He wrote himself as Wizard Prang.
It’s an old flying term, common in WWI when the Wizard himself did not fly. They generally put wizards into Intelligence. In the first world war, when a man could still crash and walk away from the wreck, a wizard prang was a great big explosive crash from which on walked, alive and well, away.
But he was a real, live wizard for sure. They exist, you know, and this one existed in equal parts in a small tumbledown welsh cottage near Lampeter, and with his much loved apprentice in Toronto, Canada.
I have been much taken up with the Wizard’s writings of late. I know someone who knew him, and have heard tales first, second and thirdhand.
If I were to begin at the beginning, we’d be here all day. Perhaps the best place to start, after all this air silence, is with his name.
Stafford Beer was a September baby, born in 1926 in Fulham of a statistician and a housewife. Until 1944 he was ensconced at Aberystwyth where University College, London, had its wartime home. At 18, enlisting, he was sent as an officer to India. He had loved Eastern philosophy for a good while: now he could immerse himself in it, twice travelling to hear Gandhi talk.
This magician was into People Magic. In WWII that looked like Operational Research, or more exactly, Cybernetics. This is the study of the control systems that already exist in the world – like the brain, for example, or a beehive, or the forces that govern a wave – and how we can learn from them to run things more naturally and effortlessly.
I have only lately come upon his writings, endearing combinations of metaphor and maths and illustration. Stafford was a one-off; not just a cybernetician, but a metaphysician of the first order. His feet were firmly on the ground as he began to develop a sort of ‘template’ system you could use to evaluate every and any system called the Viable Systems Model. If an organisation went wrong, you used the VSM to see how nature did it really well, and put things into place to correct it.
Stafford worked with big names: the Gas Council, British Rail, and the Port of London Authority. And one day, some time in the Wizard’s fourth decade, he became the subject of attention for some of the most powerful men in Chile, including Fernando Flores, technical director of the agency which managed nationalisation.
Come and sort out our economy, Flores asked him – and the Wizard met him at the Athenaeum Club in London. It was the beginning of an audacious experiment. He put in a system using the one computer available, and the telex system. He set up systems for instant feedback, so that all the important information – including how happy the workers were – was piped into a futuristic control room. And to ensure transparency, anyone could come into that room to see the information systems at work. Technology, he said, should be at the service of the people: and not the other way round.
The Wizard began to win. Within two years, 75% of Chile’s nationalised industry had been brought into the system. And then, just as it began bearing fruit, the president’s government was violently overthrown.
Stafford had left by that time but many of his friends were killed. He was deeply affected. He left his family with their agreement, and bought a dishevelled Welsh cottage next to a stream, built from the materials of Cwarel Ysaf: the lowest quarry. He left behind material possessions and lived without plumbing and other such comforts for many years. Although he had some stellar visitors: Brian Eno for one.
Which is where I came upon him, infused into the sound of the stream and the whispering of the wind in the trees outside his old cottage. On his bedroom shelf a likeness of Shiva the great destroyer; on the walls his paintings, unlike any I’ve ever seen before. On a high shelf embrace two Tantric lovers, and in the air hangs the nearest I have ever felt to perfect love.
It is a humble little cottage apt to change lives.
I spent a week at his cottage, with the Celt, who knew him, reading his work and living some of the things he used to do.
Perhaps I will have time to tell you about them.