Winter is a battle which must be fought on multiple fronts. When November came and cold nights grew colder, the call to arms would go out and I’d ransack sock draws and jacket pockets in search of a thick pair of gloves to slap back the advancing frost. Far more fiendish a foe, though, was the creeping darkness as nights drew in and the shape of the surrounding Welsh Valleys that oscillated along the skyline grew indistinguishable from black night.
As November spilled into December, I did all I could to rail against those depressive dark nights; conscripting parents and grandparents to help reconnaissance the local Christmas lights. Again and again, we’d bundle into a car and set off on a winding course through surrounding villages, snaking along main roads and tight back streets in search of our favourite displays: a shimmering sleigh and reindeer bolted to the side of a house, the three wise men whose distinct forms loomed over bushes from a front garden resplendent with light.
Our tours became a tradition, with my neighbours’ displays serving the same function for me as they did for other kids: fending off the dark, transfiguring the drabness of winter at large into something ethereal. It evoked a similar sense of otherworldliness that could be found throughout the year, by getting lost in the twinkling glass labyrinth of B&Q’s light fixture department, or in the rippling bluish glow of fish tanks that lined the aquarium at the local garden centre.
I spare my poor parents and grandparents the hassle these days: honourably discharged, they can rest assured of their contribution to a kid’s war on winter. These days, the same spirit once evoked by ornate displays of light is now to be found in the simple company of family (and to a lesser extent, in good turkey). Deprived of both, as the Covid Christmas travel corridor crumbled and I came to terms with the prospect of spending the holidays alone, I felt compelled for the first time in years to go out in search of light.
I set out on a Monday evening, with London now blanketed by both Tier 4 restrictions and grey cloud, which was fading to darkness as I stepped out into my building’s garden. A mass of neighbouring kids darted between bushes and circled a fountain in the centre of the garden in an apparent game of tag. A few hurtled up behind me, crushing leaves underfoot as I approached the steps to a small patio roof garden, on top of which was a sizable Christmas tree. I pulled at the gate to find it had been locked for the night, letting out a sigh before the kids changed course and scattered off elsewhere. Still questioning the merit of a fully lit Christmas tree that was locked away at sunset, I decided to chart my usual route: down to the Thames, across Vauxhall Bridge and along the river, crossing back northside at Westminster and circling back to Pimlico.
I ambled my way across Vauxhall Bridge, towards the Secret Intelligence Service HQ hulking on the other side of the river – the most conspicuous building in the city. Buffeted by wind thrown up by the Thames, I kept my head buried in my coat, forgoing my usual game of ‘spot the spy’ from among the people striding past in the opposite direction. Instead, I considered why I’d felt compelled to come out in crap weather in search of Christmas lights. Truth be told, I felt a little childish, but this quickly gave way to an appreciation that I was engaged in a desperate search for something to distinguish the holidays: some basic visual prompt to cleave the difficult months that had passed from something, in however limited a way, more special. I came to the end of the bridge and arched around barbed, camera-capped black fences and imposing iron doors; it was clear that I wasn’t about to happen upon Christmas spirit at SIS HQ.
In fact, bar the string lights that swirled around the lamp posts lining the river, the whole road to Westminster was no better. Before long, I found myself buffeted by yet more wind as I inched across Westminster Bridge. This, of course, was not unusual, but I missed the sweet tang of caramelised nuts the wind would whip up from the street vendors who dotted the bridge in normal times. Together with the quiet – unpunctured by the regular cacophony of bagpipes, accordions and tourists – the place felt deeply unfamiliar.
Coming down from the bridge, I slid my phone between two bars at the Palace of Westminster to snap their Christmas tree: a 40 foot Sitka Spruce that had been felled in Northumberland. With little else to gawk at – bar a Santa hat-topped copper – I wandered towards Victoria Tower Gardens, situated just to the south of the palace next to the river. The green patch is a frequent encampment for broadcasting journos and, on quiet days like these, my favourite reading spot. I slumped onto a bench and basked in the silence, tracking the route I’d just taken on the other side of the river while my feet, inadequately socked and blistering in worn shoes, started to recover.
Having made the decision to stay put in London for the holidays a day earlier, my podiatric pain was a welcome distraction from self-pity. Like many thousands of Londoners, I’d weighed carefully the prospect of fleeing when it was announced with an afternoon’s notice that we’d soon be subject to new restrictions, with all Christmas travel allowances abolished. After polishing off a few bits of work before my break, I’d spent the afternoon trawling through .gov websites and commissioning the views of family, friends and – ashamedly – Reddit, to see if I could rationalise coming home as part of a bubble (I couldn’t). However vindicated I felt by scenes that followed of Paddington and St Pancras jammed with travellers – many of whom with entirely justified reasons for leaving – I was frustrated that I’d allowed myself to be slowly netted into a position of helplessness.
For better or worse, my foot pain lingered and an evening walk quickly devolved into an evening limp as I shuffled along the river on the final stretch towards home. By now the roads were dead and so my senses were more attuned to the chattering of passers by. I marvelled at how merry many seemed to be: regaling each other with Christmas plans and laughing as if a wrecking ball hadn’t, only hours earlier, smashed everything. Against my better instincts, my inner Scrooge began to feel more emboldened. As the Ghost of Christmas Present remarks sarcastically to Ebenezer in the 1970 movie: “there are few things more nauseating to see than a happy family enjoying themselves at Christmas, do you not agree?”. I was starting to appreciate where he was coming from.
It was now completely dark. Any hope I had of happening upon a proper Christmas display had diminished and I was looking forward to getting home, putting my battered feet up, and emotionally preparing for a visit from three ghosts on Christmas Eve. Rounding the river suddenly revealed pools of bluish neon which had spilled across the road, emanating from a source a little further ahead. The penny only dropped once I’d moved closer: it was the Tate, which was exhibiting a new piece by artist Chila Kumari Burnman. The building’s new façade, resplendent with colour, in fact had nothing to do with Christmas but was rather “a celebration of mythology, Bollywood, radical feminism, political activism and memories, bound up in a celebration of neon light and swirling colour”, the opening of which had coincided with Diwali. This explained the neonised coming together of such Hindu deities as Ganesh and Lakshmi, alongside an ice cream van, winter snowflakes and a tiger, all framed by strings of light which vined around the building’s columns.
Against the backdrop of a street, city and holiday season deprived of light, the building radiated its panoply of reds, greens and blues, which refracted through the windows of nearby parked cars, ignited puddles and dissipated out over the river beyond. Together, the lights conspired to create that sought-after otherworldliness that used to be found so readily in B&Qs, garden centres and Christmas light displays. I got the sense that I wasn’t alone in this. Moving closer, amongst families and partners who had emerged from taxis and slowed on the nearby cycle path before de-biking completely, to lone suited professionals freshly descended from Millbank Tower, I spied beaming faces, warmed by light in the cold and dark. All, no doubt, were simply drinking in a stunning piece of modern art, but I was sure that amongst the (socially distanced) crowd were also those equally relieved that their search for the ethereal – a little slice of magic to punctuate a year of pain – had been satisfied.
I crossed the pavement and moved closer to the building, content that I, and others, had found what we’d been looking for. It was only as I moved closer still that I discerned the writing plastered in brilliant blue towards the top of the building: remembering a brave new world.