West End Front,The Hardcover – Nov 29 2011
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About the Author
Matthew Sweet presents Night Waves and Freethinking on BBC Radio 3, and is the summer presenter of The Film Programme on Radio Four. He is the author of Inventing the Victorians and Shepperton Babylon, which he adapted as a film for BBC Four. His TV programmes include Silent Britain, A Brief History of Fun, The Age of Excess, Truly, Madly, Cheaply and The Rules of Film Noir.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
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.
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.
During the early stages of the war and the blitz activities were very quiet but eventually changed to a frenetic times with the oddities of life emerging eg.spies,royals,conmen,traitors and all forms of high and lowlife.
The author describes all in interesting detail mostly feom eye witnesses.
A first class book.