Category Archives: Book reviews

Other people’s books, not mine.

Thieves Fall Out (in Cairo)

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The versatile Gore Vidal wrote 25 novels, two volumes of memoirs, countless essays, plus numerous plays and screenplays, including for the films Ben Hur and Suddenly Last Summer. But he is probably best remembered for simply being Gore Vidal, originator of such fine aphorisms as ‘Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little’ and ‘The four most beautiful words in our common language: “I told you so”’. He also suggested that ‘Any American who is prepared to run for president should automatically by definition be disqualified from ever doing so’ – an idea whose time came and went in 2016. What Gore Vidal certainly will never be remembered for is a book he wrote in 1952 called Thieves Fall Out.

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In the early 1950s, the high-living Vidal found himself short of cash. Still only in his twenties, he had already written several serious novels but they had failed to provide any sort of decent income. So he turned to pulp fiction, knocking out a short novel of two-fisted adventure in the space of a few weeks for a $3,000 paycheque. This was Thieves Fall Out, which was published under the pseudonym of Cameron Kay and was all but ignored by the book-buying public and quickly forgotten until over 60 years later it was rediscovered and republished in the spring of 2015 by an imprint specialising in reviving lost works of pulp crime fiction. There’s good reason this book was out of print for so long: it’s bad. It’s a B-movie take on Casablanca, a tale of a young American drifter who finds himself broke in foreign lands and in order to earn some money becomes entangled with a femme fatale who entices him into a scheme to smuggle a valuable antique necklace out of the country. There’s a piano-playing, brothel-running hunchback named La Mouche and the beautiful daughter of a high-ranking Nazi as the love interest. What it doesn’t have is a topless dancer wielding a wickedly curving dagger as depicted on the cover of the 2015 reprint at the top of this post but, still, you are never quite sure whether it is meant to be a parody or not. But you will understand what makes the book fascinating to me when I tell you that the story’s setting is Egypt and, more specifically for large parts, Shepheard’s hotel.

Vidal spent two or three weeks in Egypt in spring 1948. According to his biographer, Fred Kaplan, the writer stayed at ‘El Mint Hotel’, a modest place out near the Pyramids but spent his days hanging out at Shepheard’s, where he wrote in one of the public rooms, and it shows:

Shepheard’s was a long building, several stories high, with big shuttered windows and a porch on the side street, where, at numerous tables, foreigners and rich Egyptians sat at the end of the day, watching the street and drinking aperitifs; but at this time of day the porch was deserted.

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With a show of confidence, he walked up the steps to the main door, glad to be rid at last of the beggars, who now fell into position against the terrace wall, waiting for American and European victims.

The lobby of the hotel was blissfully cool after the heat outside. Negro servants in hotel livery moved silently about the great room, carrying bags, doing errands for the guests. Though it was out of season, there were still quite a few guests here, he saw to his relief. Help would come from them, though he was not sure how.

He sauntered from the main lobby into a vast room with a high domed ceiling, like the interior of a mosque, much decorated, ornate, Turkish in style. It was cool and mysterious with dark alcoves in which people sat doing business: fat stolid Europeans and lean, red-faced British, exchanging papers, peering at small type, murmuring their deals in low voices.

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At the end of the room, to the left, was the famous bar, a wood-panelled room with an oval-shaped bar at which stood a dozen men in white suits, drinking, their feet resting on the shining brass rail.

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It’s in Shepheard’s bar that the American Pete Wells encounters the shifty Brit who introduces him to the world of antiquities smuggling.

One evening at L’Auberge des Pyramides nightclub Vidal saw King Farouk with a blonde European girl on his arm: ‘Like a mafia don, with dark glasses, he was surrounded by plainclothesmen, also in dark glasses.’ This finds its way into Thieves Fall Out (where Vidal cattily remarks that Farouk ‘looks more like a dentist than a king’), as does Luxor, which Vidal visited, and where he must have stayed at the Karnak hotel on the Corniche because he makes it the setting for a series of encounters in the book.

Vidal was always interested in politics and maybe the most interesting thing about Thieves Fall Out is that it is set against the backdrop of the 1952 Revolution. Like the recently released film The Nile Hilton Incident (which I saw again last week and which is even better on second viewing) the chaos of the revolution swarms around the final scenes of the story.

