Dangerous diversity?

The photographer Lee Miller has always been a glamorous figure (modelling for Vogue before deciding that her skills were better suited to the other side of the camera), and the contents of the MI5 file on Miller, released into the public domain this month, only work to accentuate her status as a Twentieth Century icon.

Sanchia Berg recently reported on MI5’s monitoring of Miller for BBC Radio Four’s Today programme.

MI5 opened a file on Miller in summer 1941 and monitored her for 15 years until 1956. A colleague of Miller’s at Vogue had told the UK government that she had communist sympathies.

Miller was never a member of the Communist party but lived the sort of lifestyle that was considered odd at the time; the MI5 file opens with what, today, looks like a stream of non-sequiturs:

“I have been told by a friend on the staff of Vogue magazine that Lee Miller is a strong communist. She keeps a very open house and has a very varied circle of friends. I think lives in Hampstead.”

The Special Branch also interviewed Lee Miller’s boss, Harry Yoxhall, who confirmed that: “She is eccentric and indulges in queer food and queer clothes.”

It’s fascinating to see how establishment views have changed. Whatever the problems of our post-modern, multicultural society, at least we no longer live in an age where having a “varied circle of friends” is considered subversive.

In appreciating the positives about the world we live in now (and, despite its many flaws, there is probably a lot to be grateful for), it’s good to remember the trailblazing courage of a woman like Miller.

Not only was she intelligent and talented, she lived a life that many women, even today, could only dream of: working as a respected photographer (and securing lovers and husbands) in New York, Cairo, Paris and London.

She was ambitious and, certainly for a while at least, unstoppable. Her circle of friends included Pablo Picasso, Max Ernst and other leading surrealist artists.

Technical expertise was something Miller had in bucketfuls. She knew how to use various different cameras, she knew how to frame a shot, she knew how to get exactly the right type of lighting.

Because we are shaped so much by the image of ourselves we see in media and entertainment, women in technical roles that shape our popular culture are particularly important. Miller’s unique humour and character shine through in her pictures, so I think it’s important to remember her on Ada Lovelace Day.

Miller’s photos are copyrighted so I can’t use them here but an online archive of her work is maintained by her son, Antony.


Twitter – the new rock and roll!

I’m thrilled to see Oliver James, Arik Sigman and others taking the effort to slag off Twitter specifically and social networking in general in the mainstream media over the past couple of weeks. If you’ve missed any of the pieces, Lloyd Davis has done a great write up and Johnnie Moore posted an excellent Newsnight clip.

The idea that these tools can rot your brain is absolutely genius and a topnotch PR company couldn’t have done a better job in getting the word out. If any ‘kids’ had doubts about using Twitter and/ or other social tools; if for some reason, they hadn’t heard of them or simply weren’t interested, now they have the impetus they need to find out more.

Where would Elvis have been if parents across the American Mid-West hadn’t thought his hip moves subversive? What would have happened to The Sex Pistols if they’d taken all that effort to swear at Bill Grundy on live TV and no-one had minded? Would Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s Relax have made it to the top of the UK charts if DJ Mike Read hadn’t branded the track “disgusting” and ensured an airplay ban on BBC Radio One?

With all this negative press, Twitter loses nothing. Instead it gains a credible place in popular culture.


The bull and the bear market

My little sister with a friendly bullock - Summer 1976

We’ve a bit of a soft spot for bulls in my family.

When my little sister and I were young, we used to sit with the sleepy old Herefordshire bull in the field next to our house in Wales, and scratch his curly forehead. My partner, father and brother-in-law are all lovely, steady Taureans. My mother’s maiden name is Bull and through her we’re proceeded by a veritable herd of Bulls (if thats not an oxymoron), reaching back into the mists of time and including my great granddad, William, and great uncle, Peter.

There’s no doubt that in the current global financial meltdown we need a bullish sort of leader, the type who can identify imaginative solutions, and find a way to drive them forward.

So it’s good news all round that we’re about to enter the Chinese Year of the Ox, also known as the Bull or Buffalo.

According to Wikipedia, “the Ox is the sign of prosperity through fortitude and hard work” – something we could all do with right now. It’s also nice to find out that the Ox is “capable of enduring any amount of hardship without complaint”. Best of all, it comes as a relief to know that the Ox “is not extravagant, and the thought of living off credit cards or being in debt makes them nervous”.

Hallelujah! Where was this Ox when we needed him?

The prediction website, Go To Horoscope, assures us that: “We’ve got [an] honest, candid and open natured year ahead. As you might guess, [the] coming 2009 year of the earth Ox is dependable, calm and modest.”

Jeffrey J Davis recently pointed out on Stew Friedman’s Harvard Business School blog that the Chinese word for crisis is made up of two characters: 危 (danger) + 機 (opportunity). With that thought in mind, it looks like the symbolic power of the Ox might be just what we need to pull us through.

Happy Chinese New Year everyone!


A timely reminder of our universal insignificance

Overheard this on yesterday’s Thought for the Day, and quite liked it:

“From a huge distance, the earth reminded us of a Christmas tree ornament, hanging in the blackness of space. As we got further and further away it shrank to the size of a marble; the most beautiful marble you can imagine.”

From US astronaut James Irwin, 8th man on the Moon (and, strangely enough, nothing at all to do with this David Walliams character in Little Britain USA).


The view from Bangalore

Mala Bhat is over here from India on the government’s ‘highly skilled immigrants’ programme. (Well, with the lack of respect for good ideas in the UK, and fondness for lager, is it any surprise we need people like Mala?).

“In Bangalore, like most of India, the big companies tend to have everyone working in cubicles,” says Mala. “They’re the sort of places where you have to make an appointment to speak to the CEO.

“It’s much better where the CEO works in an open space alongside all the other employees. That way he sees how all the projects are actually being carried out.

Mala recommends the US company Thoughtworks as having “a totally unique approach”:

“They give employees the freedom to work from home (traffic is terrible in Bangalore) and, in the office, each team sits around the same table. Employees are encouraged to come up with innovative ideas and if you have a software project you want to develop and work on, you can do it.”

The head of HR (sorry, Chief People Officer) at Thoughtworks is called Matt. Mala is going to get me his contact details.