Wednesday, August 31, 2016


UPDATED/11th September 2016

Report from Allende's Chile by Graham Greene. Published in The Observer magazine [2nd Jan 1972]. Photos: Roman Cagnoni.[The Generalist Archive]
'June, 1972, Ángel Parra, Chile’s leading folksinger, wrote a song titled “Litany for a Computer and a Baby About to Be Born.” Computers are like children, he sang, and Chilean bureaucrats must not abandon them". 

'The song was prompted by a visit to Santiago from a British consultant who, with his ample beard and burly physique, reminded Parra of Santa Claus—a Santa bearing a “hidden gift, cybernetics.” 

'The consultant, Stafford Beer, had been brought in by Chile’s top planners to help guide the country down what Salvador Allende, its democratically elected Marxist leader, was calling “the Chilean road to socialism.” 

'Beer was a leading theorist of cybernetics—a discipline born of mid-century efforts to understand the role of communication in controlling social, biological, and technical systems. Chile’s government had a lot to control:  Allende, who took office in November of 1970, had swiftly nationalized the country’s key industries, and he promised “worker participation” in the planning process. Beer’s mission was to deliver a hypermodern information system that would make this possible, and so bring socialism into the computer age. The system he devised had a gleaming, sci-fi name: Project Cybersyn...
'At the center of Project Cybersyn (for “cybernetics synergy”) was the Operations Room, where cybernetically sound decisions about the economy were to be made. Those seated in the op room would review critical highlights—helpfully summarized with up and down arrows—from a real-time feed of factory data from around the country. The prototype op room was built in downtown Santiago, in the interior courtyard of a building occupied by the national telecom company. It was a hexagonal space, thirty-three feet in diameter, accommodating seven white fibreglass swivel chairs with orange cushions and, on the walls, futuristic screens. Tables and paper were banned. Beer was building the future, and it had to look like the future.'

These three paragraphs, are from the opening  page of Evgeny Morozov's 'The Planning Machine: Project Cybersyn and the origins of the Big Data nation.' You can read the whole article here.  ['A Critic at Large' New Yorker 13 Oct 2014]

**Since this was originally posted, my attention has been drawn to the controversy over this article in a blog post by Lee Vinsel entitled 'An Unresolved Issue: Evgeny Morozov, The New Yorker, and the Perils of "Highbrow Journalism" [October 11, 2014].  Its essence refers to Eden Medina's book 'Cybernetic Revolutionaries' [see later in this post] 

'Indeed, Morozov's essay was ostensibly a review of 'Cybernetic Revolutionaries'. Yet, Morozov only once mentioned Medina, and the mention came well into his text. To add insult to injury, citation was glancing at best: "As Eden Medina shows in 'Cybernetic Revolutionaries,' her entertaining history of Project Cybersyn, [Stafford] Beer set out to solve an acute dilemma that Allende faced." The placement of the mention as well as its wording could and did give many readers the impression that all of the ideas and the work that went into the essay were Morozov's, but they weren't.'


This is a story within the story. Back in 1975, I had made contact with Stafford Beer via letter (no trace in Archives) and received a gracious letter back in elegant handwriting. Sometime later I was on the train from Euston to Aberystwyth and arrived as the sun was going down, at the end of the line. 

I was 25 at the time and this was the first proper interview I had done solo, first time I was in charge of tape recorder. I had no idea of what to expect. I was met at the station by a large bearded man with a commanding voice and a large (blue?) Bentley - Stafford Beer, larger than life. He basically took control and I happily just followed along. We drove somewhere and parked before stepping back in time into the public bar of an old hostelry, festooned with old fishing nets and glass balls, with only a few of the locals in. We began drinking, somebody started singing and playing a guitar (I think) and as the beer went down, the Beer began joining in the singing.

We decamped to an Indian restaurant. Beer was known there. It was noisy, somebody's birthday, If I had been more experienced I would have waited or moved to a quieter spot. as it is the tapes survived and it's possible to catch 95% of a very long monologue, only interrupted by my brief questions, mouthfuls of food and calls for more sherry. The noise dies down. That's when he calls for more sherry.

In my memory, Stafford starting crying. I wasn't sure how to deal with this. Its not on the tape. I must have turned that off. I think because we had been talking about Allende.
Thinking back on it, I am sure Stafford was driving over the limit but this was 1975, hardly any traffic around and a fairly brief journey to a guest house by a small river. A low-lying cottage, We were in the kitchen with a really stunning woman and her grandmother. I don't know whether we drank any more but Stafford encouraged the woman to sing which she did, a most beautiful voice, ancient Welsh folk song, magical.

Next morning I felt a bit thick in the head. Had a hearty breakfast. Walked out to look at the river which was also a bit magical and, when I had cleared my head, sat down with Stafford for another session when he told me about all the other cyberneticians like Wiener, McCullough and Ashby and Pask and Maturana.

I think he then drove me to the station. When I emerged into the London sunshine I had to call my colleague Mike Marten to explain that I had this amazing interview.

Listening to the tapes now is like time-travel.

The interview was meant to form part of the second volume of a proposed trilogy of 'An Index of Possibilities.' The first volume's theme was 'Energy & Power'. The second volume was 'Structures & Systems' which was going to include a section on cybernetics.

Stafford's work in Allende's Chile was known about in 1975. I have clippings from The Observer and 'Architectural Design' (AD), reviewing two of his new books 'Designing Freedom' and 'Platform for Change'; in the latter, he outlines the Cybersyn project in some detail. However it was not certainly not mainstream press.

