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West End Front, The [Hardcover]

M Sweet

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Book Description

Nov. 29 2011
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the memories of first-hand witnesses, the contents of newly declassified government files and a wealth of previously unpublished letters, memoirs and photographs, he has reconstructed a lost world of scandal, intrigue and fortitude.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Faber And Faber Ltd. (Nov. 29 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0571234771
  • ISBN-13: 978-0571234776
  • Product Dimensions: 16.2 x 24.3 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 599 g
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #368,332 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description

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.

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Customer Reviews

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Amazon.com: 4.4 out of 5 stars  5 reviews
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Well researched gossip Feb. 24 2012
By Mr. D. P. Jay - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
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.
5.0 out of 5 stars Great book for the Anglophile. Dec 30 2013
By Linda H. Francis - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This book was on my sister's holiday hint list. She was most pleased and excited to get it and is almost finished reading it.
5.0 out of 5 stars It's nice to have money, even if it's ill gotten! March 7 2013
By Rudi Franke - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
An astonishing look into the occupants at some of the posh hotels in London during the war years. A bit fragmented as it discusses a number of anecdotal situations but most of it very amusing. I especially liked to lengthy coverage of the beautiful nymphomaniac/spy whom I looked up on my iPad where I found a few photos of her. To fully comprehend the text you have to have been born and living in London to understand the colloquialisms used. There were a lot of royals and other shady characters hiding out under luxurious conditions in London, read up on these goings-on, don't miss out on the fun!
3.0 out of 5 stars Well-researched, but slightly disappointing Oct. 12 2012
By Dr. Laurence Raw - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
With a combination of interviews, meticulous research and informed speculation, Matthew Sweet recreates the atmosphere prevailing in London's grand hotels during World War Two. The stereotype of Londoners bonding together during the Blitz is exploded; Sweet shows that high society often isolated itself from the hoi-polloi. Ultimately, however, the book becomes slightly repetitive; it seems that everyone was engaged in similarly nefarious actions, prompted by self-interest rather than the desire to serve the community.
5.0 out of 5 stars West End Front April 11 2012
By S Riaz - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition
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 careful 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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