59 of 62 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The West End Front
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...
Published on 2 Nov 2011 by Amanda Jenkinson
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 9 months ago by africa
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5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Too much confusing detail left me feeling disappointed,
This review is from: The West End Front: The Wartime Secrets of London's Grand Hotels (Hardcover)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. I gave it some thought on (thankful!) completion and came up with two reasons why: Firstly, there were too many characters within the anecdotes and it became both confusing and made the narrative unwieldly. Some of the stories were really interesting but I lost track of who said what to whom, who did what, who was related to whom and who the hangers-on were. The pages were too crowded with people; too much crammed in. I found it an ordeal rather than the satisfying read I had looked forward to. The second issue that I had was that the author kept inserting his own interest/likes into the text (sorry -just give me the facts not your opinions) and also tried to anchor the text to the present. I found this irritating - I really do not want to know about Andrew Gilligan and David Kelly - it I did, I'd buy a book about them.
Overall very disappointed - the cosy read turned out to be an obstacle course!
2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Well researched gossip,
This review is from: The West End Front: The Wartime Secrets of London's Grand Hotels (Hardcover)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 kept way from prostitutes, the mad king who kills his servant by trying to shoot a cigarette out of his mouth, eats rats and puts broken glass all over school playground.
One of our book group members, a publisher no less, praised its good muse of language whilst another said that it was boring unless you like gossip. Our resident curmudgeon liked it. That's only the thirds book he has enjoyed during the past five years. He read it during his lunch breaks at work - it was `like meeting a friend for lunch.'
The book begins with a lyrical description of the evening before World War was declared: newspapers carry normal news, cafes opened late in Soho, London's West End was brighter that night than it would be for a decade, there was an advert. for a TV set which is doomed to go dark the following lunchtime, as history clicks back to 1914.
One of the most graphic descriptions is of a smoke from a factory fire after it was bombed - rum and sugar make for some colour.
Despite Somerset Maugham predicting that social class divisions would end as a result of the war, the only change for hotels was the end of the top hat and frock coat. They would rather have real aristocracy who couldn't pay than nouveau riche who could. Dowager duchesses are two a penny. `Some are born to be served, others to serve.' Staff worked long hours with no payment other than tips until the tronc system was introduced, in which tips are collected and later shared out between all staff.
Hotels aren't home. They are sometimes used for things you wouldn't dare do at home and also, sadly, for suicides who will be discovered by the staff the next day and for illegal abortions
Hotels supported subcultures: aristocrats, journalists, actors, criminals, spies, homosexuals. Like the Windmill Theatre, they never closed during the war. Hitler can't disrupt cocktail hour. You could pretend there wasn't a war going on. Owing to sound insulation a band played all clear.
There are some things that war did not change. Bureaucrats ordered more burial forms for the stationery cupboards, and bribing the police with gifts to its charity was already happening.
Homosexuals were subject to entrapment as if the police had no real crimes to solve. The rich got acquitted by character references, though their gifts to poorer men were used as court exhibits. The BBC was a haven for discharged gays (not, as Oswald Mosley claimed, for Jews.) There were more court martials for homosexuals than for anything else, though the Navy more tolerant that army (and many gay men chose navy because they looked good in blue.) The Dilly meat rack was there all that time ago and men who liked cottaging or simple had a prostate problem bewailed the closure of gents' toilets. Homosexuality was a leveller of social class. It was accepted by working and upper classes but not the `ugly middle classes. Now, it is almost compulsory to be middle class, though `take a local boy to your bed but never, never to the table'. One Roman Catholic, because divorce was forbidden, still lived with his wife although he was in love with his butler.
I have discovered the origin of by earliest sense of injustice. Public schoolboys had to eat all sweets on the day of purchase. A stash could lead to expulsion. When I was hospitalised at age eight, my mother brought me some sweets. The nurses took them away and shared them with all the other kids on the ward. So that's why people call the NHS an experiment in socialism.
