Even for the most optimistic person, the 2020’s have not started well. Whole swathes of Australia on fire (and still burning): apocalyptic scenes that strike fear and dread into the heart. World War III seemingly about to start between the US and Iran (and what is coming next?); right wing quasi or actual dictators in power across the globe stirring up nationalistic fervour in the hearts of the masses; Brexit finally happening (a woeful disaster, but I am not ready to talk about it); and now a potential pandemic of the coronavirus that, whether exaggerated or not, is not very uplifting or reassuring – I woke up to the headline in the always downbeat and boringly pessimistic Japan Times this morning proclaiming JAPAN SEEKS TO PREVENT PANIC AMID OUTBREAK (…..a nurse was infected in Sagamihara, which is just a couple of train stops along from where I am working today in Atsugi; who knows who has got it; whether the masked populace is careful enough…..you could go crazy.) At any rate,, the ‘world economy’ is certainly going to take a hit; none of it bodes especially well.
We all exist at the macro and micro level, all of us in different proportions. Some completely shield themselves from the wider realities in computer games and books and binge watching; or by sealing themselves off – if they can bring themselves to do so – from social media and the TV (wise, once in a while I think, for mental respiration). Others, the more politically involved, quite rightly clamour and campaign and demonstrate to try and change things and veer us in a better direction. Without them, what would actually happen? I don’t know. I suppose I am somewhere in between. Engaged, out in the world, but also hiding. I have my limits. I try to inspire my students and instil a sense of self-worth and positivity in them by exposing them to different ways of thinking and from not shrinking away from being themselves. This is the next generation, and I believe in global thinkers. I hope I can help them on a good path.
At the same time, I know I am not Gandhi. Like most people, I am selfish. At the macro level, I know that the burning of fossil fuels is what is causing the fires in Australia, and yet I cannot do without my kerosene stoves and Delonghi electric heaters in winter as I am too susceptible to the cold, and this old house – which we both really love living in – is just such a heat loser that there really is no other option. Were I completely committed to the earth, I would move into some modern triple glazed apartment in the centre of suburbia, and be warm (but die a soul death). Hopefully, by hardly using the air conditioners in the summer, unlike everyone else who has them on all the time, I balance my carbon guilt out. But we are all part of this mess altogether. As the newspaper said the other day, there is a strange poetic justice in the fact that because of global warming, the very industries that have caused that change – the energy companies that keep us heated and pollute the skies – are the ones that are going to lose out in the long run. This has been the warmest winter ever, historically, globally – hence all the flowers that were out when I went for a bicycle ride yesterday.
Again, at the human level, this is catastrophic. For me personally, it is delightful. Freezing winds and biting temperatures are hell for me – it is like dying inside. I have virtually no defence against them; after the second time I had serious pneumonia I went through some kind of weird metamorphosis where my body became ultra sensitive to the cold; it penetrates deep into my tissues. ‘Brisk’ weather is fine – I have just been for another bike ride this morning and it is beautiful outside – only two degrees, but deliriously sunny and bright, and even with the world in a state of shit, nothing could deter my spirits from enjoying the beauty of nature and the pleasure of being alive in such moments; I was wrapped up, and in any case could feel that spring is approaching; though there will probably be some late, unexpected snow in the middle of March (which I adore – snow, for limited periods only, is a very beautiful and magical thing). Still, the buds are sprouting, the green is burgeoning; sap is flowing through bark; flowers are in a frenzied push within themselves as they can’t wait to prove themselves and burst forth – and neither can I.
It is interesting. The Black Narcissus has never been only about perfume. I think some people would prefer that it were, that I just gathered all the latest releases and blurbed about them like an industry insider, but it has never really been about that for me, in honesty. If I look back, politics, the world, philosophy, life itself, and of course my own experiences and psyche are all woven up into a living tapestry that is ongoing; a diary, really, or a continuing piece of performance art that you can tap into at will. While it sometimes makes me feel vulnerable, as I know I do overexpose myself, simultaneously it is gloriously liberating and I cannot deny that I am proud of it. If the coronavirus were to invade my lungs tomorrow and I were to perish, this, essentially, would be my legacy. It contains so much.
Perfume is usually the starting point though. My sense of smell is so alert, scent giving me so much pleasure and ecstacy, like an electrical socket into the life force, that it is often the best portal for me to enter or talk about different experiences within the world of olfaction, yet not be limited by it; the Proustian memory rush has become a cliché, perhaps, but only because it is so true and universal: our sense of smell really is undervalued in ‘developed’ societies, and his In Search Of Lost Time is the perfect example of how much our existences exist eternally within the scented molecule; lodged in our heads somewhere, waiting to be opened again, with all the rush of emotion and experience therein. I feel very lucky, to have this acute sensitivity (which we probably all have, but so many seem to me to be closed off to); the overwhelming, elating profusion of everything.
So is it trivial and silly to be trying to talk about the grand and the real; the global and the dreamlike/ luxurious in one probably incoherent passage? I don’t know. Possibly. But then again, if we were only to immerse ourselves in the ‘news’ (which is so sensationalistic and problematic to begin with; I know that the papers here WANT us to feel panic and feel permanently petrified about the coronavirus as that is what sells copies, so in truth, for a few days I haven’t been reading anything about it. I might say to Duncan, what’s the latest?, but I refuse to be dragged out into a quagmire of hysteria about it (at least, not just yet – who knows what I will be writing on here come next week…….)) Can one seriously combine perfume reviewing and talk about what sometimes feel like an encroaching armaggeddon? I don’t know: : but I am going to do it anyway.
