Matthew Sweet: The West End Front

My ‘experience’ of the London’s grant hotels during the war has been restricted to images of the American war correspondents haunting the Dorchester during the Blitz but Matthew Sweet shows that that the Ritz, the Savoy, Claridges, the Dorchester and others of their ilk played host to many more interesting characters and stories. We read of those who (in perhaps my favourite passage):

presented the maintenance of their pre-war social lives as a form of war-work: they lunched for England, eating modestly in grand restaurants and tolerating the smallness of the omelettes to demonstrate that Hitler was too impotent a force to disrupt the social rituals of the West End.

But, as a serious counterpoint, we also read, for instance, of the sad life of the Yugoslav prince born at Claridges, in a suite declared Yugoslav territory for one night; we discover the tragic life and death of a woman who suffered the consequences of an ill-advised liaison; and we smile at the Savoy’s involvement in ‘the kitchen front’.

This is best sort of social history; Matthew Sweet has done the research. He has interviewed those who were there, trawled through recently declassified government files and previously unpublished letters, read the memoirs and dug up photographs. He reconstructs a lost world and makes it accessible through an easily readable style and witty (and wicked) turn of phrase. Every page reveals something previously hidden and there is much to delight in this thoroughly entertaining account of the staff, reds, royalties, traitors and others who took up residency, or politely worked in the background.

A note of warning. The cover, subtitle—The Wartime Secrets of London’s Grand Hotels—and the back cover blurb—‘A gloriously witty, scandalous and eye-opening history of the aristocrats, spies, criminals and staff...’—give the impression that this is a light-hearted and light-on account of London’s great hotels during the Second World War. Don’t be mislead and put off. The West End Front is witty and there is plenty of scandal but, ultimately, it is a serious account of many unknown incidents of London’s grander home front.

Cover: 
Faber & Faber December 2011, hard cover dust wrapper. 362pp, b&w plates