Sunday, 13 November 2011

Review: Matthew Sweet, The West End Front

London is the whole world in one city - if it chose to become a country, it would be a rich and powerful one. Within its boundaries, a thousand and one narratives of great political, economic, cultural and social significance are constantly played out.

Matthew Sweet's The West End Front (Faber and Faber 2011) picks up some World War Two narratives the threads of which pass through London's grand hotels - the Savoy, The Ritz, the Dorchester, Claridge's. Each thread provides a chapter heading: Sweet has ten stories about - among others - spies, homosexuals, agitators, con men and women, abortionists and exiles.

It is thoroughly researched, carefully crafted and often moving. Sweet is not an academic, which appears to me increasingly a condition of writing a good book - I kept comparing Sweet favourably with an academic work in the same genre but without a heart: Frank Mort's deadly Capital Affairs which I tried to read a while back.

There is a moving chapter which details the death of just one young woman, Mary Pickwoad, following a botched abortion in a London hotel, the Mount Royal. Sweet has gone after every document which might still exist and every person still alive who might have something to tell about the story. It is a beautiful Memorial.

More shocking and often surprising are the details which show England's class system functioning at all levels, in government, in the military, the police and among the spooks who were denizens of all the big hotels. In the early stages of the war, at least, Hitler was not unambiguously everyone's enemy; Jews and Communists were more menacing enemies for some of Sweet's upper-class and institutionally powerful characters. In my previous Blog, I noted the extraordinary way in which at the beginning of the War, whilst the big hotels had deep bomb-proof shelters, the London Underground was initially closed as a place of refuge from the Blitz. How many of us knew that before, I wonder?

If you like reading about World War Two or about London, this is a very good book to go after

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