The West End Front Matthew Sweet

Faber, pp.362, 20

‘It was like a drug, a disease,’ said the legendary Ritz employee Victor Legg of the institution he served for half a century. There’s something magical about London’s grand hotels. Even those of us who usually experience them only when we nip in for a five-star pee know that. Matthew Sweet has tapped this glamour to tell tales of the human dramas the hotels hosted during the second world war.

It’s surely the variety of people gathered together in one place that explains the fascination held by the Ritz, the Savoy, Claridge’s et al. The good, the bad and the clinically barking all share the same address for a night, then tomorrow the cast-list changes. In the old days you didn’t even have to be rich to join in — as Sweet relates, guests sometimes scarpered without paying their bills, and hotels would offer a ‘duchess rate’ to toffs who’d kept their titles but lost their money.

As any sitcom writer will tell you, disparate characters plus close confinement equals golddust, and there’s plenty of comedy in this book. A bandleader at the May Fair rejects requests written on any banknote smaller than a fiver. A guest at the Dorchester mistrusts the ceiling in the Gents during bombing raids, so collects empty wine glasses from the ballroom as an alternative. At the same hotel, whose 1941 New Year’s Eve dinner had a novelty postage-stamp-sized menu, the young waiter Clement Freud banks on no one being able to read it, and ‘forgets’ to supply his table with the caviar course, eating all ten portions himself. Among the possessions of a female spy holed up at the Waldorf is a small wrap of blue paper containing a fine white powder. The authorities send it for analysis. It’s a packet of salt from a bag of Smith’s crisps.

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There are serious tales too. A group of East End activists march on the Savoy and demand to be let in to the hotel’s air raid shelter. Led by Phil Piratin, who could halve an apple with a twist of his hands, they succeed. Tucked up alongside the Duke and Duchess of Kent they get a good night’s sleep under the watchful eye, or rather ear, of the hotel’s ‘snore warden’. Kitchen workers at the Savoy are rounded up and sent to internment camps simply because they’re Italian: ‘wartime Britain was not a democracy’.

If you wanted to be harsh on this book you could say that Sweet spends a little too much time outside the hotels themselves, filling in back stories, painting a picture of the wider society. But then again understanding the different characters who are lumped together requires those back stories, and to get a feel for the hotels’ workers and guests you need to know what sort of country they lived in.

We actually see that country changing during the book. At the Savoy, where waiters were forbidden to wear watches, rings, spectacles or false teeth, a diner clicks his fingers to attract attention. ‘I’m sorry, sir,’ replies the waiter, ‘have you lost your dog?’

One of the most famous elements of the second world war — imminent death leading to widespread and carefree sex — is underlined throughout the book. Everyone’s at it like antique silver knives. Stella Lonsdale (she of the Smith’s crisps) is, according to her MI5 handler, ‘a woman whose loose living would make her an object of shame on any farmyard.’ An air-vent behind the Dorchester is nicknamed ‘the hotplate’ because it warms the local prostitutes known as the Hyde Park Rangers. Douglas Fairbanks Junior, a regular at Claridge’s, knows the fire escape well because of the affair he once conducted with Marlene Dietrich. Meanwhile the basement bar at the Ritz is the best gay pick-up joint in town: ‘the Pink Sink’.

Adding to the pleasure of these tales is Sweet’s knack as a phrase-monger. One businessman is ‘enormous in Malayan rubber’. An army officer has ‘a taste for raw onions, violence and nudity’. A noble lord is ‘a disciple of the blood-drinking occultist Aleister Crowley and widely regarded as one of the worst poets in Britain’. Strange people, strange times. Check yourself in for a good read.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: Book review, London, Non-fiction, Ritz, Wartime, World War 2