From Issue 48 of Ten Men: Subtle by Tony Marcus
When I was a child growing up in Tokyo, I saw Paloma Picasso on TV. She showed the interviewer a small antique tin. “Russian tea,” she said. “I cannot live without it.” Those may not have been her exact words, I was only seven. But I can still see her. Twenty years later, I was helping a friend clear her mother’s flat in Paris. In the kitchen I found an old tin near the espresso machine. “Russian tea,” said my friend. “My mother brought it back from Moscow.”
The tea smelled of oranges and Christmas because the orange note was spiced. The tea itself was strong and black, like Assam. Later I bought Russian tea from Mariage Frères, the Parisian tea merchants. I bought their Georgian OP; the OP stands for orange pekoe. The tea was grown in Georgia, which was once part of the Soviet Union (now independent) but did not taste of oranges or spices.
“French consumers,” explain Mariage Frères in their catalogue of tea, “often confuse Russian tea with Russian blend, a citrus-flavoured blend of various teas that are not grown in the region.”
Perhaps Picasso had meant Russian blend. And orange pekoe has nothing to do with oranges; it means the most slender, uppermost leaves of the tea plant. Tea made from these leaves is particularly expensive. There is a snobbery about tea. However, for most of my life, tea was just tea, hot and welcome – but you get an upmarket partner and you pick up expensive tastes. One of the latest teas from Mariage is Paris Earl Grey, which has more of an orange cast than usual earl grey. It is more like Russian blend. But as I said, for most of my life, I never considered the quality or facets of the bergamot in a tea. Not until I was introduced to that level of refinement. But that other side of tea was always there. I just did not look. Or know where to look.
Similarly, no one will tell you how to dress in Japan. In Kyoto last spring it was 35 degrees. Some non-Japanese visitors dressed in shorts, vests and flipflops. Locals wore long trousers and shirts. This was an easy sign to read. But many people did not get it. Everyone is in the same place, but not everyone understands what they are looking at.
The word “subtle” is an old word and has two Latin roots. There is “sub”, meaning under or beneath, and “tela”, which refers to extremely fine fabric. Perhaps a fabric that is as slender as a web. There is an idea in “subtle” of a hidden web, of another world that is very fine and intricate. Beneath the surface of things.
Because I have been to Toyko many times, people ask me about the city. They say they are going and they want to see “old Japan”. I think that is hard in Tokyo, as most of the city was burned and also bombed to ashes, repeatedly. There are not that many old buildings left, although it can be pleasant to take long, aimless walks and look for older houses and shops. There is an ancient okonomiyaki restaurant in Asakusa with a dark wooden interior like a location from Seven Samurai. But only tourists go there, says my friend whose family has lived in the area for generations.
The Japanese sweets company Toraya has a cafe in the centre of Toyko, in Ginza. The building is shiny modern but Toraya is old Japan. It used to make sweets for the Imperial family when they lived in Kyoto. Toraya still makes traditional Japanese wagashi (confectionary) and serves them with bowls of matcha. I rarely see tourists in Toraya but it is genuine old Japan and even has an English menu. It is not even difficult to find it: near Fendi and Dior et al in Ginza. You might have to queue if it’s busy, but that is the only bar to entry. Nearby is Ginza West, which serves tea, filter coffee (which is very chic in Japan), biscuits and sponge cake. They have antimacassars on the backs of the chairs here. The cafe has been here since 1947 and remains popular with writers (men with paperbacks in Kennedy-era smart/casual) and upper-class Japanese ladies. My friends call the ladies “princesses”, because they come from old families and titled families – although the Americans, after the war, dissolved the Japanese aristocracy (in name anyway). And you don’t get many tourists in Ginza West – it looks more like 1920s Europe than Japan, and they play Debussy and Chopin on the stereo. But it’s old Japan. Old, high-class Japan.
As a teenager I used to read Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin. It is the deservedly very famous story of a young man in 1930s Berlin who records the lives of his friends. I relate to his anxiety about his clothes; he goes to a party – does he have the right trousers? And I relish the characters in this book: prostitutes, singers, barmen, landladies, lower middle-class Nazis and teenage communists. I think for a while I was half in love with one of the characters, Bernhard Landauer – he is a bit fey, but he is also a dream or model of the subtle. Isherwood describes a visit to Landauer’s apartment, high above Berlin:
“This evening he was wearing a beautifully embroidered kimono over his town clothes… I noticed again his beautiful English, and the deprecatory gestures of his hands, as he showed me a 12th-century sandstone head of the Buddha from Khmer which stood at the foot of his bed – ‘keeping watch over my slumbers’.”
Landauer’s family owns a department store, effectively the Harrods of Berlin, which he manages. Isherwood reveals his character with delicacy and a ton of syrupy Orientalism. Landauer has travelled all over the East, he is a Jewish intellectual, immaculately dressed, scrupulously polite, beauti-fully mannered and carries a great and quiet sadness. “He was soft, negative, I thought,” writes Isherwood, “yet curiously potent, with the static potency of a carved ivory figure in a shrine.”
Many years later, Isherwood looked back at this work and recalled he found it “deeply disturbing” to have met a man like Landauer, who seemed to know so much about the world. In Goodbye to Berlin, Isherwood is deeply frustrated by Landauer – he accuses him of a “false humility”, but I think a reader of the book may disagree and feel this character operates on a spiritual level that the book’s narrator does not comprehend. There was a real-life model for Landauer: Wilfrid Israel, whose family’s department store is now Berlin’s colossal KaDaWe. For most of the Nazi period, Israel worked tirelessly (and secretly) to help many people escape Germany.
Among the details of the Anna Delvey story it is interesting she passed herself off as an heiress by dressing down. Writing for Vice/Garage about Delvey, Rachel Tashjian zeroed in on her outfits: Delvey wore a Supreme hoodie, workout pants (sometimes Wang) and sneakers. Or “the rich girl staple: a shrunken black leather jacket, which looks like a poorly cared for Rick Owens”. Maybe Delvey knew that one or two details or clues would suggest the bigger picture – whether that picture was real or, in her case, imaginary. Some centuries ago, the word “subtle”, often spelled “subtile”, meant one who deceives, and referred to a person who could not be trusted.
Deep house DJ Moodymann sampled two lines from Chic’s I Want Your Love to make his 1996 record I Can’t Kick This Feelin When It Hits. He repeats these two lines from Chic: “What am I gonna do?” and “I can’t kick this feelin’ when it hits”, until his track feels like a hymn to drug-taking. Or a hymn to love. You can take “this feeling” to mean whatever. But Chic’s Nile Rodgers has been open, in recent years, about his drug-taking in the Chic period. And while I have listened and danced to Chic a thousand times, I never noticed (or felt) that line until Moodyman discovered it. It was like a secret Rodgers buried in the song.
I am reading the word “subtle” as a story of fine threads that are hidden beneath the surface of the world. And I understand Christopher Isherwood’s frustration with Landauer, because in that instance he could see the signs but he couldn’t read them. He found the clues that took him nowhere. It is possible our whole world is littered with similar lines and marks. The web that holds them all together might be anything from an Eastern religion to the discreet patterns of old money. But a web made of fabric so fine that it is transparent is a beautiful and terrible thing, you know, because it can hide in plain sight.
Illustration by Charles Jeffrey