Technological Object: Pylon

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.

—James Purdon

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17 Responses to Technological Object: Pylon

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  11. James Purdon says:

    No, we don’t seem to — although there is ‘Among Giants’, a Pete Postlethwaite film from 1998 written by Simon (Full Monty) Beaufoy. I haven’t seen it, but I mean to.


  12. Steve Connor says:

    I don’t think we have that particular folk hero in the UK.

  13. Kasia Boddy says:

    What about the people on the pylon? is there an equivalent in Britain of
    the hero linesman that you get in the US? For example, (if I remember
    correctly) in the 1940 documentary The Power and the Land, and certainly in
    Slim, a 1934 novel that was adapted for film (with Henry Fonda as the
    lineman lead). Also, although it’s probably about telephone wires, the
    ‘Wichita Lineman’ . . .

  14. David Trotter says:

    And in between the temple gates and the power-grid, both historically and as a type of construction, there were, from the mid-c19th onwards, the towers at each end of a suspension bridge, over which its cables passed. That’s pretty liminal, too! So when the pylons turn into lattice-work, and the wires connecting them are pulled taut, and alter their function, becoming conduits rather than supports, we seem to pass from one era to another within industrialization itself.

    • Steve Connor says:

      I really like this idea, David. Pylons are certainly massy and visually imposing, yet typically also constructed as kinds of filigree, as though they were trying to hide in plain view. They also seem to figure in their lacey structures the absence-in-presence and the presence-in-absence that is the condition of that new thing they signify, the network, which is formed from the very lines of force it conveys. (A ‘network’ is famously defined in Johnson’s Dictionary as ‘any thing reticulated or decussated, at equal distances, with interstices between the intersections’.) Some pylons have the office of bearing, not current, or kinetic force, but light, as in the Eiffel Tower, or Blackpool Tower, or radio waves, as in the famous RKO emblem
      RKO tower.
      So there seem to be quite a few senses in which pylons may be said to be ‘light-houses’.

  15. James Purdon says:

    Thank you, Steve. It’s exactly about this, I think: the pylon as a portal that somehow connects across time as well as distance, and its wire as a kind of electrical suture. The Snaith poem picks up on that odd temporality. Interesting that youth and age figure here too – I doubt Snaith had read Clement (though I may be wrong):

    … Traditions
    Are being trod down like flowers dropped by children.
    Already that farm boy striding and throwing seed
    In the shoulder-hinged half-circle Millet knew,
    Looks grey with antiquity as his dead forbears,
    A half familiar figure out of the Georgics,
    Unheeded by these new-world, rational towers.

    Stanley Snaith, ‘The Pylons’ [1933], Green Legacy (London: Jonathan Cape, 1937)

  16. Steve Connor says:

    I am interested by the idea of the pylon as a portal connecting ancient and modern. Book 5, ch. 7 of the Stromata of Clement of Alexandria (153-217), ‘The Egyptian Symbols and Enigmas of Sacred Things’, contains the observation that

    at Diospolis in Egypt, on the temple called Pylon, there was figured a boy as the symbol of production, and an old man as that of decay

    Clement of Alexandria, The Stromata, or Miscellanies, trans. William Wilson, in The Ante-Nicean Fathers: Translations of The Writings of the Fathers Down to AD 325, ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson. Vol. II: Fathers of the Second Century: Hermas, Tatian, Athenagoras, Theophilus and Clement of Alexandria (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1913), p. 454.

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