2017 has been a very strange and tumultous year: politically, in terms of humanity, spiritually, personally. It has felt as though the world itself has been unravelling. I have unravelled: been broken apart, cut up and stitched, and had to learn to walk again from scratch, a trauma that has affected me more than I even realized but which I am coming through now even if I do actually feel, in some ways, like a changed man. Older. More mortal. Fractured. Like the humans of the world.
Everything has felt meaner, more intolerant, more closed in, this year, less compassionate. More tribal and ethnocentric, avaricious: vulgar – and I am sure that we know who is to blame for much of that; the catastrophic election to the most powerful position on earth of a vain and vacuous man who is dreadful – beyond description – on every level and is influencing the world in such nasty and negative ways.
We co-exist, we exist, on many levels: the global and real, the everyday personal reality, the dreamlife, the unconscious: we connect and disconnect with other people, we try to find our own meaning in life, to find happiness, it is all so very complicated. Sometimes this year has felt like a maelstrom to me: the sense that so much is so wrong: that if you believe a lie, you live a lie, the idea that economic growth is the base of all human happiness and that you have to tread on the faces of those around you in order to get it: this money mongering and hate.
And I have been poisonous myself at times this year: recently, I have lashed out at certain friends and burned some bridges: I have felt that my equilibrium has gone bust and that I am lurching, almost as if I should have gone to counselling to decompress following the confinement in hospital, the solitude at home, and then the shock to the whole body and psychological system in suddenly being thrust back into the teaching environment, the performance aspect of which just totally took its toll on my still fragile organism and sent me spiralling. Right now I feel that I am slightly in post-traumatic stress disorder mode, but quite guiltily so : when I think of what other people have had to go through in their lives, this feels like nothing, and I am very aware that I have much to be grateful for : I have a partner, family, friends, you, real connections and human exchanges and feel far from lonely, the curse that so many people have to deal with on a day to day basis – and the surgery was basically successful. I can walk, even if my legs don’t feel as robust as I would wish them to (or even like my own); they still feel vulnerable and brittle, and often hurt, quite a bit. But then there are days when they don’t, and I feel they are getting closer to normal. I have gone on proper walks and managed fine – I am on the mend. So I shouldn’t be complaining and am aware that it has all become rather repetitive (and I also think that I shouldn’t really have been talking about it all so much here on the The Black Narcissus in the first place, perhaps: it has dominated much of the year). For those readers who have read almost every post, this means that you have observed and been part of quite a lot, quite tiresomely so, from the pre-operative panics, to the post-surgical fugue states, to the strangely catatonic recuperation stages, the clarity of home and being stuck by myself, the blissful awakening of summer, and then the stark thrusting back into the cold outside world. I am aware that this part of this post must sound very self-obsessive, but it is strange to think that from this writing, which is me, and which comes instinctively and quickly, you may have had insights into my situation that I haven’t been able to have myself: it is a curious phenomenon. I have bared myself to the ether.
I wonder what kind of a year this has been for you too though. You know much more about me than I do about you. Obviously, a blog like this has an aspect of performance – and you are the audience. And yet I do feel that The Black Narcissus does go deeper than most other internet spaces of this nature as we do go far beyond perfume, even when that is still the principle preoccupation. And I do feel that, through the comments, I have been privileged to have conversations with such sensitive, interesting, and varied people that shed light on different aspects of life and give such a sense of a tapestry: that yes, perhaps the existentialists were right in many ways that we are separate, distinct, trapped in our own minds and bodies, that we are born and die alone and ultimately are responsible for ourselves, but at the same time I do feel that we are also connected, truly, through empathy and curiosity and the sheer stimulation that other people’s minds can give us, and it is a great part of the fascination, for me, of being alive, of being a human.
