WHEN you’ve sat for a hundred miles in the passenger seat of an Austin Maxi 1500 listening to Tony Blackburn on Radio 1 there aren’t many things left to keep you occupied – so you stick your instamatic camera out of the window and take random photographs. My mate, Pete, who is driving, is concerned about the oil leaking from the engine of his father’s car and ignores small talk. Also, he’s preoccupied with moving into student accommodation at Birmingham University, which is where we are heading. I’ve never been to Birmingham and I’m looking forward to my very first proper curry. We’ve stopped three times on the M6 to top up the engine oil and now we’re in the Midlands. This is a new world to me. It’s all very modern-looking. Click goes the camera. And I capture the image at the top of this post . . .
I forget which year it was. I shall hazard a guess and say 1976. I don’t recall much about the trip, during which I helped Pete install himself in England’s second city, but we had a great time. The curry was an adventure into unknown territory. Poppadoms were a mystery on a plate. I had no idea Birmingham was such an exotic and enchanting place. I haven’t been back since so I’m sure it’s even more exotic and enchanting these days.
Hey. Look at the picture. I came across it last night while sorting through boxes of old photographs. This picture is a statement. This is 1970s Britain right in your face and as bold as brass. It depicts a motorway hard-shoulder, several blocks of flats for working people, a coal-fired power station on the skyline – and an electricity pylon.
That’s some pylon. Ignoring the question of which came first, the pylon or the flats, let us ask ourselves whether this is a suitable and sustainable environment; is it family friendly, for instance? The answer is no. Living next to a motorway is one thing. Having your nylon net curtains attracted to the metalwork of a crackling behemoth when the weather’s humid is an inconvenience too far.
Blimey, never mind wind generators perforating the rural skyline and spoiling the view, how would you like a leg of one of those babies stuck in your garden between the coal bunker and the pile of Ford Escort parts? You wouldn’t. Your 1970s-style nylon Y-fronts would be arcing to earth every few steps. Zap. Ouch. Zap. Ouch.
It’s nearly forty years since I took that photograph and attitudes towards the environment, and our place within that environment, have altered. Expectations have changed. Quality of life has improved, and our respect for the environment has matured as our knowledge has advanced. I shall now make a prediction.
Forty years from now, people will look back at uniquely irreplaceable landscapes such as the Lake District and say: “Jesus Christ, did we really build that dual carriageway right through the middle of the mountains? What were we thinking? And that hideously massive and incongruous garden centre at Ambleside? And all those holiday complexes and moronic visitor centres? Did we really turn every car park into revenue generators for the authorities and National Trust? Were we blinkered when we put the interests of the tourist industry and commerce before the integrity of the very thing we were trying to conserve? Bloody hell. Bring back the pylons.”
Hope is not lost because the environment has a capacity to renew itself and claw back ground that might have been temporarily ceded. I found another intriguing picture last night. It was taken in the Caldbeck fells during the late 1980s and is reproduced below.
It’s a ladder sticking through turf. It marks the top of a shaft into one of the many Caldbeck mines, which were worked into the 1960s. Industry has been reclaimed by nature. I’ve searched for the ladder recently but it has disappeared. The environment has triumphed. The landscape has drawn it into its bosom. It has been consumed. There are probably a couple of pylons down there as well. And net curtains.