Remember you are always an alien!..
“Study these rules, and imitate the English. There can only be one result: if you don’t succeed in imitating them you become ridiculous; if you do, you become even more ridiculous.”
Here I would like to share the exceptionally perceptive observations by the late Hungarian George Mikes (Mikes György), who spent a lifetime observing the English. As a journalist for the Hungarian press he was sent to London to cover the Munich crisis and although he had expected to stay for only a couple of weeks, he would remain on the island for the rest of his life.
So, with Mr Mikes by your side you immediately acquire an ‘alien’ friend who knows exactly what you are going through as you learn all things English. But please be aware: here below you also have a wonderful style of English with its rich use of adjectives, irony and paradoxes that twist and turn herein with that emblematic feature of saying so much, on so many levels with so few words and within such brief sentences. For any Italian the message soon becomes clear: in English less is always (much, much) more…
Extracts taken from: How to be an Alien published in 1946, How to be inimitable (1960) and How to be Decadent (1977) purchasable in one edition ‘How to be a Brit‘ along with the author’s other publications on Amazon U.K.
‘I believe, without undue modesty, that I have certain 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 unaware of this plain fact. I was living in my own country, a country full of aliens, and I noticed nothing in particular or irregular about myself; then I came to England, and you can imagine my painful surprise…
…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 surprise – whether I would marry her. ‘No,’ I replied, ‘I will not. My mother would never agree to my marrying a foreigner.’ She looked at me a little surprised and irritated, 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 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 was no way out for him. He may become British; but he can never become English.
Remember: In England everything is the other way round
‘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 (happy) 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 200 times a day, you are considered a bit dull….On the Continent people use a fork as though it was a shovel; in England they turn it upside down and push everything – including peas – on top of it….On the Continent stray cats are judged individually on their merit – some are loved, some are only respected; in England they are universally worshiped 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 speak fluently and smoothly; in England they take a special course in Oxonian stuttering. On the Continent learned people love to quote Aristotle, Horace, Montaigne 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.
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 England 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 England 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 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. 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 500 and another 5000 and yet another 50,000 and still you may come across a further 50,000 you have never heard of before, and nobody else either.
If you live here long enough you will found out to your delight that the adjective nice is not the only adjective the language possesses, in spite of the fact that in the first 3 years you do not need to learn or use 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.
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.
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 rules are interminably long make a simply superb impression when talking to the greengrocer, the porter, and the insurance agent.’…
…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 backache. Mistakenly, however, he declared in a large company:
‘I have such a nostalgia.’
‘Oh, you want to go home to Nizhme-Novgorod?’ asked his most sympathetic hostess.
‘Not at all.’ he answered. ‘I just can’t sit down.’
Anyway, this whole language business is not at all easy. After spending 8 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.’
On Not Knowing Foreign Languages
A TRUE-BORN Englishman does not know any language. He does not speak English too well either but, at least he is not proud of this. He is , however, immensely proud of not knowing any foreign languages. Indeed, inability to speak foreign languages seems to be the major, if not the only, intellectual achievement of the average Englishman.
1. If you, gentle reader, happen to be an alien and are in the process of turning yourself into a proper Briton, you must get rid of your knowledge of all foreign languages. All this includes your own mother tongue, the task does not seem an easy one. But do not lose heart. Quite a few ex-aliens may proudly boast of having succeeded in forgetting their mother tongue without learning English.
2. If you are an Englishman, you must not forget that the way foreigners speak English is an endless source of hilarity and mirth. It is not funny that you yourself have been living in Stockholm, Winterthur or Lahore for forty-three years without picking up even broken Swedish or Schwitzerdütsch or even pidgin Punjabi; it is on the other hand always excruciatingly funny if any English-speaking taxi-driver in Lima splits his infinitives or a news-vendor in Oberamergau uses an unattached participle.
3. If you – in spite of all precautions cannot help in pickling up a foreign language or two (sometimes it is in the air and you catch it as you catch the flu) – then you always refer to the language you know as Italian, Spanish, Japanese, etc. A language you do not know should always be referred to as ‘that lingo’.
How not to be Clever.
‘You foreigners are so clever,’ said a lady to me some years ago. First, thinking of the great amount of foreign idiots and half-wits I had had the honour of meeting, I considered this remark exaggerated but complimentary.
Since then I have learnt that it was far from it. These few words expressed the lady’s contempt and slight disgust for foreigners.
If you look up the word clever in any dictionary, you will find that the dictionaries are out of date and mislead you on this point. According to the Pocket Oxford Dictionary, for instance, the word means quick and neat in movement….skillful, talented, ingenious. Nuttal’s Dictionary gives these meanings: dexterous, skillful, ingenious, quick or ready-witted, intelligent. All nice adjectives, expressing valuable and estimable characteristics. A modern Englishman, however, uses the word clever in the sense: shrewd, sly, furtive, surreptitious, treacherous, sneaking, crafty, un-English, un-Scottish, un-Welsh.
