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The West End Front: The Wartime Secrets of London's Grand Hotels [Paperback]

Matthew Sweet
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (22 customer reviews)
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Book Description

7 Jun 2012

Spies: Meet Marie-Jacqueline Lancaster, the woman from M15 who has the gravy browning licked from her legs by Dylan Thomas.

Royals: Meet Crown Prince Alexander of Yugoslavia, born in a suite at Claridge's that was declared Yugoslav territory for the night.

Players: Meet Joyce Stone, whose husband leads the band at the Dorchester, keeping dancers foxtrotting even as the shudders of bombardments penetrate the sound-proofed walls of the hotel.

West End Front is a witty and eye-opening account of the extraordinary events that unfolded under the reinforced ceilings of London's grand hotels.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Faber & Faber (7 Jun 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 057123478X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0571234783
  • Product Dimensions: 19.6 x 12.6 x 2.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (22 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 120,277 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Matthew Sweet is a writer and broadcaster with a doctorate in Wilkie Collins. He presents Night Waves and Free Thinking on BBC Radio 3 and The Philosopher's Arms and The Film Programme on BBC Radio 4.

He is the author of Inventing the Victorians and Shepperton Babylon: The Lost Worlds of British Cinema - which he adapted as a film for BBC Four ("the best documentary I've seen all year" - Daily Telegraph). He's also edited and introduced the work of Wilkie Collins, Arthur Conan Doyle, William Thackeray, George Eliot and Edward Bulwer-Lytton.

His TV films and series include Silent Britain (BBC Four) Checking into History (Channel Four), British Cinema Forever (BBC2) and A Brief History of Fun (Channel Four).

Product Description


'Matthew Sweet's curiosity and sense of fun pulls back the heavy baize curtains on what we thought we knew about the war. As intoxicating as a glass of champagne at the Cafe de Paris.' --Linda Grant

'A scandalously enjoyable account of lives, losses and inconsiderate love-making, 'The West End Front' boasts a visitors' book like no other. From the egregious con man Sir Curtis Lampson to the louche inhabitants of the 'Pink Sink' bar, Fifth columnists, communists, spies, spivs, charlatans and deposed monarchs, they're all here, somehow keeping their crumpets buttered and their dignity intact during the worst excesses of the Ritzkrieg. Delightfully gossipy and often moving, it shines an affectionate search-light on an entirely forgotten chapter of World War Two.' --Mark Gatiss

'Full of wonderful and awful creatures, whose individual lives are rich in fascination.' --Guardian

'It combines fun, glamour and horror with some deeply eccentric behaviour, just what I enjoy myself when on holiday.' --Lucy Worsley, Sunday Telegraph

Book Description

It's the Second World War and the bedrooms, hallways and grillrooms of the Savoy, the Dorchester and Claridge's teem with those who are determined not to allow Hitler to impact on their way of life.

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
60 of 63 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The West End Front 2 Nov 2011
By Amanda Jenkinson TOP 1000 REVIEWER
During World War 2, London's grand hotels, the Ritz, the Savoy, the Dorchester and Claridge's, were home and shelter to an eclectic collection of spies, stars, aristocrats, deposed royals, criminals and politicians, who, behind the walls of these reinforced buildings sought safety, refuge and an arena for their often clandestine activities.
Using interviews with first-hand witnesses, letters, memoirs and newly declassified government papers, Matthew Sweet unveils a fascinating world that few of us know anything about, and he brings alive the intrigue, scandal, tragedy and the simply bizarre that went on behind the discreet doors of these luxury hotels. Like the occasion when a suite at Claridge's was declared Yugoslav territory for just one night so that Crown Prince Alexander could be born on Yugoslav soil - with a little box of earth under the bed.
The enormous amount of research that Matthew Sweet has done is evidenced in the detailed background to every character, incident and anecdote, and sometimes this mass of detail threatens to overwhelm the reader. It is, perhaps, a book to be savoured in bite-size pieces than in one indigestible chunk, but he has nevertheless done a fantastic job in bringing this almost forgotten aspect of war-torn London life onto the page, and I recommend the book to individuals and book groups alike.
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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The West End Front 30 Nov 2011
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
This book looks at the wartime secrets of London's grand hotels, such as the Ritz, the Dorchester and the Waldorf. It begins very well, with Victor Legg, a phone operator at the Ritz eavesdropping on a call to Randolph Churchill informing him that Germans are to bomb Poland that morning. When Legg tries to tell a friend at the BBC about the impending war, he is interrupted by a voice telling him to be carful what he repeats. Legg, who spent half a century working at the Ritz, spends the night in London - the only man outside of the government who knows war is about to be declared.