Recently, since the operation and its aftermath, I have become more hypersensitive and absorbent, to virtually everything. Partly, I think it stems from the sheer shock to my system on a variety of levels, but also from being sequestrated away by myself for many months on end, and the surprise at how much I liked it. I have almost become quite antisocial, sociophobic, while Duncan has been going in precisely the opposite direction; more gregarious, sociable: a barfly, whether as a reaction to his drag of a boyfriend at home with all his ailments and venomous invectives and aggrieved self-absorption or just as a natural consequence of the ever-growing network of people we seem to have accrued as friends and acquaintances over the last several years as we enter a more bohemian, artistic coterie of people (this was the year that his first film, Girl Goned, was shown in Tokyo and I can’t tell you how exciting all that has been – a real balance to the rest of the year, which is why I would never actually think of 2017 as being truly a bad year for me personally: we are already conceiving the next one with co-director Yukiro; I have other artistic projects planned as well for the next year- this will be our life-blood); yes, and yet at the same time I feel that I have become more stressed out in social situations, too reactive, judgmental, that if the conversation isn’t working in some way that I have to abort it, escape. This has led to many a blistering argument in the last few months and some times I have wondered if we are even going to make it. I think we will – but we have to just recognize and accept each other’s differing personality types, the particular blends of extroversion and introversion, the fact that he is self-contained and thus less affected by the particulars of others, and I am just a bristling, sponge-like nutjob.
I have had to be practically dragged out to certain social occasions – be it drinks with a person from some place or other, or parties, or dinners at home when I have just wished that everybody would go home and leave me alone. My instincts, after having been secluded and quiet for so long, has been to refuse, to make an exit. At work, with certain Japanese colleagues that I have nothing in common with, whether through linguistic lacks or personal or cultural disconnections, I have found that I simply can’t even be in the same room as them. I go to somewhere else to get on with my preparation as that is easier on the soul. Though it makes total sense to me at that particular moment, this is, however, something I think I need to work on before it gets out of hand. I don’t want to turn into a recluse.
The thing is, you can be wrong about people, no matter how finely honed you think your inner instincts are. Everyone is multilayered and reveals what they reveal, or else conceal. You can hunker down inside yourself and ruminate and gloat, or else complain, or just withdraw, and sometimes I think you actually do really need to do that in order to survive: the shit the world has thrown at us this year has often been so entirely depressing that the hiding within one’s shell approach has often seemed like the only answer, at least for a while (or in my case, most of the year). At the same time, however, I have also realized that you have to ‘put yourself out there’ sometimes if you ever want to change your perspectives through meeting other people, that it can be exciting, even when unnerving, to meet completely different individuals to yourself even when your instincts tell you to stick with the tried and trusted people that you know who ‘understand’ you and tell you what you want to hear.
I have discovered strange stories, and parallels, and almost cosmic coincidences recently in doing this, and as this year now comes to an end it feels like the perfect time for me to delve into, process and relate to you some of them. Nothing extraordinary, really, but for me a sign that in order to develop as a human being in 2018 I need to not cut myself off but stay open. I actually do love people (which is why I am a teacher, and half of the reason I write The Black Narcissus – the other is for catharsis and an innate need for aesthetic creation), it’s just that I am too easily affected by them and thus have to maintain a healthy balance. This need not, however, be so neurotically obsessed over. Next year I want to try and go more with the flow.
There was a day in 2016, I think it was May, and I was standing in the kitchen in the balmy, fragrant warm spring air listening to a song from Lana Del Rey’s Honeymoon called Terrence Loves You, an exquisitely beautiful song about David Bowie’s schizophrenic half-brother Terry who tragically committed suicide by jumping off a balcony and an incident that obviously affected Bowie deeply. The song is also profoundly affecting for me for some reason, (although a refrain from Space Oddity at the end brings the connection with the Great Man into focus). Even not knowing the story behind the lyrics however, the music and deep, woozy beauty of the song just brings me to tears, happy ones; it is as if she is cutting the skin of life and letting all out for us to drown in, especially in summer. It kills me. On that day, I felt that I was having a premonition, though, that this was my life’s high point: I was feeling physically healthy, everything was going right, work was good, I was creatively stimulated, me and D were in love, the world was beautiful, but this was the zenith: it would be all downhill from here on. I would be over the hill. And that is how I have been feeling recently, that the ‘dream is over’, that it is all just disintegration and downslide from here on until the grave. The usual self-indulgent misery that I am sure a lot of us can’t help avoiding sometimes until we snap ourselves out of it and just get on with living.
