How to be an Alien
A HANDBOOK FOR BEGINNERS AND ADVANCED PUPILS
'I have seen much to hate here, much to
forgive. But in a world where England is
finished and dead, I do not wish to live.'
ALICE DUER MILLER: The White Cliffs
PREFACE TO THE 24th IMPRESSION
the reception given to this book when it first appeared in the autumn of 1946, was at once a pleasant surprise and a disappointment for me. A surprise, because the reception was so kind; a disappointment for the same reason.
Let me explain.
The first part of this statement needs little amplification. Even people who are not closely connected with the publishing trade will be able to realize that it is very nice - I'm sorry. I'd better be a little more English: a not totally unpleasant thing for a completely unknown author to run into three impressions within a few weeks of publication and thereafter into another twenty-one.
What is my grievance, then? It is that this book has completely changed the picture I used to cherish of myself. This was to be a book of defiance. Before its publication I felt myself a man who was going to tell the English where to get off. I had spoken my mind regardless of consequences; I thought I was brave and outspoken and expected either to go unnoticed or to face a storm. But no storm came. I expected the English to be up in arms against me but they patted me on the back; I expected the British nation to rise in wrath but all they said, was: 'quite amusing'. It was indeed a bitter disappointment.
While the Rumanian Radio was serializing (without my permission) How to be an Alien as an anti-British tract, the Central Office of Information rang me up here in London and asked me to allow the book to be translated into Polish for the benefit of those many Polish refugees who were then settling in this country. 'We want our friends to see us in this light,' the man said on the telephone. This was hard to bear for my militant and defiant spirit. 'But it's not such a favour able light,' I protested feebly. It's a very human light and that is the most favourable,' retorted the official. I was crushed.
A few weeks later my drooping spirit was revived when I heard of a suburban bank manager whose wife had brought this book home to him remarking that she had found it fairly amusing. The gentleman in ques tion sat down in front of his open fire, put his feet up and read the book right through with a continually darkening face. When he had finished, he stood up and said:
And threw the book into the fire.
He was a noble and patriotic spirit and he did me a great deal of good. I wished there had been more like him in England. But I could never find another.
Since then I have actually written about a dozen books; but I might as well have never written anything else. I remained the author of How to be an Alien even after I had published a collection of serious essays. Even Mr Somerset Maugham complained about this type of treatment bitterly and repeatedly. Whatever he did, he was told that he would never write another Of Human Bondage', Arnold Bennett in spite of fifty other works remained the author of The Old Wives' Tale and nothing else; and Mr Robert Graves is just the author of the Claudius books. These authors are much more eminent tlian I am; but their problem is the same. At the moment I am engaged in writing a 750-page picaresque novel set in ancient Sumeria. It is taking shape nicely and I am going to get the Nobel Prize for it. But it will be of no use: I shall still remain the author of How to be an A lien.
I am not complaining. One's books start living their independent lives soon enough, just like one's children. I love this book; it has done almost as much for me as I have done for it. Yet, however loving a parent you may be, it hurts your pride a little if you are only known, acknowledged and accepted as the father of your eldest child.
In 1946 I took this manuscript to Andre Deutsch, a young man who had just decided to try his luck as a publisher. He used to go, once upon a time, to the same school as my younger brother. I knew him from the old days and it was quite obvious to me even then, in Budapest, when he was only twelve and wore shorts, that he would make an excellent publisher in London if he only had the chance. So I offered my book to him and as, at that time, he could not get manuscripts from better known authors, he accepted it with a sigh. He suggested that Nicolas Bentley should be asked to 'draw the pictures'. I liked the idea but I said he would turn the suggestion down. Once again I was right: he did turn it down. Eventually, however, he was persuaded to change his mind.
Mr Deutsch was at that time working for a different firm. Four years after the publication of this book, and after the subsequent publication of three other Mikes-Bentley books, he left this firm while I stayed with them and went on working with another popular and able cartoonist, David Langdon. Now, however, Andre Deutsch has bought all the rights of my past and future output from his former firm and the original team of Deutsch, Bentley and myself are together again under the imprint of the first named gentleman. We are all twelve years older and Mr Deutsch does not wear shorts any more, or not in the office, at any rate.
'When are you going to write another How to be an Alien?' Deutsch and Bentley ask me from time to time and I am sure they mean it kindly.
They cannot quite make out the reply I mutter ill answer to their friendly query. It is: 'Never, if I can help it.'
