My reality-tunnels

Here’s a brief biographic noodle, included here to show “where I’m coming from”, and how it may have led to my writing this blog on Robert Anton Wilson. (Feel free to skip if you’re not keen on bios).

dounreayMy parents came from working-class Liverpool and Birkenhead families – Irish ancestry on my dad’s side, and we’re not sure on my mum’s side. My dad worked for the government as a scientific officer in the Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA). He used to travel to the Dounreay nuclear reactor (on the north coast of Scotland) in a small chartered aircraft, taking with him, for recreation, a golf club which he wrapped in brown paper – making it look exactly like a rifle (in the days before paranoid Security).

I took after my dad’s science leanings at school, doing well at physics and maths. But I also seemed fairly good at art, so I ended up studying architecture at Bristol University. Margaret Thatcher’s government cut funding for Bristol University by 15%, resulting in the closure of the architecture department during my third year there – some conspiracy theorists said this was because it was a hotbed of radical lefties (the Russian department was shut down at the same time).

Modernism / multiple-perspective

During these student years (early 1980s), I enthused over expressionist architecture (which seems quite rare, unfortunately), surrealism and Jungian psychology; my favourite haunts were the Pompidou Centre and the Picasso Museum in Paris. I wrote a couple of dissertations – one on Rudolf Steiner’s beautiful Anthroposophist temple, the Goetheanum, in Dornach, Switzerland, the other on the psychology of perception (eg the relevance of Personal Construct Theory to architects).

In a way, the latter was my introduction to cognitive relativism (for want of a better term), although my lecturers had also previously given us an “explanation” of cubism as reflecting, in art, the relativistic and “multiple perspective” trends in other fields, notably cutting-edge physics.

I didn’t “get” cubism, at first – and the “multiple observer/perspective” explanation didn’t help me to appreciate cubist paintings (ie to enjoy them in the same way I enjoyed paintings by, say, Gauguin, de Chirico or Max Ernst). But it seemed important to grok cubism, because we were told it was the visual aesthetic underlying the “International Style” of “modernist” architecture.

After spending a long time looking at Picassos and Braques (from around 1910), I did eventually have a “eureka” cubism experience – in a dream (still in my early 20s), although it seemed to have little to do with “understanding” the multiple observer/perspective paradigm intellectually. It did, however, leave me with a permanently altered, enhanced appreciation of ‘modern’ and ‘non-realist’ art in general.


I was first exposed to postmodernism in an architectural context, where it seemed to have somewhat different connotations from those of RAW’s later descriptions on semantics/’meaning’:

“Post-modernism, in art and theory, evolved out of the linguistic analysis of recent semantic/semiotic philosophers, who have discovered that [1] any system of words or concepts covers part, but not all, of human experience, and that [2] social factors play a role in which systems dominate at a given time.”
– Robert Anton Wilson, Cosmic Trigger volume III

In architecture, “postmodernism” described a reaction against the modernist aesthetic of “less is more” and “form follows function”. Robert Venturi, who coined the maxim, “less is a bore”, popularised the postmodernist architectural movement with his book, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (1966):

“Everywhere, except in architecture, complexity and contradiction have been acknowledged, from Godel’s proof of ultimate inconsistency in mathematics to T. S. Eliot’s analysis of “difficult” poetry and Joseph Albers’ definition of the paradoxical quality of painting … Architects can no longer afford to be intimidated by the puritanically moral language of orthodox Modern architecture. I like elements which are hybrid rather than “pure,” compromising rather than “clean,” distorted rather than “straightforward,” … I prefer “both-and” to “either-or,” black and white, and sometimes gray, to black or white.”
– Robert Venturi, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (1966)

So, anyone for a nice long treatise on meta-modernism or post-post-modernism from an architectural perspective…?

No, I didn’t think so!

I.T. wage slave

I had no money, my parents had no money, and I had to find another school of architecture to complete my professional qualification as an architect (after Margaret Thatcher had closed Bristol’s). And, in any case, the architectural profession was starting to look over-subscribed and underpaid, at the lower levels – where you mostly got work designing bus shelters or Mrs Smith’s kitchen extension, etc.

Meanwhile, information technology was taking off big time, and even looked like a glamorous option (how naive we seemed in the 1980s!) – companies were hiring graduates, even arts graduates, and paying them well to go into computing – even at the trainee stage. All you had to do was pass the aptitude tests (typically logic puzzles) and convince at interview. And thus I became an I.T. wage slave…


Someone I admired recommended RAW to me in the mid-1980s, but it was difficult to get hold of his books in provincial boondocks England, pre-internet days. Mostly, I ended up getting them from Foyles bookshop on Charing Cross Road, when I visited London. I went to great lengths to obtain all the ones he’d written to date, together with books he strongly recommended or had written introductions to (the latter mostly published by Falcon Press at that time).

Meanwhile, I decided five years of I.T. wage slavery “was” enough for me, and I quit my job to take a year off doing other things: writing, graphic design, zine publishing (more of which in later posts). As RAW put it:

“[M]ost ‘work’ in this age is stupid, monotonous, brain-rotting, irritating, usually pointless and basically consists of the agonizing process of being slowly bored to death over a period of about 40 to 45 years of drudgery.”
– Robert Anton Wilson, intro-preface to ‘Undoing Yourself’, 3rd edition



4 thoughts on “My reality-tunnels

Add yours

  1. Thanks stef and fly. That Bruce Sterling video looks great (had a dip into a few bits of it – will revisit later. Always liked his take on things).


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