A Thoroughly Modern Wizard

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.


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11 thoughts on “A Thoroughly Modern Wizard

  1. “Stafford Beer was a September baby, born in 1926”. “Wartime took him as an officer to India.”

    He would have been exactly 13 years old, when war was declared on the 3rd September 1939; and a few months short of 19 on VE day 8th May ’45.

    Too young to have served as an officer. Is 1926 a typo? Should it have been 1916?

    1. Hi Brian, very good point – my information comes from the Oxford National Dictionary of Biography which says he enlisted at 18, in 1944, where he was immediately selected for officer training and then served with the Gurkhas in India…Stafford packed a great deal in 🙂 I have re-written it a bit though on the strength of your comment! Lovely to hear you, and I hope you’re in excellent health x

      1. I feeling quite well I did have a total gastrectomy two years ago, the docs found cancer in my stomach so they whipped it out. I’ve made quite a good recovery thanks Kate.
        Good to see you back, I’m still posting my rubbish, keeps me occupied in my dotage 😀

  2. A wonderful wizard indeed, though not of Oz. Amazing to spend a week with him!
    Rather different from my own beloved Wizard Prang from Baa Baa Black Belt, who speaks in RAF jargon, what-what, and has an alter ego of an albatross.

    1. I must read up on your Wizard Prang, Col! Yes, a week is turning into longer as I delve deeper into his cybernetics books. He had a wonderful mind. And he wrote a set of stories about himself as a Wizard, which I’ll share anon. Hope you and yours are all well!

      1. Cybernetics is one of those words like calculus that has me running for cover, but perhaps I should take a closer look at it. Hope you do find the time to extend your time ‘with’ him, and to share your experiences.
        We are frisky, as I hope all your side are.

  3. I know little of cybernetics and have certainly never known of this fascinating modern wizard, Kate, but I do know the rapturous feeling of discovery when stumbling onto brilliance and inspiration. I have collected Brian Eno’s music for some time now and with your description of this humble but inspiring cottage it makes sense to me that he would be attracted to the energy that is surely accessible if someone as dynamic as Stafford left his mark. It sounds to me that you, too, came away with a special touch. I’d love to hear more…when you can, of course! 🙂

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