2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars WEST END FRONT,
This review is from: The West End Front: The Wartime Secrets of London's Grand Hotels (Hardcover)Fascinating read, informative and entertaining. Quite astonishing the way the super rich lived in London smart hotels during the war. Certainly no rationing for them,where did all this food come from? Having lived through the
war I can appreciate the differnce between us and them.
Full of interesting characters, some being real villains.
The staff in these hotels being mostly Italian suffered considerably from ignorance, not helped by the rather silly attitude of Winston Churchill
2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An interestingly different WW2 book,
This review is from: The West End Front: The Wartime Secrets of London's Grand Hotels (Hardcover)I was attracted to this book following it's serialisation on BBC Radio 4. Such a very interesting account of London Hotel life in the dark days of WW2! I needed an extra Christmas present for my son. This book provided me with an easy choice.
4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars a book wellworth reading,
This review is from: The West End Front: The Wartime Secrets of London's Grand Hotels (Hardcover)For those who never remember the last war in
London,or those that do...this is a great read and witty.
What went on in the Bars and Basements of the great hotels
is a world apart!
1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Not so quite on West End Front,
This review is from: The West End Front: The Wartime Secrets of London's Grand Hotels (Hardcover)Not a book I would have picked up myself but a well received Christmas present. This book challenges our cosy view of the wartime home life with quotations of all being in it together and rationing affecting all of the population. The very rich seemed to get away with it yet again. Little evidence of severer hardships for people staying in London's top hotel. The book was less about the experience of the institutions themselves more about the people who where tied up with them during the war. Be that staff or guest. The level of detail in the research was astounding and you really got a lot of detail about people and their lives. The same peacetime mix of sex, money, power, tragedy and intrigue. How our lives of moved on , all for the better, at least we do not leave young women to die from botched abortions in hotel beds or lock people up for where they put their willies.
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting,
This review is from: The West End Front: The Wartime Secrets of London's Grand Hotels (Hardcover)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 last 20 years. However it is somewhat muddled and often difficult to follow and some of the incidents and stories purported as factual are in fact anecdotal therefore one must view the content with some scepticism.As lomg as you treat the book as more of an entertainment than truly factual it is a reasonably harmless effort.
1 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Hanky Pank in the top London Hotels,
This review is from: The West End Front: The Wartime Secrets of London's Grand Hotels (Hardcover)This book is fascinating. During the Second World War, all sorts of dicey people, some well-known, were living it up in the Ritz, The Savoy and Claridges. This book tells all the riveting stories.
2 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A muddled book,
This review is from: The West End Front: The Wartime Secrets of London's Grand Hotels (Hardcover)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. However, the author thus comes over as not really knowing where he wants to be, and never gets down to the detail needed satisfactorily to explore the issues he raises.
That said, it covers some of the ground travelled by The Many Not the Few: The Stolen History of the Battle of Britain, contradicting events which I have rehearsed relating to the brief occupation of the Savoy by protestors on 14 September 1940, led by Communist councillor Phil Piratin.
Initially, I thought that the treatment of this event was worth only a brief comment, as the original information comes not directly from the book but from two reviews, one in The Daily Mail and the other in the Spectator. Futher investigation, however, suggested otherwise, as the book has more depth than their rather lightweight reviews would suggest.
The reviews, in fact, do Sweet no favours. Having read them, I was quite prepared to savage his work, as the accounts - which are apparently based on the book - are on the face of it fundamentally wrong. They both imply, without the qualifications that Sweet offers, that the Savoy protestors were allowed to stay overnight at the hotel. This does not accord with anything I found about the incident.
According to all the records I studied, however, they enjoyed tea and slices of bread and butter, in the basement, departing when the "all clear" sounded after what was a very short raid.
