Tuesday, January 10, 2006

An Evening with Jamie Cullum

What a superb evening! There is no other way to describe a concert by the charismatic, energetic, absolutely delightful, and oh-so-tiny Jamie Cullum.
It was also an entirely unexpected pleasure. I had only just heard of Jamie Cullum before tonight, and certainly didn’t expect to be going to see him play live. Fab, a Swiss friend of mine, ‘phoned me last night at about 6.30pm saying that he had a ticket for a concert with the small, English Jazz pianist but no-one to go with, and would I like to come. I, of course, said that I would be delighted to accompany him.
Thus it was that we made our way to the Paris Olympia in the 9th Arrondissement, just along the road from the grand, neo-classical Eglise de la Madeleine. After consuming what was, by virtue of its manufacture, possibly the slowest crêpe I have ever witnessed being cooked (by a chap who seemed to think that the utmost care is needed over the presentation of what was, to us, just a quick snack), we made our way past the ticket touts and those distributing unwanted leaflets into the Olympia. The oldest music hall in Paris has played host to such stars as Edith Piaf, Jimmy Hendrix and The Beatles, and it was certainly a fitting setting for an excellent concert. Tastefully decorated, almost exclusively in red, the hall itself was down a very long corridor and through a lobby; although there was an extensive balcony, we were standing on the ground floor, with several hundred others.
The warm-up act was an enthusiastic but somewhat samey Spanish-style act, with most of the songs in English. Whilst the stage was re-arranged, there followed a period of time which was – retrospectively – long enough to get a drink, which would have been most welcome later, when the hall began to heat up as the audience became more excited and physically active. When Cullum and his very able band finally came on, the audience were ready to be entertained, and we were not going to be disappointed.
Fab and I were standing about 40 feet from the stage on the left-hand side, with a very good view of Jamie’s hands as he sat (or more often, stood) at the piano. During the first couple of numbers, it very quickly dawned on me that this was possibly the coolest person with whom I had ever had the pleasure of sharing the same room. As someone who has dabbled with the ivories, I could appreciate that the amazing technical ability that this young man possessed was far beyond that which I could dream of. Apart from this, his stage presence was overflowing. An excellent showman, one was always wondering “what will he do next?” while being entertained with brilliant music drawn from a broad church. Jamie had a decent go at speaking French (“Bonsoir Paris. Je vais jouer une chanson pour vous”), albeit in a (deliberate?) comic English accent. It transpires that he had spent several months in Paris, his favourite city. I was particularly pleased to see him play a tribute to his second-favourite city, London. My personal ranking is as yet undecided.
I shalln’t bore you with descriptions of individual songs; you had to be there. Purists may argue that he plays jazz for the lazy, or that his lyrics are meaningless. I am not a music critic, but I think that I will be putting Jamie Cullum on my next shopping list. If he is the future of music, then I remain optimistic. The only pity was that I couldn’t put him in my pocket and take him home with me.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Encounter with French Police on return journey

[Sorry, am unable to put pictures up at the moment. Will try to fix when I have more time!]

Since I had spent a few days in London just before Christmas, I decided to take a more direct return route, so I booked myself on the ferry from Portsmouth (where I was staying) to Cherbourg, and the train from there to Paris. After negotiating the somewhat labyrinthine stages of the operators' websites, I managed to book the journey for £47, which I thought wasn't too bad.
The six-hour-long 8am crossing from Portsmouth on the Val de Loire was fairly eventless, and were it not for watching The Constant Gardener (a film which I would recommend) in the ship's underwater cinema, I would have been rather bored. (I should point out that the hull prevented the audience from actually getting wet.) Any good views of Portsmouth or the Isle of Wight were thwarted by the rather gloomy weather, although this didn't stop me taking photos, most of which are fairly boring. Cherbourg is, of course, a town which is utterly impossible to photograph from the port, due to its ugliness.
Processes on either side of the crossing were relatively straightforward; there were no intrusive customs procedures, and I only had to wave my passport a couple of times. On finding out that there was no bus, I made the 2-km journey to the train station on foot. After failing to obtain my ticket from the machine, I had to run through the various bureaucratic stages of requesting a refund, and making a new purchase, with the assistance of a helpful member of station staff (take heed, British Rail, or whatever it’s called these days). After this, I had 40 minutes to kill, so I tried to find somewhere other than the rather limited station shop to grab a quick bite to eat. I had not been out of the station for two minutes when I was apprehended by two police officers, who asked to see my passport. Suspicious that they were not wearing any uniform, dressed as they were in plain clothes with a simple orange arm-band with the word “Police” printed on it, I asked to see some identity. They duly obliged, so I showed the female officer my passport. My suspicions were further fuelled by their behaviour: she was slowly moving away from me, and talking into a walky-talky, and he appeared to be deriving much amusement from the scenario. I suddenly foresaw the potential consequences of trying to pursue someone running away from me with my passport whilst I was encumbered by my heavy suitcase (containing my laptop, amongst other less valuable possessions), and began to envisage my predicament as the victim in an elaborate stitch-up job.
Panicking, I grabbed my passport back from her, amidst their protests, telling them that I would show it to someone in uniform. I ran, with my luggage, back to the station, where I immediately reported the incident to the station staff. My first thought was just to get to safety amongst people whom I trusted, but it then occurred to me that I should give them all the details, so that another unfortunate would not suffer in the same way. To my amazement, the two individuals in question had the nerve to follow me into the station, and were standing about 50 yards away by the entrance. To my further amazement, after I had struggled through my explanation (in French), one of the station staff said, “That’s right, I recognise her, she is a policewoman”. I didn’t know what to think; at once I felt a fool, but also a confused foreigner who just wanted to go home. I’m sure the police in a so-called civilised country should not behave in this way.
After that, the journey back to Paris seemed positively eventless.