If you can overlook the clichés – Arabs are reliably ‘swarthy’ and women are prostitutes, double-crossing sirens or nightclub singers in need of rescue – then Thieves Fall Out is a breezy time-travelling trip to a more innocent Cairo, in which waking up to find you’ve been drugged and robbed by the girl you met last night, and deciding to smuggle antiquities to raise money for a ticket home is just all part of the visitor experience.

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Filed under Book reviews, Grand hotels, Lost Egypt, Shepheard's

The Visitors

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A new novel that might be of interest to readers of this site is The Visitors by Sally Beauman. It’s set in Egypt in 1922, where a young English girl has been sent in care of a chaperone to recover from the typhoid that killed her mother. The opening chapters largely play out in the salons and on the terrace of Shepheard’s in Cairo, which is beautifully brought to life. The supporting cast of characters include familiar names such as Howard Carter, Lord Carnarvon, Lady Evelyn Herbert, Arthur Mace, Harry Burton, Pierre Lacau, James Breasted, Arthur Weigall and a host of other real-life people, all of whom were involved in the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun – the event that provides the novel’s dramatic backdrop. Beauman does a good job of putting flesh on the biographical bones of her historical cast and succeeds in bringing the characters to life. How accurate and fair she is, I can’t say – it would take someone better read in Egyptology than me to comment. Her descriptions of Shepheard’s and Winter Palace are generally spot on though, right down to describing the bathrooms of the former as being vast and echoing, like mausoleums – one 19th century journalist said sitting in one of them was like being in a chamber at the centre of a pyramid. If I were being picky I might mention that the Continental hotel isn’t across the Ezbekiya Gardens from Shepheard’s but just up the street, and the Winter Palace is not designed in a Baroque style – far from it – but that’s minor stuff. A bigger problem, I found, is the voice of the protagonist, Lucy, whose inner thoughts run to things like, “In the fustian Cambridge circles in which I’d grown up, divorce equaled disgrace”. She’s supposed to be eleven years old, for god’s sake. I found this such a problem I gave up on the book a quarter of the way in. Now I’ll never know whether Howard Carter found that tomb or not.

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The Fishing Fleet

Her first season

Before writing Grand Hotels of Egypt, I’d never come across the term ‘fishing fleet’ to mean anything other than the obvious. But as I discovered, it was also a term widely used in the 19th century to describe the boatloads of single women who arrived in Egypt each Season on the hunt for a husband. This is a forgotten bit of colonial history that’s now been put in the spotlight thanks to a book published last year, called The Fishing Fleet, and written by Anne De Courcy.

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De Courcy’s book doesn’t mention Egypt at all because it turns out the Fleet actually has its origins in India, 200 years previously. It existed from the late 17th century when the East India Company first shipped women out to Bombay as prospective brides for its officers out there. The Company was staffed by large numbers of young men sent out from Britain – they outnumbered the women four to one – who had little opportunity of finding a British bride, possibly not until until they retired and returned home. These men were well educated, well bred and well paid – in short, perfect husband material. The Company saw this as a business opportunity and charged British families desperate to make a match for unmarried daughters a fee to sail them out to India. There, they maintained the women for a year, during which time they were expected to find a mate. Women who failed to make a catch were sent back home and known as ‘Returned Empties’.

De Courcy doesn’t make success sound like much fun either. She quotes a Lady Canning who married and settled in Calcutta where her shoes turned ‘furry with mildew’ in a day and there were so many cockroaches that the wine glasses on the dinner table had to have lids to cover them. There’s a Waughesque account of a ball that suffered an invasion of blister-flies (earwig-like insects that could leave large and painful blisters on the skin): ‘Some crept up gentlemen’s sleeves, others concealed themselves in a jungle of whisker. One heard little else all evening but “Allow me, Sir, to take off this blister-fly that is disappearing into your neckcloth” or “Permit me, Ma’am, to remove this one from your arm”. This however did not stop the dancers and they polka’d and waltzed over countless myriads of insects that had been attracted to the white cloth on the floor, which was completely discoloured by their mangled bodies at the end of the evening.’