The author then leads us through many different elements of hotels during wartime. They housed not only those from the government, but deposed royalty, spies, military leaders, governments in exile, writers, artists, musicians, prostitutes and homosexuals. They were a hotbed of suspicion, interrogations, decadence and wealth. Sweet sometimes stretches the link between hotels and characters too far, in order to unravel an interesting story, but overall this is an excellent read.

There is the story of hotel workers, many of whom were Italian, who were arrested and interned, despite being British citizens and working in the UK for over twenty years. Although the original plan had been to distinguish between citzens of enemy countries who were a danger to the British state and those who posed no threat, apparently Churchill decided it was safer to "collar the lot!" One of the most interesting events was when demonstrators invaded the Ritz, asking for shelter - a situation which led the government to open the underground and allow people to have somewhere to go during air raids.
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24 of 27 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating nuggets of WW2 London Life 17 Nov 2011
By uncle barbar TOP 100 REVIEWER
This book has such a great title - with shades of All Quiet on the Western Front, that I feared the text would not live up to it. I was wrong. Sweet has done a fantastic job with research and this does offer something new to the vast cannon of work on the Second World War.

The text revolves around goings-on backstairs in London's big hotels during the Second World War, however it encompasses far more than this since it documents lives of everyday people and their experiences in the most fascinating way.

It's beautifully written. Sometimes Sweet makes you smile. He relates musical comedian Arthur Askey dressed as an Italian waiter opining 'Please forgive the potatoes being so black, it is a mark of respect for our head waiter: he died this morning.'

There are also poignant moments. I was particularly moved to read of the plight of many Italian restaurant workers who, after giving many years of loyal service to British hotel customers, were interned for years on Churchill's say-so simply because they were Italian.

This is a fascinating read for the layperson and academic alike. It would be a welcome addition to the bookshelf of anyone interested in the period since it offers a fascinating social history of the time.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Entertaining read 21 Dec 2011
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
How the priviledged lived during the second world war. Who could blame the hotel staff for going on strike. A worthwhile read as it was not a subject much publicised if you were not close to "the action". Well done Matthew Sweet.
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4.0 out of 5 stars The West End Front 16 Jan 2014
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I think a lot of us are really interested in the happenings during the war years and I found the book fascinating. A very
good read.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Heaps of information 4 Sep 2013
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
We have just read this book in our book group. Everyone found something relevant, whether you were interested in social history, celebs, politics or feminism. Matthew Sweet is clearly obsessed by this period, but then so are plenty of other people these days. Most of us dipped in and out, but I confess to being a bit of an anorak about the subject and read every page.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars War time London
This is a really great book, first heard extracts on the radio, but having the real thing is much better.
Published 10 months ago by andrew monro
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting
This is , as other readers have said , a very interesting book full of anecdotes that I have never heard from any other publication , despite having studied the war years for the... Read more
Published 11 months ago by DavidOrlo,London
5.0 out of 5 stars book full of information
This book is a readers must, bits of information and things we never new about war time London and some of its unusal people.
Published 13 months ago by clivesal
5.0 out of 5 stars interesting war time stories
I enjoyed this book a different angle on the war if walls could talk these great London monements have so much social history all types of situations and people walked through... Read more
Published 14 months ago by cherylfreeth
3.0 out of 5 stars west end front
found it interesting, but felt it could have been really more exciting seeing it was a very much part of london
Published 16 months ago by africa
3.0 out of 5 stars Could have been better
This could have been so much better. The author has a annoyingly smug writing style, and wanders off down tangent boulevard on many occasions. Read more
Published on 2 May 2012 by Steve
2.0 out of 5 stars Too much confusing detail left me feeling disappointed
I really looked forward to, and wanted to like this book, but as I read it, I became increasingly disillusioned with it and started to skip large swathes of it. Read more
Published on 5 April 2012 by Madame Cholet
3.0 out of 5 stars A muddled book
Ostensibly about the role of London's grand hotels during the Blitz, this book - to its credit - actually covers much more gound, creeping into the East End and beyond. Read more
Published on 22 Mar 2012 by Dr. RAE North
4.0 out of 5 stars West End Front
Great book, well worth reading if you are interested in war-time London. Rather too many "hunkered down's" but that may be the writer's favourite phrase.
Published on 2 Mar 2012 by PlanMan
4.0 out of 5 stars Well researched gossip
This is a well-researched work, including oral history from people still alive. It is full of bizarre people like the Yugoslavian prince who liked pop music and who later has to be... Read more
Published on 24 Feb 2012 by Mr. D. P. Jay
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