the great days of Silent Cinema) I actually gave her a whole bag of cast offs that I didn’t want any more and which I might do some cursory reviews of here in order, if nothing more, to try and remain relevant and contemporary), things like Feather Supreme, by Jusbox, and the Dear Rose collection, by a fashion doyenne and her rock star daughter (or was it the other way round?), and some quite nice Roja Doves, and some sweet oudhy thing by Ex Nihilo, those kind of scents, and she was extremely pleased with them but wondered if I had anything green, as the spring is on its way – I have just heard the uguisu, the Japanese nightingale, outside on this cold sunny day, or at least I thought it was that bird, a beautiful harbinger at any rate, and I was thinking of giving to her the II by Cire Trudon that I reviewed the other day, a delightful sharp green perfume that I am sure that she would like, and then also, now, having given them a second chance last night, I might give to her the Paul Schutzes as well as I have realised that there is something quite interesting about them (god that was rather a long paragraph, sorry).





Not that I wouldn’t quite like to keep this set of quiet, diffident, very urban and urbane perfumes in my permanent collection for a sense of variety from my usual, more luscious, affairs, because I kind of would, but because I do actually like the idea of someone else wearing them far more effectively than I ever could. Plus, I love girls, and women, in unconventional sharp, woody – masculine if you like-  perfumes : I love the internal play, and the effect that they have on me, the revelatory layers that can be conjured up with just a spritz of an unanticipated scent on a female acquaintance (or for that matter, a stranger): when quiet depths are suggested; sylvan pools, when my monster skin just eats it all up and amplifies and crushes all subtlety (which is why my signature, Chanel No 19 vintage parfum, is so brilliant on me, an entirely different perfume  – a sexual, vetiver leather iris but still with that elegance and greenness, a place I can hide………)






Paul Schutze, an Australian multi media artist who works with installations, photography, and ambient composition, is a name I was already familiar with  as one of his pieces, Rivers Of Mercury, is on a quite brilliant compilation I once bought many years ago called Oceans of Sound, compiled and curated by musicographer David Toop, a melange of all kinds of ephemera you would never think of usually putting together, like Debussy and The Velvet Underground, Miles Davis and Erik Satie, but which all works quite brilliantly in a dreamy combobulation of exotic atmospherica, including the sound of water in a Kyoto temple, Suikinbutsu – so I was quite curious when his latest venture – perfume – arrived in a box with his name on it sent in the post.







Dismissing the trio of scents initially as being what Duncan calls – of that ilk – your typical sharp incense niche contemporary style – in fact to me these smelled even more rasping and aqueous than usual (if they were the artists’ materials themselves; dark room chemicals, solvents for paint brushes, they would have made more sense to me),  but still there was something that  emphatically quiet and strangely thoughtful, and in keeping with the artist’s longstanding resume in the art world, those scents that you think you ought to come back to at a later date because they definitely contain something ) –  last night, the frivolities and almost sensorially overwhelming visuals and smells of Sunday night’s extravaganza still vivid but fading in my mind as I made pasta and we had a very early night, just before hitting the sack I decided to try them out one more time.






My nose was in a different frame of mind, on this occasion, to the last time I smelled these, and they definitely opened up for me more. Behind The Rain, a damp, and very green, vetiver laced with lentisque, mastic, fir and fennel, and a frankincense heart, is a introverted but moody and brooding scent that I can actually almost imagine wearing myself if I found myself in the right clarity-seeking frame of mind, with hints of an old limited box collection I had by L’Artisan Parfumeur called Sautes D’Humeur, or Mood Swings, containing two very original and before their time perfumes, D’Humeur Jalousie – probably the greenest perfume I have ever smelled, and D’Humeur A Rien, an annihilatingly depressing church-like/ terpsichor – the smell of the asphalt after the rain – that put a smudge of grey death on even the most cheerful of days, and was thus locked away, for a long time, only brought out for amusement purposes, for entertainment, upstairs, at dinner parties.






Behind The Rain, my favourite of the three that I received, is more nuanced than either of these old Artisans, more contained (you feel a definite ego at work in these perfumes, the mantra of the self, the will of the artist imposing his vision, something very tasteful and almost pure – which is in keeping with Paul Schutze’s ambient music, so far away from my own, deliberately bad tasted wild abandonment). The difference in temperament exhibited here quite fascinates me; the interiority of it, and whether I should keep this one, therefore, myself, or give it to Yoko, is something I haven’t yet quite decided on yet.





I think that she can have Cirebon though, and Tears Of Eros, much as am attracted to that name. As with Behind The Rain, both of these other Paul Schutze perfumes are quite  subtle creations that smell contemporary and cool ( you can imagine the punters at the Carnival Aquaria, serious in their art spectacles and Yohji Yamamoto-draped blackness wearing this type of fragrance – they would be perfect for the interlaced canals and vast spaces that are characteristic of that area). Cirebon is a sharp green orange cedar, with bergamot, bigarade, petitgrain and orange flower tempered by a cedar and ‘cyclamen/magnolia’ (both imaginary flowers in perfumery as no essence exists) but which to me smells overwhelmingly of clary sage –   an essential oil I have used in the past but which doesn’t suit me temperamentally (if you use it while you are drinking, even just in the room in an oil burner, it can have quite deleterious effects and you might fall asleep in the bath; it can also make you aggressive);  a weird smell, actually, almost turpentine-like, and not an ingredient that is mentioned here, but which in my mind the perfume is dominated by, at least on initial inspection.





