Review: How to Be an Alien by George Mikes

imagesAt the end of an introduction to spirituality class at Heythrop College, one of my new friends slid me this little volume – a book published in 1946 which immediately captured my imagination, not least for the story that she recounted as she gave it to me. She said:

My German grandfather was a career German naval engineering officer, sunk by the British in the First World War, fished out of the Med and bunged in a rather uncomfortable camp in the desert outside Alexandria for the rest of the war. At the end of the Second World War he ended up in the bag again but by this time he was an admiral so was despatched to a stately home in Cumbria which was the destination for high ranking officers. If they gave their word that they would not escape that was accepted, so they were free to roam around the fells all day and return to a good supper in congenial surroundings in the evening. I think only one broke their word, featured, I believe, in the film “The One that Got Away”.

Meanwhile in Germany, British soldiers had commandeered the family home and Mum and her sisters had to move in with family elsewhere. The soldiers were always charming and friendly to the girls though. The upshot was that my grandfather believed that the British were an honourable people so at the end of the war when Germany was destroyed, most men were dead and my grandmother was going shopping with a wheelbarrow to carry all the inflated money, my mother set off to England to work as an au pair. Only one person was ever unkind to her as a German – a nurse whose fiancé was killed – and someone gave her How to Be an Alien to help her understand life over here. It obviously worked – she trained as a nurse at St Thomas’, then became a district midwife on a bike delivering babies in Surrey, then married my father and has lived here ever since.

I sat on the Tube home while galloping through How to Be an Alien and thinking of this young woman, new to the UK and living in a completely changed world while knowing she’d need to make this country her home. It made for poignant reading.

Of course, it being a humorous book, I wasn’t sure how much of the preface to the 24th impression was irony (not something I am known to grasp) and how serious the author was being as he rued the success of this book. He says:

This was to be a book of defiance… [I was] going to tell the English where to get off… I thought I was brave and outspoken and expected either to go unnoticed or to face a storm. But no storm came… all they said, was: ‘quite amusing’ (p.8).

So much of How to Be an Alien I could relate to. His chapter, “Introduction,” is not an introduction to the book but includes this observation: “The aim of introduction is to conceal a person’s identity.” Ah yes, the art of not giving one’s name, as I observe in my chapter “What’s in a Name” in Finding Myself in Britain. We both each devote a chapter to the weather – how can you not, this being Britain – and I should observe his instruction: “You must never contradict anybody when discussing the weather” (p. 22). Indeed.

teacupI unwittingly followed his lead in writing a chapter about tea, but I wasn’t so rude in my opening as he is: “The trouble with tea is that originally it was quite a good drink” (p. 26). He has many instructions for how to receive tea magnanimously, even at 5am.

In sum, a lovely little volume, some of which seems quaint after all of these years, but much of which still rings true. And how wonderful to have been given it by a daughter of a foreigner-turned-friend.

How to Be an Alien, George Mikes, Penguin, ISBN 9780140025149

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