The industrial sublime is an awkward, unloved genre. There is the odd Victorian poem about steam power or bridge builders, but most people know the drill from those chaps in the 1930s who got lyrical about electricity pylons, of all things.
Pylons have been in the news again this week as the shortlist of designs in a competition to create new versions for the 21st century went on display at the Victoria & Albert museum. Pylons also featured on the One Show, with Professor Valentine Cunningham, an expert on the literature of the 1930s, reading from Stephen Spender’s 1933 poem ‘The Pylons,’ an ambivalent response to ‘those pillars/Bare like nude giant girls that have no secret,’ whose ‘quick perspective of the future’ dwarfed ‘our emerald country by its trek’. The presenter of the piece, the former England spin bowler Phil Tufnell, mentioned the Pylon Appreciation Society and the website Pylon of the Month, but fortunately with only the contractually obligated degree of archness.
This is from Rob Young’s book Electric Eden:
In 1928 Britain’s first electricity pylon was erected just outside Edinburgh. The steel structure was skeletal and vaguely anthropomorphic, with six arms to carry the three-phase cables across large tracts of terrain. Most of today’s pylons are variations on the original design by Sir Reginald Bloomfield, the architect responsible for remodelling London’s Regent Street as a curving neoclassical terrace. Blomfield was a fervent horticulturalist whose 1892 book The Formal Garden in England had reintroduced the idea of gardening as stiff upper-lip horticulture; among other opinions, he claimed to despise the ornamental fancies of William Morris’s organic tapestries. In 1953 a new crop of National Grid power stations was rolled out (including the one at Bankside in London, now Tate Modern), and the electrification of Britain was accelerated with the imposition of a “supergrid”, carried by the newly designed PL1 pylons that are still the dominant model fifty years later. Britain’s open fields and moors had become parade grounds for an army of steel wicker men.
Interesting fact from yesterday’s Guardian: Pam Ayres’s father was a linesman for the Southern Electricity Board, a Berkshire version of Glen Campbell’s Wichita Lineman. There is a buried romance to the life of the linesman, just as there is in the design of pylons, which may have to be the subject of a future blog post …