One of the first English language books I read when I came to England in 1970 was “How to be an Alien” by George Mikes (1946). My English needed some improvement as I wanted to go to London University, and my stepfather put a collection of books he recommended on my bedside table. He told me I would get an insight into how the English are, but through satire by a Hungarian born journalist.
The foreword told me that Mikes came to Britain from Hungary on an assignment just before the Second World War and remained here. In 1938 he had trained in Budapest as a journalist and became the London correspondent for Hungarian newspapers ‘Reggel’ and ‘8 Órai Ujság’ (8 o’clock news).
From 1939, Mikes worked for the BBC Hungarian section making documentaries, at first as a freelance correspondent. In 1940 he was sent to London to cover the Munich Crisis. He expected to stay for only a couple of weeks but, I assume being Jewish, the War made him change his plans.
Mikes wrote in both Hungarian and English and published in The Observer, The Times Literary Supplement, Encounter, Irodalmi Újság, Népszava, the Viennese Hungarian-language Magyar Híradó, and Világ. His friends included Arthur Koestler, J B Priestley and André Deutsch, who was also his publisher.
From 1975 until his death on 30 August 1987, he worked for the Hungarian section of Szabad Európa Rádió (Radio Free Europe) . He was president of the London branch of PEN, and a member of the Garrick Club.
How to be an Alien
For those of you who have not read “How to be an Alien”, it is a tongue in cheek description of 1940/50’s Englishness with the eye of an ‘Alien’. That was what a foreigner was in the eyes of the English. It was Mike’s second book and is the most famous of the 44 books he wrote. Most of them were illustrated by Nicholas Bentley.
Mike’s first book (1945) was ‘We Were There to Escape – the true story of a Jugoslav officer’ about life in prisoner-of-war camps. The Times Literary Supplement praised the book for the humour it showed in parts. This good review inspired him to write his most famous book “How to be an Alien” to great success in post-war Britain. The first part of his series, “How to be a General Alien”, deals with the topics he says are most important to the English. The weather, tea, how not to be clever (since it is considered bad manners), how to compromise, and queueing, the national passion.
Taking the Mikes of the English
The chapter in “How to be an alien” entitled “Sex” simply says: “Continental people have sex lives: the English have hot water bottles.”
By the 32nd impression of the book in 1966 it had sold over 300,000 copies. In forewords to later editions, Mikes expressed his astonishment at the success of the book where he literally took the Mikes of the English. His gentle fun at the English showed humour, even affection, and a lack of resentment towards his host nation, despite being called an alien. As an immigrant, he demonstrates not only his knowledge of English society of the time, but his mastery of the English language.
Q: “Why don’t the British panic?
A. They do, but very quietly. It is impossible for the naked eye to tell their panic from their ecstasy.”
Another Bon mot is: ‘the French have cuisine. The English have good table manners.”
On being called an Alien
In typical Mikes satirical style, Mikes says in one of the forewords of his book that he doesn’t mind being called an alien. However, he finds it tough to live with what an English lady had told him: that his mother was an alien too. Anybody not born English was automatically an alien, even if they lived in the country of their origin.
Other books by Mikes
The review site Goodreads “Subsequent Mikes books dealt with (among others)
Japan (The Land of the Rising Yen),
Israel (Milk and Honey, The Prophet Motive),
The US (How to Scrape Skies),
The United Nations (How to Unite Nations),
The British again (How to be Inimitable, How to be Decadent),
South America (How to Tango)”
Other subjects he wrote about include God (How to be God) where, as an atheist, he says that humans created God in their image. The book is a series of essays and instructs God, if he or she exists, in being a more reasonable facsimile of his mould, ie like dear old mum.
He wrote about his cat (Tsi-Tsa), about wealth (How to be Poor) or philosophy (How to be a Guru).
He also wrote humorous fiction (Mortal Passion; The Spy Who Died of Boredom) and contributed to the satirical television series That Was The Week That Was.
His serious writing included a book about the Hungarian Secret Police and he narrated a BBC television report of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956.
His autobiography and final book is called How to be Seventy.
“I think I must be very old. I am older than Serbia.” He looks at world events during his lifetime with his usual, satirical eye. But the satire is backed by extensive knowledge and sensitive insight into historical developments.
How has ‘How to be an Alien’ aged?
When I first read “How to be an Alien” in 1970, I thought his characterisation of the English was very funny. Office workers still wore top hats. They gave up their seats to ladies in trains. However, as I said good-bye to my black fiancée at Charing Cross station, deeply offensive remarks were frequently voiced loudly. Not much of the polite good manners but a blatant display of racism.
Having reread “How to be an Alien” I am not sure that I can laugh out loud in 2021. What I ask myself: is the arrogance, ignorance of other countries and animosity towards ‘aliens’ still characteristic of the average Englishmen of the 21st century? Has, despite technological advances, like the internet opening up the world since the Mikes books, the type of English exceptionalism and arrogance described not lessened?
As an immigrant, a child refugee who has lived here for over 50 years and is ‘naturalised’, am I still an alien? I find I am less forgiving than Mikes.