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Saturday, 9 November 2013

Hey, you're a consumer now

When I started work in Pittsburgh on January 2 1966 my nearest were still in the UK. I was alone, living at the Y. Never YMCA, by the way, always "the Y". Later I was to attend recitals at "the Jewish Y".

Not really alone. The whole of suburban Pittsburgh, both genders, all levels of income, took me to its collective bosom. Guiding me not to parade my atheism, not to reveal I'd belonged to a leftie trade union, not to pronounce it schedule instead of skedule (They failed; some out of pure transatlantic good-heartedness adopted my pronunciation), not to sign cheques with an illegible signature.

Most of all they urged a more generous attitude towards spending. They were horrified when I bought second-hand paperbacks; thought I'd catch something. Alarmed when I looked at apartments in "unsuitable" areas. Appalled I'd gone for a party-line telephone. Laughed helplessly when I furnished a bedroom and a lounge with a package costing $300 (£187).

They couldn't understand why I was delaying getting a TV because I lacked the money. Some lurched away when I bought US wine at the state liquor store. Hard liquor they understood; to them wine = wino.

I'm in danger of sounding ungrateful. Those same people took me to ball-games, invited the family to barbecues, introduced us to take-away pizzas (both take-aways and pizzas were quite novel), offered to lend me money when I had to fly home for my mother's funeral, and agonised over the fact that our younger daughter - born over there - hadn't been christened.

But I'd moved from the world's most expensive city where poverty was chronic. Adjustments took time and some never happened. Our daughter flew back to the UK in 1972 still unchristened.


  1. Many of us here in the US find English (and yes, all British) accents very charming. Television here is rife with characters going on in Monty Pythonish lilts, and the latest craze seems to be the Australian version. It's quite possible your friends adopted "schedule" not to comfort you, but because they wanted (perhaps secretly)to sound like you. The US might have benefited from adopting your frugality as well, as we are now 17 trillion dollars in debt.

  2. I enjoyed this reminiscence very much. Americans are indeed just like that. In my own experience their hospitality, offered even to a complete stranger, is unlike anywhere else I've been in the world. Of course this is not always so in cities like New York, but the further one goes away from those centers, the more friendly people are. Perhaps prejudices also increase but that's a whole other story, isn't it?

  3. MikeM: In some cases adopting my accent was involuntary. One of my colleagues at the publishing company said: "According to the schedule... Goddamnit! Skedule!" Looked at me wryly and I thought wryly about our situation. I alone, not wishing to, had prevailed over him backed by the influence of 250m fellow American speakers.

    The early days were a snare and a delusion. Beautiful young women encouraged me to talk to them at parties. Being this close I noticed their wonderfully regular teeth. Later, back in the UK, I was able to understand the Americans better. American tourists in Europe, by nature polite, got into difficulties trying to suppress a belief that they were superior to Europeans purely on the basis of their orthodontics and the fact that they showered three times a day. Dentists have a lot to answer for. Four decades later I was able to make use of this observation in Out Of Arizona which, inter alia, compares French culture with American culture - sometimes favourably, sometimes unfavourably. But just before you jump to conclusions you wouldn't want to be the Brit in OOA.

    Natalie: I drew on a protective and (to Americans) confusing persona. Rather than responding to questions about our Royal Family at parties, I started talking obsessionally about baseball in the sport's lingo: "Clemente's batted better than three hundred during June" and "When's Dennie McLain going to pitch a perfect game?" One woman. the wife of my host, became quite angry at having to listen to American stuff of no interest to her yet uttered by someone who (she was convinced) knew secrets about Princess Di.