Not wanting to cancel our appointments at a hair salon down the hill yesterday despite deciding to no longer attend the wedding tomorrow afternoon, D went in first: I followed him an hour later. I have never been one to enjoy having my hair cut – to put it mildly – and have been sticking to the same old barber in Ofuna for a good few years, intermittently, when I don’t just snip at my barnet myself (I often just can’t be bothered with all the hassle of the experience; the having to make conversation, avert your eyes, watch yourself get transformed – often not in quite the way you imagined – and walk out feeling like a different person). Which I get is the whole point for many people – when it goes right, a new haircut can be quite refreshing, like sprucing up a hedge in the garden, or dusting your shelves, or a good-fitting new winter coat.
Yesterday’s experience was one of the better ones. We had never been to that particular place before : straight down the hill on the bike to the corner that meets the railway tracks, and it was pricier, but they were younger, there was a lot of natural light, and space, and the conversation in my always slightly stilted Japanese flowed fairly smoothly: I suppose having not really socialised with many people outside this household for a while I suddenly found myself in super-extrovert mode, making them laugh the second I went in, playing the buffoonish gaijin……….. the whole process felt effortless (as though I wasn’t even aware that they were cutting my hair…………). I came out of the shop feeling neater, and somewhat renewed – a bit preppier, younger; not that anyone is really going to see me for a while, as we are thinking that from today we might be shutting ourselves in properly just like everybody else.
Neither the hairstylist nor his assistant were wearing masks. And neither were Duncan nor I. You have to question yourself: what does this mean? I know in the UK, hair salons are going out of business – I have a friend who is now unemployed – it seems obvious that this is a perfect opportunity to get infected, with all the personal space being reduced to the intimacy of physical contact and shared oxygen, but, like many people here – despite the semi-mandatory lockdown this weekend, in which no one in Tokyo is supposed to go out of their houses except for the essentials – cue mass supermarket panics like everywhere else – and throngs unable to resist the allure of the opening cherry blossoms – reality has not quite bitten yet. It is still lurking as a possibility. Japan is a genius of deflection: turning a (knowing) blind eye a preternatural state of existence.
And yet this morning I have read that Birmingham Airport, ten minutes by car from my parent’s house, is being converted into a temporary makeshift morgue to store 1,500 bodies in the expected rise in mortal cases. My cousin’s case of coronavirus has come back, and now her husband has got it as well. Another cousin’s close friend actually died of it yesterday. I am sure we have reached a situation, or will do soon, in which everybody will know somebody who has either come down with the illness or died from it, or at the very least lost their jobs and entered a perilous state of financial security (someone even closer in my family has reached this dreadful situation and is in a very dangerous state psychologically ). D and I even talked, quite matter of factly, of making wills this afternoon just in case. Not that we have any especially exciting assets to speak of (except, bizarrely, for an apartment in Berlin), but, you know, just in case. I like to be truthful, face facts, and not to unduly beat around the bush ( though I do love to bush around the beat, and was dancing upstairs in the room I am writing this yesterday, vogueing like a fool with D, concurrently just living in the spontaneous moment because I have to and we totally felt like it. Nothing can stop me enjoying life, especially not the shadow of death). It is quite mindbogglingly awful, though, that the whole world is now in a similar predicament, in fear of no longer existing: or much worse, that we have entered the rites of plague, without funerals, that a hangar in my hometown is now being turned into a place for corpse storage, that the virus is in the town where my parents live: it is difficult how to know what to do with the worry, where to store it, in which internal organs, out of reach……..
I am aware of the great importance of being thankful for what you have got. So far, it seems that both of our jobs are safe; that we will still get paid, because education is at the very heart of Japanese priorities, more so than anywhere else I am aware of. For parents, it is everything. Far too much, in my humble opinion. To the detriment of too many other things, like free time and self-exploration, or just the criminally under appreciated importance of simple relaxation ( I thank god that despite the histrionics of my nature, my nervous volatility and piteous lack of impulse control -as a result of which I truly do live in the moment, another thing I am grateful for despite its sometimes dangerous repercussions – I am simultaneously really very good at doing nothing and truly switching off. My family knows that I am the best at this: the slob to end all slobs: I can luxuriate all day; a friend the other day said she just sits on the edge of her sofa and stares at the sky and I think that this is wonderful: some people can never turn off their brains, which is why it is so necessary to be able to focus on other things, such as reading, watching TV series or films, writing, playing the piano, cooking, swimming, having sex, running, walking, talking to others, daydreaming, even – with almost 100% of your concentration. To lose yourself. I always have been good at doing this,I must say, but I mean that in a good way; particularly in the times we are living in right now : if you can’t escape, mentally, spiritually, from the relentless misery that is in the news then there is the potential to go under, and I don’t want to until I am taking my very last breath on that ventilator, intubated alone (that is, presuming the Japanese authorities even let a foreigner take a place in one of those limited hospital beds, who knows?) Until then, though, I intend to keep surfing on the crest of the ether and the pleasure receptors that are working full tick, in fact better than ever, if I am truthful with you; a curious state of affairs when you think about it, given these grotesquely surreal current circumstances.