In December 1977, Stewart Brand of the Whole Earth Catalogue sent a message that he was interested in reading the interview. 

I must have written to Stafford as a result and sent him a copy of our new book 'Worlds Within Worlds' - the first popular book providing an overview of scientific imagery, from the micro to the macro. By this time we had had to abandon our work on Index 2. He wrote me a letter in Feb 1978 which said of WWW: 

'Well- thanks a million for the book. I have read the whole thing. It is the most beautiful book that I have seen for a long time. And it manages to say so much about the perception of systems that can't be communicated in words.. I particularly like the intro on SCALE. I've written a lot about that; but people hang on to their own scale, and the rest is not 'for real'. Scale is a kind of virginity that must not be violated - at the risk of loss of identity...Only Buddhism seems to understand. Tat tvam asi.' [Thou art that].

I wrote two letters to him, one after he had his letter published on Sept 13th 1985 in The Times correspondence page castigating the government over its recent approach to the riots in Handsworth; another a catch-up letter in December 1985. No response came. 


Stafford died in 2002, a month shy of his 76th birthday.

** [Rewrite] The following year, came the first major press coverage of Cybersyn, a 2,000 article by Andy Beckett, whose book 'Pinochet in Piccadilly' was published in 2002. In his piece in The Guardian, Beckett billed Stafford  as an 'eccentric scientist'.

Andy Beckett writes: 'In June 1973, after being advised to leave Santiago, [Beer] rented an anonymous house on the coast....For a few weeks, he wrote and stared at the sea and travelled to government meetings under cover of darkness.'

'Beer was in London, lobbying for the Chilean government, when he left his final meeting before intending to fly back to Santiago and saw a newspaper billboard that read, "Allende assassinated."
The Chilean military found the Cybersyn network intact, and... destroyed it.' [Allende, in fact, took his own life.]

 'Soon after the coup, Beer left West Byfleet, his wife, and most of his possessions to live in a cottage in Wales. "He had survivor guilt, unquestionably," says Simon [his son].


The year before he died, Eden Medina met him, was invited to his house in Toronto, and was able to conduct a two-day long interview. She writes:

'I was a third-year doctoral student hoping to learn more about the history of Project Cybersyn. I had stumbled on the Cybersyn story by chance several months earlier while searching for information on the history of computing in Latin America. It felt like a good story.'

 For the next ten years, Eden conducted a huge research programme which included fifty interviews in eight countries, locating people who worked on the project and consulting both personal and national archives. The result is 'Cybernetic Revolutionaries' a remarkable work which is the definitive account and seems likely to remain so. 

I was aware of Eden Medina's book but was reluctant to read it for some reason. Perhaps I thought it was my story. It was certainly a very powerful personal experience. I finally got the book (now in paperback) earlier this year, I almost immediately wrote to her and we have been in correspondence since. It has taken many months to finally attempt to assemble all these thoughts and memories as well as explaining more of the actual factual story.

For personal reasons I wanted to understand the context of the interviews I'd done in mid-1975.
We're jumping to the end of the story.

Medina writes: 'The Chile project had been a turning point in Beer's life, and it had change him in profound and lasting ways. As the Chilean biologist Humberto Maturana put it, 'Beer came to Chile a business man and left a hippie...'

'In 1974, he embarked on  a journey of spiritual and material re-invention, first by taking extended trips to the Welsh countryside. By 1976 he had relocated permanently to a small cottage [in a quarry] in Wales that lacked running water.'

'In 1981, he met Allenna Leonard at a cybernetics conference in Toronto [and she] became his partner for the rest of his life,' establishing a second home on the west side of downtown Toronto. From then on, he lived part of the year in both residences.

No doubt Stafford was distressed not only by the shocking end of Allende's regime. He felt a personal responsibility to help many of the people who'd been involved with in Project Cybersyn.

Medina reminds us that, during the Pinochet regime (1973-1990), more than 3,000 Chileans were "disappeared" or murdered by the government. On estimate is that 100,000 people (1% of the population) were tortured at that time. Medina writes: 'After the coup, Beer worked tirelessly to get his friends out of Chile and used his vast web of professional connections to help them establish new lives in other parts of the world.'


'In Chile, I know that I am making the maximum effort towards the devolution of power. The government made their revolution about it. I find it good cybernetics.' - Stafford Beer, February 1973

Eden Medina's scholarly investigation tells a complex tale at length. What follows is attempt to grasp the outlines of the story and to draw your attention to some aspects of the story I found most fascinating.

In her intro piece she writes:
'This book tells the history of two intersecting utopian visions, one political and one technological. The first was an attempt to implement social change peacefully and through existing democratic institutions. The second was an attempt to build a computer system for real-time economic control more than twenty years before the internet became a feature of everyday life.'

This was at a time when the US ARPANET, the predecessor of the internet, was still in its infancy and the Soviet Union had already tried and failed to build a national computer system for managing a planned economy.

In 1970 Chile had approximately 50 computers in the whole country, installed in the government and private sector. Most of them were out of date. Telephones were a scarce resource and connections were unreliable.

Stafford's system, with its Stanley Kubrick-style control centre, ran on one IBM mainframe and a network of telex machines at workplaces all over the country. These would send production date to a central telex. Chilean computer experts would then punch the data on to cards and feed them into the mainframe running a statistical analytic program. Any variations in the data could be feedbacked to the factory or port. The idea was good in principle but they only owned tow telex machines. Fortunately they did locate 400 unused telex machines in storage at the national telecoms centre.

The technical aspects of running such a system, including the design of the control centre, is a remarkable geek tale of problem-solving on the hoof with scant resources using huge human ingenuity. Its Apollo 13 time. 