On the skin, it is more subdued, with a citrus/wood amalgamation that puts me in mind, almost, of the original Tommy, a perfume I detested back in the day, almost to the point of phobia – it was also very prevalent which made it even worse – but which I still emphatically perfectly understood the entire attraction of; very sexy, that bitter counterpoint the whole point, a constant suggestion. This one is similar but more subdued, more……..clever, more orangey, and I like the idea of Yoko – who hasn’t worked in seventeen years but is going back, finally, at the end of this month, in order to get financial independence for her and her kids and maybe get that divorce after all  – wearing some of Cirebon on her wrists underneath her newly purchased black suits. Such touches can be the markings of success.






Tears Of Eros, is by far the weirdest of the three perfumes I am writing about here today. The most artificial, and metallic, with a silvery hyacinth and ambergris heart and guaiacwood/’green incense’ accord that I can’t entirely make head or tails of. Incomprehensible, it is just strange, with an eventual, quite stirring, dirty, labdanum underlick lurking at the heart of its centre, that, after an hour or two, finally emerges. Penetrating, but with an air of mystery. Unknowable.




































Filed under abstract moderns, Antidotes to the banality of modern times, autobiography, Green, Incense, Mastic, PERFUME AND PERFORMANCE





The longer I live in Japan, the more I realize how culturally unnatural it is for Japanese people to wear scent. Strong, western perfume is inherently incompatible in a place where people live in such close proximity and value social harmony. It has its time, and its place, but will never be the norm. Such perfume here feels too exhibitionist, indulgent – even selfish. I have known this factually for a long time, but now I feel it intuitively. I sense what perfumes will be appreciated, allowed – condoned.  As a decadent and opulent perfume addict myself, I will admit this has sometimes placed certain restrictions on my scented possibilities; the flaunting of my invisible wardrobe when at work or in public spaces. I am aware that my own clouds of perfume have been quite frowned upon. Detested, even. Yet rather than bemoan the lack of perfume appreciation among the majority of the populace, at times, despite myself, I have almost even come to admire it.


Perhaps this is partly because much of the rest of the world at present is so noisy, vulgar, and in your face (I know that it is not necessary at all for me to elaborate). Perhaps it is also because despite my occasional frustrations at the stress and strain of rush-hour living and the held-back intricacies, the social hypersensitivities of Tokyo, it cannot be denied that the converse side to it all is a calm, tranquil order and flow to daily life here – a sense of gliding through the neon gleam, unharried – that is beautiful.



In this more sensitive and socially aware context, strong, over sugared, or overtly ‘glamorous’ western perfumes can feel antithetical. Anti-intuitive. Tasteless and heavy, like elephants in a china shop. Yet despite this, the pleasure of smell being universal, Japanese have historically long used perfume, for centuries – even millennia – and have devoted an entire art form to its appreciation – ‘kodo’ : the ‘way’, or path, of incense. Perfume, as aesthetic and spiritual adornment, but transformed into a very different physical dimension. To be ‘listened to’.



When discussing the word ‘incense’ and its standard associations, it is important to differentiate between the inexpensive, rough, cheaply perfumed ‘joss sticks’ used at music festivals and the like and what I am describing here. Their scent is quite incomparable. While Japanese temples and shrines also sometimes use the more inexpensive and mass-produced incense sticks in big bundles for ritualistic use in daily ceremonies: a generic, pleasant, wood smoke smell with a touch of camphor and patchouli, not significantly different from what you might encounter at the more sandalwood-influenced Chinese temples in Malaysia or Vietnam, the incense I am referring to here – created from recipes, formulae and time-trusted aromatics –  is truly a form of perfume. Rather than a liquid applied to human skin, though, one that mingles with your skin scent and evaporates, this is a perfume that is experienced from without, like the millennia-old origin of perfume culture itself; per fumumthrough smoke – that surrounds; that inhabits the air around you; trails your hair, your aura, and then subtly scents your clothes (particularly the kimono, trailing the padded, embroidered silk with an embodying caress of dusky softness).



While there are many kinds of incense available in city Buddhist apothecaries and religious artefact establishments, specialising in the more ritualistic types of incense (austere, dark, even disturbing in their camphoraceous blackness and used for praying for the dead or commemorating ancestors), one type of more floral and balsamic incense that I have particularly enjoyed personally over the years – and which is available even in good bookstores, demonstrating its popularity in daily fragrancing – is the beautiful Horin series by Shoyeido, a Kyoto incense company founded in 1703 that has long produced the exquisitely soft, warm, but mesmerizing blends that can gently transform your living space, your mood, and, when you step outside – as the airborne powder lingers, quietly but perceptibly, on your coat – even your atmosphere.



