How To Be An Alien / How To Scrape Skies by George Mikes

What sort of book do you turn to, for help, before you visit a new country / city? Would you plumb for a guidebook that tells you where to shop, which attractions are not to be missed and where to doss down for the night? Or would you pick one that gives you a peek into the national psyche? I, personally, used to be a guidebook devotee; but that was until a friend introduced me to George Mikes, author of How To Be An Alien, where the Hungarian writer takes a humorous look at all the idiosyncrasies of the English and, of course, their language. With an insight that comes from being the outsider, Mikes tells you that, in Britain, you need to shed your natural reserve and embrace weather as an ‘ever-interesting, even thrilling’ topic, and, moreover, discuss it enthusiastically with everybody. He assures you that you can sound adequately rude with just an ‘I’m afraid that’, just as long as it’s ‘pronounced grimly’. He advises you to walk in companionable silence, if you’re out walking with a friend; however, ‘if you go out for a walk with your dog, keep chatting to him’.

It works because…

In a world that’s increasingly becoming a ‘global village’, where everywhere looks like everywhere else, where you can buy the same brands from Chicago to Chennai, it is actually refreshing to read national stereotypes, even if some of it might be a little dated, considering Mikes’ books were written in the 1940s. After taking on the Brits with How To Be An Alien, Mikes turns to the U.S. in How To Scrape Skies, and it is as — if not more — hilarious. At his best when he makes sharp, succinct remarks about a country (he stunned readers with his famous, laconic line on English sex life — ‘Continental people have sex life; the English have hot-water bottles’), his take on The Language in America is no less outrageous (“It was decided almost two hundred years ago that English should be the language spoken in the United States. It is not known, however, why this decision has not been carried out”). He contrasts Continental Europe with Britain in the Brit book, and compares America with England in the latter (the most memorable being his take on baseball, which he says is only “cricket played with a strong American accent”). Much of his humour though is friendly; you don’t need to visit / live in the country he speaks about, or have a personal grudge against its people to enjoy it; all you need, really, is a funny bone.

And this one stays with you…

From How To Be An Alien, on Britain’s national passion

‘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 and 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.’

From How To Scrape Skies, the price-list for a professional mourner:

“You stand by the coffin with head bent and looking very sad — five dollars. The same with occasional tears — ten dollars.

The same with crying, shrieking, sobbing — twenty five dollars.

For seventy five dollars you have to throw yourself into the grave after the coffin.”

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Lonely placesDecember 14, 2012