Monday, November 5th: I have just come back from my piano lesson with Ms Tanaka. Today we were tackling a Schubert sonata, and I had my first introduction to Rachmaninov in the form of an Etude ( I am constantly playing Debussy and Ravel and we both felt it was time for a change). Ms Tanaka is hilarious, and the perfect piano teacher for me – she really knows what she is doing, but is so eccentric and over the top that we spend half the time laughing: her mix of deep respect for the classical composers, but irreverence to life in general, plus her appearance (something like a combination of Les Dawson and Brian May from Queen, with black frizzle perm and bright red lipstick) make these Monday lessons a lot of fun indeed. Plus she only lives a minute from my house, which for this lazy creature is a very added bonus.
Of course I can’t resist wearing perfume when I go round. I couldn’t be any more different to her Japanese students (sometimes our lessons overlap and I see them sitting there, in obedient silence as she goes over points of style and technique with them, nodding in acquiescence, naturally unscented). I can’t be like that, often argue with her about points of expression, and will always wear whatever I feel like that day, so poor Tanaka has learned to just put up with it. When I first started lessons I was in a Montale phase, all oudh and roses, which my neighbourhood now thinks of as my smell (Takashi from the wine shop on the corner says that scent of Aoud Lime and Aoud Rose Petals makes his heart go doki doki); my teacher also seemed to quite like it, though she is quite orientally inclined in any case – she bought me back some perfume from Tunisia last year and I hope she will do the same when she goes to Tashkent in the Spring. The time with Ms Tanaka is time I can completely be myself.
Usually, however, I find the classical music world so staid and ‘respectable’ it gives me a slow-burst feeling of repression. I have always felt this way: that mix of burning ambition and rivalry, plus something inherently ‘elevated’ in the music itself that sears into the hearts of the upper classes as something ‘to be done’. Yet I love it, always have done. I belong to a musical circle, do recitals at concerts, times when I find myself plunged into that world of delicacy and politesse, so very far from my real self but which in a masochistic way I do kind of enjoy. A different world; a mask.
Every year Duncan and I, along with my friend Yoko – my piano duet partner – get invited to an Autumn Concert at a family’s house in a suburb of Yokohama, a lovely annual event that nevertheless is a little stiffer than I would usually like things to be, and where I feel I have to behave. My posse, which also includes an old lady called Ms Ichihara (she of the Crêpe de Chine review) form the loucher, more boozy contingent (there is always a party after everyone has performed upstairs on the grand piano, a big spread of food in the living room), and we tend to quaff the wine while the more virginal and teetotal types tend to be seated at different, further, parts of the table.
Every year I wear Vétiver Tonka by Hermès. In fact, I think this is the only time I wear this scent, as I have come to associate it principally with this day, this atmosphere, a time when I feel I have to be the ‘good boy’ (or try, at least). The Hermessences were launched in 2004 as an ‘exclusive’ line to complement the (already expensive) Hermès perfumes, a series of delicate olfactory études that initially were designed to conjure up the textures of various fabrics – silk, velvet, cashmere, and so on. These are scents of real luxury, well constructed and imbued with a certain ‘ennobling’ character. However, this clutched aspect, the sense of holding oneself in, combined with the excruciating experiences I have had at Hermès boutiques in Tokyo, where the levels of snobbery reach untold, futile, proportions ( I actually had a bust up at the Marounochi branch as I could no longer tolerate the brittle little minx’s attitude as she sneered at me while I dared to pick up the perfumes…the assistants, who know nothing whatsoever about fragrance, not even what perfumes their own shop has – Do you have Rouge? Ah, Just let me see…..Do you have the new Hermessence? Ah, let me just see….seem almost afraid to touch the bottles they are meant to be selling, despite their ignorance about them, as though they were precious reliquaries in a museum. And when they do it is literally while wearing the kid gloves that Hermès is famous for. All the while looking at you as though you were dirt they had just stepped in.)
But this topic could make my blood boil and spill out the murderous fantasies I had upon leaving that place that day; good lord I was furious, my mind filled with such terrible things; and this post is tentatively entitled The Good Boy.