Horikawa (River Path), the most expensive of the three types of incense in the collection, is a rich, spiced, ambered sandalwood blend that is almost vanillic in its sweetness, with a strong, powdered heft faintly reminiscent of the finest French oriental perfumes  – yet drifting, slowly, in the air in the form of coiled, almost ravishing, smoke. It is quite glorious , as plush as Guerlain: the sandalwood – or byakudan in Japanese – not recognizably sandalwood in its more unvarnished, solar and unctuous Mysore sense, but pulverised, compressed; blended seamlessly with soothing unguents, sea shells, cinnamon, patchouli cloves, and balsams, all forming a very warming, and sensuous, salve to the soul. Horikawa is probably in fact the luxury incense that I have used the most over the years, either in stick form or coils  (drifting dreamily, quietly, throughout your living space for hours….. friends that stay now often associate that scent with the memories they have of staying here); but recently I have also found myself being drawn to the other two fragrances in this particular series: Shirakawa (White River), a less forceful interpretation of the Horikawa scent structure, and the cooler, more introverted Nijo (Avenue To The Villa). Really, all are nuanced variations on one olfactory theme, with Shirakawa being a more gentle, crepuscular version of River Path, less closedly intense and erotic, but still retaining that incense’s internal, reality-averting thematics.



While I have certainly been greatly enjoying using Shirakawa, the big revelation for me recently, over these winter months, has been Nijo. In the past, when sampling the incense from the box – you can, in truth, never truly understand what the fullness of the incense will be until it has been lit and its secret interiority has been revealed, I had somehow quite wrongly dismissed this incense – the most inexpensive of the three – as being rather bland and quiet in comparison to its more soignée, courtesanish stable mates: far more subdued, masked; best saved for a distant twilight.  And yet feeling more reclusive myself recently after the sometimes overwhelming political events in the world outside (I have sometimes had to simply cut myself off from the news), I impulsively found myself buying a box of the coiled incense the other day and, immediately entranced by its powdered, gossamer suggestiveness, as the delicate smoke snaked its way into my consciousness, I am becoming quietly addicted. With none of the overtly perfumed ‘thickness’ or spice (but there, intermittently, under the diffidently gentle surfaces), a more smooth, uniform scent emerges when this incense coil is lit, with a subtly floral element, possibly violet, and iris, that I find assuaging, and benevolent, to the spirit.



Looking at Shoyeido’s international website, written in both Japanese and English, I was pleased to see that this venerated old house accepts international orders (a selection of incense is also sold at the Japan Centre Food Hall and Bookshop in Piccadilly), and that there are also far more varieties of high quality incense, with various olfactive themes and ‘storylines’ created by the perfumers that I haven’t yet tried (“Translucent Path”, “Beckoning Spring”). There are little satin pouches, filled with clandestine powder, to be secreted onto your person, or to be deposited in your clothes drawer, to gloriously evocative – and sensuous – effect. I also see, to my delight, that in Kyoto, it is possible to reserve a place on tours of the factory there and watch the Shoyeido artisans assemble their wares with the natural ingredients they have used firsthand, for centuries, in their studios. This is something that I will absolutely have to do myself the next time I find myself in that ancient and unforgettable city. But failing this, even if you aren’t going to be coming to Japan any time soon, I would wholeheartedly recommend at least trying one of the three types of high quality incense that I write about here, or take the plunge with another.  This is perfume of a very different, and quietly powerful kind. Redolent of worlds beyond. Of the ether. Of the untethered. And in these aggressive and turbulent times, what is needed for the spirit is perfume that is placating: beautiful: transcendent.


Filed under Incense, Japan












In ‘Japanese Cultural Code Words: 233 Key Terms That Explain the Attitudes and Behaviour of the Japanese’, author Boye Lafayette de Mente talks of the ‘grave beauty’ of Japan and its …


Leave a comment

Filed under Incense






L’Eau Du Navigateur, unfortunately now discontinued but quite findable if you search hard enough, is one of those distinctive and beautiful scents that make my stomach flip. There is nothing else anything else quite like it: a seamless, delicate, composition that is somehow unfathomable, even mystical: the desert, or early evening sunlight, dappling on warm Moroccan terracotta. There is an honesty here:  something pure and noble that elevates this smooth, enveloping perfume to a higher plane.


So many of the incense perfumes now on the market seem to seek to recreate the arid religiosity of actual church or temple incense, and they can be one-dimensional, aggressive, even depressing. This, though,  which predates that trend by twenty years, is  more complex and soulful: a soft, gentle, twilight in an imaginary Damascus.


A light, fresh, and very mellifluous blend of resins, tobacco, spices, citrus and incense; ambery balsamics, and a most inspired base note of coffee absolute (truly wonderful, actually, and the first perfume ever to use this unusual ingredient:  lending the composition the sandy, enveloping, and trustful warmth of a kaftan), L’Eau Du Navigateur is a unique, and beautifully androgynous composition with a sillage – God-like, almost – that trails the air around it as if kissed by desert winds.


Filed under Incense










Leave a comment

Filed under Flowers, Incense