How to be a Brit
Back in 1945, when André
Deutsch was trying to build up a new publishing firm, he asked me if I had
anything for him. I told him that I was fiddling about with some little essays
which were linked by a basic idea: how to be an alien. Why I was staying on the
Isle of Wight I can no longer remember, but I must have been doing so, or why
would he have come there to collect the manuscript?
He enjoyed what he read,
but told me that there was not enough of it for a book. So I sat down one
afternoon and added five thousand more words. If anyone had said to me that I
ought to take more trouble, since forty years later this book would still be
selling about thirty thousand copies a year in paperback, not to mention going
into a new hardback edition for which I would have to write a preface — well, I
would have told that person, gently but firmly, that he or she ought to have
his or her head examined. Indeed I would probably have said the same thing if
told that I would still be here to write anything in forty years time, and that
André would still be around — though disguised as a distinguished old boy — to
How to be an Alien was a cri de coeur, a desperate cry for help: oh God, look at me, I have fallen among strange
people! ‘But it’s such a funny book,’ people say. Perhaps it is. I hope
it is. But it’s not unknown for shrieks, moans, whoops and ululations to sound
funny to the uninvolved.
In due course I added two
further shrieks to that first one: How to be Inimitable in i960, when we
had started to slip but still had an Empire and refused to acknowledge much
change; and How to be Decadent in 1977. All three books were illustrated
by my great and much-missed friend, Nicolas Bentley.
During all those years
since 1945, something rather curious was happening: as I strove to stop being
an alien and to become a true Brit, Britain was striving to cast off its
peculiar and lofty insularity and become one with the aliens, a part of the
Continent (almost), just another member of the E.E.C. It oftens seems to me
that I have failed in my endeavour; but compared with Britain I have succeeded
GEORGE MIKES April 1984
BE AN ALIEN
A HANDBOOK FOR BEGINNERS AND
‘I have seen much to hate her, much to
forgive. But in a world where England is finished and dead, I do not wish to
ALICE DUER MILLER: The White Cliffs
PREFACE TO THE 24th
The reception given to this
book when it first appeared in the autumn of 1946, was at once a pleasant
surprise and a disappointment for me. A surprise, because the reception was so
kind; a disappointment for the same reason.
Let me explain.
The first part of this
statement needs little amplification. Even people who are not closely connected
with the publishing trade will be able to realize that it is very nice — I’m
sorry, I’d better be a little more English: a not totally unpleasant thing for
a completely unknown author to run into three impressions within a few weeks of
publication and thereafter into another twenty-one.
What is my grievance, then?
It is that this book has completely changed the picture I used to cherish of
myself. This was to be a book of defiance. Before its publication I felt myself
a man who was going to tell the English where to get off. I had spoken my mind
regardless of consequences; I thought I was brave and outspoken and expected
either to go unnoticed or to face a storm. But no storm came. I expected the
English to be up in arms against me but they patted me on the back; I expected
the British nation to rise in wrath but all they said, was: ‘quite amusing’. It
was indeed a bitter disappointment.
While the Rumanian Radio
was serializing (without my permission) How to be an Alien as an
anti-British tract, the Central Office of Information rang me up here in London
and asked me to allow the book to be translated into Polish for the benefit of
those many Polish refugees who were then settling in this country. ‘We want our
friends to see us in this light,’ the man said on the telephone. This was hard
to bear for my militant and defiant spirit. ‘But it’s not such a favourable
light,’ I protested feebly. ‘It’s a very human light and that is the most
favourable,’ retorted the official. I was crushed.
A few weeks later my
drooping spirit was revived when I heard of a suburban bank manager whose wife
had brought this book home to him
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