I have a friend who lives in Berlin – A French/ Indian/ British dancer and performance artist who deals with quite abstract philosophical issues: last time we were in London Duncan in fact took part in one of her ‘collapses’ – a protest against Brexit, staged in front of King’s Cross St Pancras station in which the participants slowly – out of the blue – in broad public, started falling, very slowly, towards the ground, in an eerie and provocative dance piece of solidarity and collaboration. I was one of the spectators, just one of the public sitting in the square, and though the skeptical will find such ‘nonsense’ pretentious posturing and so on, I personally found the ‘disruption’ of normal perception very interesting; cleansing; watching people’s reactions on the street : it was like opening up something pre-existing – I remember a Chinese man coming up to me and striking up a conversation about what the hell I thought was going on: to me it was like slicing through the quotidian grime of people zoned out in their own preoccupied little capsules of apprehension; all of us walking forward lost in our thoughts, trapped in our necessities and agendas, getting through the day.
Writing this I suppose I should be now be saying, how I yearn for those regular times before all this happened, the normality, just the normal clockwork workings of the day, but as I tap these words onto the computer that is not actually the way I am feeling. Does that make me terrible? I don’t know. Dominique, the artist in question, has written extensively, and done performances, about her theory of ‘somatic revolt’, the idea that even when you are consciously aware of the importance of an office job, for example, in which you feel repressed or which feels deeply unnatural to you – as it does for me, no matter how much you try to convince yourself otherwise, like psychosomatic illness, your body will eventually revolt ; against itself, against society, which is why there are so many auto-immune disorders and so much mental illness worldwide: this ruthless system, in truth, just doesn’t work for people (and don’t think for a minute that I am just a spoilt little bitch who is not aware of ‘the necessity of work’: I come from a regular background, and as I have written above, people I know are in quite dire situations and I am very worried for them ; I am genuinely grateful to still have a job; we don’t have sufficient savings to sustain us should we become unemployed; I have always worked, and would be fucked if I didn’t have any income coming in) – but at the same time, I dp know that working, at least doing what I am doing, or at least the general environment, is not good for my actual health. Right now I feel 100% human; 100% alive. In some ways, despite the horror, quite amazing. Four weeks ago I was in a situation – which I documented on here – in which the reprehensible decision by my ‘superior’ to make me work and teach students in ludicrous emergency conditions even though the rest of the company and the whole country was on lockdown made me so angry – I would say apoplectic – that I literally exploded myself out of the situation in the purest form of somatic revolt: my body simply could not contain my frustration and fury and I lost it, with the result that although I have been working in that particular school for almost twenty years, my desk has now been ‘removed’ : I have been summarily ejected, and I will be working in another section from this April, assuming the virus hasn’t spread, and we are still required to go into the school in order to teach our lessons.
While part of me was indignant, and slightly embarrassed, to be honest with you, to have ended my time. my ‘career’ in that stuff, unbreathable and mouldering teachers’ room in such an out of control fashion, a much, much bigger part of me is truly delighted; I did it! I will be with much more sophisticated colleagues from now who will actually talk to me, and with much more natural light surrounding me (which is absolutely essential to my well being). I am pretty sure that my stress levels will be significantly reduced, so in the end, my uncontrollable instincts were proven right. I don’t deny them, nor disassociate myself from them. Work environments can be extraordinarily stressful; sometimes you don’t even realise yourself how much they are affecting you until you are taken away from that physical space. And I imagine that all around the world right now, though people are dismayed at the prospect of rapidly changing living and work circumstances – and the prospect of actual death ( I know several friends back home in the UK who are probably reading this and nodding to themselves ruefully : some literally even wondering how they are going to put food on the table, I am not in any way ignorant of this ) – at the same time, I have to say that this enforced isolation will probably be making a very large number of people reassess the meaning of their life itself; when forced to slow down, to stay inside, to regroup, and remodel your whole way of living,you are taken away from the ‘hustle and bustle’ of daily life (which I know we all ‘need’ to keep busy, though deep down I say it can go fuck itself) :you are compelled – against your will in many cases – to travel inside.
