Electric fences line our new freeway
Here in the half-light, the motorhomes leave
Knee-deep in water under a pylon
How slow my heartbeat
How thin the air I’m breathing in
Thomas Dolby, ‘Airwaves’
From the moment of their first extension into the countryside, electricity pylons began to be written into British culture as the harbingers of a new and ambivalent post-pastoral sensibility. Time and custom have at length naturalized pylons, which have shaped our subliminal expectations of what landscapes rightly contain just as windmills and canals had done before them. But in the 1930s, pylons were new and strange. Even the term pylon, from the Greek word denoting the gates of the ancient temples of Egypt, suggested a temporal displacement, the presence of an anachronism with the potential to curse as well as to fascinate.
And fascinate they did. In G.W. Stonier’s comic squib ‘Poets’ Excursion’, a troupe of day-tripping Audenesque poets emerges from the dingy ‘canal backs’ of ‘East Coker’ and ‘Rat’s Alley’ into the modern, pylonized countryside and begins to rhapsodize: ‘Everywhere trippers in shorts and on bicycles poured along the roads, swarmed up lamp-posts, threw caps in the air. Pylons! Arterial roads, semi-detached villas, Butlin’s camps, ping-pong, scooters! Hurrah! But chiefly the pylons.’
Painters and artists, from Tristram Hillier and Edward Burra to William Kentridge, have found meaning in pylons’ own semi-detachedness, construing them as liminal objects, modern herms that mark and govern the transition from representation to abstraction. So too for Stanley Snaith, in a poem of 1933, these ‘new-world, rational towers’ are nothing less than ‘outposts of the trekking future’, however cursed or blessed, however airily abstract, that future might be. And pylons remain objects of aesthetic interest as well as of regular controversy: among entries for a new pylon design competition organised by RIBA in 2011 were a series of vast latticework human figures, a network of wires held up by balloons, and a haphazard postmodern line of pylons combining a medieval keep with a space-age tower and a technical model of a molecule.