Christmas lights review
We're lucky in London because we always have plenty of Christmas lights up for six weeks at least. We're those nutty neighbours who tack up three bazillion bulbs to the front of their house and plant an army of plastic Santas on their lawn. Every lamppost has some fairy lights on it. Every taxi wraps a balding bit of tinsel around their aerial. And even the beggars get into the seasonal spirit by scrawling Ho Ho Ho on their cardboard 'give me some money' signs.
I'm standing down Oxford Street at the moment and the place is cross-crossed with strings of six-foot snowballs. Lots of cherry-sized silver spots too, and electric icicles hanging off the trees like frozen bolts of blue. They've even got some fake snow blowing out the top of HMV. I let some land on me (just to see what it was), and it seems like soapy bubbles.
Have you ever seen that Christmas Lampoons movie with Chevy Chase, where he blankets his house in a billion bulbs? Well, come down to Oxford Street in December and find the House of Fraser, John Lewis and Selfridges, because there must be a bazillion lights on those three shops alone. It's as if they've crumbled up the sun and dusted it down the street. They're so bright and white they're giving me sparkles in my eyes when I shut them.
Regent Street has become a bit too commercial in recent years, with giant lighted adverts for the latest movie, but they've decided on something a bit more traditional this year: wireframe angels with flapping white wings. Carnaby Street has gone for some giant headphones, all wrapped in fur from Santa's suit. I guess they must be harping back to their Swinging Sixties hey-day.
Oh Christ... you're going to have to bear with me for five minutes whilst I temporarily take cover under a bus stop -- the rain is really coming down now. It's quite nice sitting here with a waterfall of rain cascading over the top. Every time an umbrella comes past we hear the storm water battering the plastic and the splish splash splosh of fast feet in the flood. This is real winter weather all of a sudden. It's chucking it down. Bucketing down. Proper rain is when you can see your face in the pavement. That's the stage we're at right now... the sidewalk slabs have turned into dark glass and are reflecting everything like a pin-sharp mirror. It's the kind of wind and rain that makes your umbrella turn inside out.
I'm going to risk getting soaked otherwise I'll be sitting here all day. I'm zipping between one shop awning and another and it's like I'm coming under enemy fire... I have to get to the next trench before the clouds reload. It's a war-zone! I'm watching the lamplights turn into starbursts as they refract through the rain... watching the Christmas lights get golden as the sky turns black.
I think the nicest lights are the ones outside Somerset House. If you go inside the courtyard then you'll find the prettiest tree in the city standing at one end of their outdoor ice-rink, all wound around in strings of winking lights. Now that is a pretty scene (if you only see one tree in London then make it this one)... people are whizzing around the ice with their breath clouding out because it's so damn cold.
They always have a little cafe overlooking the rink as well, selling hot chocolate and coffee and mulled wine (proper mulled wine with sticks and twigs and berries inside). It's a really nice place to visit even if you can't be bothered to step on the ice. It's usually packed full of mums and grandmothers who are too scared to skate, pressing their noses up against the misty window to make sure their kids are still standing on their feet.
Covent Garden has the second-best tree in town -- even bigger than the one at Somerset House. It must be forty or fifty-feet at least, with cherry red lights and bright white buttons, sitting in a big wooden pot that is bigger than a boat. The market hall roof is groaning under the weight of baubles fifteen feet across (no joke!), plus jungle-sized sprigs of mistletoe, all mirrored up in bright reds, whites and gold.
Have a walk across Waterloo Bridge and then check out the festive market on Southbank. Most of it has moved into the big grassy area this year (it usually runs along the river between the London Eye and Royal Festival Hall). This is where they have all of the festive huts and Swiss-style chalets selling hot sausages and Bavarian beer. They've got burgers and steaks and pancakes, too -- it's worth walking around just for the smells! There's nothing like the aroma of fairground food on a cold night with Christmas lights. They've got one of those funfair carousels pumping out some Wurlitzer tunes as the horses bounce around and up and down.
Do you fancy going on a Christmas tree hunt? There's a lovely one in Waterloo Place this year (Waterloo Place is nowhere near Waterloo -- it's by the Duke of York's Column). They've got another big one outside Kensington Palace and a rather lonely one in the middle of the moat at the Tower of London. The one standing outside the Royal Exchange is definitely worth a detour, and they usually have a beauty outside the Dickens Inn in St. Katharine Docks as well, but I must be too early this year because they haven't stuck it up yet. But the best of the bunch is definitely in the middle of Leadenhall Market. If you only see one tree this year then make it that one. It looks like something from a Victorian Christmas card.
I like all the trees you can see inside train station ticket halls as well... the lonely little ones that have been dumped in the middle of a packed-out concourse. There's one at Charing Cross that looks like a lost kid with his hands in his pockets. They've wrapped a thin string of cheapo white lights wrapped around him like a jumble sale scarf, and he's standing in a plastic pot like he's sitting on his suitcases. Lots of people are just staring up at the departure boards in a trance, waiting for it to flick over. When's my train coming? Maybe if I stare at this board for ten minutes it will come along quicker, they are thinking. There must be a hundred people at least, all looking up into the hypnotic orange glare of the departure board, waiting for their magic carriage to come.
Here comes some entertainment at last... a little choir of carol singers has begun to gather around the Christmas tree wearing Santa hats and a jolly fat conductor is waving his baton around like it actually means something. A quick few verses of Silent Night and here come the buckets of money: we sing, you pay, they say -- we don't do this for free. Empty all your wallets, come on, Happy Christmas!
A few of the commuters take their eyes off of the departure board for a few seconds to see what's going on, but the rest stay glued to it. They don't want to miss their train. It will take more than a few Christmas songs to break their concentration.
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