Stafford Beer and The Arts; a daughter remembers
‘A MATTER OF HYSTERICAL RECORD
‘When the short-lived Allende government was elected to power in Chile and needed a means of balancing that unfortunate country’s precarious economy, Allende appealed to the British cybernetics expert Stafford Beer.
Who announced that as few as ten significant quantities, reported from a handful of key locations where adequate communication facilities existed, would enable the state of the economy to be reviewed and adjusted on a day-to-day basis.
Judging by what happened subsequently, his claim infuriated nearly as many people as did the news that there are only four elements in the human genetic code.’
John Brummer, The Shockwave Rider [Futura Publications Ltd. 1975] p.123
Stafford was not overwhelmed when I read him the above, though he was thrilled by the page number. For me it was the text that was magic; he had become part of a world I loved, science fiction.
Ah, he said.
Those people are always hanging around at the back of conferences. I’ve met several.
In fact, he said, I’ve played table tennis with Arthur C. Clarke.
All who knew Stafford will acknowledge his power as a raconteur.
I said (he said) – ping, pong, pause – what do you do? Ping, pong. I write, was the response. Pong. Everyone at this conference writes. Ping, wham. Pong. I write science fiction. Ping. Pause. Ha! I’ve read some of that.
Stafford proceeded at some length to explain the story of A Space Odyssey. Clarke let him finish, ping-ponging the while, before saying, ping, yes, I wrote that. Wham. Stafford, undeterred, told him the story of The Nine Billion names of God, while continuing the game.
The bastard, said Stafford. He let me finish before saying, yerrrs – I wrote that too.
His meeting with Douglas Adams was also memorably recounted. Friends had fixed a lunch together and Mrs Adams was apparently rather lovely so Stafford all devoted his attention to her (as anyone who knew him will tell you was his wont…) Towards the end of the meal he politely if belatedly turned to her husband – whom he thought from the look of him was a chartered accountant – and asked, and what do you do?
On hearing that he was the author of the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy he clutched his head and groaned, Oh my God, my children will kill me. He knew we would stay in on a Saturday night to listen to the radio broadcast. Fans and devotees. Brain the size of a planet was the stock response in the household to any request for any servile task.
I was about to write, he never read fiction – but casting my mind back it seems that he’d read ALL fiction. My bedtime stories were the Iliad, The Odyssey and Lewis Carroll. He could hold his own in any conversation about literature. He often – gloomily- remarked that fiction was all that people read. He regarded it therefore as a way to instruct people, from the short story he wrote as a young captain in the Gurkha’s – dealing rather pedantically with Indian mysticism – to the sophisticated kids book on Indian mysticism, Wizard Prang. A lifetimes literary output had made him rather expert by then.
But if we are thinking Stafford and literature, it is his poetry that is significant. Poetry was one of his big loves; he had a good grasp of Anglo-Saxon and would read from Chaucer, pointing out the contemporary parallels. Sounds and cadence mattered. Scansion and internal rhythms too, of course, because it was the sound of the thing that got him. Perhaps this was why Basil Bunting was a favourite poet. Bunting insisted that his work should be read aloud and in his Northumberland accent, not dissimilar to the Welsh music of Dylan Thomas who was another passion of Staffords. T.S.Eliot too. When he was young it was the undergraduates game to declaim Eliot from rooftops, very (sweetly) radical in its day…
The Bible was a major poetic influence. The King James version, of course, because of the poetics – though he knew the others. He’d been studying the Bible since he was a boy and had a very solid theological knowledge as a result, though some of his references can be a little abstruse for the modern reader. The dedication of One Person Metagame, his autobiographical poem, is to Elihu the son of Barachel the Buzite, of the kindred of Ram. His slight notes merely give a biblical reference – the Book of Job, ch 32, v1-3 from which we learn that Elihu was angry with Job because he justified himself rather than God. What’s that about then?
Stafford read Job constantly, studied it thoroughly. The Book of Job deals with the issue of human suffering, a subject that concerned him all his life (ref; A World In Torment) He twice painted Job… built into the shape of ∞, the sideways 8 symbol for eternity.
Carl Jungs book Answer to Job (1952 in English) was often referred to, where Jung writes of the Jewish patriarchal God as a dangerously mad psycho who ultimately has to kill his own son to atone for his vicious traits. The Satan side of God. Slightly more positively, God is described as developing as a personality – as coming-into-being. Stafford was a fan of Jungs’ Seven Sermons to the Dead as well and had a deep knowledge of alchemy in general. It could get rather irritating as a young person, to discover an obscure and exciting text and find that Stafford knew it inside out. Where did he find the time?
I see from the notes of OPM that it took four years to write, given attention on a daily basis from 1971 to 1974. His work load at that time was phenomenal. Even on his plane journeys and between jobs he was writing Brain of the Firm. And running Cybersyn in Chile. He had a new wife and a young family. He never gave the impression of being hurried, or tired, or pre-occupied.