The quality of this ‘travelling’ of course, will depend on what kind of apartment or house you are living in. I have friends up in Tokyo who live in tiny shoeboxes: one in particular who is hoping to move soon to London (what timing!) to further her work as a milliner is living, like a great many Tokyoites, in a tiny space; hardly enough to move around and I do worry about what will happen to my friends in these situations if it all actually does come to a fully fledged lockdown. It might be a little bit like being trapped in a prison cell, albeit one decorated with your own furnishings. I am worried that they will feel too penned in, submerged in their own isolation tank. In contrast I am lucky: I happen to live in an old, quite run down house that is nevertheless the perfect, ideal size for me. It is not big: D estimated the other day that it is no more than 80 metres squared, which shocked me ( I would have said at least a hundred, but his spatial awareness is far better than mine is so I will kowtow to his slightly more mathematical brain). I do know though that I often see huge, spacious, palatial houses and apartments in TV shows and films and unlike many, who sigh with aspiration – I must keep working to ‘better myself’; to climb the ladder! To have more! to ‘live the dream’ – I just see cold, empty spaces full of air and windows: meaningless ostentation. Showrooms. Catalogues. For me, the perfect balance between claustro and agora phobias – enough space to feel free and unhindered but also withdrawn enough, unvisible, to be able to hide, and nest – must be right for me to ever fully enjoy living somewhere, and this place just happens to hit the spot very nicely. Our old place – just one street along where we lived for thirteen years – was ok in some ways but a little too cramped and you could hear the man upstairs: where we are living now, since the earthquake, in a house, D says he sometimes finds cramped, or rather in his words, ‘poky’ – but it is the opposite for me. Quiet. Virtually no noise. Just ambient sounds from outside. An upstairs and a downstairs; a contrast between a bohemian, den-like kitchen and sitting area with red lights and an almost sleazy aspect to it, packed with records, art books, knickknacks, spice shelves, patterned fabrics, kitsch bits and pieces – my dad sometimes says it is like talking to me in a red light district in Amsterdam when we communicate on FaceTime or WhatsApp – why is your face always orange, why are you always in a bordello; but to me it is my lair, my refuge. I know there are a lot of bitter online debates between people about minimalism versus the opposite, but some friends who came the other day and marinaded themselves in our peculiar surroundings said that they now were rethinking their positions – ‘we love this cosiness’, —- and so do I.
Upstairs is very different. Light blue, green, or aquamarine. All the plants. The kitchen gets very little natural daylight, which is why it was pointless having it as anything other than a Madamish parlour à la Toulouse Lautrec (incidentally, we found some fabulous art books the other day in the trash, including a couple on the ultimate Parisian decadent: Friday is book collection day, and you wouldn’t believe some of the beautiful books that get thrown away, just tied up with a little string, or sometimes kimono fabric: though considered rat like and scummiest – the stinking foreign reprobate – I have no compunction in riding along on my bicycle and – yes, I’ll have that pile thank you very much : whipping it up with my little finger and enduring the pain until I get the pile back to our house just down the street: wonderful to then lie on the sofa with your herb tea or beer and leaf through some art catalogues from the seventies, or books on psychology and sociology, or just picture books on Persia and places around Japan (although there was a deathly dull book I picked up the other day which featured a series of photographs on the North Japanese logging industry, in black and white; rarely have I been more bored than staring at pictures of tied up, immobile riverside logs); still, it provided a momentary diversion, and I think I am going to keep it. Why not? You never know when a Log Lady might turn up for the evening and be in absolute heaven, leafing through the pages in somatic ecstasy.
Yes, exploring our own house has actually been quite fascinating. We never would have done this if we hadn’t had so much time off to physically do so. Not able to go out as much as usual, we have made discoveries. The record player is broken, as is the projector, so there are so many films, so much beauteous vinyl just sitting there, pleading to be enjoyed, but it will just have to wait. When this coronashite subsides – and it WILL, it MUST – I will sip on a whisky and enter heaven on multiple occasions, on repetition (my favourite films are in my bloodstream; I sometimes have a physical ache for them); my record collection is no less precious. I could swear that just looking through my 12″s and LPs strengthens my immune system. I can feel it. But moving upstairs, past bookshelves filled with novels I have never read, and magazines and pamphlets I never knew existed (my boyfriend is a true magpie: not only is there always an ever growing dressing up cupboard, there are draws and draws filled with jewellery and sunglasses and postcards and inexplicable paraphernalia and curious accessories if you ever fancy coming round and dressing up, not to mention the costumes of Burning Bush and D Whom and Zarza Ardiente and Leon Charmé, if you can even get into the galakutabeya, or rubbish repository, or jumble cupboard, or Mr Benn’s changing room , whatever you want to call it, with its dolls heads and mannequins and taxidermy and wigs and god knows what – D’s family were supposed to be coming for a holiday in March and we were looking forward to having movie screenings and dressing up boxes with his four nieces and nephews – I can just imagine what hilarity and chaos would have ensued – but it will have to happen another day, maybe next year in October…………….
