The wartime secrets of London’s grand hotels – I quite liked the sound of this book but wasn’t entirely sure so cheekily asked Faber if I could have a copy. Very nicely they said yes which turned out to be a splendid thing for me because it’s easily one of the most enjoyable books of the year (which has also just been read out on radio 4 where it’s probably just still available via iplayer) which feels like a fitting reward for stepping outside of my fiction comfort zone.
‘The West End Front’ is broken down into ten chapters covering Aliens (the foreign national sort as opposed to any other sort of visitors) Reds, Players, Brigades, Cons, Parents, Subterraneans, Traitors, Majesties, and Strikers. The brilliance of the book is that each chapter concentrates on a couple of key characters whose individual stories are both very personal yet likely to be the same for countless others throughout the war.
As a nation it seems we’ve got into the habit of seeing the War as it is in period films – stiff upper lips whilst everyone stays calms and carries on, possibly whilst making do and mending or digging for victory. It’s easy to celebrate the best that was bought out in us, easy to ignore the less admirable elements of the national character which is why a book like this is timely. For my generation all our grandparents had fought in the war, and our parents had very likely grown up in it or its immediate aftermath so it’s something of a shock (not a very pleasant one) to realise that this is all on the edge of living memory now. Sweet has done an excellent job of illuminating some of the things we might otherwise collectively forget.
The hotel and restaurant trade has always been cosmopolitan and therefore its employees were particularly vulnerable under the internment act – all those Italians and German waiters (and anyone else suspected of being the wrong sort of foreign or having the wrong sort of politics), porters, kitchen staff – hundreds of them carted off to prison camps regardless whilst the authorities took their time deciding what to do with them. It should probably be a cause for shame but I don’t think it’s much talked about.
The chapter on reds is an opportunity to redress the idea that all were equal under the blitz regardless of social status. Not true it seems. If you could afford to stay in the Savoy (for example) you had access to comfortable bomb proof quarters and plentiful food when the sirens went off. If you lived in the east end in 1940 you didn’t – this was before the underground was opened up for shelters. The Communists didn’t believe it was very fair and marched on the Savoy one night, when the air raids started the hotel was obliged to shelter them which it seems failed to delight its more affluent customers.
I think though the most moving chapter in the book is ‘Parents’ it basically tells the story of Mary Pickwoad, a fairly ordinary young woman who had an affair with a married man. She was careless enough to find herself pregnant, fell into the hands of an eminent but unqualified plastic surgeon/abortionist, and finally bled to death in room 365 of the Mount Royal Hotel. It seems she was all but expunged from her family history – not quite a secret, but not much more than a veiled threat of what happened to girls who didn’t behave themselves. Sweet tells Mary’s story with compassion; it’s undoubtedly a tragedy – and the worst thing about it, it was by no means an isolated incident.
It’s an excellent book, full of gossip and scandal but never losing sight of the points it wants to make. Sweet’s style is conversational and snappy; his research impeccable – the result is a readable and timely reminder that the truth is far more complex and fascinating than our cleaned up film version of the past so often is.