It was strange though, and of no real consequence, but intriguing to me nevertheless the other night when I met someone at a party who had actually met Terrence Jones, been to his house, and whose aunt had actually done babysitting for David Bowie when he was a child in Bromley, Kent, a part of England that seems to have been a real hub of creativity for English musicians wanting to escape the boredom of the British suburban seventies reality. By the point that this long term ex-pat, Steve, had met Bowie’s brother, however, he was already in quite a bad state, living in poor conditions and not even aware of who is ultra-famous brother was: quite pitiful. But somehow, the physicality of him meeting the subject matter of this song that had had me in floods of joyous tears in the kitchen felt relevant to me in some intangible aspect I couldnt’ quite put my finger on; the spider’s web of the universe touching us in strange and mysterious ways; the dream touching reality.
A few days before that, we had been to yet another party in a different part of Tokyo, more our younger goth contingent that we sometimes associate with (and who look brilliant in films), but there were a lot of people I didn’t know and I was still feeling a little fragile and not in the mood to really communicate with everyone. I sat with a friend in one place and didn’t ‘work the room’ as Duncan does, flitting about talking about with each person and not minding if they are the friendship of a lifetime – plus I had easier access to the booze and food which suited me logistically. Eventually, the squarer and slightly more incongruous member of the party, a thirty something American guy, came over to me and started talking. He had heard through D that I was a teacher but also a ‘writer’ on perfume, and as a novelist himself, he came over to talk to me with the usual U.S bright and breezy approach (which in truth, I can sometimes be wary of as a miserable Brit – it can sometimes seem quite superficial), an overfamiliarity and almost presumptuous friendliness that can be unnerving sometimes for the colder European and yet which I ultimately do like – when the conversation is just punched open and the ‘nitty gritty’ begins.
I asked him if he liked ‘cologne’, expecting the usual responses, but in fact he told me he had no sense of smell, his lower face having been blown off in an ambush in Iraq – as well as writing novels, he had previously been in the military – and when his helicopter crashed he was so seriously injured that he had had to have most of his face reconstructed. All I can say is that the surgeon must have been extremely good (I saw another similar person on a documentary last night and this ex-soldier’s face was similarly undetectable – plastic surgery must have made incredible, and wonderful, technological progress in recent years). The result was, however, that he has virtually no sense of taste or smell, and worries about whether he is wearing too much or too little scent – I told him that it was just right, which it was: I could also tell immediately that he was the kind of person who smells nice and clean naturally and that he didn’t need to worry about it. Of far more concern was the depths of his frequent depressions and suicidal urges: he told me that of his regiment of fourteen that had served in Iraq, he was the only one left now, all the others having succumbed to suicide, alcoholism, drug abuse or a combination of all three, and that his survivor’s guilt was immense. I found myself sitting there feeling ridiculous at the stew of my own preoccupations when he was going through such extreme mental anguish; a decent man who had, however, been a sniper and obviously killed a lot of people. We discussed the merits and demerits of Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper, a film I didnt’ really like (neither did he), and agreed Eastwood’s other war films, the diptych of Flags Of Their Fathers, and Iwo Jima, made in English and Japanese respectively, were more subtley done and more emotionally effective, particularly as they tried to show both sides of the story. I didn’t want to bring up the fact that, for me, the entire ‘hero’ aspect of American Sniper was spurious to begin with seeing that the entire premise of that ‘war’ was dubious, and that the whole ‘good guy/bad guy’ scenario, in my opinion, is quite simply ridiculous. There was no point getting into any of that. I wanted to be supportive and just listen. God knows what demons he is having to battle.
For me, this person, though a killer, a sanctioned killer, was, as he said, just ‘doing his job’. He is a pawn in the hands of the powerful who use the less powerful to their ends. You could tell that he was a good person: sensitive, sweet, actually, full of torment and regret and who had been through hell. I really felt for him, and will probably contact him again through my friend. I wish him the best. How can you move on from that? And to have such vital sensory perceptions severed in that way. A sense I put so much emphasis on.I felt almost guilty myself for savouring, as I was listening, the scent that was rising up around me, from my own, to the Guy Laroche Clandestine I had given to Yukiro who was sitting next to me and who smelled amazing in it, a whole third dimension. I felt thankful that I can smell, see and enjoy this world all around me, the one that gives me such intense pleasure. It’s a clichéd truism, but sometimes you really can just forget how lucky you are.
