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Separated by Language - 16 October 1998

n old friend of mine, an Englishman, was saying how close British English and American English have become, compared with the days, say, of my boyhood when nobody in Britain, except kings, statesmen, ambassadors and bakers had ever heard an American speak.

I was 21 when sound, what we called talking pictures, came in and I remember the shock to all of us when we heard the weird sounds coming out of the mouths of the people on the screen. And of course, quite apart from becoming familiar with the odd pronunciations of Americans of all sorts, we began to notice differences in written American, in the usage of words. We became aware, for the first time, of the great changes and unknown additions to the language that had been made by Englishmen who had been settling in America for 300 years.

It occurred to most of us, rather late, that this was bound to happen when Englishmen arrived on a new continent, saw a new landscape which had to be described with different words – tidewater, creek, duyvil – new foods, new habits of life and work, not to mention the adoption, first from the Dutch, of new words for objects, new and old. Englishmen who'd eaten buns found themselves eating crullers and sitting out on the stoops of their houses. If you want to follow the impress of Spanish, Russian, German, Italian, Hungarian, Czech and the other European languages on the English of America, all you have to do is go to the library and take out the three volumes, 24,000 finely-printed pages of Mr HL Mencken's massive work, The American Language, and that will take you only as far as 1950.

The point my old friend was making was that since almost 70 years of talking pictures and the radio and television now becoming universal media, nothing in American speech and writing surprises us any more and the two languages have rubbed together so closely, for so long, that they're practically indistinguishable. Well, there's much in it, but there are still many little signs in any given piece of American prose that my friend would miss and that most Englishmen too would miss.

Just last week there was printed in the New Yorker Magazine, a phrase about Californian wines, proving the writer or copywriter was English. No American talks or writes about Californian wines. California wines, yes. California is the adjective, Californian is a noun, a native or resident of California, same with Texas. A Texas custom, not a Texan.

The other, most gross and most frequent trick, which not one Englishman in a thousand ever seems to notice is this, I say you write: "I have a friend in England called Alan Owen". That is an immediate give-away. No American could say or write it unless they'd been corrupted by long association with the Brits. Americans write and say: "I have a friend in England named Alan Owen. Maybe he's called Al." Called would refer to a nickname, right?

We went on to discussing American words, phrases, usually slang, that are picked up in England – EB White said it usually took 15 years – and there go wrong, quite often assuming an opposite meaning. A beauty close to home is the word bomb. When a book, a play, a movie flops with a sickly thud, it's said to have bombed, "It ran a year in London but bombed in New York". Inexplicably it got to England and took on the opposite meaning. I shall never, and you'll appreciate, forget a telephone call from my daughter in England when a book of mine, a history of America, carrying the succinct title of America, had just come out. "Daddy, " she shouted across the Atlantic, "your book is a bomb." I very much prayed it wasn't so. Indeed, the fact that it wasn't is one reason why I'm sitting here talking to you at this late date, in comfort.

Now all this amiable light talk sprang from a darker happening. The passing of a great American writer, who received a large, worthy obituary in the New York Times but, to my surprise and dismay, did not rate a mention in the news magazines I'm afraid, because the writers of literary obituaries are too young to have remembered the splendid prime and great popularity of the man. His name was Jerome Weidman and if we were living in the 1930s, '40s or '50s and he'd died, you would no more have been ignorant of his name than today you would say "Who is John Updike?" "Who is Martin Amis?", "Who," by the way, asked a contemporary of a grandson of mine, "Who was Ernest Hemingway?" There you have it. The frailty, the treachery of fame.