As you go up the narrow staircase you reach the only typically ‘tasteful’ room in our house. More refined, with no colour, only natural materials…..the traditional Japanese room, made of wood, with high ceiling, shoji screens, tatami mats – but also antique armoires packed full of perfumes for you to peruse and spray on (what time are you coming over?). It has been wonderful just lazing around in the morning and reaching out for some perfume I had forgotten I even had, or else one of Zubeyde’s, which I had somewhat neglected to put put back in her collection – and which is still in the genkan, blocking the entrance, hundreds and hundreds of rare and precious perfumes she has not yet been able to pick up (Z, your coffee awaits you!) ; this morning I was trying on something from my own collection that Duncan had brought home for me one day and I hadn’t yet properly tested on my skin, Alla Festa, by Pola – a Japanese marigold floral a little like vintage Lauren by Ralph Lauren with a rich shampoo sheen that will do nicely for this afternoon. Enlivening. Just one spray and it takes me out of myself.
The cat is clearly very contented having us both home together at the same time. She follows us everywhere. The other day we found ourselves in the piano room, looking through books and finding things we didn’t even know were there (or even existed, really): oh look at this, this is interesting; where did this come from? actually using those that had been neglected or unread or unlistened to: a beautiful book of paintings and sculptures by Max Ernst, one of our surrealist favourites, some vintage Japanese erotica; photograph albums (enough to lose a whole day in); boxes of tapes – incredibly enjoyable to be listening to; whole eras and times I had forgotten coming back; not being able to listen to records has made us listen to long forgotten CDs and cassettes again, compilations from when we first met each other – one he made me for Valentine’s Day when I was 23; yesterday I really teared up and became emotional listening to one made in my friend Peter’s university room and which I remembered listened to on the day after I came out to my parents – (literally: Dancing Queen), a very momentous day for me emotionally, the importance of which cannot be underestimated; and the list of tracks ended eventually, after some music from the gorgeous French film Diva, about a down and out biker falling in love with an opera singer, with some unexpected music by Michael The Zither Man, a homeless, madrigal-like musician who used to play very magical music on his strange instruments that tinged the twilight blue sky outside of King’s College, Cambridge on June summer evenings – hearing it all again quite startling.
With a need for evening entertainment, but no DVDs to watch until we hear from the projector factory, we have been glued to the screen of the computer on which I am writing this (the lightest room in the house, and the one that houses the more contemporary perfumes for me to reach out for when I am writing about scent as well as white painted shelves housing part of the movie collection)………….I don’t think it can be emphasised how lucky we all are in many ways to be living in this era and to have access to such endless visual diversions. Whenever we want them. Yes, as my favourite film critic Manohla Dargis wrote the other day in a very moving piece in the New York Times about the beauty of sharing a space in the dark with your fellow man to watch a piece of cinema, and the great loss she is feeling right now from its absence, the alternative might be merely ‘suboptimal’ TV series on streaming services such as Netflix (which for a month cost half the price of one cinema ticket ), but in my view, so many of these series are so totally involving, and of such quality, that the so called phenomenon of ‘binge-viewing’ (which unnecessarily denigrates the natural pleasure of viewing and being fully engrossed in something) is a true blessing for humanity, especially right now, and I couldn’t be more happy to be so susceptible. Granted, were you to spend every single day of your life doing nothing other than being immersed in other people’s worlds, it might be regrettable – depending on your life philosophy- although a very ill friend of mine in Leicester truly has no other option as she is virtually unable to move because of paralysing nerve issues and it really does give her a portal to staying afloat when her body has been giving up on her for so long – – – – – – she is sustained and kept part of humanity by continuously watching the programmes that she loves. But though we tend to feel ‘guilty’ about spending so much time absorbed in the dramas of other people’s lives, real, or fictional, for me it is the opposite: I couldn’t be more curious about other spaces, other realities, other places, I want to go everywhere, I want to step inside every house, to smell it, see through its windows, feel how the occupants live, sense their lives, imbibe them; hear other languages, wonder over other cultures; different realms of possibility; the beautiful stimulation of different light, nature, belief systems, knowledge (we watched a very interesting documentary about babies that was extremely enlightening the other day ); to be aroused, horrified, excited, amused; the fact that we have these experiences constructed by other, creative people on tap for us at the mere touch of a button is in many ways nothing short of miraculous when in truth otherwise we could be just interiorising our fears and own built in limitations and just fretting; wrecking our bodies with all the stress : I say no, turn your gaze outwards ; drink in the world through your senses, take it in without tedious remorse over laziness or ‘unproductiveness’: instead, in my view, this is a gift.