This was also truly brought home to me recently when we watched the brilliant, if harrowing, documentary series by KEO films, Exodus, which won BAFTA and Emmy awards for its unfliching portrayal of the plight of Syrian and other refugees flooding into Europe over the last couple of years, the humanitarian crisis captured by the documentary makers who gave mobile camera phones to certain individuals fleeing bombing in Aleppo and other cities; Afghans escaping the atrocities of the Taliban, and economic migrants trying to move away from abject poverty in African countries and do anything they possibly can to get into Europe, no matter what the cost.
But what a cost. Some of the things these individuals have had to go through are almost unbearable to watch; the tension and the sheer willing them to succeed in their missions to make new lives for themselves makes for quite stressful, if voyeuristically exciting, viewing: you are on the edge of your seat as they smuggle themselves in terrifying, drastic conditions, for the umpteenth time in the back of a pitch black flour truck in a situation that I don’t think I could survive; the constant detainments, the freezing cold, the wet feet, the hunger – families who walked from Syria to Sweden – walked, one man, Assad, I think, who had been through so many trials and tribulations you wonder where he found the inner strength to get through it all alive.
And yet, in another twist of universal connection, this man did in fact make it to England, and was given a job at the film company my sister works for that produced the documentary, and was in fact dancing with her at the Christmas party she organized there the other night. She told me about it all over the phone on Christmas day. He is doing well. He is one of the lucky ones. And there is something so beautiful about this. I have not met him, but even at one person removed, to have watched just a part of his exodus and traumatic situation on the big screen in our viewing room upstairs, and to have been so involved with his story, and not knowing what happened to him afterwards, to then find out that he is actually in close personal contact with my own flesh and blood somehow blows my mind. It makes me feel that there is some real good in the world, that humanity might prevail.
So on that note, I will love you and leave you. Thank you so much for your support, thoughts and ideas from this year, which I know has been quite a difficult one for many of us on a number of different levels. I hope that however this year has been for you personally, that you do have a wonderful 2018. This year may be coming to a close, but I still think it is important, and useful, to take stock of the last twelve months or so because even though this dividing of our time into months and years might be arbitrary, it is still how we measure time, and I have always felt that the end and the beginning of the year really are chances for us to at the very least reflect on what has happened in the year that has just passed, and at least try to make changes for the new one, to live as well as we can. I am sitting in the warm kitchen as I write this: we have just had a big breakfast and coffee, and later on in the evening we are going to go out for a drink and a meal somewhere and then go to the local temples in Kitakamakura to see the new year in. No drunken festivity countdowns this year: I want the peace and the clarity of the monks as they ring the 108 bells in the ancient shrines in the incense filled, chilly air, and chant sutras for the wellbeing of the earth: the austerity of it, the timelessness, the beauty. I want to submerge myself in that feeling of something bigger, deeper, expansive and unknowable. Something collective, outside ourselves. And then I am going to walk back up our hill for the first time in a very long while, take in the air, and come home.
I have a hatred of powder. The touch of soft, dusty things: chalk (which makes it quite hard as a teacher); peaches, even velvet; icing sugar, dried concrete. The ashes of incense: : : : horror to the touch. Dried mud – I have an image of myself as a first year student at university, running in from a rainstorm with the mud starting to cake and dry on my hands and seeing myself – my face captured in a mirror in the hallway – as I ran desperately towards the sink to wash it off, and I saw in the reflection a madman, such was my instinctive repulsion to this particular texture that I cannot; cannot abide; the silky dry feeling of hands on an umbrella when the rain has evaporated, the shudder and panicked reaching for the vaseline, always stored on my person, scented, as you know; essential; but worst, by far the most unbearable; the feeling of flour, my bête noire of all bête noires which I cannot touch and could not touch even if you paid me and which is probably my Orwellian Room 101.