Cybernetics at that time was not even considered a scientific discipline. Christened by Norbert Wiener in 1948 [drawn from the Greek kubernetes meaning 'steersman'], he defined it as the study of 'control and communication in the animal and the machine'. Attempts were made to make it a universal science but later it was widely realised that cybernetics assumed a variety of forms in different contexts. Another way of defining it that Medina quotes is 'a universal language for the scientific study of machines, organisms and organisations.'

Beer received a letter from Fernando Flores in July 1971 inviting him to set up a cybernetic project in Chile. Flores was a 28-year old engineer who had a leadership role in Allende's nationalisation project. Medina reports that Beer's intellectual reaction produced by the Chilean invitation was: "I had an orgasm."

Beer, Flores and a small team had to come up with a conceptual design and then turn that into a
real-life engineering project, produced to an aggressive timeline. An additional team was established in London to write the software. Beer presented the whole plan to Allende personally and secured his blessing.

Good progress was made but Nixon had authorised a CIA operation almost from the moment that Allende was elected to try and unseat them. Later came news that the telecoms giant ITT were working with the CIA and plans for a full economic blockade of Chile was put together by a considerable number of US corporatuons whose holdings in Chile had been nationalised.

When there was a nationwide October Strike in 1972 in which 40,000 truck owners went on strike, the Cybersyn set-up did help the government survive. They manged to get 99 telexes operating across the country connected to the Cybernet network. But the system in the end was too slow for office managers.

Apparently Beer was greeted in Chile as being a cross between Orson Welles and Socrates and the Cybersyn project had good press. But interestingly Beer's project was vilified in Britain by people who he might have expected to be on his side. Most damaging was a story in The Observer (7th Jan 1973) with the provocative headline 'Chile Run by Computer'.  'The article', Medina writes, ' portrayed the system in a way that was both damaging and untrue. It claimed: "The first computer system designed to control and entire economy has been secretly brought into operation in Chile" and described it as  having been "assembled in some secrecy so as to avoid opposition charges of 'Big Brother' tactics." {Medina found no evidence that is was a covert government initiative]. She continues: '..this early misreading of Project Cybersyn proved extremely difficult for Beer to correct.'

[Right: a picture of Victor Jara whose songs were the anthem of Chile's left. The article is captioned: 'First they took him to the stadium and broke his hands so he would never be able to play again...They took him out and shot him. He was defiant even as he died.' Article by Seamus Milne The Guardian. 22 Oct 1988. See trailer for 'The Resurrection of Victor Jara'

[The Generalist Archive]

The other person who has done most to bring knowledge of Stafford Beer's many achievements to a broader audience is the bookseller, writer, independent researcher and publisher David Whittaker.                                                                                                             He struck up a correspondence with Stafford in 1980 which went for 20 years. He published this 64pp book in 2003, under his own imprint Wavestone Press. It contains some 50 letters with linking text and interesting digressions  
This was followed in 2009 by a much chunkier 382pp volume entitled 'Think Before You Think: Social Complexity and Knowledge of Knowing' It includes a heterogenous collection of papers written by Stafford, almost entirely from 1974 onwards, after the Chilean experience. It also includes numerous poems and paintings. In the appendix is a valuable chronology of Stafford's life and his own account of his time in Chile. Stafford's vast knowledge base is very apparent as is his interest and knowledge of eastern thinking and beliefs. [Both books available from Wavestone Press]

I have left one of the most extraordinary facts about these books until last. The first contains an interview with Brian Eno; the second has an introductory essay by Eno. Yes, the same Eno who is one of the most influential figures in modern music, the inventor of Ambient. It turns out that Eno was actually taught by a cybernetician at art school and that Beer's 'Brain of the Firm' was the great influence on Eno's concept of self-generating music. Beer visited Eno's flat in Maida Vale in 1973 and Eno reciprocated with a visit to Beer's Welsh hideout in 1977, an event he describes in detail. It is clear from both pieces the important influence Beer exerted on Eno's thinking and music-making practice. Whittaker's first book also contains two short letters from Robert Fripp - another Beer fan. 
David Whittaker was first turned on to Stafford Beer through an interview with Eno by Ian MacDonald in the NME [Dec 3rd 1977]

** THE GENERALIST has been heartened by the fantastic reaction to this piece which has had 645 hits in the last 10 days (now 11/9/16), largely due to the fact that Eno liked my tweet on this post and retweeted it to his 77,000+ followers.

A remarkable man


This post is a respectful salute to the late great Alvin Toffler, who we were fortunate enough to meet on several occasions in early 1975, when he was visiting Britain partly to give a lecture at the ICA in London (mid-Feb). The 'we' in this case being myself, Mike Marten and Jon Trux who, along with John Chesterman and others, had produced 'An Index of Possibilities', published in the UK in late 1974 and in the US in 1975. 

I have strong but brief memories of meeting AT. He first came to our office at the end of the day in autumn or winter. At the time we were still in full-on freak stage (appearance-wise). Alvin was in a classic belted raincoat, collar turned up. We repaired to a local bar and talked for hours. He was genuinely interested in what we had to say.

Toffler at that time was the best-known 'futurist' in the world. He and his wife Heidi, had met as radical students. They got married in Cleveland [on the day of my birth!]and both got employment in factories as blue-collar workers for five years.