‘Tiger King’ a wild, bizarre, hilarious, unbelievable, trashy, and utterly thrilling documentary we watched the last two days on Netflix, had both of us agape on the bed, screaming at the camp and the ‘murder and mayhem’ of the true story of rival tiger owners in the US (did you know that there are 5,000 – 10,000 tigers kept as pets in America, but only 4,000 alive in the wild worldwide?), in a plot that you couldn’t possibly make up because nobody would ever believe it, and which, I could tell, was stimulating Duncan to the depths of his core – he looked elated (“This is the best thing I have seen since Toni Erdmann”, he exclaimed, as we rushed to make dinner to get back to it – the beyond brilliant absurdist German film that was the film critics’ number one choice globally a few years ago, a film you can’t quite imagine until you see it, both grotesque and tender and hilarious beyond measure; ; ; ; ; ) this also took us out of ourselves to the extent that I felt thoroughly exhausted and brain-mashed by the time we finally went to bed. I felt that my head couldn’t possibly take any more. It was about to explode with what I had just absorbed into my body and brain, which couldn’t’ quite take in the preposterousness of what I was viewing. (I think of this phenomenon as a good thing though; to empty your own head, and have it occupied, for a while, by someone else, another moment. Just let it flood in). Filmed in Tampa, Florida, it really made me ache for foreign travel again, to go back to the Deep South – New Orleans, in particular, a place that has always stayed with us, badly, for some reason – I remember us, after an especially mad night of tequila and dancing in every club we could find in the town centre of Tampa, where Duncan was going nuts on the dance floor next to go go boys and we danced to merengue in a Cuban bar and he had one of the worst hangovers of his life, the next day while he slept it off I wrote an extended piece on The Black Narcissus about New Orleans, trying to capture the experience, and the city itself in words, as we travelled back from Tampa to Miami by train in a private car, and I couldn’t possibly have been more happy; watching the bayous and the beautiful, trailing Spanish moss trees that seemed so specific to that part of the world alongside the humid orange groves; the sheer wealth of literature and cinema and music from those specific places that are steeped in our general consciousness: Elizabeth Taylor pleading with Paul Newman in Cat On A Hot Tin Roof; the moist mysteries of Truman Capote and his strange families of oddballs lounging on their verandas like lizards: Nicolas Cage and Eva Mendes raging on the post Katrina streets in the brilliant Bad Lieutenant, Port Of Call, New Orleans by Werner Herzog with its iguanas and voodoo cemeteries; its saloon bars and sea snakes and dry crouching alligators; the over plenitude of crocodiles at the amusement park that we all went to, slinking into the waters but so close to the crowding families out to have fun in the hot summertime sunshine; the swirling deliciousness of the rich, Louisiana food; the crazed delectability of the lobster bisque, served by a waiter who then took us on a secret tour of the famous old restaurant we had dinner in, taking us upstairs to all the backrooms, the laced dining rooms with their solid wood tables where the movers and shakers of the city did their deals, looking out from the balustraded rooftops over the city with its warm, sluggish seduction and its derelict vampire graves; the solemn beauty of the old houses, the cascading trees, the river, and the jazz bars.
The perfumeries of the French Quarter. Hové Parfumeur and its other worldliness; the bunches of dried Creole vetivert grass piled up for purchase; soap, eaux de toilette, parfum strength; this in enough would warrant a trip back for me – next time I will fill up my suitcase with the stuff, I can tell you. The oozy aldehydic Pirate’s Gold that smelled so unctuously glinting on Duncan that he got through his small bottle of parfum in no time when we got back to Japan ; it smelled so decadent, and yet so simultaneously trustworthy and warm. I adored it. And Spanish Moss. What a beautiful perfume. I came across it again the other day, when randomly going through my collection: my small bottle, waiting to be found by me, having forgotten that it even existed. But this is treasure. The smell of acacia blossoms shot through with honey; the bearded willows of the Spanish Moss trees trailing gently above the flowing river waters; sweet with mosses and orange flowers (lilac; heliotrope, osmanthus) ; green, with a clandestine tenderness and optimism; composed within itself with an unforced ease of long ago: a replete – and life-giving – elixir.