Why do you laugh? You might think there's something odd about an industrial town 100 miles from the sea setting itself up as a rival to Blackpool, but they don't. A place that boasts a Museum of Leather must have immunity from ridicule. The fact that the 35-acre park in which the illuminations are held is called the 'Arboretum' is further evidence of Walsall's idiosyncrasy.
The Walsall illuminations began in 1875 with candles in jars suspended from the trees, transforming the municipal park into a magical fairyland. Enraptured Victorians strolled about in wonder and disbelief. But their enthusiasm didn't last, and a few years later the park went dark.
In 1951, like the rest of Britain, Walsall needed cheering up, so the illuminations were revived. After the war and the blackouts the sight of more than three lightbulbs on at the same time was a sensation. But novelties soon go stale, and the Walsallians became less easily spellbound by a load of secondhand lights from Blackpool, so each year more dazzling effects were added.
Now there is a team of full- time luminologists dreaming up new ways to make people go 'Wooo'. Laser beams are fired at a gauze screen in the middle of the lake, mimicking dolphins leaping. Perhaps one day things will turn full circle: our children will be blase about lasers but we'll find them gazing open-mouthed at a candle in a jam-jar.
In the meantime we have a show that is sufficiently startling to satisfy the most world- weary four-year-old. Most popular, inevitably, is an Arabian Nights set, with a sparkling plywood palace exuding smoke, laser beams and, from treetop loudspeakers, the soundtrack of Disney's Aladdin. The figures are not the copyright characters from the film, but steel ribbons painted in luminous colours and lit with ultra-violet light, the work of Stuart Mitchell, an artist from Leeds. At late-night openings (after 20 September) 'Light Fantastic' promises more experimental uses of neon and fluorescence.
Abstract art does occasionally invade the Arboretum, but most of it is unashamedly commercial. Imagine a painted cut- out of Thomas the Tank Engine, with lightbulbs stuck to it. It won't win prizes at the Venice Biennale, but it won praise from my god-daughter Sammy. She didn't even miss Postman Pat, a favourite over the last three years, who has been broken up into bits. But for those who still like a man in uniform, there was Fireman Sam and his colleague Elvis Cridlington suspended in the midst of one of their adventures. They do nothing for me, but Samantha greeted them as old friends. She ran about excitedly, then asked me: 'What's it for?'
I was dumbstruck that one so young should have such a sense of futility, but I've since had time to think about it, so here is my answer: the real spectacle is not a few lightbulbs screwed to a giant teddy-bear, but the crowds who come to watch, meet friends and go 'Wooo]'.
An evening in Hell for a misanthrope, but if you have any affection for humanity you can go to Walsall and be part of it.
Walsall Illuminations, tonight to 23 Oct, info (0922 653148)
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