He is quoted as saying: "My wife and I, unlike many intellectuals, spent five years working on assembly lines. We came to fully understand the criticisms of the industrial age, in which you are an appendage of a machine that sets the pace. "

He then started writing for trade and union papers before becoming a Labour correspondent for the prestigious business magazine Fortune. In 1964, he interviewed the Russian novelist Vladimir Nabokov and the writer Ayn Rand for Playboy,

The trigger for his greatest success was an article for Holiday magazine in 1965. He and Heidi (essentially his un-credited co-writer and researcher) then spent the second half of the 1960s working on what became 'Future Shock'. Published in 1970, the book was a hugely successful worldwide best-seller, based on the 'future shock' concept: when change happens too quickly, it creates social confusion and a breakdown in existing decision-making processes. This resonated strongly in the late '60s.

I'm pretty sure that, when we met, he gave us the copy that I still have [now smoke-blackened] of his next book 'The Futurists' - a remarkable anthology of futurist thinking - edited by Alvin and Heidi and published by Ramdom House in 1972, Toffler wrote the book's intro 'Probing Tomorrow'. The line-up of contributors is stellar: Buckminster Fuller, Marshall McLuhan, Margaret Mead, Herman Kahn, Paul Ehrlich, Arthur C. Clarke et al. Futurism had become a movement by this time and this snapshot of key texts provides a valuable overview of the thinking at that period. There are still 'futurists' at work but the term has fallen out of common parlance. 

My other personal memory is when we went to the Toffler's London apartment in Culross Street, which runs between Park Lane and Grosvenor Square, site of the US Embassy. Here we met Heidi for the first time and there was another visitor - Mike Oldfield of 'Tubular Bells' fame - who was, I believe, hatching plans for a West End show based on 'Future Shock'. 

[The 'Future Shock' 1972 documentary was narrated by Orson Welles. Musicians Curtis Mayfield and Herbie Hancock both wrote songs called "Future Shock."]

'The Index of Possibilities' correspondence files contain four letters. Mike Marten sent an interview request on Jan 10th, 1075, received a response from an assistant in New York suggesting he call AT in London on after Feb 19th. The following day MM sent a copy of the Index with a covering letter together with a synopsis for Index Vol 2: Structures & Systems. In terms of the interview, he suggests using 'Future Shock' as a 'departure point and concentrate on your current work. A letter dated May 15th begins: 'Herewith the complete unedited transcript of our interview. So far I've only read it through very quickly...I'd forgotten what a very discursive interview it was.' Unhappily we do not have the original tape or the transcript referred to.

Toffler's next book was 'The Third Wave', published in 1980. If the first and second waves are the agricultural and industrial revolutions, 'the "third wave," a phrase he coined, represents the current information, computer-based revolution. He forecast the spread of the Internet and email, interactive media, cable television, cloning, and other digital advancements. He claimed that one of the side effects of the digital age has been "information overload," another term he coined.' [Wikipedia]

One thing I didn't know was that: 'Toffler was hired by IBM  [in the 1960s?] to conduct research and write a paper on the social and organizational impact of computers, leading to his contact with the earliest computer "gurus" and artificial intelligence researchers and proponents. Xerox invited him to write about its research laboratory and AT&T consulted him for strategic advice. This AT&T work led to a study of telecommunications, which advised its top management for the company to break up more than a decade before the government forced AT&T to break up.' [Wikipedia]

For obvious reason, I was pleased find a passage I'd underlined in pencil many years ago in 'The Third Wave' regarding Toffler's view on generalistsHe writes:
'Second Wave civilisations placed an extremely heavy emphasis on our ability to dismantle problems into their components; it rewarded us less often for the ability to put the pieces back together again. Most people are culturally more skilled as analysts than synthesists. This is one reason why our images of the future (and of ourselves in that future) are so fragmentary, haphazard - and wrong. Our job here will be to think like generalists, not specialists. 
Today I believe we stand on the edge of a new age of synthesis. In all intellectual fields, from the hard sciences to sociology, psychology and economics - especially economics - we are likely to see a return to large-scale thinking, to general theory, to the putting of the pieces back together again.'

See: Alvin Toffler [Wikipedia]


THE GUARDIAN/Robert Covile

'Today, it is almost a commonplace that technology is transforming the world, and that many of us are struggling to cope. But Alvin Toffler... was the first to take that idea into the mainstream in his book Future Shock (1970), which blamed society’s ills on the “dizzying disorientation brought on by the premature arrival of the future”.

'It is easy to pick out Toffler’s misses...but far more impressive was how much he got right. He was among the first to predict the demise of the nuclear family; the acceptance of gay marriage; the death of the job for life; the rise of the rental economy; that we would come to suffer from too much choice rather than too little.

'Above all, he got his biggest call right: that an industrial economy based on things was being replaced by a “post-industrial” one based on ideas, and that this process would result in wrenching economic and social change.

'Toffler helped to foster the belief within Silicon Valley and elsewhere that the function of technology firms was not just to make money, but to change the world. He also pioneered the idea of the writer as public intellectual ,

'While Toffler Associates, the consultancy firm which the couple co-founded in 1996, enjoyed a steady stream of business, .. because the future he forecast had already arrived. But he was feted in Japan, Singapore, South Korea, and China, where The Third Wave was reportedly outsold only by Deng Xiaoping’s collected speeches. The Communist party even named him as one of the 50 foreigners who had done most to affect China’s development. Other fans include Hugo Chávez, Indira Gandhi and Mikhail Gorbachev.


'In the book, in which he synthesised disparate facts from every corner of the globe, he concluded that the convergence of science, capital and communications was producing such swift change that it was creating an entirely new kind of society.

'His predictions about the consequences to culture, the family, government and the economy were remarkably accurate. He foresaw the development of cloning, the popularity and influence of personal computers and the invention of the internet, cable television and telecommuting.