London, May 1958 GEORGE MIKES
I believe, without undue modesty, that I have cer tain qualifications to write on 'how to be an alien.' I am an alien myself. What is more, I have been an alien all my life. Only during the first twenty-six years of my life I was not aware of this plain fact. I was living in my own country, a country full of aliens, and I noticed nothing particular or irregular about myself; then I came to England, and you can imagine my painful sur prise.
Like all great and important discoveries it was a matter of a few seconds. You probably all know from your schooldays how Isaac Newton discovered the law of gravitation. An apple fell on his head. This incident set him thinking for a minute or two, then he ex claimed joyfully: 'Of course I The gravitation constant is the acceleration per second that a mass of one gram causes at a distance of one centimetre.' You were also taught that James Watt one day went into the kitchen where cabbage was cooking and saw the lid of the sauce pan rise and fall. 'Now let me think,' he murmured - let me think.' Then he struck his forehead and the steam engine was discovered. It was the same with me, although circumstances were rather different.
It was like this. Some years ago I spent a lot of time with a young lady who was very proud and conscious of being English. Once she asked me - to my great sur prise - whether I would marry her. 'No,' I replied, 1 will not. My mother would never agree to my marrying a foreigner.' She looked at me a little surprised and irri tated, and retorted: I, a foreigner? What a silly thing to say. I am English. You are the foreigner. And your mother, too.' I did not give in. In Budapest, too?' I asked her. 'Everywhere,' she declared with determination. 'Truth does not depend on geography. What is true in England is also true in Hungary and in North Borneo and Venezuela and everywhere.'
I saw that this theory was as irrefutable as it was simple. I was startled and upset. Mainly because of my mother whom I loved and respected. Now, I suddenly learned what she really was.
It was a shame and bad taste to be an alien, and it is no use pretending otherwise. There is no way out of it. A criminal may improve and become a decent member of society. A foreigner cannot improve. Once a foreigner, always a foreigner. There is no way out for him. He may become British; he can never become English.
So it is better to reconcile yourself to the sorrowful reality. There are some noble English people who might forgive you. There are some magnanimous souls who realize that it is not your fault, only your misfortune. They will treat you with condescension, understanding and sympathy. They will invite you to their homes. Just as they keep lap-dogs and other pets, they are quite prepared to keep a few foreigners.
The title of this book. How to be an Alien, consequently expresses more than it should. How to be an alien? One should not be an alien at all. There are certain rules, however, which have to be followed if you want to make yourself as acceptable and civilized as you possibly can.
Study these rules, and imitate the English. There can be only one result: if you don't succeed in imitating them you become ridiculous; if you do, you become even more ridiculous.
1. How to be a general Alien
A WARNING TO BEGINNERS
in England * everything is the other way round. On Sundays on the Continent even the poorest person puts on his best suit, tries to look respectable, and at the same time the life of the country becomes gay and cheerful; in England even the richest peer or motor-manufacturer dresses in some peculiar rags, does not shave, and the country becomes dull and dreary. On the Continent there is one topic which should be avoided - the weather; in England, if you do not repeat the phrase 'Lovely day, isn't it?' at least two hundred times a day, you are considered a bit dull. On the Continent Sunday papers appear on Monday; in England - a country of exotic oddities - they appear on Sunday. On the Continent people use a fork as though a fork were a shovel; in England they turn it upside down and push everything - including peas - on top of it.
On a continental bus approaching a request-stop the conductor rings the bell if he wants his bus to go on without stopping; in England you ring the bell if you want the bus to stop. On the Continent stray cats are judged individually on their merit - some are loved, some are only respected; in England they are universally worshipped as in ancient Egypt. On the Continent people have good food; in England people have good table manners.
On the Continent public orators try to learn to speak fluently and smoothly; in England they take a special course in Oxonian stuttering. On the Continent learned persons love to quote Aristotle, Horace, Mon taigne and show off their knowledge; in England only uneducated people show off their knowledge, nobody quotes Latin and Greek authors in the course of a conversation, unless he has never read them.
On the Continent almost every nation whether little or great has openly declared at one time or another that it is superior to all other nations; the English fight heroic wars to combat these dangerous ideas without ever mentioning which is really the most superior race in the world. Continental people are sensitive and touchy; the English take everything with an exquisite sense of humour - they are only offended if you tell them that they have no sense of humour. On the Continent the population consists of a small percentage of criminals, a small percentage of honest people and the rest are a vague transition between the two; in Eng land you find a small percentage of criminals and the rest are honest people. On the other hand, people on the Continent either tell you the truth or lie; in Eng land they hardly ever lie, but they would not dream of telling you the truth.