In England it is bad manners to be clever, to assert something confidently. It may be your own personal opinion that 2 and 2 make 4, but you must not state it in a self-assured way, because this is a democratic country and others may be of a different opinion. A continental gentlemen seeing a nice panorama may remark:
‘This view rather reminds me Utrecht, where the peace treaty concluding the War of Spanish Succession was signed on the 11th April, 1713. The river there, however, recalls the Guadalquivir, which rises in the Sierra de Cazorla and flows south-west to the Atlantic Ocean and is 650 kilometres long. Oh, rivers…What did Pascal say about them? “Les rivierès sont les chemins qui marchent…”‘
This pompous showing-off way of speaking is not permissible in England. The Englishman is modest and simple. He uses but few words and expresses so much – but so much – with them. An Englishman looking at the same view would remain silent for 2 or 3 hours and think about how to put his profound feeling into words. Then he would remark: ‘It’s pretty, isn’t it?’
An English professor of mathematics would say to his maid checking the shopping list: ‘I’m no good at arithmetic, I’m afraid. Please correct me, Jane, if I am wrong, but I believe that the square root of 973344 is 3312.
On Not Know knowing Anything
One thing you must learn in England is that you must never really learn anything. You may hold opinions – as long as you are not too dogmatic about them – but it is just bad form to know something. You may think that two and two make four; you may ‘rather suspect it’; but you must not go further than that. Yes and no are about the two rudest words in their language.
One evening recently I was dining with several people. Someone – a man called Trevor – suddenly paused in his remarks and asked in a reflexive voice: ‘Oh, I mean that large island off Africa…You know, near Tanganyika…What is it called?’
Our hostess replied chattily: ‘I’m afraid I have no idea> No good asking me, my dear.; She looked at one of her guests: ‘I think Evelyn might…’ Evelyn was born and brought up in Tanganyika but she shook her head firmly: ‘ I can’t remember at the moment. Perhaps Sir Robert…’ Sir Robert was British Resident in Zanzibar – the place in question…for twenty-seven years but he, too, shook his head with grim determination: ‘It escapes me too. These peculiar African names…I know it is called something or other. It may come back to me presently.’
Mr Trevor the original enquirer was growing irritated. ‘The wretched place is quite near Dar es Salaam. It’s called…Wait a minute…’
I saw the name was on the tip of his tongue. I tried to be helpful. ‘Isn’t it called Zan…’ One or two murderous glances made me shut up. I meant to put it in question form only but as that would have involved muttering the name sought for, it would not do The word stuck in my throat. I went on in the same pensive tone: ‘I mean…What I meant was, isn’t it Czechoslovakia?’ The Vice-President of one of our geographical societies shook his head sadly. ‘I don’t think so…I can’t be sure, of course…But I shouldn’t think so.’
Mr Trevor was almost desperate. ‘Just south of the equator. It sounds something like…’ But he could not produce the word. Then a benevolent looking elderly gentlemen, with a white goatee beard smiled pleasantly at Trevor and told him in a confident, guttural voice: ‘Ziss islant iss Kolt Zsantisibar, yes?’ There was deadly, hostile silence in the room. Then a retired colonel on my left leaned forward and whispered into my ear: ‘Once a German always a German.’ The bishop on my right nodded grimly: ‘And they’re surprised if we’re prejudiced against them.’
Soul and the 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 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….
In England the boy pats his adored one on the back and says softly: I 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, also plays a considerable part in English social life. This takes mostly the form of someone remarking: ‘I say…’ and then keeping silent for three days on end…”
The National Passion: QUEUEING
‘Queueing is the national passion of an otherwise dispassionate race. The English are rather shy about it, and deny that they adore it. On the Continent, if people are waiting at a bus-stop they loiter around in a seemingly vague fashion. When the bus arrives they make a dash for it; most of them leave by the bus a lucky minority is taken away by an elegant black ambulance car. An Englishman , even if he is alone, forms an orderly queue of one.
The biggest and most attractive advertisements in front of cinemas tell people: Queue here for 4s 6d; Queue here for 9s 3d; Queue here for 16s 8d (inclusive of tax). Those cinemas which do not put out these queueing signs do not do good business at all.
At weekends an Englishman queues up at the bus-stop, travels out to Richmond, queues up for a boat, then queues up for tea, then queues up for an ice-cream, then joins a few more odd queues just for the sake of the fun of it, then queues up at the bus-stop and has the time of his life.
Many English families spend lovely evenings at home just by queueing up for a few hours, and the parents are very sad when the children leave them and queue up for going to bed.’
On Minding One’s Own Business
This is one of the basic English virtues. It is not to be interpreted as really minding your own business (getting on with your job, keeping your promises, etc.); it simply means that you are not to interfere with others. If a man happens to be standing on your foot in the bus, you must not ask him to get off, since it is clearly his business where he chooses to stand; if your neighbours television or radio is blaring military marches till midnight, you may not remonstrate with him because it is his business what he pleases to listen to and at what time; if you are walking peacefully in the street and someone pours two gallons of boiling water over your best bowler hat…you should proceed without uttering a word – however short – because it is obviously the other fellow’s business when he has his bath and how hot he likes it.
In the late nineteen-fifties, a man committed a murder in the Midlands, splashing himself with blood in the process. Afterwards, near the scene of the crime a man covered with blood was seen to board a bus with about fifty people on it. Yet when he got off, leaving a pool of blood on the floor, not one single passenger bothered to ask him what he had been doing lately. They were true Britains, minding their own business.
If another man had been carrying some victim’s decapitated head under his arm, that would not make the slightest difference. The parcel you carry is your own business.