It is also my sister’s. She cannot abide it. Strange – I have never really come across another person with my particular neurosis. Many people find softness, and dryness, soothing: sand on the beach and the softening aspect between your toes as you sit on the promenade and swing your feet together in the summer air; something pleasant for them; something I can relate to intellectually but not in personal practice (inside, in my case, I am screaming at the clemency of the salt-gone moisture, the papery, strokey skin that makes me just want to plunge my feet back hysterically, immediately into the sea water, or smother my whole body with sun lotion – viscous, sticky, sheer relief).
We were there, somewhere on holiday together in the south of England as a teenager and a child, in the sun on the pier and one of us, I can’t remember which, suddenly said that they detested the feeling of the powdery sand, that it was intolerable, and the other was totally amazed that their sibling understood exactly the feeling that had never been spoken out aloud before (the almost hilarity when you discover that you are not alone in your foibles, that another person gets it, that you can laugh about it, detail the particulars, no matter how weird or unusual it may be to the rest of the world). She, also, cannot tolerate any form of powdered texture whatsoever, nor any other similarly feeling material, and in fact was as a teenager forced to even go into hypnotherapy when her horror of toilet paper – the dryness, the smoothness….I also really don’t like the really ‘high quality’ satiny, tissues that make me cringe and shiver slightly, the snail-like crunch of cotton wool (ugh!!!!!!!!!!!!!), but the rougher varieties of paper are okay for me, fortunately, and I never had to go this far. In my sister’s case, however, this phobia of certain textures was getting in the way of her living and at the time we happened to be living across the road from a doctor and hypnotherapist who got rid of her terror with a couple of sessions under suggested unconsciousness, enough to allow her to live normally, even if she still, like me, abhors, and will always abhor, the feeling of flour between the fingers. This is torture.
I have no real idea of the causes of this phobia. There was never any trauma related to powder as children, as far as I remember, save possibly the big Christmas family parties we used to have with our aunts and uncles and cousins and grandparents when they were all alive, and we would have party games: a raucous, happy time that I remember quite fondly as Queen, everyone’s favourite, would rock on in the background: musical chairs – hilarious and thrilling, some strange game involving floppy hats; but then the flour cake game, a kind of jenga of the powder horror, where a cake made solely of tightly-packed flour granules would have a coin placed on it right in the middle, and you went round in turns taking slices out of the cake with a large knife, getting more and more precarious, the woahs and well-meaning terror increasing, the coin balancing periously on the precipice until the white cliffs of dover would come crumbling down in an avalanche of the finest, tooth-clutching powder, and the unlucky person who had caused the snowfall would have to thrust his or her face into the ‘hilarious’, knee-trembling powder cloud and retrieve the cold, metallic, flour-covered coin with their mouth. I could no more do this now than chew the head off a live snake, but I know that I did then, and just writing about it now is making me writhe on the sofa where I sit, daub my hands liberally with my three orange hand balm and rub them all over as a crucial, wettening, antidote.
My sister, to my knowledge, never participated in this game, so her own loathing of powdery textures is something of a mystery. I know for sure that we were both startled to learn of each other’s abnormality down on the beach: that was a revelation. I know that most people are directly the opposite; they loathe slime, or the stickiness of an apple, whereas I could delve my hands into a jar of honey and not give a damn; I would just lick it off. But talcy, chalky substances make my organs clinch – I could lose my mind. In the classroom I have learned to deal with the holding of a piece of chalk, as it scrapes on the board, even if the gradually amassing powder around me (and the brush of half blunt pencils on paper scratching all around me – revolting )– means I sometimes have to leave and wash my hands or else reach for my citrus scented goo to counter it. One time, though, on a school summer camp, probably about fifteen years ago, I was outed. Embarrassed. For the majority of the trip I think I had looked to the students more like a super hero: making boats with them, swimming and pulling them out in the lake, building fires, hiking for miles, singing in the moonlight, but it all came undone one day when we had to walk into a cave underground (I couldn’t – I am claustrophobic, but fortunately each team had two leaders), and then of course there was the afternoon team activity where we had to learn to make some kind of local noodles, instructed by locals who were known for their mastery of the regional speciality and were taking us through it all, step by doughy step. I tried to overcome my utter revulsion of the huge tub of beckoning flour, for the sake of the kids, feeling my innards contract at the thought of it, and did gamely actually dip a finger or two into the choking, moistureless, morass, but then felt so intuitely repulsed by its touch that I think I might have actually screamed. Everyone looked at me amazed. I simply couldn’t help the kids with making the soba for the competition; I was no longer a leader, it was an impossibility, and I had to just stand by helplessly as we came in last position for our undercooked strips of moingy, still dusty, inedible flour ribbons.
