The West End Front: The Wartime Secrets of London's Grand Hotels Hardcover – 3 Nov 2011
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'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
In The West End Front, Matthew Sweet draws a sumptuous, witty and eye-opening history of the Ritz, the Savoy, the Dorchester and Claridge's - and the eccentrics, stars, aristocrats and criminals living in London's grand hotels during the Blitz.See all Product description
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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. London's hotels were a locus of resentment, with the privilege of safe underground shelters and good food being available to the few and not the many.
Many of the stories are sad - girls who died of botched abortions, for example. Many are funny - one lady who was interrogated as a possible Nazi spy had such a filthy mind and language that interrogators failed to report on much of her conversation, describing it as having such a "filthy nature" that it was unrepeatable! Overall, this is a very entertaining and interesting account of London during the war. Not the typical war stories, but of the characters which made up a more decadent section of Society, where socialites defied Hitler by 'lunching for England' and the wealthy clung to their privileged world against all the odds. Lastly, I read the kindle edition of this book and the illustrations were included.
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
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.
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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