“The roaring current of change,” he said, was producing visible and measurable effects in individuals that fractured marriages, overwhelmed families and caused “confusional breakdowns” manifested in rising crime, drug use and social alienation. He saw these phenomena as very human psychological responses to disorientation and proposed that they were challenging the very structures of communities, institutions and nations.

'He was among the first authors to recognize that knowledge, not labor and raw materials, would become the most important economic resource of advanced societies.

'Prime Minister Zhao Ziyang of China convened conferences to discuss “The Third Wave” in the early 1980s, and in 1985 the book was the No. 2 best seller in China. Only the speeches of the Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping sold more copies.'

BLOOMBERG/ David Henry
“Where an earlier generation of Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese revolutionaries wanted to re-enact the Paris Commune as imagined by Karl Marx, their post-revolutionary successors now want to re-enact Silicon Valley as imagined by Alvin Toffler,” Alexander Woodside wrote in a 1998 essay in Daedalus, a journal published by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences.

Alvin Toffler: What he got right - and wrong

The Muddled Legacy of Alvin Toffler

He was right about “future shock” but wrong about the solution.


Techno music pioneer Juan Atkins, founder of the pioneering Detroit techno label Metroplex which celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2010, told The Guardian reporter Ben Ferguson how in 1985 he met up with:
Rik Davis, a Vietnam veteran who developed an interest in electronic music while in the army. They shared sounds with each other and soon became bandmates in the group Cybotron.

"There was definitely something that made us click," recalls Atkins. "We talked lots about Alvin Toffler's idea of the 'third wave' and developed what you might call a techno-speak dictionary. In this dictionary were a lot of words like metroplex and cybotron. That's where these names came from. Metroplex is short for 'metrocomplex', which was a future word that Toffler mentioned. It referred to his scenarios in Future Shock and Third Wave where cities over the world would grow so big that they would all become one. This was a metrocomplex."

Monday, August 29, 2016


This is the beginning of a multi-layered post on Adrian Henri and the Liverpool Poets triggered by this brilliant book, sent to THE GENERALIST by Antony Hudek who is Director of Objectif Exhibitions, Antwerp and
Curator at Large at Raven Row, 56 Artillery Row London.

It was published by Occasional Papers to accompany an exhibition, curated by Catherine Marcangeli, staged at Liverpool John Moores University [5 July - 26th October 2014]. Antony facilitated the exhibition and contributed two essays including one based on a visit to Henri's home and archives, preserved thanks to the efforts of  Catherine M. who writes in the book's intro:

'In 'Notes on Painting and Poetry' Henri insists that he found 'no difficulty (other than shortage of time) in being a painter, poet, organiser of happenings, teacher and touring musician. This versatility is paired with an open-minded curiosity for and delight in other artists' work.'

In that same essay, Henri begins: 'The trouble is people want a label for you'. He looks back to Dada and Surrealism for validation. 'Consider Duchamp, or the prewar activities of Salvador Dali: films, exhibition-environments, poems, book jackets, objects, ephemeral events are equally important in their oeuvre'.

I'm ashamed to say I was largely ignorant of his work as an artist before seeing this book. He studied art at King's College, Newcastle-upon-Tyne and then gained a BA at the University of Durham where Richard Hamilton, the quintessential Pop artist, was a lecturer. Henri's initial work is very street-level and contains elements of Pop and collage. Its exciting and stimulating to see this work from the 50s/early 60s. His first exposure was at a group exhibition at the Walker Arts Gallery in Liverpool in 1958.

Adrian Henri with (on the right) his Big Liverpool 8 Murder Painting, c1964. Photograph: ICA.
This images, which appeared in The Guardian is almost certainly wrongly dated. In this book's detailed chronology and on the chronology on the Adrian Henry website:
its lists a solo show at the ICA in 1968. The website has great portfolios of his work.

'Total Artist' also has a excellent essay by Bryan Biggs, a Liverpool artist and now Director of the city's Bluecoat Arts Centre.

Interestingly Biggs suggests that Henri may have been influenced in his concept of 'total art' by the 1955 publication of this book by Roget Shattuck which documents the origin of the avant-garde in France at the beginning of the 20th century. It focuses on the naive painter Henri Rousseau, the composer Eric Satie, the poet Gulllaume Apollinaire and playwright Alfred Jarry, creator of Pere Ubu.

Biggs writes: 'The book pointed to the possibility of interdisciplinarity which Henri took a stage further by coalescing all these artforms into a single practice - the artist as painter-poet-performer-musician.'

A parallel book, Calvin Tomkins 'The Bride and The Bachelors' (published in the UK in 1965 as 'Ahead of the Game: Four Versions of the Avant-Garde') profiles composer John Cage, mixed media painter Robert Rauschenberg, machine sculptor Jean Tinguely and grandfather of the avant-garde Marcel Duchamp. [See Previous Post: Masters of the Avant Garde (Nov 2010)]

Biggs writes: 'By the time this book was published in Britain, Henri had 'already staged several 'events', arguably the first performance art in the UK, which put the idea of the multimedia experiment into practice...poetry, painting and pop.'

Another big influence on Henri was the American artist Allan Kaprow, a painter and pioneer of peformance art, who coined the term 'Happening'.

