KEN HOUSTON says the High Street’s increasing reliance on Christmas to shift goods has led to festive lights being switched on further ahead of 25 December than ever.

A prime example this year has been Glasgow, where, but for a postponement caused by bad weather, the opening ceremony would have taken place as early as 15 November.

Paradoxically this tends to hide the fact that, for those of us old enough to remember, ‘the lights’ today are not a patch on the 1960’s and early 1970’s.

The diminution is particularly noticeable in Glasgow – garish, gallus, Glesga, where, typically, past displays were the biggest and best in Scotland and, some claimed, in the entire UK.

Not only George Square but Sauchiehall, Renfield, Buchanan and Argyle Streets were ablaze with all-singing, all-dancing illuminations, as epitomised by this clip, from 1968, on British Pathe News – http://www.britishpathe.com/video/christmas-lights/query/Scotland

But Aberdeen and Dundee put on a good show too, as did many of our principal market towns, in an era when Santa won over Scrooge and councils and local traders invested heavily in creating quality displays.

It all started to go wrong with the miners’ strike which took place during the winter of 1973/74, when the government was forced to impose electricity blackouts and all non-essential lighting, including, of course, Christmas illuminations, was banned.

By the time of the following Christmas, the price of electricity had soared (due to the cost of oil as well as coal) and consequently local authorities and traders began to tighten their belts. Christmas illuminations did resume across the country but in many locations, including Glasgow, things were never quite the same again.

So far I haven’t mentioned Edinburgh, because compared to Scotland’s other three main cities its display of lights was like a penny candle. True, the city was constrained by the expense and physical challenge of stringing up lights across a windy, one-sided, six-lane highway that is  Princes Street but there was too a rather grudging resistance to anything ‘gaudy’ that might detract from the ‘breath-taking’ townscape.

It is, therefore, somewhat ironic that Edinburgh this Christmas has trumped everywhere else with its ‘Street of Light’ along a stretch of the Royal Mile from the City Chambers to the Tron Kirk.

Sponsored by Virgin Money, it is actually a joint celebration of Christmas and St Andrews Day and contains 26 arches, rising to 19 metres in height, comprising 60,000 lights. The display is complemented by music from the Edinburgh Festival Chorus, the Edinburgh Gay Men’s Chorus, the Edinburgh Police Choir and the Edinburgh Royal Choral Union.

Inevitably the whole shebang has been criticised by the usual suspects – “not appropriate for Edinburgh”, “a bit like Blackpool”, etc. – but here is one individual who considers the structure to be absolutely brilliant. Garish, yes, perhaps even a bit tacky, but who cares: it brings colour and verve to a part of the capital not known to be particularly bright during the long months of dark winter evenings.

The Royal Mile lights will last only until Christmas Eve but from 5 January the whole of Edinburgh city centre will return to normal winter darkness, setting it apart from most other European capitals, which stay bright at night all year round, and not just at Christmas.

From the time neon tubing was invented in 1909 there has been stiff resistance among the city fathers to anything of that ilk being erected, because of a touchiness about public buildings but also, no doubt, due to a Presbyterian attitude that associates ‘bright lights’ with immorality.

I even recall the city council turning down an application from Royal Bank of Scotland to erect an illuminated logo on its West End branch, at the junction of Princes Street and Lothian Road. Yet at the time RBS was on its way to becoming the fifth-largest bank in the world (the unexpected demise was still some way off). A more outward-looking local authority would, surely, have welcomed this prominent, 24-hour display emphasising the association between a major financial international corporation and the city where it is headquartered.

Compare the situation at the West End with continental capitals where a similar, major ‘five points’ junction will be transformed after dark with brightly-lit slogans advertising various consumer products – all of them reputable, incidentally. A perfect example is Paris, where illumination of the French’s capital’s magnificent public buildings sits comfortably with commercial advertising in the retail and entertainment districts.

The irony is that Edinburgh does have a vibrant and varied night life. It’s just a pity that what the city has to offer is not more open to display after the sun goes down.

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