The irony of all this of course, this poudrephobie, is that, when it comes to perfume, I truly do love and adore powdery fragrances. Possibly more than any other type. What is simply suggested in perfume, the glow and the tactility of the pulverous, veil of powdered notes, a hint of the texture of the actualized, physical powder but without the literalness of its repugnant touch, for me creates an aura, almost a halo, of impenetrability, a snuggling comfort. There is a grandeur, a callow pompousness in dressing freshly washed skin with ambery, caressing poudres: in recent weeks I have felt like imperial lounge lizard at the perruqued court of Marie Antoinette as I go outside in my winter coats, deliciously swathed in a number of rich, granular indulgences worn together: Fragonard’s delectable Rêve Indien in parfum, a glowworm of Shalimar-like resonances without the Johnson’s baby’s bottom – more male; insistent; taut; and on my blood wine coloured cashmere red scarf, lashings and copious sprays of the original Hermès Rouge eau de toilette with its rose powder; naughty base unguents and lipstick smeared hyacinths: when I walk out into the cold I feel emboldened and outrageous, but also more serene: enwrapped, swaddled; cocooned.
Yesterday, I walked down the hill from where we live to the station for the first time in over a year and a half. Finally. A very steep incline at the top, enough to make people coming to our house huff and puff and complain about how uphill it is, and which was actually quite difficult, and painful, for me to navigate – I held onto Duncan for the first part and then managed when it gradually became more straight and easier to walk along and was, in truth, disappointed that it hadn’t been easier. But how wonderful to even have done it, and then to have walked about the whole day sans stick; how pleasing to inhale the cold, blood-stirring air and see the winter light glinting through the trees while simultaneously enjoying the hints of all my recently worn perfumes still lingering on my clothes: a new old bottle of Cartier Must that I found in an antique shop in Yokohama: vanillic, dense, and yes powdery, but cut through with galbanum; edible, like the vintage parfum of Vol De Nuit I also got yesterday and had set my heart on when I saw it in the window but couldn’t afford to buy until pay day, yesterday, when I also acquired a beautiful old bottle of Coty’s golden and spiced powder L’Origan in vintage eau de toilette, and to cap it all off a vintage eau de cologne bottle of Jean Charles Brosseau’s Ombre Rose, in my opinion the finest format of this perfume, all crepuscular, shadowed roses with an almost saline powderiness like the sweat of skin; so beautifully Japanese, like the sachets of incense that are tucked by ladies, still, into kimono in Kyoto, where clandestine pouches of pulverized incense are hidden in drawers and the folds of clothes and hair, and where a puff of invisible powder has all the suggestibility and eroticism of a hinted at love affair. Look. Inhale: but do not touch.
I never like to do the same thing twice on Christmas Day.
This year we are having friends round for the first time for a party at our house.
Three years ago we were on the white sands of windy Sarasota, and I was trying Djedi.
I wonder where we will be next year…
Whatever your holiday, I hope it is a good one. I’ll be back with a vengeance soon.
Duncan and family on the beach on Christmas Day
Duncan and little Ruby:
Edward’s beautiful shell shrine:
I must admit to being disappointed upon first smelling Djedi. If there was any scent that I was intensely curious to smell, it was this: Guerlain’s mystical, almost mythical, long-gone vetiver from 1927 that was said to be one of the strangest, driest and earthiest perfumes ever made – a pungent, leathery, and boscous forest of vetiver, rose, civet, musk and patchouli that dragged you down into gloom and entombed ambience of a twilit, Egyptian mummy.
From a brief and excited sniff of the sample vial, I knew immediately that this could not be the much fêted and unobtainable vintage, as it smells so niche and contemporary: a taut and light animalic vetiver that in its initial stages reminded me for a moment of a chest-bulging eighties masculine ( beautifully impossible to imagine…
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and haven’t used a walking stick all week!