The book as a whole and Bigg's essay in particular, give a real feel for what was going on in Liverpool alongside the Beatles and the Merseybeat boom. I love this account of Allen Ginsberg's visit to the city in 1965. Biggs writes:
'He famously described the city as 'at the present moment the centre of the consciousness of the human universe. They're resurrecting the human form divine there - all those beautiful youths, with long, golden archangelic hair'. Henri recalls taking Ginsberg to the Cavern and other venues to taste Merseybeat first hand, drummers from local beat groups jamming with the Beat legend, who played Tibetan rhythms on a set of finger cymbals.'
Of course Adrian Henri came to national prominence, alongside fellow Liverpool poets Roger McGough and Brian Patten, through the publication of 'The Mersey Sound'  (1967) which has become one of the best-selling poetry books of all time and had a huge influence at that time. It was above all accessible to our generation.

From the 'happenings' Henri and the others realised the potential of combining spoken word with live music. Much of the collaborations up to that point were improvisations to jazz. Henri liked scripting rather than improv and was keener to combine poetry with rock and pop. The Mersey poets' work lent itself to performance. Biggs  gives us a valuable history lesson:

 'Poetry and live music was not new. In London, poetry and jazz were being performed together in concerts organised by Jeremy Robson featuring Adrian Mitchell, Laurie Lee, Dannie Abse and Christopher Logue, who also recorded an EP, 'Red Bird,' with The Tony Kinsey Quintet."

'Michael Horovitz's 'New Departures' visited British towns and cities between 1960 and 1965, the first touring jazz and poetry group in the country, coming in Henri's words 'to evangelise the north,' including Liverpool.

'A concert, 'Blues for the Hitch-hiking Dead', at the Crane Theatre in 1961 featured Horovitz, Pete Brown and Mark (Spike) Hawkins with The Art Reid Quartet. 

[You can listen to a long interview I recorded in November 2007 with Mike Horowitz on the Audio Generalist site ]

'Henri was disdainful of poets improvising with jazz: 'Some of the English poetry-and-jazz people make exaggerated claims about this and some poets I know are constantly re-writing their work'.

 'Pete Brown describes the poetry he was then writing 'in loosely musical forms like chase choruses. Theoretically it was pretentious but what saved it was the humour and a certain Britishness'.  

'If these experiments were unsuccessful artistically, the efforts of Brown and Hawkins - 'hitch-hiking evangelists of the London poetry/jazz circuit'" - were however instrumental, working with 'local unknowns', in getting the Liverpool live poetry scene going in the early 1960s, with readings at Streate's coffee house on Mount Pleasant hosted by Dubliner Johnny Byrne who, with Hawkins, relocated to the city. This was the archetypal 'cellar club', candlelit and with whitewashed walls, duffle coats and modern jazz. It 'was to poetry what the Cavern was to rock'n'roll'

'Musical accompaniment was a regular feature of these poetry readings and, at Sampson & Barlow's basement beneath the Peppermint Lounge on London Road and other venues, was increasingly played by electric bands, notably The Almost Blues and The Clayton Squares. In contrast to New Departures' proselytising, it was pop and rhythm & blues, not jazz, that offered a way forward for the emergent pop poetry, a path more in tune with the local Merseybeat.'

Most of the audience were fans of The Beatles or other bands at The Cavern. According to Mike Evans, one of Henri's chief collaborators, George and Ringo came to one of the poetry events at Liverpool's Hope Hall.

The best-known band to emerge from this scene was The Scaffold (1963–1974), which featured John Gorman, Mike McCartney (brother of Paul McCartney) and Roger McGough.

Wikipedia claims that 'Initially Adrian Henri was a member, when they were known as 'The Liverpool, One Fat Lady, All Electric Show'. ("One Fat Lady" is the bingo term for 8, and they mostly lived in the Liverpool 8 district.)'

In December 1967 'Thank U Very Much' (sung with a Liverpool accent) reached number 4 in the charts. A year later 'Lily the Pink' reached number 1. Ringo Starr's bass drum was used; also featured were Jack Bruce from Cream, Graham Nash from The Hollies and Reg Dwight, later renaming himself Elton John. Both hits were in the spirit of cheery and humorous drinking songs.'


Henri envied the greater freedom of pop stars compared to poets. In his essay: 'Notes on Painting and Poetry' he wrote:
'Because of the whole pop aura that surrounds their work they could allow themselves obscure or very personal images or sounds and their public will accept it. Whereas we always have to worry about the problem of communicating: what can't you allow yourself to say. I think this is a marvellous situation, for them. I think Dylan falls into the obvious trap this freedom opens, sometimes: The Beatles always seem to avoid it. Because no matter how interested in Oriental music or post-Stockhausen techniques they are they always seem aware of their responsibility as entertainers.'


In 1966, Henri teamed up with guitar player Andy Roberts and they fine-tuned music that worked with the poetry reading. Early in '67, they started performing in collaborations and happenings. 

Also in 1966, Henri and Patten met Edward Lucie Smith at the Nottingham poetry festival. He was known to them both as a prominent published poet and art critic. ELS wrote and said he wanted to publish one of Henri's poems in 'Encounter' but also later expressed an interest in producing an anthology of the Liverpool poets and quickly found backing from Rapp & Carroll. Born in Jamaica, Oxford graduate Lucie-Smith was an unlikely champion (as was Brian Epstein for the Beatles). 

Meanwhile McGough had been signed up by another publisher and the Liverpool poets came to the attention of Tony Richardson, the originator and publisher of the Penguin Modern Poets.'The Mersey Sound' which was published in the summer of 1967.

According to 'A Gallery to Play To: The Story of the Mersey Poets' by Phil Bowen [Liverpool University Press * see UPDATE at end] Lucie-Smith's book with photos by Phillip Jones Griffith was launched at the Cavern on March 3rd with a big press junket. It was then launched in London at the ICA, which Biggs says, led to tv appearance on BBC2, a gig at London's underground UFO club.

