words Sam Jacob
Oxford Street fills me with dread, as though something terrible is about to happen.
Perhaps it’s because it still echoes with the footsteps of prisoners who walked its length on their final journey from Newgate Prison to the Tyburn gallows. By the shivers in my water, I’d guess the gallows were around the back of KFC, or perhaps on the site of the popcorn fountain at the Odeon.
Either way, the heart of any condemned man couldn’t help but be momentarily lifted by the spectacular explosion of Oxford Street’s Christmas lights snaking eastwards towards Centre Point. This year’s were turned on by reunited girl band All Saints, and serenaded by Jordan and Peter Andre – a couple surrounded by cartoon extravagance since Jordan lifted her wedding dress to release half a dozen doves. And the lights look touched by the same hand of sentimental, stylised romance magnified to urban scale.
The street has been reconfigured as a two-mile long ballroom by a dense canopy of chandeliers, designed and manufactured by British company Piggotts. The large ones – around three metres in diameter – use a mesh of small lights to define their form, and the sparkle simulates the effect of crystal. At their lower rim, they sprout a crown of curved arms holding electric candles. Frames studded with LEDs bent into elaborate outlines form a series of smaller chandeliers. Both are set amongst mesh swags of golden sparkles. The chandeliers glow with a strange, almost ultraviolet blue suggestive of a surrounding misty haze. They are convincing in their details and shape, and I could almost believe there really are heavy, elaborate chandeliers hanging above the tarmac. But the empty nihilism of designer irony is replaced by a sentimental cuteness that makes a direct appeal to one’s gooey soft centre.
Light-adorned trees and shop frontages create another layer of decoration. The entire street has become a strip of pulsing lights. Electricity constantly chases and blinks in a nervous, shuddering anticipation of consumption. This feeling is heightened by lines of shop dummies in windows looking like wanton Caryatids in cut-price party dresses. Their promiscuous poses – somewhere between Mannequin and Eyes Wide Shut – hint at office party decadence as yet undreamed. Shop entrances become openings into caverns of festivity, the cave mouths lined with ridges of faux fir and cascades of blue-white lights. Interior and exterior tumble together in confusion. Looking into windows feels like looking out over a landscape – at Selfridges a topiary night scene, at the Disney Store a polystyrene snow scene, at Adidas pale and misty silver birch forests.
This artificial winter, in place by the first week of November, is not just incredible in its intricacy and depth, but it’s also at ironic odds with “real” winter, which thanks to global warming is shrinking by the year. Meanwhile, we extend our artificial version in a frenzy of decoration and experiences. Harrods opens its Christmas shop in August and mince pies are on the supermarket shelves in September. Maybe it’s because there are fewer real snowflakes that we feel the need to manufacture decorative ones. Perhaps it’s guilt and fear made palpable through tinsel and fibre optics – an attempt to salve a loss that we can’t quite yet comprehend. Perhaps it is preparation for a future where winter simply doesn’t occur naturally anymore.