We moved there because we'd run out of options. Until then we’d been teaching at a private school outside of New York City which was heading irrevocably towards bankruptcy. But I was also finding it incredibly difficult, as an aspiring writer, to get an editor to read my work without an agent; and even more difficult to get an agent without having some kind of track record. So all that was left was to take our genuinely measly savings and move to London. It was a dive into the unknown, a gigantic risk that, because we were young, seemed worth taking. We’d stay there a year, see how things went, then return. To what, we didn’t know.
The day we arrived the headlines in the London Evening Standard were about a giraffe at the London Zoo that had splayed, couldn’t be helped, and would soon die. The smaller headline was: The King is Dead. Elvis Presley had died. The giraffe was bigger news.
It was the tail end of a hot summer; the Notting Hill Carnival was about to begin, a year after the riots at the last one. We’d managed to find a bedsit—basically a single room with a shower (no toilet), two hotplates, and a window onto an Earls Court crescent—that required 10 pence coins to operate the electricity, and plays a small role in my first published novel. We had very little money, but we also learned very quickly how to live frugally, i.e. like desperately poor people. Things were free back then: one could spend a day in a museum for nothing. Theatre was cheap: $14 would get you a couple of good seats at the new Pinter at the National. When it turned cold, which it did very quickly, what was known as the Winter of Discontent set in.
Jim Callaghan was Prime Minister and the trades union movement was in major upheaval. There were electricity strikes, politely announced in advance in the papers. So that you’d check your postal district, learn that electricity would be out from three to four o’clock, and because it was cold, we’d head for the Victoria & Albert Museum or the Tate, and stay warm there. We got to know those museums very well indeed.
Professionally, my luck had changed. Because novelists were also writing for TV back then—the golden age of British television, now a matter of fond memory and history—I came armed with my very first script, a 50-minute drama that found me an agent (who'd been in business since 1931 and knew everyone), through whom I also signed with a literary agent for my novels. But this blog isn’t about my work, but about life in Britain.
We lived in London until late November, and then realized we needed to move. Money was very tight, and we decided to relocate to Lyme Regis, on the Dorset Coast, made famous by Jane Austen and novelist John Fowles, who lived around the corner from us. Because it was the dead season and tourists were nonexistent, we found a flat for £19 per week (around $35)—three rooms with a balcony overlooking the English Channel. Every day we walked along the rocky beach full of fossils, beneath cliffs that yielded even larger fossils over the years, and every day we walked out to the end of the Cobb, the stone elbow that stretches out into the waves, and which is seen in the opening moments of the film of John Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman.
We lived in Lyme until it was time for the tourists to return. London would be too expensive for us; Oxford had nothing we could afford. But Cambridge turned out to be our next destination, and we lived there for four years. We arranged a flat at a house in Girton, about a twenty-minute walk from Cambridge city center. We rented a car and drove in pouring rain halfway across England, arriving in Girton late on a Sunday afternoon. Dressed in a leather jacket, bearded and with longish hair, I rang the doorbell. A tiny elderly woman answered it, and I announced that we were her new tenants. She was alarmed. A man with a New York accent, in a leather jacket, was about to murder her. I assured her that we would be ideal tenants, quiet and respectful and, though she expressed her doubts, I gently insisted that we were taking over her second floor beginning right now. I had driven all the way from Dorset to Cambridge and I was not about to drive any further. “Well, if you insist, Mr. Smith,” she said, backing away.
We lived in Girton for eighteen months, outliving our landlady, who turned out to be a delightful woman, a farmer’s widow who died from cancer—we knew she was dead when a hearse bearing the name Eaden Lilly—a local department store (department stores also provided funeral service in England)—arrived one evening, and ten minutes later two men in suits marched out with a coffin. A few weeks later her neighbor scattered her ashes over her flower beds in our back garden.
We next moved to the other end of Cambridge, actually in the city, a block away from a cattle market, from which, every Monday morning, the cries of poor cows could be heard as they were taken away to be slaughtered. But Cambridge was a lively city, built around an ancient and beautiful university, with train and bus access to London. Cambridge was where our daughter was born. By then we were considered legal residents of Britain, and thus could utilize the National Health Service. Because Cambridge was full of very good doctors, we were well served by it. Doctors would pay house calls, would hold open clinics, and when my wife was in labor, all the expectant mothers that afternoon were packed into one room, with meager curtains separating them. I sat with my wife while she writhed in pain. A nurse came in offering her a chicken lunch, which no one in labor has any interest in, but which I happily ate while reading a biography of Henry James. The midwife decided to break my wife’s waters so she could have our baby at “teatime,” as she put it. When it was obvious an hour later that she was ready to give birth, I was asked to wheel my wife to the delivery room.
There was the midwife, a nurse and me. I said, “Should I scrub up?” because that’s what they do on TV, and the nurse said, “This is birth, Mr. Smith. In Africa women do it in the fields. Please open the window and roll up your sleeves.” This seemed an eminently sensible approach. Our daughter was born promptly at teatime, 4:35PM, and not long afterwards the same woman who’d unsuccessfully tried to ply my wife with a chicken dinner was asking my wife if she wanted a cup of tea. My wife wanted champagne, but National Health didn’t offer it.
We lived there another year before returning (and then returning a year later for more than three months, though by then we could live in Hampstead, in north London, midway between the houses belonging to Judi Dench and John Le Carré). I had two agents looking after my work. British TV producers were interested in my teleplays, and I had a book agent patient enough to send my books to publishers. I could pass myself off convincingly as a British writer (and still can, if called upon to do so), and a few years later my first novel was published in London, and my first screenplay commission, to adapt said novel, came in.
We had been there during interesting times. Mrs. Thatcher became prime minister; the IRA bombed an army band and army horses, and left bombs in Wimpy parlors all over London during school holidays (Wimpy being the English McDonald’s); a Bulgarian who worked for the BBC was murdered on a bridge by a pellet injected into his leg from an umbrella, an elegant and fatal bit of spycraft; Prince Charles married Lady Diana Spencer, and the pubs suspended their usual hours so the working classes (including our downstairs neighbor, who actually fell up the stairs in drunken excitement to tell us how many pints he’d managed to down) could get properly pickled. Art critic Anthony Blunt finally admitted to being a Soviet spy while drinking champagne and eating smoked salmon provided by the BBC.
Five years in England that I wouldn’t trade for anything…save for five years in Paris.
Causes J.P. Smith Supports