CBS used the same cover image for an album entitled 'The Incredible New Liverpool Scene' released to coincide with the book. Recorded in two hours in a studio in Denmark Street, it features Henri and Patten with Roberts on guitar. John Peel plays it on his pirate radio show 'Perfumed Garden' which led him to nominally becoming the producer of the first album by Henri's band: The Liverpool Scene.


'The Liverpool Scene shared a breadth of musical backgrounds that included jazz, beat, folk and blues, all of which were effectively deployed to create evocative settings for the poems of Henri, Evans and a non-band member, the Liverpool painter Maurice Cockrill ('Happy Burial Blues')... 'We do a noisy kind of abandoned thing', Henri declared, stressing that they only came together as a band for the last half hour of their set, the rest of the time being devoted to individual performances of poetry and songs.'
- Bryan Biggs

The band crystallised mid-1967 with Henri and Roberts being joined by Mike Evans (poet/sax), Mike Hart (vocals/guitar), Percy Jones (bass), Brian Dodson (drums) and became a regular gigging band on the progressive rock and university circuit.
In 1968, 'The Liverpool Scene: 'Amazing Adventures of...' album was produced by John Peel and released by RCA Records. After its release Brian Dodson was replaced by Peter Clarke.

 May 1969 saw the release of the their second album 'Bread On The Night' followed by appearances at the Bath Blues Festival, the Albert Hall and the Dylan Isle of Wight festival. and then toured the US doing supporting gigs with Led Zeppelin, The Who, The Kinks and Joe Cocker. At Kent State University, Ohio, they played support for Sly and the Family Stone in front of 17,00 people. None of their charm worked for an Americana audience and their three month tour was pronounced an 'absolute disaster'.

Their final album 'St Adrian Co., Broadway and 3rd' contained one live side and on the reverse a 22-minute word and sound collage 'Made in the USA'. The band split in 1970.

Adrian Henri [Born April 10 1932; died December 20 2000]  

Obituaries by Mike Evans and Nell Dunn/The Guardian    



'Andy accepted an offer to study law at Liverpool University, almost immediately bumping into Roger McGough at a bookshop as soon as he got there. The ‘jazz and poetry’ movement was at its peak, and Roger invited Andy to dive in: ‘February 1966 was the first time I did a thing with him and Adrian Henri, at the Bluecoat Theatre in Liverpool. It just took off from there. Within a couple of months I was doing poetry events at The Cavern and playing with a band at the University. There was loads going on.’

'Soon, on the back of a 1967 poetry anthology entitled The Liverpool Scene, Adrian Henri, Roger McGough and Andy, along with jazz saxophonist Mike Evans and songwriter/guitarist Mike Hart, were taking bookings as ‘The Liverpool Scene Poets’. Roger had to drop out of the poetry gigs (The Scaffold), leaving Andy to suggest to the charismatic Adrian Henri that all they needed was a bassist and drummer to become a bona fide band. .The Liverpool Scene was born.

'An album for CBS had already been recorded, prior to the band’s formation, called The Incredible New Liverpool Scene' BBC Radio’s champion of ’the underground’ John Peel took a shine to it and regularly booked the now fully-fledged band (or, as a duo, Roberts & Henri) for his show and for his own live engagements. He also nominally produced their first full-band album, Amazing Adventures Of… (RCA, 1968), in a recording deal secured by their new manager Sandy Roberton – a key figure in the careers of many now legendary acts at the progressive ends of folk and rock music of the time.

1969 saw the Liverpool Scene at their peak – delivering their second album Bread On The Night, touring the UK on a three act bill with Led Zeppelin and Blodwyn Pig, playing to 150,000 at the Isle of Wight Festival and touring America for a gruelling, and revelatory three months. ‘Absolute disaster', is Andy’s verdict on the tour. ‘We suddenly came up against the utter reality of it. With a British audience, given this poetry and a band that were never rehearsed, we got away with it through being so different and [through] our verve and irreverence. None of which worked in America.’

'The American experience would nevertheless inspire the band’s best work – the lengthy ‘Made In USA’ suite, one side of their last LP proper, St Adrian Co, Broadway And 3rd (1970).'


The 2-CD package features most of the band’s recorded output, along with some previously unreleased live material. Many of the included tracks have never been available on CD before, others have been meticulously remastered from the original master tapes from 40 years ago. This release has been made possible with the co-operation of the original members of the band and Adrian's estate.


Bryan Biggs has already flagged that Pete Brown and Spike Hawkins were however instrumental, working with 'local unknowns', in getting the Liverpool live poetry scene going in the early 1960s, with readings at Streate's coffee house on Mount Pleasant hosted by Dubliner Johnny Byrne who, with Hawkins, relocated to the city.

 Pete Brown also ran on a parallel course with Adrian Henri in that he got several bands together, got on a record and gigged. More anon.

Pete Brown's autobiography 'White Rooms & Imaginary Westerns: Ginsberg, Clapton and Cream an Anarchic Odyssey' which The Generalist has been digesting in sections and taking notes on over the last couple of years, makes more sense to me after reading Bryan's essay. Its published by JR Books but copies are rare and very costly on Amazon.

In an early chapter 'Devon and Beat Beginnings', he describes how he and Vic (his lifelong friend who he met at grammar school) 'bonded with Mal Dean, who was trying to play the trombone badly, and his fellow Liverpudlian Johnny Byrne. Mal, who had been a contemporary of John Lennon at the Art School, confirmed that there was a great scene in Liverpool and we should visit.'