Many continentals think life is a game; the English think cricket is a game.
*When people say England, they sometimes mean Great Britain, sometimes the United Kingdom, sometimes the British Isles - but never England.
this is a chapter on how to introduce people to one another. The aim of introduction is to conceal a person's identity. It is very important that you should not pronounce anybody's name in a way that the other party may be able to catch it. Generally speaking, your pronunciation is a sound guarantee for that. On the other hand, if you are introduced to someone there are two important rules to follow.
1.If he stretches out his hand in order to shake yours, you must not accept it. Smile vaguely, and as soon as he gives up the hope of shaking you by the hand, you stretch out your own hand and try to catch his in vain. This game is repeated until the greater part of the afternoon or evening has elapsed. It is extremely likely that this will be the most amusing part of the afternoon or evening, anyway.
2.Once the introduction has been made you have to inquire after the health of your new acquaintance. Try the thing in your own language. Introduce the persons, let us say, in French and murmur their names. Should they shake hands and ask: бЂComment aliez-vous?' 'Comment aliez-vous?' - it will be a capital joke, re membered till their last davs. Do not forget, however, that your new friend who makes this touchingly kind inquiry after your state of health does not care in the least whether you are well and kicking or dying of delirium tremens. A dialogue like this:
he: 'How d'you do?'
You: 'General state of health fairly satisfactory. Slight insomnia and a rather bad corn on left foot. Blood pressure low, digestion slow but normal.' - well, such a dialogue would be unforgivable. In the next phase you must not say 'Pleased to meet you.' This is one of the very few lies you must never utter because, for some unknown reason, it is considered vulgar. You must not say 'Pleased to meet you,' even if you are definitely disgusted with the man. A few general remarks:
1. Do not click your heels, do not bow, leave off gymnastic and choreographic exercises altogether for the moment.
2. Do not call foreign lawyers, teachers, dentists, commercial travellers and estate agents 'Doctor.' Everybody knows that the little word 'doctor' only means that they are Central Europeans. This is painful enough in itself, you do not need to remind people of it all the time.
this is the most important topic in the land. Do not be misled by memories of your youth when, on the Continent, wanting to describe someone as exceptionally dull, you remarked: 'He is the type who would discuss the weather with you.' In England this is an ever-interesting, even thrilling topic, and you must be good at discussing the weather.
EXAMPLES FOR CONVERSATION
For Good Weather
'Lovely day, isn't it?' Isn't it beautiful?' 'The sun . . .' 'Isn't it gorgeous?' 'Wonderful, isn't it?' It's so nice and hot. . .' 'Personally, I think it's so nice when it's hot- isn't it?' I adore it - don't you?'
For Bad Weather
'Nasty day, isn't it?' Isn't it dreadful?' 'The rain . . . I hate rain . . .' 1 don't like it at all. Do you?' 'Fancy such a day in July. Rain in the morning, then a bit of sunshine, and then rain, rain, rain, all day long.' I remember exactly the same July day in 1936.' 'Yes, I remember too.' 'Or was it in 1928?' 'Yes, it was.' 'Or in 1939?' Tes, that's right.' Now observe the last few sentences of this conversation. A very important rule emerges from it. You must never contradict anybody when discussing the weather. Should it hail and snow, should hurricanes uproot the trees from the sides of the road, and should someone remark to you: 'Nice day, isn't it?' - answer without hesitation: Isn't it lovely?' Learn the above conversation by heart. If you are a bit slow in picking things up, learn at least one conversation, it would do wonderfully for any occasion. If you do not say anything else for the rest of your life, just repeat this conversation, you still have a fair chance of passing as a remarkably witty man of sharp intellect, keen observation and extremely pleasant manners.
English society is a class society, strictly organized almost on corporative lines. If you doubt this, listen to the weather forecasts. There is always a different weather forecast for farmers. You often hear statements like this on the radio: 'To-morrow it will be cold, cloudy and foggy; long periods of rain will be interrupted by short periods of showers.' And then: 'Weather forecast for farmers. It will be fair and warm, many hours of sunshine.' You must not forget that the farmers do grand work of national importance and deserve better weather.