Lead it is malleable
the extract of its mercury
is good as gold
turn to the left
consult your death
before the gold takes over
rampant biologic growth
why not relax
[Stafford Beer, One Person
Metagame, lines 870 -880]
Stafford’s family were all creative. They painted, they wrote poetry, they played instruments. His mother (Doris Ethyl, aka Pat) had her own painting studio and was also a ceramicist with a kiln in the basement. His father William, though a statistician at Lloyds of London, was a yachtsman who had a fine voice and sang to piano accompaniment. As a young man before embarking on his career he was paid to sing at Edwardian soirées. Stafford too had a fine voice, a mellifluous bass. His aunt and uncle, Kitty and Bill, to whom he was very close, were also creative. Bill did beautiful classical drawings and watercolours and Kitty enjoyed embroidery, pastels, watercolours… everybody played instruments, piano, piccolo, flutes, bugle.
This creativity spanned a generation or two, that we know of. There is a letter from the poet Robert Browning (1812 -1889) to Staffords’ ancestor Henry Beer (himself painter to the Duke of Wellington) held in the John Moores collection, gracefully advising Henry not to give up the day job.
Staffords’ first recorded mural was executed when he was fourteen in his bedroom. Called The Collapse of Capitalism, it showed buildings falling into flames, an apocalyptic painting of some grandeur that frightened his brother (Ian). The point is that he lived in an atmosphere that encouraged originality and endeavour. It wasn’t eccentric for its own sake, however; there were always benchmarks, prizes, a career ladder and above all, the approval of the clan. Perfect training ground for the precocious youth.
Staffords’ training as a painter came from the family who taught him all the technical things necessary for watercolour and oils. Oils were his favourite; he loved the tache, that is, the yield of the canvas to the brush: he loved the smell of the paints and the turps and he loved the brilliance of the colours. He had a folding easel, a present from his mother when he was twelve which he passed to me when I was twelve. After that he got a studio easel and was able to keep work on the go. There are many small paintings to write about but the big series that he exhibited at Liverpool cathedral are the best known – The Requiem. There eight paintings of 5′ x3.5′ , plus one imposing one at 7 ‘ x 4.5’.
He has written about his motivation and preparation for the series; a long-standing desire to express his religious and mystical thoughts on death and the life of the soul, in the manner of a musical requiem. He called the nine large paintings a meditation and referred to the collection as an installation. Each has a title drawn from the requiem mass. The pictures were arranged as points on a pathway shaped as an enneagram which offered various possibilities for regarding the interaction of the works.
Nine interactive paintings arranged in a ring generate seventy-two directional reverberations between them. It is too complicated. My enneagrammatic floor design draws attention to eighteen special connections.
[Stafford Beer, Exhibition
Notes, Metropolitan Cathedral
of Christ the King,
The paintings are not illustrations, they are not diagrams, they not literary incursions into a visual field. They are what it says on the box; visual mediations. When they were exhibited in the apse of Liverpool Cathedral (aka ‘The Wigwam’) they were enclosed in a tent and only one person at a time was allowed entry. Naturally a lot of people wanted to look so the opportunities to dawdle were slight – I’m guessing that not a lot of mediation went on, not at least on the opening night.
(I still remember and treasure the moment of Stafford refusing to let a nun enter because someone was already in there)
The paintings are difficult to evaluate as paintings, simply paintings, because they are not situated in the context of contemporary art. They do not hint at their origins nor reference any other work. Contemporary art is a continuous and somewhat incestuous flow that is hard to talk about to people who are not deeply embedded in the movements involved. I hate writing that. But it is the case – as perhaps it is for people working with cybernetics, there is a history that has been tested, a base knowledge assumed, there is a direction, there are known international variations, etc etc.
Without a context, there is no shared language. How to talk about the Requiem then?
In the end, Stafford is right. You have to walk the path and experience the resonances between the work; mediate.
It is easier to talk of Stafford the draughtsman. With a few marks, he could draw anything he wanted, clearly, pleasingly, with the minimum of fuss. His cartoons are legendary and very funny. We once collaborated on a work together, where I wrote the text and he did the drawings. He never corrected a line, simply drew what was necessary to express the concept – which was an hermetic text I’d rendered into Haiku. A lesser man might have baulked. His ink drawings are perfect.
A memory and a challenge; Stafford exhibited a painting called The Four Riders of the Apocalypse in the early 1950’s. I don’t know where it was shown but it was sold. He needed the money but often talked of it and wondered where it was. No photos; no record. Anyone seen it???
Stafford enjoyed classical concerts, he liked to go to the ballet, didn’t like opera much but enjoyed Mozarts’ The Magic Flute, went to art exhibitions when he could. His restless search for information scanned both the arts and the sciences; he drew no distinctions between them. He was interested in everything and used everything he found to some creative conclusion. He was never afraid of the leap into the dark which is the mark of the genuinely creative thinker, poet, painter – Tat Tvam Asi, as he quotes on his exhibition notes;
that subtle essence which is
the Self of this entire world,
That is the Real,
That is the Self,
That you are.