Perfume and Plato

And now for something completely different ...

I have to admit, sometimes I wonder what I’m doing writing about fragrance. Is it that interesting? Weird I know - I mean, bloody hell, there must be something I like about it seeing as I’ve been at it for the best part of a decade. But of course perfume is not going to change the world – it’s not tangible, you can’t see it and you can never properly convey in words what a scent is actually like. For many, it’s an after-thought, sprayed on after their lengthy beauty routine, as a last minute spritz before heading out of the door. Most scents smell “nice” don’t they? And furthermore, how does one nice scent, really differ from another? Applying perfume is not an event in itself – you generally wear it to enhance an outfit, to go somewhere, to see someone. People tend to look bewildered when I say I write about fragrance, then they ask me, “have you ever tried writing about food? That would be amazing…”

As well as perfume writing – I’m also a philosophy student, having just finished my part-time MA a few weeks ago. It’s a subject that requires a lot of thought – a lot of attention - as it’s not easily accessible. But I love dissecting arguments and logic as much as I do fragrance. We would all like to think everyone spends hours exploring every nuance of a scent. But perfumes are like not like curling up with a book – they’re a luxury, like posh curtains, not something you necessarily spend a great deal of time engaging with – for many people it's a quick sniff and a “ooh that’s lovely” and then on to something else.

Yet I think living in a city is crucial to my fixation with scent (hence this website’s title). And now we come to Plato – which means I need to digress for a few minutes (stay with me!). He was one of the first philosophers I read and really “got” – and his famous allegory of the cave is probably the most thought-provoking work in the history of philosophy – and it’s beautiful because it’s so simple (hell, there was even a Keanu Reeves film based on it!).

Basically we are all staring at shadows on a wall in a cave – and we stare at these shadows transfixed, believing them to be “reality”. But no one has turned around and noticed what is actually ‘real’ is behind them, taking the shadows to constitute reality. What Plato meant (I think!) is that what we experience through are senses are mere ‘impressions’ of reality, - it’s not actually real life. We can see how Plato could apply this to everyday life, in that everything is constantly in a state of flux, it’s difficult to grasp any sort of ‘truth’ or ‘realness’ amid the chaos. This is especially apparent if you live in the city.

I’ve been in London for a decade and love what most other people love about living here: there’s plenty to see and do right on your doorstep, the history, that there’s always something going on. The fact that on an otherwise non-eventful Wednesday evening, you can hop on a Clipper boat down the Thames for around £7 and then walk into China Town and get a bowl of ramen at 10pm. I’ve made some of my closest friends here and met some inspiring people. But occasionally things get to you: the anonymity, the rudeness of commuters (one charming cyclist flipped the bird at me today) and the constant bombardment of noises, lights – and smells – can make you a tad weary of it all.  You can have loads of fun here, but you can also feel massively disconnected. It’s like being at a party in full swing, one minute you’re having the time of your life, the next you feel dizzy and tired and want to go home.

Which brings me back to scent. There’s something about it that is so real and so intimate, it makes me “snap out” of that world-weary city dweller trance. A new rose eau de parfum can conjure up a specific memory, an image, a distant place. For me at least, perfume feels more “real” than anything else, smells connect with the most primitive part of our brain, and has the strongest link to memory than any other sense. When it feels like time’s whizzing by, perfume is our strongest link to the past. It cuts through the chaos and brings us something real. It’s also nicer than the general onslaught of food, cigarettes, car fumes that normally bombard our nostrils (unless you walk down Knightsbridge, in which case you’ll get engulfed in a luxurious fug of oudh). The glamorous history of perfume is pretty incredible too.

Plato spoke about there being a realm of eternal “Forms” – eternal truths (“Good”, “Love” etc.) representations of which we experience in everyday life, but whose actual reality lies beyond our grasp. Now, you might not believe that some mysterious realm of Forms does indeed exist, but there are times when we can at least imagine getting a bit closer to it. 

When I meet perfumers and they tell me the stories behind what they've created, it's a little bit like that. Seriously, the characters you meet in the fragrance industry are some of the most enchanting people you’re ever likely to encounter. Many seem like they were born in another era, wistful, sensitive, kind-hearted eccentrics who you can spend hours chatting with over tea and scent blotters, as concoctions made of Turkish rose, vetiver and patchouli get wafted under your nose. It’s their personalities and stories I try to capture in my writing as well as the scents themselves. I never planned on writing about perfume when I decided on a career path at school, but it’s something I seem to have fallen into and it’s made my time living in the city all the better for it.