Tuesday, 26 June 2012

How to be and Alien by George Mikes (4/5)

The back says: George Mikes says ‘the English have no soul; they have the understatement instead’.

But they do have a sense of humour – they proved it by buying over three hundred thousand copies of a book that took them quietly and completely apart, a book that really took the Mikes out of them.

I say: I found this in a used book store the other day, and it was just too charming not to buy. The word ‘alien’ in this context means foreigner, and in the Preface to the 24th Impression Mikes writes that “this was to be a book of defiance. [...] I expected the British to rise in wrath but all they said, was: ‘quite amusing’. It was indeed a bitter disappointment.”

As with most books that set out to mock a nation of people, the humour in How to be An Alien lies in its truths. Sure, a lot of it prejudices, or things that Mikes has experienced and therefore takes as truths, but his sarcasm and apparent ridicule makes it impossible to take him seriously. Being Hungarian himself, he compares the English to the people of continental Europe. On the subject of Sex he writes:

“Continental people have sex life; the English have hot-water bottles.” – p 29

One of my favourite chapters was the one entitled How to be a Particular Alien: A Bloomsbury Intellectual, which is basically what today is referred to as a hipster. It was funny the way he cut right through them and also how much is still relevant today.

“Always be original! It is not as difficult as it sounds: you just have to copy the habits and sayings of a few thousand other B.I.” – p 57

However, I think that the chapter that got the most laughs and nods of recognition was the one entitled How to Plan a Town. There’s too much hilarity to write down, but I just have to share some of my favourites (and ones that my friends and I genuinely complain about when we’re in England):

“You must understand that an English town is a vast conspiracy to mislead foreigners. You have to use century-old little practices and tricks.

1. First of all, never build a street straight. The English love privacy and do not want to see one end of the street from the other end. Make sudden curves in the streets and build them S-shaped too; the letters L, T, V, Y, W and O are also becoming increasingly popular.
2. Never build the houses of the same street in a straight line.
4. Give a different name to the street whenever it bends; but if the curve is so sharp that it really makes two different streets, you may keep the same name. On the other hand, if, owing to neglect, a street has been built in a straight line it must be called by many different names [...].
6. Street names should be painted clearly and distinctly on large boards. Then hide these boards carefully. Place them too high or too low, or even better, lock them up in a safe in your bank, otherwise they may give people some indication about the names of streets.” – p 74-76

I really love this little book and it’s the perfect gift to give to some moving to England, or an Englishman with a sense of humour.

*This is my fourth entry in The Classic Bribe Challenge (which is an additional incentive for me to work on my 100 Classics Challenge that’s been going on for a tad too long).


  1. This sounds like such a cool and funny book. I love reading about other cultures and their quirks. Have you read Watching the English by Kate Fox? It's not humorous but it's an excellent book on observations of British culture and one of my favorites because it's so well written.

    1. I've never heard of Watching the English, but our library actually has it, but somebody's borrowed it ntil mid-August, so I've just put it a reserve note for it. Just as well, really, I have too many books at home atm. The other day I bought a book called The French by Theodore Zeldin that seems similar to Watching the English. I enjoy reading about the little quirks of other nationalities, especially if I have friends from that country or have been there and can nod in agreement.