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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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TOP 50 REVIEWERon 17 November 2011
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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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. 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.
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on 5 April 2012
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!
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on 30 July 2013
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.
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on 21 December 2011
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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on 24 February 2012
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.
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on 21 February 2016
A country under seige; a capital enduring almost nightly blitz. Armed service or civilian were in this total war together & with nothing certain for tomorrow, morals were the least of troubles.
A fascinating cast of exotic characters inhabit London's battered streets ___ you couldn't make it up. You will not want to put this book down either.
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on 10 January 2012
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
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on 21 December 2011
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!
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