December 15, 2004
Lights that change colour (1): Artificial

Richard Morrison (in Times Online) doesn't think much of the Christmas lights in Oxford Street:

Each December in our trendy suburb (Hendon, in case you didn’t recognise the description) people turn their front gardens into veritable winter wonderlands of strobe Santas and fluorescent flowerbeds. True, these gaudy displays may not strike metropolitan sophisticates as being in the subtlest possible taste. But their festive élan cannot be denied.

Contrast that with the dismal, dated illuminations in Central London this month. Regent Street has dreary white snowflakes in a blue border. Bond Street, daringly different, has pink snowflakes on a white border. And Oxford Street? Its attempts at yuletide cheer – squat arches on which spotlights swivel like geriatric ballerinas – look like Blitz-era anti-aircraft batteries recreated in secondhand hardboard by someone who failed GCSE woodwork.

Attend any rock concert these days and you see fabulous lighting effects. Even little villages such as Mousehole in Cornwall manage to create magic with their Christmas lights. Yet our capital city has this third-rate stuff. Mayor Ken should intervene. What else is he there for?

Well, I actually quite like them. What's wrong with Blitz-era anti-aircraft batteries? Rather dramatic, I'd say. I'd love to have seen the real thing – without being bombed too nastily I mean. But then, I've never, ever, in my entire life, been to a rock concert. If I had been to lots of rock concerts, I would surely associate multicoloured searchlights with mud and ugliness and cacophony and bursting for a pee, and I wouldn't have liked the Oxford Street lights either. Although what Morrison says is that a Mousehole (pronounced Mowzl by the way) Rock Fest would be better lit than this, so maybe I like these because I haven't seen better.

What does strike me about these lights is how non-Christmassy they are. They're just lights. I don't think they're "dismal", but they do strike me as of a piece with PC plans to not have nativity plays.

Here are some pictures I took of them a few nights ago:

Lights1s.jpg Lights2s.jpg Lights3s.jpg

Click and enjoy. Or click and sneer. I don't care.

Note that, in picture 2, a fellow Billion Monkey can be observed in operation, just in front of me and to the left. And yes, as picture 3 makes clear, that's Centre Point up there in the background, helpfully labelled. Don't scoff, it's very useful for checking which way you're facing in Oxford Street after you've emerged from a shop.

What these still photos don't show is how the lights themselves are on the whole not still, and in particular how you can see them twiddling around over Oxford Street from other streets.

But despite not getting them in motion, my digital camera probably makes the lights look more spectacular and dominant than they really are. When light is scarce, my camera goes looking for light, and when confronted by these searchlight beams, it finds a lot of light and goes rather mad. With regular coloured lights that means a bright blur, as per the regular street lights and even the quite normally lit shop windows. But with these searchlight beams it takes a relatively mundane blur and makes it sharper and more dramatic. Which is good. What matters is how reality looks in photographs, not how reality is.

Although, as Madsen Pirie (of this fame) once said, when asked to comment on the truth or otherwise of Ayn Rand's vacuous dictum to the effect that "A is A": "It all depends what you mean by 'is'." And that was years before Bill Clinton made a similar point.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:08 PM
Category: Photography