A charming last look at a vanishing Britain
By Michael Dirda,
Shepherd Mead struck pay dirt when his humorous handbook, “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” (1952), was transformed into a smash hit musical, first on Broadway and then as a film starring Robert Morse. Loosely based on Mead’s own experiences in advertising, both book and play track the improbable rise of J. Pierrepont Finch from window washer to chairman of the board of a New York corporation — all in one week. After the wild success of “How to Succeed in Business,” Mead left advertising to become a full-time author, settling for a time in Britain. Recognizing a selling formula, he soon brought out “How to Get Rich in TV Without Really Trying” (1956), “How to Succeed With Women Without Really Trying” (1957) and then “How to Live like a Lord Without Really Trying” (1964). This last — now improbably reprinted by Oxford for the scholarly Bodleian Library — shows how an American businessman and his family learn to cope with British foibles and social customs.
No doubt the distinguished publishers figured that the popularity of “Downton Abbey” and films like “The King’s Speech” had created a natural audience for a comic portrait of a now vanished, or vanishing, way of life. For Mead, England is still a place of black-suited businessmen with rolled umbrellas, of insufficient home heating and inefficient health services, of complicated school options for children, of impoverished aristocrats and well-defined social castes. Some of this still survives, though much of it only in the green and pleasant land of our imaginations and of BBC television series.
Not that it matters very much.
“How to Live Like a Lord” is itself an example of a subgenre that has largely disappeared: the truly lighthearted, mildly diverting book, written by a professional humorist with no greater goal than to provide civilized amusement for an idle hour or two. By contrast, today’s comic writing tends to be far more edgy, vulgar and satirical. Those of a certain age may remember some of the once-famous practitioners of this sunny, innocent style: Will Cuppy (“The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody”); Richard Armour (“Twisted Tales From Shakespeare”); H. Allen Smith (“Low Man on a Totem Pole”); and, best of all, Max Shulman, whose books — “Barefoot Boy With Cheek,” “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis,” “Sleep Till Noon” — I revere to this day.
“How to Live Like a Lord” opens with an announcement that “this is not a U.S. Government Publication,” followed by a cautionary note for British readers. Mead sternly warns that his guide to social and financial success in England is meant solely for Americans. However, “some British readers, tossing caution to the winds, are sure to benefit extravagantly from it. Others, alas, will mistrust the easily won leisure, position and riches, and will want to return to their familiar ways of hardship, poverty, and suffering. It is a choice you will have to make.” Mead further emphasizes, in the solicitous deadpan tone he maintains throughout, that, as in his previous “text books,” the “bits of dialogue are intended not to amuse, but only to illustrate difficult points.”
After explaining how Buckley Brash, his wife, Peg, and their three children contrive to be transferred to Britain, Mead settles down to discuss British electrical outlets, driving on the left-hand side of the road, the “bluff and bravado” needed to enter a roundabout, the strange lingo (plimsolls, jumpers), the national passion for horse racing, the upper-class taste for the polite put-down, and, of course, the general lack of central heating:
“The British are the only people in the civilized world who still refuse to heat their houses when it’s cold outside.
“In England it is cold enough to suffer, but not quite cold enough to die. The British do not mind suffering, with the cold, or with anything else. They believe there is a moral advantage to it, and that it is immoral to be comfortable.
“The more you criticize them about this the more defensive they become. They now attribute all human ills to central heating. It will give you colds, crack your membranes, ruin your furniture, wreck your house, and destroy your moral fiber.”
Moreover, the British, we learn, are utterly obsessed with the weather, usually described as “beastly.” Mead suggests that you, the American expat, learn a few key phrases, suitable for neighborly conversation, such as “Hill-fog in the Pennines — and you know what that can lead to!”
After you finally break down and buy a manor house — all Americans being suckers for dark paneling and Elizabethan beams — you will discover some of the oddities of English architecture. There will, for instance, invariably be an old storage area, or “box room,” in which may be found “five boar spears, a roll of garden party tickets, three croquet mallets with warped handles, a solar topee, five Chinese lacquer bowls, and [a] four foot bronze statue of Mercury, holding a light bulb.”
Having finally joined the landed gentry, you will naturally desire “cheap and faithful retainers. They will be everywhere, like wood fairies and leprechauns, and just as hard to put your hands on.” One day, however, you notice, on a neighboring plot, “a manure-covered wretch in an old sweater, his trousers stuffed into mud-caked rubber boots. He will be stumbling from dunghill to greenhouse to potting shed. You will assume your gardening problems are over.” Alas, no: He turns out to be Sir Noel Walloughby, “and he can’t find a gardener, either.”
By following Mead’s tips and shortcuts, it’s clear that any American will soon find himself enjoying — if that’s the word I want — a lordly lifestyle. “You are living in a house that is slightly too large and too drafty, with a garden that is beyond your wildest efforts to manage, and with no idea how you are going to pay all your current bills.” What you really want, stresses Mead at this point, is to live like a duke. “There are only thirty-two of them, and almost all of them do live in a manner to which you could become accustomed and which, with careful study of a few simple rules, you can easily attain.”
These simple rules he reveals to you in the last quarter of his guidebook, in which he also discusses the delicate subject of sex. Mead notes, for instance, that Savile Row tailors can turn even a “round-shouldered, pot-bellied, bow-legged pipsqueak” into a Mr. Universe. As a result, the truth isn’t revealed “until the clothes come off. And then, as every woman knows, it is too late.”
In all honesty, it’s hard to urge people to run out and buy “How To Live like a Lord Without Really Trying” — it’s such an inconsequential book, and very much a period piece. But it remains charming in its old-fashionedness, and the delightful line drawings by Anton will make older readers feel they are back in the heyday of Holiday magazine and the Saturday Evening Post. On a bleak January afternoon, that’s not such a bad thing.
Dirda reviews books every Thursday for The Washington Post.
HOW TO LIVE LIKE A LORD Without Really Trying By Shepherd Mead Illustrations by Anton Bodleian Library/Oxford Univ. 208 pp. $25