The Fishing Fleet began targeting Egypt after 1882, when Britain made the country a protectorate and flooded the place with civil service and soldiers (prior to this, India-bound husband-hunters had temporarily alighted at Port Said, where they stocked up on tropical supplies, like sun hats and fly whisks, at the large Simon Arzt store).

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Chaperoned by her mother, 19-year-old Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller came husband-hunting to Cairo for the 1910-1911 Season. The pair took up residence at the Gezira Palace. They went to five dances a week, and attended the races and polo games every afternoon at the neighbouring sports club. Her mother tried to broaden her mind by taking her to the Egyptian Museum, but when she suggested they should go up the Nile to see Luxor, the young girl protested passionately, saying that she was enjoying herself far too much to want to go and kick around dusty old monuments. Shortly after returning to England, she wrote a novel, which she called Snow Upon the Desert, which she set in Cairo and populated with characters modelled on people she’d seen at the Palace. It possibly wasn’t up to much because it never made it into print. Perhaps had she gone husband hunting in India rather than Cairo she might have had more colourful source material. Not that it mattered, because her next novel, written after she found herself a husband back in England, did considerably better, being published to some acclaim under her new married name of Agatha Christie.

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Louis Vuitton’s labels

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A couple of years back the Musée Carnavalet in Paris hosted an exhibition dedicated to the iconic travel baggage of Louis Vuitton, which I was lucky enough to visit. The incredible vintage pieces on show included trunks that doubled as camp beds and wardrobes, one made for a maharajah to transport his silver tea sets and another custom-built to hold 36 pairs of shoes. There was a lavish catalogue that went with the show, which came in an LV-monogrammed slipcase adorned with vintage luggage labels.

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Hand-tooled leather trunks and luggage labels belong to the same world, so no surprise that legendary trunkmaker Gaston-Louis Vuitton (grandson of the original Louis Vuitton) should turn out to be a label collector. A compulsive voyager, after every trip he would carefully remove the labels from his trunks and place them in albums. He added to his collection by writing to printers and hotels. He amassed around 3,000 labels, which these days form part of the LV archive. A selection of 900 of them are reproduced in World Tour: Vintage Luggage Labels from the Collection of Gaston-Louis Vuitton, just published (in its English version) by Abrams of New York.

The book itself is a piece of art, with its embossed leather cover, tipped-in postcards and page edges printed with the names of far-flung destinations. Some of the vintage photography is gorgeous, and there’s an informative essay on the history of luggage labels by Joao-Manuel Mimoso, who’s probably the world’s leading expert on the subject (he was also kind enough to provide me with images of some of his labels to reproduce in Grand Hotels of Egypt). The rest of the text (by travel writer Francisca Mattéoli), a grand world tour, is as deep and meaningful as a holiday postcard but then nobody’s buying this book for the words.

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More people on Pyramids

Following on from one of the posts of last month, here’s another evocative image of Bright Young Things on a Pyramid. No idea of the date but given the dress, it has to be the 1920s. This image was also recently used on the cover of a book: Dreamers of the Day by Mary Doria Russell. There’s a bit of Photoshop jiggery-pokery gone on to remove one of the two ladies, presumably so it looks like the girl alone gazing wistfully over the sands is having the sort of ‘personal awakening’ described in the blurb underneath. The designer has also shifted one of the Pyramids about 30 metres to the right, which is going to throw off anybody’s astronomical calculations.

The book, incidentally, is a historical novel set in Egypt at the time of the Cairo Peace Conference of 1921. The protagonist, Agnes Shanklin, a 40-year-old American spinster, meets and falls into the company of TE Lawrence, who was present at the Conference (held at the Semiramis hotel, dismissed by Lawrence in a letter to his mother as, “a marble and bronze hotel, very expensive and luxurious: horrible place: makes me Bolshevik”). The title is taken from Seven Pillars of Wisdom: “All men dream, but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds, wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act on their dreams with open eyes, to make them possible.” It’s a good one to have handy when caught staring out the window at work.

The Semiramis – the hotel that made Lawrence of Arabia a Bolshevik

 

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The beauty of Dust

30. Sarageldine Palace, Cairo, 2006

In Cairo in May I caught up with photographer Xenia Nikolskaya. She had an exhibition at the Townhouse gallery in support of her new book Dust. I wrote the following short piece about her work for Voyager magazine:

On a side street lined with a shanty town of car mechanics’ workshops, the ruined Palace of Prince Said Halim stands like a marooned set from a grand Italian opera. It’s been derelict for decades and access to it is denied by a rusting padlocked iron gate. But photographer Xenia Nikolskaya knows who has the key and a little baksheesh gets the gate opened. We enter and wander through halls scattered with the debris of collapsing ceilings and wind-blown trash.

