Sunday, February 8, 2009

Common sense from a lifetime ago

For Christmas my mother sent me a facsimile of Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain 1942, a short (originally seven typed pages) set of guidelines introducing American soldiers to their hosts. As the London Times commented, in comparing the brief pamphlet to other efforts by such luminaries as Irving, Emerson and Hawthorne to explain Britain, "None of their august expositions has the spotlight directness of this revelation of plain common horse sense understanding of evident truths."

It is wonderfully direct. For some peculiar reason, it reminds me of George Mikes' "How to be An Alien".

It is fascinating to read this capsule of such a different time and such a different place. Our respective countries have morphed and changed in the intervening sixty-seven years. The seeds of some of those changes are alluded to in the changes arising from wartime exigency (see the quote on female officers below.) But it feels contemporary and fresh, kept fresh by the directness, brevity and simplicity of the observations. Many of the observations bring a lump to the throat in reminding us of just what extraordinary things ordinary people did.

"You defeat enemy propaganda not by denying that these differences exist, but by admitting them openly and then trying to understand them."

"To say 'I look like a bum' is offensive to their ears, for to the British this means that you look like your own backside."

"Most people get used to the English climate eventually." Seems to be said more in resigned hope than in true conviction.

"In 'getting along' the first important thing to remember is that the British are like the Americans in many ways - but not in all ways."

"In general more people play games in Britain than in America and they play the game even if they are not good at it."

"The British are beer-drinkers - and can hold it. The beer is now below peacetime strength, but can still make a man's tongue wag at both ends."

"The British have reserved much of the food that gets through solely for their children. To the British children you as an American will be 'something special.' For they have been fed at their schools and impressed with the fact that the food they ate was sent to them by Uncle Sam. You don't have to tell the British about lend-lease food. They know about it and appreciate it."

"But remember that crossing the ocean doesn't automatically make you a hero. There are housewives in aprons and youngsters in knee pants in Britain who have lived through more high explosives in air raids than many soldiers saw in first class barrages in the last war."

"You are coming to Britain from a country where your home is still safe, food is still plentiful, and lights are still burning. So it is doubly important for you to remember that the British soldiers and civilians have been living under a tremendous strain. It is always impolite to criticize your hosts. It is militarily stupid to insult your allies. So stop and think before you sound off about lukewarm beer, or cold boiled potatoes, or the way English cigarettes taste.

If British civilians look dowdy and badly dressed, it not because they do not like good clothes or know how to wear them. All clothing is rationed and the British know that they help war production by wearing an old suit or dress until it cannot be patched any longer. Old clothes are 'good form.'

One thing to be careful about - if you are invited into a British home and the host exhorts you to 'eat up there's plenty on the table,' go easy. It may be the family's rations for a whole week spread out to show their hospitality."

"A British woman officer or non-commissioned officer can - and often does - give orders to a man private. The men obey smartly and know it is no shame. For British women have proven themselves in this way. They have stuck to their posts near burning ammunition dumps, delivered messages afoot after their motorcycles have been blasted from under them. They have pulled aviators from burning planes. They have died at gun posts and as they fell another girl has stepped directly into the position and 'carried on.' There is not a single record in this war of any British woman in uniformed service quitting her post or failing in her duty under fire.

Now you understand why British soldiers respect the women in uniform. They have won the right to the utmost respect. When you see a girl in khaki or air-force blue with a bit of ribbon on her tunic - remember she didn't get it for knitting more socks than anyone else in Ipswich."

"Almost before you meet the people you will hear them speaking 'English.'" Got to love the author's quotation marks.

"The accent will be different from what you are used to, and many words will be strange, or apparently wrongly used. But you will get used to it. Remember that back in Washington stenographers from the South are having a hard time to undersand dictation given by business executives from New England and the other way around."

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