GEORGE MIKES. 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.
GEORGE MIKES. HOW TO BE AN ALIEN