The point is, I have very conflicted attitudes towards these scents, as some of them are very good indeed, though what they represent makes me sick. Still, despite my reservations I did buy the original selection box of small eaux de toilette when it came out, which at the time comprised Rose Ikebana, Poivre Samarcande, Ambre Narguilé, and Vétiver Tonka (now it is possible to choose which four you would like from the eight or nine available).
They have come in handy. Duncan got through the Poivre in no time, and the Ambre is fun when guests come round and I want to make them believe that there really is a scent that smells exactly like cinnamon apple pie, but the other two I use exclusively for choice Japanese social events.
Rose Ikebana is a watery, sharp grapefruit and rhubarb rose, with muted touches of magnolia, peony, and a smidgen of pepper. The overall aura of fresh green tea and spring leaves, this understated restraint, is perfect for when I need to get my nose in the air or at least feel ‘refined’ in an artificial context where I am guaranteed not to feel comfortable, as I did when I had to attend one of my student’s winning a national prize at the Okura Hotel in Tokyo, a grand old place with gilded banquet hall, and where a speech was given by the American ambassador. (If I wanted to feel refined and elegant on my own terms, I would wear Hermès Calèche, Chanel No 19, or Racine by Maître Parfumeur et Gantier, but these are my scents, my personal, heartfelt perfumes that I don’t want to share in the wrong context.) Rose Ikebana gave me a sense of detached confidence; on my skin lasting all day despite its de-amplified, wan watercolours; there is also a drier, more cynical woody note that appears later on that is more masculine, sinewy, and the entire lack of sweetness or softness aids me in keeping my teacherly smile intact while I flatter the daughter’s mother, raise my hands in a yet another soft round of applause. The scent, which I do like in its limited way, will remain in my perfume cabinet and will fulfill its function again at a later date, I am sure.
With a carefully chosen perfume like this you can present a self you want. You can exteriorize, project a different identity. In general I want to be nothing other than myself, but as I have said there are times when I almost enjoy the perverse pleasure of dressing up, of being someone else. Rose Ikebana also contains the vaguely subversive notion that I am wearing something slightly feminine (when all is said and done, Rose Ikebana is merely a dressed down, but more expensive version of YSL’s Baby Doll). If I seem overly negative about a ceremony which was a cause for celebration, this was principally due to the fact that such levels of formality are painful for me, physically, one of the harder aspects of living in Japan. All false communication is to me essentially pointless, and proud though I was of my student’s achievements, I was desperate to get out of there. I remember when they dropped me off in the taxi in Ginza, I was practically suffocating, yet went to the Hibiya Guerlain boutique in order to drenched myself, to the assistants’ bemusement, in Spiritueuse Double Vanille and Bois D’Armenie.
Ah yes, there I am again.
Vétiver Tonka is different. I do actually like this scent, as I like the people who go to the yearly music party. Unlike Ikebana, which is based on concepts of silk and the Japanese traditional art of flower arrangement with its rigid aesthetic rules despite its seeming haphazard nature, Vetiver Tonka is based on the idea of the texture of wool, and it is a deliciously comfortable scent, as soft and gentle as the finest, cashmere sweater, worn with a nice white shirt underneath. Easy to wear, easy to smell, and eminently huggable. Beginning with clean, zesty citrus top notes of neroli and bergamot over green, woody vetiver, sweet, ambered tones of tonka bean soon make their presence felt, woven tight with gourmand notes of cereals and hazelnut. The gentle refrains of tonka and vetiver interlinked are riveting, ending with a perfect, balsamic base that lasts all day. It is a warm, trustworthy scent, urbane, adult, a perfume in which I just feel ‘good’ and eminently respectable. It is no wonder that it enjoys such a good reputation.
In the bath before getting ready to go out though, I have to say that I felt a momentary panic at the thought of coming out and putting it on. Of course I could have easily put worn something else, but it somehow felt like a preordained destiny, that I had to wear that. It fits the aura I wanted to project perfectly, yet something about that tonka, which I always think of as having a certain poisonous, bitter, moisture-sucking quality, so insistent, felt like a cossetted, unyielding, Parisian straitjacket.
I wore it anyway.