By George Dobbs

In 1942, the U.S. War Department published a booklet for its British-bound troops “to start getting [them] acquainted with the British, their country, and their ways.” Over a million Americans landed on British soil armed with this trusty guidance. “The British have phrases and colloquialisms of their own that may sound funny to you,” the booklet warns, “[but] you can make just as many boners in their eyes.”

Without further ado, here is A Short Guide to Great Britain:

A game of cricket during the Blitz (via Flickr)

Meet the People!

Eric Knight, contributor to the booklet (and, incidentally, author of Lassie Come Home), reduces some key differences in culture into easy-to-understand examples. “The British dislike bragging and showing off,” we are told. “They are not given to back-slapping and they are shy about showing their affections.” Visitors are reminded to keep their wages hidden and avoid belittling the local landmarks. “You will find that the British care little about size, not having the 'biggest' of many things as we do.”

Further along there is some specific advice for visiting pubs:

You are welcome in the British pubs as long as you remember one thing. The pub is “the poor man's club,” the neighborhood or village gathering place, where the men have come to see their friends, not strangers. If you want to join a darts game, let them ask you first (as they probably will). And if you are beaten it is the custom to stand aside and let someone else play.

Similarly, we are told that the British are more “orderly and polite” at sporting events than their American counterparts, and not to shout “Take him out!” at cricketers. (As for what cricket is, that’s glossed over.) British people are “reserved, not unfriendly,” as the booklet puts it.

Poster in London travel agency, 1939 (via Flickr)

See the Country!

“Most people get used to the English climate eventually” is perhaps the most foreboding line in A Short Guide to Britain.

American troops were travelling to liberate Europe rather than sightsee, but there is still some advice on what to do with down-time. The countryside is praised, especially the churches, and Coventry is apparently “sometimes called ‘the Detroit of Britain.’” We are told that the British “love to shoot, they love to play games, they ride horses and bet on horse races, they fish,” and that you will get a kick out of British competitive events, “if only for the differences to American sports.”

Despite being in a war zone, the comparative peacefulness of the populace is also praised: “There are fewer murders, robberies, and burglaries in the whole of Great Britain in a year than in a single large American city.” All in all, you're advised to appreciate the country for “age instead of size.”

Air raid damage in London during World War II (via Flickr)

Potential Problems

At times, A Short Guide to Britain has to be frank. “The British don't know how to make a good cup of coffee,” it states, though quickly points out, “You don't know how to make a good cup of tea. It's an even swap.” Sadly, the difficulties don't end there. “Driving on the left side of the road, and having money based on an 'impossible' accounting system, and drinking warm beer” are apparently just a few of the maddening aspects of getting by. But perhaps the biggest concern is the ability to be understood at all:

In your contacts with the people you will hear them speaking “English.” At first you may not understand what they are talking about and they may not understand what you say. The accent will be different from what you are used to, and many of the words will be strange, or apparently wrongly used. But you will get used to it.

There are also warnings about topics of conversation. You're advised to “be careful not to criticize the King” and to try not to think of the British as the “Redcoats who fought against us in the American Revolution and the War of 1812.” Even innocent phrases can get you into trouble: “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.”

The booklets also clarifies that you might have to assuage some cultural misapprehensions: “They will be interested to hear about life in America and you have a great chance to overcome the picture many of them have gotten from the movies of an America made up of wild Indians and gangsters.”

Eric Knight's A Short Guide to Great Britain is a little dated after 72 years, but it's also frank, funny and, all-in-all, not a bad introduction to how to enjoy the UK. You can read the whole guide online and see Life magazine's fully illustrated take on Google Books.

George Dobbs is an MA graduate in creative writing who lives and works in the grim North of England. When he’s not at work on various writing projects, he enjoys cooking, long-distance running and avoiding the weather with his cat.

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