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Harry and Meghan? Spare us the soap opera, say neighbours

In the Sussexes’ Californian hometown Nicholas Schout hears that the content of the world’s fastest-selling memoir is very low down on locals’ list of priorities

The town of Montecito on the Californian coast is home to about 10,000 people, including Harry and Meghan.

On the day Prince Harry’s controversial, headline-grabbing memoir Spare officially became the fastest-selling non-fiction book in history, the bookstore in his adoptive hometown in California did not move a single copy.

Indifference wasn’t the problem, although Montecito, the wealthy hillside community outside Santa Barbara where the Sussexes have made their home, is known for keeping its opinions of the royal couple close to its chest.

The much bigger issue was the weather.

The previous afternoon, a massive storm had dumped a foot of rain on California, the beginning of a week of dramatic “atmospheric rivers” and flooding across the state, and everyone was ordered to leave. With memories still fresh of a lethal storm exactly five years earlier, when mud and boulders sliding down from the mountains devastated areas of the town close to the creek and killed 23 people, it was perhaps understandable that locals had other things on their mind.

“I got a call from a reporter in England,” the owner of Montecito’s Tecolote bookshop, Mary Sheldon, recalled. “He asked me how many books we’d sold, and I said, ‘None – zero. We’re under evacuation.’”

More than a week later, the rain has stopped, the risk of mudslides has abated, but sales are still far from robust. Sheldon said she’d sold about 30 copies, with a few more reserved for customers who’d promised to fetch them in person. Even in a town that refuses to fuss over its many celebrity residents, the lack of buzz over a book that is flying off the shelves and dominating conversation just about everywhere else on the planet is remarkable.

Asked for her own thoughts on Spare, Sheldon said, simply: “It’s a book.”

And its celebrated local author? “He took time to gather his thoughts and wanted to publish it,” she observed, “so I am here to sell it.”

Sheldon was equally unmoved by the controversies surrounding the memoir. “I think most people up here think of it as a soap opera,” she remarked.

Spare’s underwhelming performance in Montecito, a town of 10,000 mostly well-read residents, is not necessarily a rebuke of the royal couple. It conforms, rather, to the unspoken code of silence that the town maintains around its celebrity residents, who also include Oprah Winfrey, Ellen DeGeneres, Gwyneth Paltrow and the power couple Katy Perry and Orlando Bloom.

What they and Montecito’s other well-heeled residents prize most about the place is its privacy.

Its sprawling estates, including the Riven Rock property where Harry and Meghan live, are hidden behind walls and two-storey-high hedgerows that keep the paparazzi out while still preserving picture-book ocean views.

Even in the more public areas of town – the rows of village shops and restaurants – the imperative is to leave everyone be regardless of who they are. The person standing in line at the Pierre Lafond cafe or quaffing a pint at the Plow & Angel pub could be a retired Fortune 500 chief executive, a Texas oil baron visiting his second home or the dissolute scion of a storied Scottish clan, but nobody will say a word about it.

“It’s a perfect place to live under the radar,” said Kelly Mahan Herrick, a real estate agent specialising in luxury properties.

Press the locals about Harry and Meghan and they will respond with platitudes, if they respond at all. “They’re mostly out walking their dog,” was as much as one neighbour would offer and still did not want to be identified by name. “They’re very quiet, lovely people.”

Scratch the surface a little and you might find out a little more. Locals say that Meghan has been spotted shopping at the Wendy Foster boutique, and the couple recently spent a night with friends at the Santa Barbara Bowl, an outdoor amphitheatre, to see Jack Johnson.

The president of the Montecito Trails Foundation, Ashlee Mayfield, said one of her board members bumped into Harry in the mountains recently and the prince helped him move a tree that had fallen on to the trail. “I think he really wants to be a normal guy in town,” Mayfield said.

Mayfield said she wasn’t surprised that most residents preferred to keep quiet about the Sussexes and argued that the extreme weather of the past few years has only reinforced local resistance to the celebrity publicity machine that many come to Montecito to escape, however temporarily. “Life up here isn’t all about gates and money and celebrity,” Mayfield said. “There is a mutual respect and consideration because of what can happen and what we have lived through as a community.”

Les Firestein, a former Hollywood comedy writer turned local magazine editor, said many residents think of the royal family’s feuding as a remote curiosity, and having Harry and Meghan in their midst has done nothing to change that.

“For most Montecitans, if not most Americans, royal watching is like bangers and mash – it’s something we’ve heard of but isn’t really our culture,” Firestein said. “We don’t really notice Harry and Meghan, though sometimes the locals get rankled by the British tabloids trying to get to them.”

The one person willing to discuss the book in detail was a British expatriate, Richard Mineards, who writes a gossip column for a local newspaper. His take after reading Spare from cover to cover?

“I think the whole thing is reprehensible,” he said, sounding a lot like the British tabloid newspapers he used to work for. “It is doing enormous harm not only to the royal family but to his own family, he and his wife… If he really does want to reconcile with his family in due course, why does he keep throwing bombs at them?”

It’s a poignant question. But if Harry and Meghan’s goal is to live a quiet life, maybe they’re just fine where they are in Montecito. Like many who end up here, they may never feel the need to go anywhere else at all.


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