Jerome Weidman was not just a popular novelist in the sense that James Michener or Dorothy Sayers were popular novelists. Jerome Weidman was a popular novelist who greatly impressed the literary world of New York with his first novel. He was 24 years old and earning $11 a week as an office boy, when in the spring of 1937 he published I Can Get It For You Wholesale. Here was a story, mining a new vein, by a young man who, even at that tender age, knew the subject, the terrain, the people, inside out. It was about Manhattan's garment centre, the hub and vortex of maybe half a million New Yorkers who whirl every day about the making of suits and pants and coats. A mainly Jewish industry, because so many immigrant tailors originally had set it up. Jerome Weidman's mother was Hungarian and his father a young Austrian, who, like George Gershwin's Russian father, was alerted to the prospect of America and the immigrant ships by hearing the sound of a bugle, the call to fight for the Austrian Emperor, which didn't mean a year or two of military service but a semi-life sentence. He hopped it to New York City and went at once, on the Lower East Side, back to his only trade. He made trousers, pants. His son Jerome maintained against all comers that his father's unique genius was for making better pants' pockets than any other tailor on earth.

Jerome was brought up on the Lower East Side, to the sights and sounds and idiom of the garment men and their families and that first book created a character, one Harry Bogan, a shrewd, quicksilver scamp, who in several disguises was to appear in his later books. All the best ones were about this life that he knew as well as Dickens knew the East End of London. What was new, and what liberated the American novel from gentility, or the Hemingway flat protest against gentility, was the running talk, the exact sound and sense of these lowly characters, the first-generation immigrant sons striving to be free.

Now you'll see why such a man, such a writer, prompted our whole talk about the American language. Jerome Weidman was the first American street-smart novelist. There, there's another one, turned in England often into street-wise. Nobody's wise on the streets, but Jerome Weidman and his swarming characters are nothing if not street-smart. He never adopted this language, it came so naturally that, when he chose titles for his subsequent works, he fell, as naturally as Ira and George Gershwin did, into simply taking over some prevailing bit of American idiom or slang. After I Can Get It For You Wholesale came What's In It For Me and The Price is Right, marvellously constructed short novels that made guessing the next turn of character as tense as tracking down a murderer.

His last book, written 11 years ago, was a memoir and the book editor of the New Yorker Magazine headed his review with the single, simple word "Pro". And so he was – the complete professional, as Balzac was a pro, and Dickens. Indeed it's not reaching too far to say that Jerome Weidman was the Dickens of the Lower East Side; throw in the Bronx too.

He never started out with an ambition to be a writer. He was going into the garment business, then he thought law school, then he read Mark Twain and saw how he made literature out of the humblest material. All you needed was insight into character and an ear for the character's speech. Weidman once wrote "Life for me on East Fourth Street, when I was a boy, was not unlike what life on the banks of the Mississippi had been for young Sam Clemens of Hannibal, Missouri. Guileless, untrained and unselfconscious, I put the stories down on paper the way I'd learned to walk." After a fine, rollicking success as a novelist, he wrote a musical play about the incomparable, cocky, little, Italianate reform Mayor of New York City, Fiorello LaGuardia. It was called simply Fiorello.

Now the most prestigious theatre prize in this country, as also for fiction, history, whatever, is the Pulitzer Prize. On a spring day in 1960, in his 48th year, Jerome Weidman was deliciously thunderstruck to hear he'd won it with Fiorello. I should tell you that if another famous novelist had lived on a year or two longer, you may be sure that one of the first calls of congratulation would have come from him, Jerome's old friend, the late W Somerset Maugham.

As it was, the first call came from his mother. Neither Jerome's father nor mother was comfortable with English. They were of that immigrant generation that was forever wary of the outside world they'd moved into – the world of America and Americans. Jerome Weidman recalled with pride, and typical exactness, what his mother said to him over that telephone call. "Mr Morgan was right, that a college like Columbia University, when they decide to give you a prize like this, should go pick a day and do it that it's the 12th anniversary of the founding of the state of Israel. If you'd listened to me and become a lawyer, a wonderful thing like this could never have happened."

He will be rediscovered and revived and read when many more famous and fashionable American writers, big guns today, are dead and gone forever. Jerome Weidman, born Lower East Side, New York City, 1913, died Upper East Side, New York City, October 1998. RIP Jerome, Harry Bogan and Momma and Poppa Weidman.

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