How to Be an Alien

George Mikes

Next comes a thin volume that was first published in 1946, ‘How to be an Alien’. My copy is a Penguin edition reprinted in 1980.  Born in Hungary, Mikes arrived in England in 1938 to cover the Munich crisis for his newspaper. He came for two weeks but stayed for the rest of his life. His book pointing out the idiosyncrasies of the English, how odd and strange they seemed to him, and how he was regarded as an alien, became a resounding success. Mikes makes the point that he intended his book to be critical and sarcastic and could not understand why English readers liked it so much, but this is rather tongue in cheek. I believe he was gratified by its success, and, far from being a serious criticism of the English, it is written kindly, and with a sense of humour that British readers recognised as their own.

Here is the chapter on sex. I will quote it in full.

‘Continental people have sex life; the English have hot water bottles.’

There we are then.

By the way, Dr Johnson once told Boswell that he could repeat from memory a whole chapter from ‘The Natural History of Iceland’. When Boswell challenged him, he said, ‘Chapter lxxii Concerning snakes. There are no snakes to be met with throughout the whole island’. Yet another point was scored by Johnson, whom we shall see more of later.

In his preface to the 24th impression, Mikes recounts how he first realised he was an alien.

‘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 surprise – whether I would marry her. ‘No’ I replied. ‘I will not. My mother would never agree to my marrying a foreigner.’ She looked a little surprised and retorted:’ I, a foreigner? What a silly thing to say. I am English. You are a 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.’

So, Mikes resigned himself to being an alien from then on.

Mikes was fortunate in his illustrator, Nicolas Bentley. The image above shows one of the cartoons. Crufts, by the way, is a well-known dog show held annually in England.

Here is Mikes on talking about the weather.

‘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.


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…’

‘I 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?’

‘Yes, that’s right.’

‘If you do not say anything else for the rest of your life, just repeat this conversation, you will still have a fair chance of passing as a remarkably witty man of sharp intellect, keen observation and extremely pleasant manners.’

I will quote no more. It’s best if you read the book.