Leaning towards me, the estate agent lowered his voice to a confidential murmur. ‘Hugh and Jemima live nearby, you know,’ he said. Huh? I had asked whether the area was safe?being often on my own, I am obsessed by safety. What did I care if two of his friends lived close by? Taking me for dim-witted, he slowly repeated: ‘H-u-g-h and J-e-m-i-m-a. Round the corner,’ with a self-satisfied grin.
Faced once more with blank incomprehension, he valiantly tried again: ‘Hugh Grant?’
Aha! It finally dawned on me. This specimen belonged to the increasingly common estate agent species that sells a property on the back of names. Once, they used to quote the distance to the nearest tube station. Now, it’s the distance to the nearest celebrity (rigorously called by first name, to imply some kind of acquaintance).
This celebrity property craze was already around a few years ago – I remember that, when we briefly looked for a flat three or so years ago, we were offered a place allegedly situated between the homes of Madonna and P Diddy – but it has now reached epidemic proportions.
As a result, all sorts of barely-knowns get thrown into the name-dropping mix, presumably because A-list celebrities like Hugh and Jemima don’t change home that often. Now I must say I am slightly at a loss here. I no longer own a television (TV licensing people, take note, and stop sending me imperious injunctions to pay) so two-thirds of the names agents mention mean absolutely nothing to me. But even if they did name a celebrity I actually admire (someone like Simon Schama, for example) I doubt very much it would sway me towards buying a flat. I find it hard enough to believe that people would choose a lipstick or a tie over another because Kate Moss or David Beckham wears it. But a house? Would anyone in their right mind really buy a place where the ceiling looks nine-months pregnant with damp and about to collapse on you, just because Denise Van Outen lives nearby?
There is so much involved in finding the right place to live – space, décor, safety, good shops – that a celebrity neighbour frankly falls completely out of my priority list. But the name-dropping technique must work, or agents would revert back to reciting the (rather more useful) list of neighbouring schools, restaurants and even delis selling that special farmhouse Cheddar just up from Somerset.
I suppose some people see a nearby celebrity as an authoritative endorsement of the area they choose to live in. A sort of kudos by association – if Denise lives here, it must be good. Still, I’d be wary. As magazines and newspapers gleefully inform us, celebrities notoriously make bad choices in their lives: so why not housing?
A case in point: when I eventually turned round the corner of the ‘oh-so-safe’ flat the estate agent was trying to sell me on the back of its celebrity connection, I did not find Hugh or Jemima. What I did find was an enormous, yellow Metropolitan Police sign saying: ‘Fatal Shooting: Anyone with any information please contact…’