This may be a very small detail, but it is on such discrepancies that new discoveries often turn, and they have value in aiding an assessment of those who depart from the received accounts. In this case, it turns out that Sweet's discussion on this particular issue is quite interesting as he introduces elements of contention in a small but important way.
For his contentious view, Matthew Sweet relies on an interview with Max Levitas then a nonagenarian. The date of the interview isn't specified in the text but Levitas died in 2001 - ten years before the book was published. And upon the evidence of this one man, contemporary records can be challenged.
What is interesting here is the excessive reliance on oral evidence and the effect of "prestige". Sweet lists, evidently with great pride the high and the mighty he himself has interviewed, and is thus prepared to elevate his "oral history" over and above the written account. His "prestige" as an author, and that of his subjects, are then deemed sufficient to authenticate the material. Verifiable fact seems no longer the dominant requirement.
This is then linked with the "I was there syndrome", where eye-witness accounts are given preference over researched, documented accounts. This is despite the known falibility of eye-witnesses, especially when they are offering recollections made some time after the event. Thus, because Levitas was "there", his account is given great prominence, even though it is offered sixty years after the event.
To be fair, though, it is his reviewers who seem to elevate the Levitas interview to the status of fact, because Sweet does rely for some of his detail on other witnesses, and accounts, including the principle witness in the Savoy affair, Phil Piratin. Piratin writes of the event at length in his book Our Flag Stays Red, published in 1948, the year I was born. Clearly, of the events in 1940, he was also there - I was not even born.
Yet, in recalling other events of that period, the eye-witness is wrong. Three days after the Savoy incident (which would be on 17 September), Piratin tells us that "preparations were made to break open the gates of the Tubes which the police were closing immediately after the air-raid siren had sounded", which is fair enough, and he then continues:
At a number of stations, these actions were taken. Various implements such as crowbars happened to be available, and while the police stood on duty guarding the gates, they were very quickly swept aside by the crowds, the crowbars brought into action, and the people went down. That night tens of thousands sprawled on the Tube platforms.
Of the storming of the tube gates, there is no independent corroboration but, if we let that pass, our eye-witness then claims: "The next day (this would be the 18 September) Mr Herbert Morrison, solemn as an owl, rose to make his world-shattering announcement; the Government had reconsidered its opinion in the matter of the Tubes being used as shelters. From now onwards, they would be so employed".
There is, of course, is the lacuna. Herbert Morrison was not in any way involved. At the time, he was minister of supply and was not appointed Home Secretary until 3 October. He could not and did not make such an announcement. In fact, no such announcement was made. The timeline was much more convoluted.
As an aside, Sweet claims that the Savoy event was the biggest demonstration of the period, yet there is good evidence of the tube station under construction at Bethnal Green being stormed on 9 September by 5,000 people. This is entered in the Metropolitan Police War Diary for 10 September.
Only after that do we have the lesser event of the occupation of the Savoy on Saturday 14 September. Then, crucially, we have a War Cabinet meeting on the Monday - that is the 16th.
Sweet refers to this meeting, but he puts it on Tuesday the 17th, a significant error as Churchill takes the first available opportunity to raise it in cabinet, indicative of the importance he is giving the issue. Incidentally, the minute confirms the prime minister learned of the event from the press. The official Met Police war diary is silent on this event.
What we then see is very far from a conciliatory response. Churchill effectively instructs Home Secretary John Anderson "to take strong action to prevent demonstrations of this kind", a phrase which Sweet interpets as a eupemism for state violence.
Despite this, Sweet seems to allow Piratin and his Stepney Communist to take credit for forcing a change of shelter policy, ignoring his own reseach which demonstrates that the only Cabinet response to their activities was to agree on what amounted to state violence to prevent further demonstrations.