We are multifaceted creatures. We exist on many different levels, from the dark mysteries and impulses of our secret subconsciouses when we sleep, to our deeper conscious emotions to our social selves and our sense of being part of the human race and possibly even something bigger beyond that. For me, perfume forms a latticework within all of this. It can release tensions, be a refuge, a link to the self, a barrier – and I mean that in a good way : it can contain the self, bring you back, while also maintaining a distance that ironically also pulls others emotionally closer…….so I will not be wearing a surgical mask today because they have all sold out and we have twenty here at home which we will keep for emergencies only – but I will be wearing plenty of my home made citrus balms, which smell delightful, I must say; simple classic vaseline with overdoses of bactericidal, viricidal essential oils in varying proportions of yuzu, iyokan orange (the most beautiful orange smell known to mankind); lemon, and bergamot – these are perfumes in that serve intrinsically as literal physical protection, and aesthetic and emotional uplifts.
Citruses pierce through the grime of the larger grimness. They don’t elevate my spirits in the way that more voluptuous perfumes do (for that I will usually need flowers). But sometimes we need simple fragrances that scythe through the mould of overloaded media anguish or the daily hassles of our lives – sharp awakenings that give you that immediate boost as you head out of the door. I also get this feeling from the best green fragrances, the amalgam of leaves and of chlorophyll; there is an immediacy to them, almost an urgency – perfumes such as Jacomo’s Silences, a waxy, hyacinth laden bayonet of hissing green is utterly brilliant in this regard, like the opposite of a lobotomy. St Giles’ The Tycoon, a scent that D sometimes wears, is equally effective in this regard: it manages the feat of staying penetratingly green all day; a masculine, citric fusillade of pomelo greenness that nobilizes the surroundings while also giving a flirtatious wink of come inside. The best green perfumes do this; No 19 is audaciously forbidding in its utter lack of any sweetness of guile; so forthright in its iris and galbanum; at first anyway, before it later reveals that it definitely does indeed have a soul (and a very fine one); I was wearing the original Envy by Gucci also during the colder period at the end of December and the beginning of January, as a work perfume just lightly on my coat; the iced lily of the valley underlayed with chic urban green notes like a buffer to the air around me (although there was a musk synthetic, finally, which I think that can also be found in Secretions Magnifiques, that ultimately made me stop wearing it). Musks are the bane of the modern green perfume; they are hard to escape, but this depends on what kind of green scent you are looking for. Not everyone wants to be quite as uncompromising with the notes vertes as I do.
Tokyo Bloom is one of those undeniably pleasing compositions: I would imagine that this is one of The Different Company’s more popular products in the Tokyo department stores where it is sold. The top accord is delightful – a sparklingly vernal green departure of basil leaves, galbanum, blackcurrant buds, fresh green notes and dandelion (as a child we kept rabbits, and the scent of dandelion leaves -the food they loved the most, more than lettuce, ripped from the garden or anywhere we found them is very nostalgic for me). If the scent could maintain this accord for longer, I would be buying this perfume on a regular basis, as I love this smell, but it later becomes more shampoo generic with a star jasmine, white musk and cyclamen sheer ambered base that smells more girl on the Yamanote line than how I would usually prefer to smell. Still, I will wear it, perhaps a spritz on the hair for freshness – the kind of scent you can imagine giving other people a boost as you walk by them – a momentary shift in perception.
Florentine perfumers L’Erbolario and Erbario Toscano, both within walking distance from each other in that beautiful living museum of a city, sell a wide range of perfumes that are inexpensive and very nicely executed. Primavera Toscana is a simple, herbal and floral composition crowned with an addition of mint (‘the dewy droplets of a fresh Tuscan Spring morning’) that the D has already taken to and will wear when it gets a bit warmer, while Primaverde is a fruited green floral with notes of papaya and clearly an homage to the lovely Calyx by Prescriptives, which I used to really love on my friends when I was at sixth form college ( high school ) in the eighties. Easy, unthreatening, this is definitely on the right side of serotonin and will be perfect on a shirt cuff – just a drop (if I actually survive the pandemic through to the beginning of the spring term.)
To the greenest. When it comes to unbridled and iconoclastic, there are few perfume houses less risk-averse than Gorilla Perfumes / Lush. The company can always be relied upon for inventive weirdness in perfumes that are very girding, individualistic and odd; I don’t think the perfumer Mark Constantine actually gets enough credit for just how original his compositions are – there is punk rebelliousness to them that is very English; the scent of gardening and bonfires and a mixing and matching a la Vivienne Westwood; Sid Vicious meets David Attenborough meets a black adder, sidling aimfully through the forest foliage. I will admit that I can’t wear the majority of their diverse collection myself (with the exception of a handful) as they are just so jagged , bizarrely self-contradictory and potent. I do like some of these new additions to the firmament though. What is interesting about this recent collection by new Lush co-perfumer Emma Dick, is the way in which she has taken the DNA of the Constantine signature, yet implanted fresh new roots that clarify the formulae a little, streamline them. I am planning to write more about these perfumes soon, which to my knowledge are a Florence only edition, at the especially Sappho, which I really like, and Confetti a coffee/rose/violet that would be better suited to the weather when it turns into April). For now, though, let’s just briefly take a look at Nero and Fresh As, which was obviously originally called Fresh As Fuck – because it is – almost blindingly so – a brain-piercing coniferous blast of Siberian pine over dry orris and tagetes that will annihilate any lingering doubts as you leave your abode on a bright, lung-filling morning. If petitgrain can be deemed a green note – because in many ways it is; the bridling oil from the leaves and bark of the bitter orange tree, and a note I sometimes avoid for its migraine potential – it goes straight to my cortex – the very life force of the citrus aurantiumits fierce citricity goes beautifully in this blend, with a clear, medicinal finish that combines neroli and bergamot almost to the protective, and defensive, point of armour.