Ooh, that talk of opportunities, TV breaks and movies
Rang true, sure rang true… ALBERT HAMMOND (1972)
Why on earth didn’t we pack an umbrella? Two giant containers, filled to the brim with 426 packing crates and a grand piano, a loaded baggage allowance of 9 suitcases, 3 dogs and a cat, and we forget one paltry umbrella.
Sam, friends, and umbrellas on Hampstead Heath (his Instagram)
We left it on the doorstep. It was orange. I saw one of Sam Smith’s chums with it on his Instagram feed the other day, sitting on a bench on Hampstead Heath. The umbrella was a parting gift from our estate agent. Mind you, we deserved more than just an umbrella, considering the commission the agent received after we agreed to pack up and move across a zillion miles with all our worldly goods – minus umbrella – in just four weeks.
“Sam Smith’s in your front garden,” our housesitter had screamed breathlessly down the phone.
It was very early on Good Friday morning in Orange County, mid-afternoon in London – we were spending Easter, or rather Pesach, with the in-laws. The singer was out house-hunting in Hampstead. Ours was the first place he saw. And the last.
A few hours later: “He’s brought his Mum!”, then his Dad, then his sister. He offered, we accepted, then he told us he wanted to move in in just four weeks.
We met him when we got back to England, to negotiate the chattels. A chattel is actually an enslaved wife, but he mostly wanted our flat screen television, which would have been a pain to replace, and was of no use to us in America. But, though we met him on two occasions, and he was always charming, gentle, funny, he never spoke one word to us.
He’d damaged his voice in Australia and his New York surgeon (the same one who treated Adele, I gather) told him not to open his mouth for a month. So we made do with sign language while we went round the house I’d owned for the last 21 years, which had seen 5 children and many happy parties behind its high walls.
I loved that house, and now Sam Smith loved it too. Or so he mouthed at me several times. “Wonderful,” I think it was. “Beautiful,” it definitely was. Maybe even “Gorgeous” too, or was it “George?” For Boy George lives next door.
Sam in my/our garden, on his Instagram
He adored the gargoyles and the high ceilings, and the antique doors I’d found at Lots Road galleries. And my rose garden, and the terrace, and the fig tree. I have a terrible feeling I responded to his mouthings as if I were talking to a deaf mute or a foreigner – with exaggerated gestures, enunciating every syllable soooo slowly. He was very polite, though and smiled back like the Queen.
For the last two decades I’d only lived there very occasionally because I’d been the victim of two seductions: firstly by Los Angeles, where I’d gone to produce a reality show for Fox called Paradise Hotel and ended up running a big production company, and then secondly by a single glorious day in Northumberland.
Joanna (who’d flown over with hand luggage after I’d invited her to join me on a cookery course one day in 2005, after which it had never occurred to either of us that she should ever leave) had come on holiday to Scotland with me and my youngest son Sam, and it had rained the whole miserable time.
So we’d driven back along the Military Road beside the Roman Wall, and, just as we passed Housesteads Fort and the sun came brilliantly out, Jo exclaimed: “Wow! Where is this? This is the most beautiful place in the world,” and I’d replied “This is my home, where I was brought up, it’s called Northumberland,” and she’d said, “What are we doing living in that house in London where you can’t even drive to the mall and it’s always raining?”
Quick as a flash Sam shouted out from the back seat “You must move here, Daddy.” So we did.
That was the beginning of our wonderful Northumbrian saga. We rented a house called Standing Stone, and tourists would come in buses just to look at an ancient boulder in our back garden, then leave disappointed because it was less than six feet tall and I guess they were expecting Stonehenge.
Then, after a year, the lease was up and I expected Jo to yearn for the city lights again, so I said: “Do you want to go back to London, or to LA?” and she looked at me as if I was mad. Mind you, 2006 was the only year they’ve had reasonably warm weather in Northumberland since the 18th century. For a California girl, even the mud and the smell of pigs and sheep is made glorious by fine weather and those big blue skies.
So we stayed, and searched for a home, and eventually we found this huge, rambling 17th century pile with wonderful neighbours, and that was our first home as a married couple, and was where Izzy first opened her eyes, and where Truffle, then Mabel, and finally Boots scampered through the meadow, full of clover and buttercups. Which is why Izzy’s middle name is Clover. Buttercup would be silly – she would sound like a cow and Jo was scared of cows.
As soon as we arrived, we built a beautiful big sun terrace. The moment it was finished, it started raining and snowing and blowing up storms, which never stopped for the next six years. I reckon we only had one lunch on our terrace the whole time we were there, as the ravenous winds rattled down from the moors at Shaftoe Crags.
We loved, and still do love, Northumberland; it’s my true home, and Izzy will always call it her home (she is convinced that one day, probably next week, she will go back to join all her friends at her little village primary school). But, eventually, one endless winter too many, and the thought of so many family members and friends waiting to welcome us back, brought about an urge to move. We spent a year in London first, then took the fateful decision to put ‘that house in London’ on the market. We were going back to the sun. Because, of course, it never rains in Southern California.
Except this morning. Boy, did it make up for it. After 4 years of drought, 2½ inches of drench dropped from the sky in a couple of hours. The weather forecaster nearly burst himself with excitement, and the traffic reporter lady was in heaven: a huge McDonalds lorry had skidded itself upside down in the middle of the freeway and scattered big Macs everywhere. The irony was the traffic news is sponsored by McDonalds. An unhappy meal for LA drivers, as she kept repeating with a smirk.
It was still absolutely tipping it down when I took Izzy on the school run. At 7.45am she had to be there, ready to put hand on heart and say the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag. She doesn’t know the words yet, of course, and I doubt I ever will, certainly not if this country elects Donald Chump as its leader. But every day we show willing and politely listen as her schoolmates chant the words: One Nation Under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
Not so indivisible if you watch Chump on the TV, barking his divisive inanities at his imbecilic followers, castigating the poor Mexicans, without whom this entire state would grind to a halt.
Sure, this place may not be nearly as beautiful, interesting, or fun as the North East, but in Orange County all the natives are very friendly, even some of the Republicans, and I reckon I could get used to life eventually.
So today, I joined the crocodile of mothers with their impossibly tight leggings stretching over even tighter curves, and the husbands in their baseball hats, shorts and white socks, all clutching their tinies with rucksacks as they jumped over the rushing water. And every toned one of them was wielding an umbrella.
How did that happen? California hasn’t had a drop of rain in four years, so where did they acquire them so early in the morning? Presumably they were sitting in garages just waiting for the one downpour that would justify their purchase. Whereas, to my embarrassment, the only person in the entire playground who arrived unprepared, with hair steaming, clothes completely sodden, glasses steamed up, was the Englishman.
They looked pitifully at me. Why on earth doesn’t he get himself an umbrella? they were thinking. Ask Sam Smith.
We are the Voice of The North and we would like to be your voice, too