Book review: The West End Front: The Wartime Secrets of London’s Grand Hotels

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IF THE BBC ever decides to revive the Hotel Babylon franchise with a Star Wars-style prequel, they’d do well to buy the rights to Matthew Sweet’s gossipy new book

There’s enough scandal here for several years’ worth of amusing scripts.

Anecdotal in format, and laced with clear-eyed observations delivered with a dose of acid wit, this well-researched book is as addictive as a box of chocolates. It’s a history of the home front with a twist, because hotels are not home. Instead, they’re the very places we visit to indulge in behaviour that we dare not exhibit at home. During the Second World War, that included everything from espionage and black market racketeering to illegal abortions and harbouring fugitive heads of state.

During the war, London’s chicest hotels – the Savoy, the Dorchester, Claridges, the Ritz, and their ilk – became more, not less prominent, argues Sweet. “They were the homes of Cabinet ministers and military leaders, plutocrats and aristocrats. Hotel apartments became the retreats of governments-in-exile, diplomatic missions and the deposed monarchies of occupied Europe.”

Before he’s halfway through his introduction, Sweet has revealed that Cesar Ritz and his business partner Georges Auguste Escoffier created Britain’s restaurant culture even as they fleeced their employers, the board of the Savoy, for nearly £20,000, and vast quantities of alcohol, eggs, and cigars.

Sweet reveals that the Elgin Marbles were stored underground in the Piccadilly Line tunnel, having been offered that sanctuary nearly a month before Londoners. He describes how the Dorchester was built to withstand earthquakes, bombs, and fire, and the Savoy had a poultry farm so it didn’t need to serve powdered eggs.

Although the government capped the price of restaurant meals, this didn’t apply to luxury items, so wealthy diners continued to enjoy lobster, caviar, and turtle soup. Cocktail bars moved underground to cater to their elite clientèle, and an active homosexual sub-culture blossomed in these subterranean hideaways.

There are darker tales, as well, including a chilling examination of an internment policy that found hotel workers esteemed as valued retainers one day, and sent to camps the next.

All in all this is beautifully written, intricately detailed, and marvellously quirky throughout.

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