"Comedy always works best when it is mean-spirited" - John Cleese

Author John Corby also writes as "Bulldogge" for the British Canadian newspaper.

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Saturday, June 27, 2009

10 Reasons I Left Britain #2. The Petty Aristocracy

Upper Middle, Middle Middle and ...?
Being of British descent, Canada has inherited the old country's social class system. We just don't do it very well. Here in Canada we have three tiers in our social hierarchy: lower middle class, upper middle class and "the rich". Nobody, it seems, calls themselves "working class". Even our left-wing politicians refer to their supporters as "ordinary people" or "working families". The Canadian social hierarchy is based entirely on material wealth. A knuckle-dragger with hairs on the palms of his hands can still be "middle class" if he has a detached home, two cars on the driveway and a steady job. If he gets lucky at Vegas he might even ascend to the ranks of "the rich".

A Mouth Full of Marbles
Things are so very different in the United Queendom. You can be homeless and as poor as a church mouse, but as long as you can trace your lineage to an "old money" family, you are one of the "nobs". You are a member of the upper class. Membership of the upper class entitles you to speak with a stiff upper lip (literally - and it can take quite a bit of practice to get it right) or, as some would have it, "a mouth full of marbles".

Actually, it is rumoured that some public schools (which are actually private schools) encourage filling the oral orifice with marbles in order to practice upper class speech patterns. The upper classes generally speak very slowly, very precisely and pad their sentences with archaic, obscure Latin and French phrases and polysyllabic words. But, of course, the nobs never use a big word where a diminutive one will suffice.

High Street High and Hard Knocks
The upper class maintain a lifelong loyalty to their high school and university. There are degrees of nobility within the top stratum. For example, "Eton and Balliol" outranks "Rugby and Robinson". Members of the Eton and Balliol sub-strata have to maintain a stiffer upper lip than Rugby and Robinson types.

Most of the upper class have become detached from their wealth over the centuries. A hundred years ago they might have been owners of one of Britain's "stately homes". These huge mansions are mostly in the hands of the state now. The "family" has lodgings within the stately home but the majority of the building is open to the lowly serfs. Upon payment of a modest admission fee, the lower orders can drag their knuckles through the stately corridors and gaze in awe at the fabulous wealth bequeathed to a grateful nation by a nobility that can no longer pay the bills for upkeep of their huge houses.

The Right Sort of Chap
Having a "title" does not even automatically entitle one to membership in the top tier anymore. "Gongs" are handed out to the hoi polloi these days. A trip to "Buck House" to shake the royal hand and receive an honour might make you feel like the dog's bollocks but, unless you are the "right sort of chap", you still haven't made it.

Membership of the top tier is so attractive that some people feign membership in its ranks. I like to call them the "petty aristocracy". Stiff upper lips, noses in the air and empty wallets. Don't forget to raise your cap when you pass them in the street.

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