It happened on innumerable occasions that nice, warm weather had been forecast and rain and snow fell all day long, or vice versa. Some people jumped rashly to the conclusion that something must be wrong with the weather forecasts. They are mistaken and should be more careful with their allegations. I have read an article in one of the Sunday papers and now I can tell you what the situation really is. All troubles are caused by anti-cyclones. (I don't quite know what anti-cyclones are, but this is not important; I hate cyclones and am very anti-cyclone myself.) The two naughtiest anti-cyclones are the Azores and the Polar anti-cyclones. The British meteorologists forecast the right weather - as it really should be - and then these impertinent little anti-cyclones interfere and mess up everything. That again proves that if the British kept to themselves and did not mix with foreign things like Polar and Azores anti-cyclones they would be much better off.
SOUL AND UNDERSTATEMENT
foreigners have souls; the English haven't. On the Continent you find any amount of people who sigh deeply for no conspicuous reason, yearn, suffer and look in the air extremely sadly. This is soul. The worst kind of soul is the great Slav soul. People who suffer from it are usually very deep thinkers. They may say things like this: 'Sometimes I am so merry and sometimes I am so sad. Can you explain why?' (You cannot, do not try.) Or they may say: 1 am so mysterious. . . . I sometimes wish I were somewhere else than where I am.' (Do not say: 1 wish you were.') Or 'When I am alone in a forest at night-time and jump from one tree to another, I often think that life is so strange.' All this is very deep: and just soul, nothing else. The English have no soul; they have the understatement instead. If a continental youth wants to declare his love to a girl, he kneels down, tells her that she is the sweetest, the most charming and ravishing person in the world, that she has something in her, something peculiar and individual which only a few hundred thousand other women have and that he would be unable to live one more minute without her. Often, to give a little more emphasis to the statement, he shoots himself on the spot. This is a normal, week-day declaration of love in the more temperamental continental countries. In England the boy pats his adored one on the back and says softly: 1 don't object to you, you know.' If he is quite mad with passion, he may add: 'I rather fancy you, in fact.' If he wants to marry a girl, he says:
I say . . . would you? . . .' If he wants to make an indecent proposal: 'I say . . . what about . . .'
Overstatement, too, plays a considerable part in English social life. This takes mostly the form of someone remarking: 1 say ...' and then keeping silent for three days on end.
the trouble with tea is that originally it was quite a good drink. So a group of the most eminent British scientists put their heads together, and made complicated biological experiments to find a way of spoiling it. To the eternal glory of British science their labour bore fruit. They suggested that if you do not drink it clear, or with lemon or rum and sugar, but pour a few drops of cold milk into it, and no sugar at all, the desired object is achieved. Once this refreshing, aromatic, oriental beverage was successfully transformed into colourless and tasteless gargling-water, it suddenly became the national drink of Great Britain and Ireland - still retaining, indeed usurping, the high-sounding title of tea. There are some occasions when you must not refuse a cup of tea, otherwise you are judged an exotic and barbarous bird without any hope of ever being able to take your place in civilised society. If you are invited to an English home, at five o'clock in the morning you get a cup of tea. It is either brought in by a heartily smiling hostess or an almost malevolently silent maid. When you are disturbed in your sweetest morning sleep you must not say: 'Madame (or Mabel), I think you are a cruel, spiteful and malignant person who deserves to be shot.' On the contrary, you have to declare with your best five o'clock smile: 'Thank you so much. I do adore a cup of early morning tea, especially early in the morning.' If they leave you alone with the liquid, you may pour it down the washbasin.
Then you have tea for breakfast; then you have tea at eleven o'clock in the morning; then after lunch;then you have tea for tea; then after supper; and again at eleven o'clock at night. You must not refuse any additional cups of tea under the following circumstances: if it is hot; if it is cold; if you are tired; if anybody thinks that you might be tired; if you are nervous; if you are gay; before you go out; if you are out; if you have just returned home; if you feel like it; if you do not feel like it; if you have had no tea for some time; if you have just had a cup. You definitely must not follow my example. I sleep at five o'clock in the morning; I have coffee for breakfast; I drink innumerable cups of black coffee during the day; I have the most unorthodox and exotic teas even at tea-time. The other day, for instance - I just mention this as a terrifying example to show you how low some people can sink -1 wanted a cup of coffee and a piece of cheese for tea. It was one of those exceptionally hot days and my wife (once a good Englishwoman, now completely and hopelessly led astray by my wicked foreign influence) made some cold coffee and put it in the refrigerator, where it froze and became one solid block. On the other hand, she left the cheese on the kitchen table, where it melted. So I had a piece of coffee and a glass of cheese.
continental people have sex life; the English have hot-water bottles.