Russian-born Nikolskaya spent six years visiting and photographing similarly forgotten spaces in cities around Egypt. The rooms she portrays are empty, but her painterly compositions and lambent lighting (which in most cases is natural) serve to give the impression that these are stage sets, only waiting for the arrival of the actors.

The reality is that most of the buildings she has photographed are doomed. They are relics of a time when central Cairo was home to princes and pashas; today’s teeming, overpopulated city has no use for the ornate marbled palaces and playthings of its former aristocracy. So they stand empty, unsuitable for purpose, stagnating – although not entirely impervious to change. Nikolskaya points to a spot above a door in one of the rooms in Said Halim’s palace: ‘When I first came here in 2007, there was a picture of President Mubarak hanging there. Now he’s gone.’

61. Tiring  Department  Store, Cairo, 2010

31. Stage of Radio Cinema, Cairo, 2010

8. Tiring Department Store, Cairo, 2010

3. Sarageldine Palace , Cairo, 2006

35. Villa Casdagli, Garden City, Cairo, 2010

21.	 Staircase of Kluvich House, Port Said, 2010

Dust by Xenia Nikolskaya is published by Dewi Lewis, £30.

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Tut, tut! Miss Lucy!

I’ve just finished reading Rules of Civility by Amor Towles. I’m a little late to the party, I know, but the sparkly chick-lit packaging of the UK edition put me off. It wasn’t until I found the US paperback with its more grown-up, Condé Nast archive photo on the cover that I felt able to buy the book. I’m glad I did. The plot’s thin (two girls meet boy in a Greenwich Village jazz club on New Year’s Eve 1937) but the evocation of the Manhattan high-life of the late Thirties is fantastic. The writing is whip-smart F Scott Fitzgerald meets Raymond Chandler: “I was just finishing a countersuit to be typed out in triplicate, getting ready to mope my way home, when out of the corner of my eye I saw Charlotte Sykes approaching from the washrooms. She had changed into high heels and a tangerine-coloured blouse that clashed with all her best intentions.

The verve and gutsiness of several of the women in the book reminds me of Lee Miller, who if you’ve read my earlier post you’ll know I hold in some esteem. And if you haven’t read my earlier post (Lee Miller invades the Long Bar) read it now and then this:

She pointed back up Seventh Street.

—I know a cute little place right up here. I’ll buy you a beer. We’ll catch up. It’ll be a gas.

The cute little place turned out to be an old Irish bar. Over the front door a sign read: GOOD ALE, RAW ONIONS, NO LADIES.

—I think that means us.

—Cmon, Fran said. Don’t be such a Patsy.

See what I mean?

This also delighted me:

—What’d you buy?

He didn’t know what she was referring to.

She pointed.

He’d forgotten that he still had the bookseller’s bag in his hand.

—A Baedeker’s, he said. I thought we might see some of the sights later.

I always get excited by the casual namedropping of a Victorian-era guidebook, and there’s no finer guidebook name to drop than that of Baedeker. EM Forster knew it too. In A Room with a View Lucy Honeychurch is directed around Italy by her little red guidebook – that is until she encounters the lady novelist Eleanor Lavish: “Tut, tut! Miss Lucy! I hope we shall soon emancipate you from Baedeker,” says Ms Lavish and confiscates the guide to leave Lucy exposed and defenceless, with the result she’s led astray to ultimately elope with a young gentleman admirer. That’s what happens when you lose your Baedeker.