Thus, this is where the book starts to go badly wrong. While Sweet has Churchill talking about shelters in Cabinet on the 17th, his is in fact addressing the Commons on the war situation, when he makes no mention of the shelter issue. The day after that, the day when Piratin records the cave-in supposedly by Morrison, the Daily Mail has a leading article recalling that Sir John Anderson had rejected deep shelters, going on to say that:
The fact is that the people themselves have adopted a deep shelter policy turning the Underground railway stations into shelters, which is officially prohibited. Once the people are in, however, they cannot be ejected.
In what was remarkably candid criticism, the paper then concludes: "Experience is proving that the policy of Sir John Anderson was mistaken. It is not too late for him to reverse his policy and provide the deep shelters that are urgently needed".
However, on this day, 18 September, a remarkable event occurs. We see in the Metropolitan Police War Diary the brief hand-written note, under the heading: "Tube Stations as Shelters". It states: "Comms [The Police Commissioner] issued instructions that Tube Stations are to be policed to prevent crowds seeking shelter from inconveniencing the travelling pubic".
Bland though this phrasing is, it actually healds a major change in police policy. From one of prohibition, with the police barring entry to the tube stations and moving people on if they sought shelter, the policy was now one of official tolerance, allowing people in as longs as they did not obstruct travellers.
But it is the next day which shows this to be a bottom-up policy change. Anderson is in the Commons complaining that people are being misled into believing the Tubes were safer. There is no announcement of a change in policy and, in the evening, William Mabane, Anderson's parliamentary secretary, broadcast on the BBC, urging the public not to leave their Anderson shelters for public shelters, saying it deprived others of shelter.
Nothing of this acutally graces Sweet's book, and he has by now abandoned the shelter narrative. Thus he misses the crucial fact that the offiicial policy changed on 21 September. And only then does Churchill finally intervene, sending an "action this day" minute to his permanent secretary, Sir Edward Bridges, asking for a "short report on one sheet of paper" on details of changes necessary to make the Underground system more accessible.
That evening, John (soon to be Lord) Reith, then transport minister, wrote in his diary of a "Silly 'action this day' memo from the PM about Tubes". And "silly" it was. The prime minister was days behind the curve. The changes were already being made.
Then, on 24 September, Mabane - who only days before had been appealing to people to keep out of the tubes, admitted to the Guardian that the shelter policy had "been been guided largely by the conduct of the people in London".
He says that although the London Passenger Transport system must be carried on, the fact that people had been using the Tube stations had now been "recognised".
Eight years later, Piratin in his book crows that the government "... had been forced by the resolute action of the people of London which they had been powerless to prevent". He is right there, even if he is wrong on the detail. Sweet conveys a distorted impression, allowing far too much credit to the Communists, while the key player himself awards the accolade to the people of London.
What does helpfully emerge from Sweet, though, are some more indications as to why the story got so distorted. In my narrative, Morrison is cast as a hero of sorts, the man who actually got a grip of shelter policy, and who then made provision for deep shelters.
For the Conservatives, Labour more than the Communists were the electoral threat and praise for Communists at the expense of Morrison could only be advantageous to the Tory cause. Focusing the issue on Morrison also took Anderson and Churchill out of the frame. Overall, a Communist vicotry over Labour was far more appealing than people versus Churchill, with the people coming out on top.
Had Sweet focused on the issues, instead of trying to create what was actually an artefact - the West End Front - he could perhaps have come to those conclusions. His research is more thorough than many and there is some genuinely new material in his book, which does add to our knowledge.
The muddle, unfortunately, took over, and not knowing what he wanted from the book, Sweet omitted much and perhaps achieved less than was intended. Yet, for all its limitations, the book is worth reading. What it does add is worth having.
0 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Could have been better,
This review is from: The West End Front: The Wartime Secrets of London's Grand Hotels (Hardcover)This could have been so much better. The author has a annoyingly smug writing style, and wanders off down tangent boulevard on many occasions. A few good elements but not enough focus.
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The West End Front: The Wartime Secrets of London's Grand Hotels by Matthew Sweet (Hardcover - 3 Nov 2011)