[Left: John Lennon's own book of poetry, writings and drawings was published by Jonathan Cape in 1964. A treasured possession.]

Back in London, while his parents were away, Brown's homeless friends came to stay including the aforementioned Mel and Johnny. When the Browns returned, they were kicked out and were joined by Spike. All crammed into Victor's one-room flat. During a thunderstorm, they were all evicted by the police with a huge dog. 

Brown says of Spike: [He] 'had a similar relationship with his parents to mine, although his seem to have prompted more extreme behaviour. Legend had it that after he dropped out of college he was living in a hedge near Aylesbury. He was to become an extraordinary poet and a great friends.'

Somewhile later, Spike, Brown and other dossers were staying in 'a hovel in Victoria' which was soon overcrowded. Brown recalls: ' I arrived early one morning to find a note pinned to Spike's (still sleeping) conquest: BROWN. HAVE GONE TO LIVERPOOL. PLEASE FOLLOW.

'Spike had indeed gone to Liverpool, where he promptly began the seminal (in more ways than one) poetry readings in Streate's coffee bar on Mount Pleasant. The manager there, John L., later to become my roadie, dispensed sped pills from a huge sweet jar under the counter.

'It really was Spike who started the whole Liverpool poetry scene, and he has never received the credit for it, along with Johnny Byrne who helped organise things and later became a writer himself. Between they they recruited local talent such as Adrian Henri, at that time chiefly a painter and teacher, Sam Walsh, also a painter but a fine folk singer, Roger McGough, and a little later, the amazing 15-year-old Brian Patten. John Lennon was certainly around - he lived in the same building as Adrian and Sam across from the towering Gothic cathedral, the famed Gambier Terrace.'

Brown fell in love with Liverpool: 'The mixture of Welsh, Irish and Lancashire cultures crossed with Afro-Caribbean, Chinese and socialism was very attractive. The city was soon to be home to nearly 500 professional or semi-pro rock bands, and probably the only independent poetry magazine in Britain ever to make any money, 'Underdog'. [Produced by Brian Patten]

Brown is probably best-known for the great songs he wrote with Jack Bruce for 'Cream' (four tracks on 'Disraeli Gears') and later for Jack's brilliant first solo album 'Song for A Tailor', one of my all time favourite albums.

Like Adrian Henri, Pete Brown formed, gigged and recorded with bands - the Battered Ornaments and Piblokto. Brown was unceremoniously turfed out of the BOs, a band he set up, on the night before they played the Stones concert at Hyde Park in '69, shortly after the death of Brian Jones. He immediately formed Piblokto. Many of the posters and album covers for these bands were done by Mal Dean, Genius.



by Phil Bowen [First published by Stride Publications(1999); revised 2nd Edition/Liverpool University Press (2008)]

'...the Liverpool poets listened, learnt and led.'
- Adrian Henri

When I began writing this post some days ago now, I did not even know this book existed. Halfway through the story, I discovered it on Google Books. I then ordered a copy from the net, devoured it in a few days, wrote to Phil Bowen who replied that, as it turns out, he is coming to visit Lewes before the end of the year. Result.

To summarise briefly, this is the boss history, a master class in how to write a group biography (v. tricky), how to write about poetry and analyse it well enough so that it is not pretentious but enlightening. Its extremely elegantly written, flows beautifully and takes us on an imaginative tour of the streets of Liverpool, the clubs, the flats, the Mersey, the sounds of the 1960s/1970s. 

Phil is no less successful in bringing the three major characters to life. He writes about their performances in Nightblues, a 1963 'event' in Liverpool, featuring also John Gorman and a local R'n'B band the Roadrunners.:
'Nightblues is something of a template for the three poets' performing styles. Henri, the front man, but self-deprecating and still uncertain of himself as a poet; Patten, young - but as McGough had noted 'mature in the sense that he knew he was a poet' - but uneasy and uncomfortable regarding performance; and McGough, already the assured poet-performer, handling both aspects with consummate skill.'
The book takes us in chronological order decade by decade up to The Noughties, setting the progress of the three poets and poetry in general in a well-fleshed out background of the national politics of the day, other cultural activity and international movements.

 One of he aspects of the story that is so striking is how prolific Henri, McGough and Patten were and are. Also was completely unaware of how much successful writing they had done for children. It's a wonderful tale to have a chance to tell, very satisfying, very real. Phil expertly weaves multiple threads together, making it both informative and readable, full of fresh interview material, quotes from the odes, and insider observations.

It is highly recommended to the more than one million readers who have bought the original Penguin Mersey Poets book. 

Phil is a poet whose last collection is Starfly (Stride Publications.2004)> He has edited two anthologies of poems also published by Stride, one that celebrates Dylan [Jewels & Binoculars (1993)] and Things We Said Today,which celebrates The Beatles. He has also written four plays including A Handful of Rain, an imaginary meeting between Bob Dylan and Dylan Thomas. Born in Liverpool, he lives in Cornwall and works all over the country as a freelance writer, teacher and poet.


I organised both of these gigs. The first (left) was in 1970 when I was 19 and was running with others the local arts lab The Worthing Workshop. Yes, I was Freaky John! According to local press clippings of the time, we had an audience of 350 but lost £100. This came after a hugely profitable benefit concert in January featuring the original Deep Purple and others. The second (right) was one of a series of events called 'The New Beat Experience', which we staged at the Komedia in Brighton for several years. This 'happening' dates from September 2003 when I was 53. To have Spike Hawkins and Pete Brown on the bill made for a memorable night.