In 1946, somewhere between learning the Queen’s English and mastering a queue of one, Mikes wrote an unexpected classic, How To Be an Alien, which was later adapted and reissued as How to Be a Brit.
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 not aware of this plain fact. I was living in my own country, a country full of aliens, and I noticed nothing particular or irregular about myself; then I came to England, and you can imagine my painful surprise.
Mikes wrote his guide to becoming British knowing full well “you can be British but you’ll never be English.” The guide was intelligent, thoughtful, all-encompassing, but by Mikes’s own admission, not intended to be humorous.
But it was humorous. The kind of head-nodding humor rooted in squeamish truths. The kind of humor the British embrace. Mikes’s observations vary from class structure, the British view of foreigners, gardening, sports, wealth, snobbery, and generally inexplicable habits:
Street names should be painted clearly and distinctly on large boards. Then hide these boards carefully. Place them too high or too low, in shadow and darkness, upside down or insight out, or, even better, lock them up in a safe in your bank, otherwise they may give people some indication about the names of the streets.2
Mikes’s writing excels in its observation of the hypocritical British investment in “getting along with one another” in micro-interactions while ignoring this value completely at the macro geopolitical level.
In England it is bad manners to be clever, to assert something confidently. It may be your own personal view that two and two make four, but you must not state that in a self-assured way, because this is a democratic country and others may be of a different opinion.
The need to be superficially calm and polite leads to the preponderance of discussion about the weather, a rare connective tissue of British society.3
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 a 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.
Of course, this is—it must be—a modern convention, perhaps a relic of Victorian uptightness. I cannot fathom Henry VIII enduring long chats about the ailments of the sky as a pretext for social engagement.
The core of How to Be a Brit is this: what we must remember is Britain was, at some point, possibly recently, someone else’s dreaded future. And to decay, you must have had risen to great heights. (And “in decay” is a wonderful place to be.)
“There will always be an England… Indeed, but what England is, to the likes of Mikes (and the nostalgic memoirs of Laurie Lee, Penelope Lively, and Stephen Fry is not what it will be. This tension, this divide between the imagined past and the imagined future, has become much more apparent in recent years and even fractious.4
Ultimately, How to Be a Brit seizes on the limitations of “being” a Brit. (Which is likely a limitation in any country in the world.)
Study these rules, and imitate the English. There can be only one result: if you don’t succeed in imitating them you become ridiculous; if you do, you become even more ridiculous.
The paradoxical nature of any country is that the same heavy-set rules and customs that make a country what it is also initiate a wall between it and its most hopeful aliens. Is that cruelty? It can be. But isn’t necessarily. Like most things human, it is utterly complex and susceptible to the best and worst things we are.
Accompany this delightful, poignant spot on one of our most important modern nation-states with Peter Mayle’s narrative of making a home in France: the Englishman abroad finds his most British habits buffed and worn under the French way. Or the nostalgic memoirs of Laurie Lee, a man the same age as Mikes who grew up in a small Cotswold village. Or the less-rosy account of impoverished England from its most famous political dissenter, George Orwell.
You might also enjoy my study of walls and what they are, how they are used, misused. A bit conceptional but thematically relevant. What are walls if not ways we fortify ourselves and things we care about? Britain has many walls (and wall builders).