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Aspirational intelligence: Alan Rickman and David Bowie

David Bowie and Alan Rickman were both informed by their humble origins but that's not why they were ultimately successful. Today's working-class creatives, however, appear more preoccupied with 'bloking down' and wearing their background as a badge of honour, Paul Burke writes.

I confess

Let’s start with a healthy dose of hypocrisy. Before I accuse particular people of a very particular crime, I’m going to commit that crime myself. I’m going to do what now seems de rigueur among working-class creatives. I’m going to bang on, albeit briefly, about my humble origins. This is only because, before I start questioning the conduct of others, I need to make it clear that I’m not doing so from a position of privilege. Ready? Here goes. 

One of five kids. My mum was a cleaner. My dad was a labourer but only when he was well enough to labour. And, for much of my childhood, he wasn’t. So we had to subsist on state benefits, free school meals and clothes that arrived in bin bags from the St Vincent de Paul Society. It was a childhood scarred by poverty and petty crime. Most of the latter involved my mum’s many brothers, one of whom was moved to another estate off Edgware Road because he’d had an affair with the woman from the mobile library. 

Two words

It was only when I typed those two words, "mobile library", that I realised their contextual significance. Even on that estate, though people’s backgrounds were poor, their aspirations were anything but. Many used the sharp wits of their background to race away from it. Some got out through sport, others through barrow-boy business savvy, but a gifted few owed their escape to something else entirely. Which brings us to David Bowie and Alan Rickman.

Two deaths

In life, Bowie and Rickman were seldom connected. But their deaths, within days of each other and both at the age of 69, have fused them together forever. Because it wasn’t just the ends of their lives that were so similar; it was the beginnings. These two truly creative people came from humble origins but they did what creative people from humble origins often did – they used their talents to attain social and cultural mobility. Never seeking to disguise or deny their backgrounds, they nonetheless climbed out of them to develop, grow and explore. 

Those two big letters

AI. They stand for "aspirational intelligence" – the innate quality that made both Bowie and Rickman such cultural icons. It’s a very specific form of intelligence. It’s not academic, financial or practical. Aspirational intelligence has three vital components: creative flair, a humble background and that lust for cultural mobility. And those who had it would frequently pitch up in creative departments. Ad agencies, whatever their faults, were always beacons of meritocracy, providing a natural outlet for aspirational intelligence. They offered wonderful opportunities for the creatively curious to escape the drudgery that might otherwise await them. Where these people came from was neither here nor there. What mattered was where they wanted to go. And the opportunity to leave their backgrounds at the door to work with the finest writers, directors, artists and photographers was like winning the lottery.

It’s Thursday

So what has happened? Hard to say but creatives now seem more likely to drag their humble backgrounds through the door, as though they’re proof of grit and authenticity. Yet their roots are nothing to be proud of or, for that matter, ashamed of. Surely your background is something for which you can take neither credit nor blame. So saying "I’m from Bolton and proud of it" is a bit like declaring: "It’s Thursday and I’m proud of it."

Four Yorkshiremen

We’re all familiar with Monty Python’s "four Yorkshiremen" sketch, so there’s nothing new in people bragging about their humble beginnings. And nothing wrong with a certain pride in working your way up from an inauspicious start. In essence, they’re saying: "I started further down than you, so my journey was tougher, which makes my achievement more impressive." Great. Well done, you. It may be tedious but it’s understandable. 

What we’re seeing now, however, is something quite different. Maybe it’s insecurity, maybe it’s inability, but there seems to be a refusal among some creatives to move on. They seem ashamed of the fact that they’ve travelled far from their roots to enjoy a career that’s far from gritty. They know they’ve sold out but, instead of being proud, they’re embarrassed. So, to overcompensate, they wallow in working-classness. 

David, not David

No-one’s suggesting that they should adopt Etonian accents and start behaving like David Cameron. But how about behaving like David Bowie? That aspirational intelligence made Bowie eclectic and adventurous in his tastes, unafraid to embrace high culture and be musically influenced by Stravinsky, Harry Partch and Gundula Janowitz’s interpretation of Strauss. And the great irony is that the creatives who adored Bowie for what he did with his life and work are doing the very opposite with theirs.

‘Bloking Down’

Isn’t that a great phrase? Coined by my friend and the ace blogmeister Ben Kay to describe a second depressing trend that has grown out of the first. Soaring rents in London have made creative departments much harder to reach for those without affluent parents to support them. So now we have younger creatives whose backgrounds are far from humble "bloking down" and pretending otherwise so that they too can be part of the bullish, blokey banter. These boys are now beating the less privileged at their own game. How this would infuriate Bowie and Rickman, who routinely beat the more privileged at theirs.

The Balance of Power

Some would argue that the decline in aspirational intelligence has led to a decline in creative standards. And that this, in turn, has led to a further decline in respect for the work and for those who do it. I’m not sure that’s true but I have noticed a definite shift in the balance of power. It’s those metropolitan, Oxbridge-educated, whip-smart account handlers who increasingly hold the whip hand. 

The Balance of Personnel

The self-stunting inverted snobbery that’s perceived to prevail in creative departments may be preventing a more diverse cross-section of people from joining their ranks. 

Women, for example, progress perfectly well in account management, planning, TV production and project management. And yet in creative departments, they’re still woefully under-represented. Why? One disillusioned female creative put it very succinctly. "Well," she sighed with a roll of the eyes, "it’s all a bit ‘table football’."

The Future is in Your Pocket

Maybe the debate about social mobility, prompted by the deaths of Bowie and Rickman, will reignite the aspirational intelligence that once powered our industry. Perhaps "the boys" will find the Bowie-esque courage to swap beer for Baudelaire and Fifa for Fidelio. Let’s hope so, because there has never been a better time to do it. The future is really encouraging. In your pocket, you have all the influences you need. Everything from the artistry of Goya to the poetry of Pound. You have Long-reads, the London Review of Books, Crossing Continents on Radio 4 and Private Passions on Radio 3. It’s all there on your mobile phone. 

Or, as my rogueish old uncle may have put it, in your mobile library.

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