A WORD ON SOME PUBLISHERS
I heard of a distinguished, pure-minded English publisher who adapted John Steinbeck's novel. The Grapes of Wrath, so skilfully that it became a charming little family book on grapes and other fruits, with many illustrations. On the other hand, a continental publisher in London had a French political book. The Popular Front, translated into English. It became an exciting, pornographic book, called The Popular Behind.
when I arrived in England I thought I knew English. After I'd been here an hour I realized that I did not understand one word. In the first week I picked up a tolerable working knowledge of the language and the next seven years convinced me gradually but thoroughly that I would never know it really well, let alone perfectly. This is sad. My only consolation being that nobody speaks English perfectly.
Remember that those five hundred words an average Englishman uses are far from being the whole vocabulary of the language. You may learn another five hundred and another five thousand and yet another fifty thousand and still you may come across a further fifty thousand you have never heard of before, and nobody else either. If you live here long enough you will find out to your greatest amazement that the adjective nice is not the only adjective the language possesses, in spite of the fact that in the first three years you do not need to learn or use any other adjectives. You can say that the weather is nice, a restaurant is nice, Mr Soandso is nice, Mrs Soandso's clothes are nice, you had a nice time, and all this will be very nice. Then you have to decide on your accent. You will have your foreign accent all right, but many people like to mix it with something else. I knew a Polish Jew who had a strong Yiddish-Irish accent. People found it fascinating though slightly exaggerated. The easiest way to give the impression of having a good accent or no foreign accent at all is to hold an unlit pipe in your mouth, to mutter between your teeth and finish all your sentences with the question: 'isn't it?' People will not understand much, but they are accustomed to that and they will get a most excellent impression.
I have known quite a number of foreigners who tried hard to acquire an Oxford accent. The advantage of this is that you give the idea of being permanently in the company of Oxford dons and lecturers on medieval numismatics; the disadvantage is that the permanent singing is rather a strain on your throat and that it is a type of affection that even many English people find it hard to keep up incessantly. You may fall out of it, speak naturally, and then where are you? The Mayfair accent can be highly recommended, too. The advantages of Mayfair English are that it unites the affected air of the Oxford accent with the uncultured flavour of a half-educated professional hotel-dancer.
The most successful attempts, however, to put on a highly cultured air have been made on the polysyllabic lines. Many foreigners who have learnt Latin and Greek in school discover with amazement and satisfaction that the English language has absorbed a huge amount of ancient Latin and Greek expressions, and they realize that (
a) it is much easier to learn these expressions than the much simpler English words;
(b) that these words as a rule are interminably long and make a simply superb impression when talking to the greengrocer, the porter and the insurance agent. Imagine, for instance, that the porter of the block of flats where you live remarks sharply that you must not put your dustbin out in front of your door before 7.30 a.m. Should you answer 'Please don't bully me,' a loud and tiresome argument may follow, and certainly the porter will be proved right, because you are sure to find a dause in your contract (small print, of last page) that the porter is always right and you owe absolute allegiance and unconditional obedience to him. Should you answer, however, with these words: 1 repudiate your petulant expostulations,' the argument will be closed at once, the porter will be proud of having such a highly cultured man in the block, and from that day onwards you may, if you please, get up at four o'clock in the morning and hang your dustbin out of the window. But even in Curzon Street society, if you say, for instance, that you are a tough guy they will consider you a vulgar, irritating and objectionable person. Should you declare, however, that you are an inquisitorial and peremptory homo sapiens, they will have no idea what you mean, but they will feel in their bones that you must be something wonderful. When you know all the long words it is advisable to start learning some of the short ones, too. You should be careful when using these endless words. An acquaintance of mine once was fortunate enough to discover the most impressive word notalgia for back-ache. Mistakenly, however, he declared in a large company: 'I have such a nostalgia.' 'Oh, you want to go home to Nizhne-Novgorod?' asked his most sympathetic hostess. 'Not at all,' he answered. 'I just cannot sit down.' . Finally, there are two important points to remember:
1. Do not forget that it is much easier to write in English than to speak English, because you can write without a foreign accent.
2. In a bus and in other public places it is more advisable to speak softly in good German than to shout in abominable English.
Anyway, this whole language business is not at all easy. After spending eight years in this country, the other day I was told by a very kind lady: 'But why do you complain? You really speak a most excellent accent without the slightest English.'