Recently a publisher friend of mine read Polska Dotty. She very much enjoyed the book, and compared it to George Mikes’ How To Be A Brit trilogy (How To Be An Alien, How To Be Inimitable, How To Be Decadent). I confess I hadn’t heard of these books or Mikes, so rapidly purchased an omnibus copy which I’ve just finished reading.
How To Be An Alien is the most famous of the trilogy. Published in 1946 by Mikes – a Hungarian Jewish journalist who came to Britain shortly before the War and made the sensible decision to remain here – it pokes fun at the Brits’ many foibles. The tone is lightly mocking but relentless, perhaps prompting Mikes to write at the end of the last book in the trilogy: “When I wrote [How To Be An Alien], thirty years ago, I admired the English enormously but did not like them very much; today I admire them much less but love them much more”. Actually, I think he meant it.
The humour is what makes the book, including a number of complementary sketches by renowned illustrator Nicolas Bentley. For example, on a trait which used to really rile a Belgian friend of mine who spent many years here (he called it the knife in the back syndrome):
“In England they hardly ever lie, but they would not dream of telling you the truth”.
On the bizarre nature of our country’s name – something also explored in Polska Dotty:
“When people say England, they sometimes mean Great Britain, sometimes the United Kingdom, sometimes the British Isles – but never England”.
And in a similar vein, part of a hilarious section on streets:
“Primitive continental races put even numbers on one side, odd numbers on the other, and you always know that small numbers start from the north or west. In England, you have this system, too: but you may start numbering your houses at one end, go up to a certain number on the same side, then continue on the other side, going back in the opposite direction. You may leave out some numbers if you are superstitious; and you may continue the numbering in a side street; you may also give the same numbering to two or three houses”.
I sympathise. Whenever, I’m in Poland, or continental Europe generally, I’m always pleasantly surprised they actually show numbers, sequentially on their streets! So why the problem over here? My wife makes the same observation, and therein lies the beauty of Mikes’ work: to this day, it’s extremely well observed about the Brits, and would be fascinating to Poles and other foreigners alike. The flip side, if you will, of Polska Dotty, which hopefully educates about the Polish condition.
Both books also approach their subject from a humorous angle, though, as I say, Mikes’ humour is relentless and stinging, whereas in Polska Dotty the humour is underlying (with some LOL moments, I hope) and there’s an attempt to understand and explain Polish mores.
Another similarity, which I find intriguing, because it’s an unusual feature of Polska Dotty, is that Mikes divides his chapters into themes, in his case often prefaced by “How To”: “How To Be Rude”, “How To Lose An Empire” etc. It works, though each “chapter” is really only a vignette of 2-3 pages, so the overall effect is somewhat bitty. Polska Dotty is different, told in normal length themed chapters, but strung together by a narrative account of our two years spent living in Warsaw.
Here are some more gems from Mikes’ book:
“The knowledge of foreign languages is very un-English. A little French is permissible, but only with an atrocious accent”.
“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… An Englishman, even if he is alone, forms an orderly queue of one”.
And the line that seems to have sealed Mikes’ fame:
“Continental people have sex life; the English have hot-water bottles”.
The How To Be A Brit trilogy is now dated in tone, and there are a very few “non-PC” comments such as a brief critique of gays – but in general the book remains as finely observed and amusing as no doubt it was when it first came out. In the intro to Polska Dotty I too address the question of datedness: my book is set at the tail end of the 90s, and Poland has moved a long way between then and now. But as I argue, roads can be extended, bridges built, and airports opened, but a people founded in 990AD aren’t going to change their spots overnight.
I believe this stands up. The many Poles I now meet over here – at my Polish hairdresser, deli, in restaurants – all of whom I chat up shamelessly (in the platonic sense, I hasten to add), display the same traits I’ve grown to recognise over the years. Though unlike Mikes, ever one for a stab – and though Polska Dotty is a “warts ‘n all” account of my time in Poland – I trust I have a healthy mix of admiration and love for the Polish way of life.