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West End Front by Matthew Sweet

West End Front (edition 2012)

by Matthew Sweet

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575207,436 (3.54)2
Title:West End Front
Authors:Matthew Sweet
Info:Faber & Faber (2012), Paperback, 400 pages
Collections:Your library
Tags:non-fiction, history

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The West End Front: The Wartime Secrets of London's Grand Hotels by Matthew Sweet



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Showing 5 of 5
Ultimately a really enjoyable book. Incorrigibly gossipy and with plenty of name-dropping, it manages to reveal a real heart in places. In between the campy goings-on of the habitués of the Ritz, the Dorchester, the Savoy and Claridges while Lutfawaffe bombs were falling all around, it has real, frequently tragic stories about ordinary people whose lives intersected with the hotels. Most moving is the chapter on Mary Pickwoad, a young woman who died in Room 365 of the Ritz after a botched abortion. Both her married lover and the abortionist got off more or less scot-free. There is also Stella Lonsdale, who was either a master spy or one of the biggest liars of WWII. She played off both Mi5 and the Abwehr, and to this day no-one is sure who she was actually spying for. A nice little chapter details the secret society of the hotels' gay clientele, at a time when not only was homosexuality illegal, but the police were hunting them with vigour. On the whole, if you can get past the gossip column fodder, this is a worthwhile piece of social history. ( )
  drmaf | May 8, 2017 |
This is the sort of book you give to that person who has 'everything' at Christmas. It is pretty much boring, all about how the rich survived during the war, and they survived very well indeed visiting hotels, nightclubs and restaurants and being kowtowed to as they always had been by staff who went home to lives made miserable and hard with the shortages of war.

So why is this an ideal present? Because when it isn't pissing you off it's boring. So it isn't going to sell well and will be on the remainder list by November. Then you'll be able to get a nice, shiny, impressive-looking hardback for just a couple of quid to give to that person who has everything. And he* will no doubt identify with the patrons rather than the staff in the book and will think what a great gift you chose. Women never have everything. There's always chocolates, can't have too many of them, or bags, perfume, love toys, silky undies, you know...

However, I don't blame the author for this rather milk-and-water book, I think he chose the wrong subject and his other books might be a great deal better.

2.5 stars - it was ok, but didn't have any enthralling or unputdownable moments. I rounded it up to 3 stars because there was a certain amount of fascination with the way people coddle and cocoon the rich and pretend they really are a higher form of life think: film stars, vapid heiresses, footballers and WAGS and those leftovers of another era, the aristocracy in order to part them from their money. And just how the rich swallow all this arse-licking guffery and believe they really are a higher form of life and it behooves them to be generous with their largesse. Actually they really do know that they only get treated like that because of their money, but if they admitted that, even to themselves, they'd have to let go of the notion they are somehow special, so they don't. ( )
  Petra.Xs | Apr 2, 2013 |
What makes a hotel grand? It takes more than a name, it takes location; being situated near theatres, decent restaurants and the better class of knocking shop. It takes service, specifically being as vile to the hotel staff as you are to the servants at home. It also takes a certain type of guest; rich, famous, important, titled or, best of all, all of the above. If the hotel has played a key part in at least three society scandals and has been the refuge of an exiled monarch, it's probably grand. If the phrase 'handy for the motorway' appears anywhere on its web site, it's probably not.

Key to whether or not a hotel is grand is if the interior matches the facade. If you walk into an impressive building and a lobby with ankle deep carpet, hot and cold running flunkies, and so much shining brass and marble on display that this is where the makers of dictionaries come to gain inspiration for defining the word 'gleam', it's probably grand.

The content of 'West End Front' does not quite live up to the facade. This should be a terrific book, it is supposed to be about grand hotels populated by the fabulous and the desperate at a time when the world has been turned upside down and London is the capital city of a nation fighting a desperate battle for its very survival. All this and room service too, what could possibly go wrong?

What goes right is the insight into the way that grand hotels operated, tales of excess and the changes, and lack of change, that the war brought. There's essential stuff here about the hotels at war, how bars and dance floors were relocated to basements, and how the internment of foreigners affected the staff numbers.

The chapters of the book follow different slices of London wartime society, just as different tribes were attracted to different hotels. Cabinet Ministers favoured one, the intelligence services another, dispossessed European monarchy gathered in yet another and criminals, con men and chancers...actually, they mainly used the railway hotels.

There is tragedy here too. Anyone who has spent any time in a hotel will know never to think about the history of their room and that behind every door lurks a potential dark deed. Here, some of them are as dark as the blackout, truly harrowing stories of abortionists plying their lethal trade in a country where desperate times changed behaviours.

The book is at its best revealing the little known life of the wartime hotels, like the subterranean bar of one that was a well known haunt of homosexuals, or the repulsive kitchen habits of certain chefs.

But the battle against the nazis is not the only war being fought. The grand hotels were on the front line of the class war and it is here that the book falters. It is quite appropriate to write a counterpoint to the mythology of 'finest hour', but one occasionally senses an uncomfortable relish in the way it is done here, which is a shame.

If you are going to describe a class struggle though, hotels are an excellent place to begin as, alongside staff who showed exceptional loyalty to their hotel and guests, you have the ruling class and the the hard working class in the same rooms but worlds apart. And there is some truly excellent stuff here about the class divide in London where, surprise surprise, the rich got better air-raid shelters than the poor and generally had a better time of it, and about how the hotels exploited the staff.

This is a fascinating subject. Spies and servicemen, waiters and warriors, monarchs and communists, they all came and stayed briefly, adding to the mythology of the blitz and the continuing stories of the grand hotels. West End Front gives a glimpse into that world, but it is fleeting and one is left wanting more, more stories, more characters, more light in the dark corners. Surely there has to be more? So where are the other stories? Perhaps, in the end, the book it is a victim of that other essential attribute of a grand hotel - discretion. ( )
  macnabbs | Mar 28, 2013 |
Lots of information here about spies, British secret agents, prostitution and colourful characters in the London of World War 2. It's a great story, well told. ( )
  MaggieCraig | Jan 25, 2013 |
While the majority of Londoners were struggling with food rationing and stuck in bomb shelters with their neighbours during WW2, the basements of London's five star hotels were full of food, music, glamour, exiled royalty and parties. This book presents the story of the elite who had a very different war compared with the average person.

The book jumps about a lot, there are a lot of names and sometimes it's hard to follow which hotel or which person is being discussed. The better chapters are the ones which focus on the story of an individual, this includes a chapter about notable spies and one about King Zog. ( )
1 vote lettice | Jan 1, 2013 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0571234771, Hardcover)

The Ritz, the Savoy, the Dorchester and Claridge's - during the Second World War they teemed with spies, con-artists, deposed royals and the exiled governments of Europe. Meet the girl from MI5 who had the gravy browning licked from her legs by Dylan Thomas; the barman who was appointed the keeper of Churchill's private bottle of whisky; the East End Communist who marched with his comrades into the air-raid shelter of the Savoy; and, the throneless prince born in a suite at Claridge's declared Yugoslav territory for one night only. Matthew Sweet has interviewed them all for this account of the extraordinary events that unfolded under the reinforced ceilings of London's grand hotels. Using the memories of first-hand witnesses, the contents of newly declassified government files and a wealth of previously unpublished letters, memoirs and photographs, he has reconstructed a lost world of scandal, intrigue and fortitude.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:14:35 -0400)

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The Ritz, the Savoy, the Dorchester and Claridge's - during the Second World War they teemed with spies, con-artists, deposed royals and the exiled governments of Europe.

(summary from another edition)

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