It’s inside-out: so what?
They started as a bold idea; then pencil lines on drawing-boards,
And careful differential charts to monitor
The bending loads, the stresses lurking
At the point where bolted structures meet.
Behold the grainy lattice
Filled with random triangles of blue
A stained-glass door that keeps the past at bay
But leaves today unsatisfied.
Like symptoms of some alien disease
In one fell swoop these metal trees manage to pollute
Both land and sky; ambiguous their inorganic sweep,
They threaten to transmit our dreams
To blank-eyed strangers perched at rows of desks
Who carefully dismiss the value that we bring
By living through our catalogue of tasks at work. The
Metal wears a dainty blouse of zinc, but not enough
To keep the elements at bay. So, once a year
A team of agile chimpanzees in orange suits and harnesses
Will scramble up towards the sky
And scrub with wire brushes, then refresh
The duplex coat of fractured haematite.
One at each end, two mighty pylons
Top-and-tail the playing field where youngsters
Galvanised with boyish fury chased a ball. Above our heads
The snow gradually settled on the wires, until
A sudden breeze shook free
Six bold white lines that dropped out of the sky.
And now we see them everywhere, or rather don’t;
One, two, twenty-six of these tomorrow skeletons
Parade through gentle pre-electric fields, unobserved,
A humming chain of seamless energy.
Text of ‘Pylons’ copied from an article by Dr Oliver Tearle in Despatches from The Secret Library. He mentions the Pylon Poets and how Snaith has been neglected by literary historians.
Over the tree’d upland evenly striding,
One after one they lift their serious shapes
That ring with light. The statement of their steel
Contradicts Nature’s softer architecture.
Earth will not accept them as it accepts
A wall, a plough, a church so coloured of earth
It might be some experiment of the soil’s.
Yet are they outposts of the trekking future.
Into the thatch-hung consciousness of hamlets
They blaze new thoughts, new habits. 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 (1903-76)
The secret of these hills was stone, and cottages
Of that stone made,
And crumbling roads
That turned on sudden hidden villages
Now over these small hills, they have built the concrete
That trails black wire
Pylons, those pillars
Bare like nude giant girls that have no secret.
The valley with its gilt and evening look
And the green chestnut
Of customary root,
Are mocked dry like the parched bed of a brook.
But far above and far as sight endures
Like whips of anger
With lightning’s danger
There runs the quick perspective of the future.
This dwarfs our emerald country by its trek
So tall with prophecy
Dreaming of cities
Where often clouds shall lean their swan-white neck.
Stephen Spender (1909-95)
In 1982 I bought a copy of ‘Lions and Shadows’ and was immediately seduced by the hilarious narrative and delicious prose. Isherwood, Auden and Spender (‘Stephen Savage’) have intense discussions about literature and life.
Isherwood describes the boisterous intellectual atmosphere that he shares with ‘Allen Chalmers’ (Edward Upward) during their time at Cambridge together:
“We examined, with new interest, the three Dürer engravings in Chalmers’ room. Melencolia especially excited us.
We speculated endlessly as to the significance of the ladder, the bell, the tablet with its curious signs and figures, the sinister-looking instrument sticking out from beneath the angel’s skirts, in the right-hand bottom corner.
What was the meaning of the enormous star or sun, blazing with immense beams under the rainbow, in a black sky? How should one understand the inscription on the wings of the small flying dragon? Was it Melencolia, One, or Melencolia, I?
Needless to say, we disdained the standard works of art criticism which could, no doubt, have answered all these questions. How could such books tell you anything worth knowing? They had been written by dons.”
In 2020 I decided to visit the Whitworth Gallery in Manchester to see the exhibition about Standardisation, Repetition and Deviation. One of the items on display was a copy of ‘Melencolia’, safely trapped inside a glass-fronted case. We also had one of the Whitworth Company’s cutting machines, and the sculpture ‘Genesis’ by Epstein along with a collection of the outraged press cuttings from contemporary reviews of this piece.
Hey, Mister Manganese Man
The Whitworth is where Industry meets Art;
Paint, like paintings, is just manufactured to supply
The artist keen to capture a Venetian sky
Or dentists with a cavity to fill.
Like overlapping fields of energy no hawks
Can jump between
These banks of cloud promise to reveal
The glory of a coming storm.
Deep in the heart of the catalyst, the hollow pores
Are lined with gleaming spines of manganese
They spray the vacuum with electron density
And violate the laws of alchemy.
Somewhere out East I hear a forest burn; too
Many times you promised to set sail, but
In the end the fuel ran out. I think this means
We’ve reached the point of no return.
To make this drill-bit hard enough I need
Your help; I’m setting off with no plan to return. It’s
Like I’m just like drilling with myself, persuaded by
A metal film too fragile to discern.