St. Pancras station in London is one of those glorious gothic revival buildings so loved by moustachioed titans of Victorian engineering. It is a red brick mixture of splendid ornatery and rigorous functionality – fulfilling the two imperial requirements of grandeur and efficiency. Now it has a rather incongruous modern extension that looks a bit like wearing a top hat with a sun visor attached to it. A Dickensian Fred Couples if you will. It was into this extension that I entered a couple of weeks ago to catch the Eurostar to Paris for a Radiohead concert in the evening.
As I wondered past the familiar shopping outlets that are now compulsory for all transport terminus, I noticed a mellifluous melody weaving its way through the deafening gabble of the station, like a distant sign of intelligent life amidst the white noise of the universe. I followed my ears and traversed the rough terrain of sound until I reached the pristine source. It turned out to be a one of those half-goth, half-Matrix wannabes in studded black boots and a leather overcoat. He was playing Pyramid Song by Radiohead on a piano in the middle of the station. In London at the moment there is an art project by Luke Jerram called ‘Play me, I’m Yours’ whereby piano’s are placed throughout the city in the hope that people play them. A fine idea until the inevitable git starts playing the chopsticks as if they were in concert in Bayreuth. I started to wonder at the serendipity of the situation and decided to engage the spotty Neo in conversation, “Great song. Are you seeing Radiohead tonight?”
“There is no spoon,” he murmured.
Ah. I quickly made no excuses, left a stick of chewing gum on the piano and backed away. I continued on through the throng, sweeping children aside as I attempted to find my friend. Then suddenly above the crowds I saw him loom towards me. He was wearing a blue puffer jacket which made him look like the offspring of the Michelin Man and a Smurf. This azure gourmand suggested we plunder the delights of M&S Simply Food for the journey ahead. I allowed myself a BLT and some crisps but the Smurfelin went berserk. He gathered up treats like Nick Clegg absorbs hatred: humus, globe artichokes, percy pigs, nothing was safe. In the end I managed to bundle him onto the train with just seven prawn sandwiches, three pork pies and a frozen pizza.
When you go to Paris on the Eurostar you arrive by surprise, you don’t see it coming. One minute you’re sweeping through poor old Ebbsfleet and the next you’re pulling into the Gare du Nord. Northern France and southern England are, unsurprisingly, identical and so you end up with no real sense of having moved at all, which makes stepping out of the station and into the city an always unexpected delight.
Paris is a beautiful place, everyone agrees. Dainty gorge-like streets cut through the tall terracing and then open out onto the floodplains of Haussmann boulevards. But like the French language, Paris can never change. Both are governed by strict laws and obstinate bureaucrats that do not allow for any growth or evolution. Paris is like a still beautiful but ageing actress who keeps that winning smile in place through artificial means. It is a city on botox, and too much of that is poisonous.
A couple of hours after arriving, we went to meet a friend for a drink. It was just like any other bar in the city; small and full of beautiful women. The scene was very Sex in le City, except their faces didn’t look as if they had been stapled on by angry children. We perched ourselves self consciously on an outside table, where we tried very hard to look insouciant. All we managed was a look of incontinence and from then on everyone in the place tried to avoid our gaze. Paris is simply too cool, too a la mode for the likes of us, so we gathered up our GAP clothing and left the bar.
As we descended into a metro station I noticed something very odd but very French on the wall next to the turnstiles; a rusty looking condom machine. Yes, mon amis, so virile are the French that even a trip on the metro is an aphrodisiac. It seems that being pressed between a perspiring bank manager and an accountant with psoriasis, is akin to the flutter of Aphrodite’s eyelashes for the French. It’s a wonder they remember to use a condom at all. Perhaps that’s the problem. Perhaps the Elysee Palace is trying to sacre bleu the population into using them by placing the machines in unlikely places (the post office perhaps or Notre Dame?). You can’t imagine the same thing happening in London, probably because someone would, funnily enough, graffiti the machine with an unsheathed penis. And that’s the essential difference between the French and the English. The French don’t care and the English draw nobs.
We eventually arrived at a mid-range arrondissment in an area called Bercy. The stadium looked like every other stadium I have ever been to but inside there was something very special. Inside there was Radiohead. (There is nothing more boring than someone waxing besotted about their favourite band so I will endeavour to keep it brief.)
We were late (caught in a massive queue for the condom machine) so as we entered we could already hear the crystalline voice of Thom Yorke cutting through the stadium. His vocals have that quality of fragile purity that so many try to emulate but few ever equal. A genius among the talented. The only vantage point left to us was standing room at the very back in the middle tier. From this perch we could see the entirety of the arena, which had the appearance of human pebble dash.
Countless balls of hair swayed and bobbed with the music and occasionally a geyser of sweet smelling smoke would erupt over the milieu, eventually filling the space with an intoxicating fog. The Salamander wriggled about the stage like a suffocating amphibian and his songs caressed the ears of the rapturous audience. They played a good number of their classics and a good number of the ones no one has ever heard, but when the end came it still wasn’t enough.