Fresco and I were browsing at Value Village today in between getting groceries and picking Trombone at school. Done with looking at toys, we meandered to the front of the store and a book caught my eye. “Brush Up Your English: Conversations of Real Use,” by Marie D. Hottinger. I picked it up and saw that it was not, actually, of real use, having been published in 1934 and revised in 1953, so I didn’t feel bad buying it for $0.99 and robbing some poor English-learner of the privilege.
The book is a cross between conversation guide and modern reality show. It follows a family through their daily lives: Charles and Mary and their children Billy and Biddy. Partway through the book, their Scottish friends James and Margaret (and their children Jimmy and Meg) come to visit. All the vocabulary is translated into French and German at the bottom of each page. Here is Charles, explaining:
Charles: We’ve all been put into a book.
James: A book? What book?
Charles: It’s called Brush Up Your English.
James: What’s it about?
Charles: It’s about us.
James: What kind of a book is it?
Charles: It’s a book of useful conversations for foreigners visiting England or learning English.
James: But Charles, I’m on holiday!
Charles: So am I. But wait a minute. The publisher says that if the book sells well, he’ll pay our expenses.
James: I don’t believe it.
Charles: I signed the agreement only the other day.
Margaret: But what do we have to do?
Charles: Do things foreigners do in England. Buy things in shops. Ask policemen the way —
Margaret: But what if I know it already?
Charles: That doesn’t matter. Ask. Hail taxis. See about passports.
James: But we don’t need passports.
Charles: Then talk about them. It isn’t difficult.
Charles and Mary and Margaret and James throw a dinner party, get colds, call the doctor and go to the dentist. The women do a lot of shopping while the men play golf. There are countless jokes at the expense of the so-called ‘dim-witted Scots’ and plenty of discussion around foreigners and their foreign ways. Near the end, everyone goes on vacation to the beach in Charles’s Austin.
Here, from Chapter 4, where Mary and Charles discuss the menu for their dinner party:
Mary: Charles, do you remember that dinner-party we gave in Paris when we had roast lamb and mint sauce, and nobody could eat the mint sauce?
Charles: Rather. I’ll never forget their faces. Why can’t foreigners eat mint sauce?
Mary: There are about a thousand kinds of German sausage, and we can’t eat nine hundred and ninety of them. It’s in the blood. Now for a sweet.
Charles: Stewed prunes and custard.
Mary: I shall take no further notice of you. I’d like to see the colonel’s face if you offered him stewed prunes and custard. We’ll have a fruit salad.
At the end of the book there is a section entitled “Correspondence” within which there are several letters from the various subjects of the book to the author and to each other. Here, James writes a letter to the book’s author, Marie D. Hottinger:
“A copy of your book…has just reached me and …I must protest against the picture you have given of me personally, and of my country…I sincerely trust that next time you write such a book, you will see that your facts are accurate. The Scottish nation is not mean. It is careful.
James MacTavish. ”
Am I unique in finding this completely hysterical? I’m off to google Marie D. Hottinger now. And to look for another in the series called “Brush Up Your Wits” that I think I could really use.