The Lonely Planets of their day, these guides were put out by Karl Baedeker, a German publisher, who after seeing some early Murray’s Handbooks (see my previous post) was inspired to copy them. (Karl Baedeker openly acknowledged the debt and became good friends with John Murray, although many years later the latter would accuse the former of plagiarism.) The first Baedeker guides were published in the 1830s, in German, and covered Rheinreisse (Travel along the Rhine), Moselreisse, and Holland, Belgium and Switzerland. The series sported distinctive red cloth covers and the books were the size of a portable Bible, printed on similarly thin, almost tissue-like paper (Murray’s Handbooks at this time all had brown covers but they later switched to a similar shade of blushing red to their competitors). After Karl’s death in 1859, his son Ernst took over and under his direction the company introduced editions in English, expanding coverage beyond the German hinterlands to Britain, the Mediterranean, Russia, America and the Near East: a guide to Lower Egypt was published in 1878, joined by a guide to Upper Egypt in 1892, before the two were combined in a single Egypt guide in 1898.

This new edition condensed the two previous volumes into a single book of about 600 tightly typed pages, including 22 maps, 55 plans, and 66 engraved views and vignettes. It’s a staggering piece of work, and one that for the most part holds up well today, if you can make allowances for sections such as that headed ‘Intercourse with Orientals’ in which the paternalism strays into outright condescension: “[The traveller] should bear in mind that many of the natives with whom he comes in contact are mere children, whose waywardness should excite compassion rather than anger”.

There’s a terrific essay on the Baedeker phenomenon by someone called Edward Mendelson, who at the time he wrote it was an English professor at Columbia, in which he describes Karl Baedeker as “Europe’s ideal parent”. He goes on to describe beautifully what Baedeker was about: “he did more for his readers than guide their way to agreeable hotels, picturesque churches, and sublime vistas. He also set an example of private and public virtues ranging from thrift to patriotism, comforted the timid and encouraged the daring, taught the proper response to courtesy or cunning, combined moral probity with practical wisdom, and even while warning his readers away from unseemly pleasures let slip the knowledge of where they might be found.” You can read the rest of it here.

Under a succession of sons and grandsons, the company continued to thrive. One of the innovations introduced was a star system, marking with an asterisk the points of interest that travellers in a hurry shouldn’t miss. Later a second asterisk was added for doubly unmissables. ‘To Baedeker’ became a verb meaning to travel. Such was the authority of the books that the Nazis employed them in 1942 when they threatened to bomb every two-star building in Baedeker’s guide to Britain. The British response came on the night of 3 December 1943, when the RAF obliterated large parts of Leipzig, and with it, all the stocks and practically all the records of the Baedeker publishing house.

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Scandal at the Savoy

Sticking with the last post’s theme of London hotels, I’ve been rereading Andrew Rose’s book Scandal at the Savoy (Bloomsbury, 1991). It deals with an infamous murder case of the 1920s that took place at the London Savoy involving an Egyptian playboy who was shot dead by his French wife of six months.

Ali Fahmy, born in Cairo in 1900, was the sole male heir to a family fortune built on real estate and cotton. He came into his inheritance at the age of 16 and spread it around at the clubs and smart hotels of his hometown such as Shepheard’s, the Semiramis and Grand Continental. He bought a fleet of fast cars, imported from Europe, including two Rolls-Royces, and a 450-horsepower racing boat in which he’d tear up and down the Nile. Then in 1921 he saw something else he fancied. She was Madame Marguerite Laurent (pictured below), a fashionable Parisian woman 10 years his senior, who was staying at the Semiramis in the company of a rich businessman. He pursued his quarry back to France where he subjected her to a whirlwind courtship. Although he returned to Egypt alone, further persistent wooing by mail eventually paid off. On 20 November 1922, Marguerite disembarked from the SS Helouan onto the quayside at Alexandria and was whisked away to Ali’s seaside villa before transferring to his grand residence in the newly established Cairo neighbourhood of Zamalek.

To cut a long story short, they got married in Cairo on 26 December 1922. It’s this bit of Rose’s book that appeals to me. The pre-wedding reception and dinner took place at Shepheard’s on Christmas Day 1922. The author has done his homework and he sets the scene beautifully. Just the previous month Howard Carter had announced to the world the finding of Tutankhamun’s tomb, and Egypt’s hotels were packed with the international press and with wealthy rubberneckers who wanted to be on the spot when the tomb was opened early in the New Year. There must have been a huge sense of anticipation charging the conversation in the hotel lounges and restaurants, and provoking even greater animation in the dancers foxtrotting their way around the ballrooms.

Five nights after the civil marriage, Shepheard’s was packed with 1,200 diners celebrating the arrival of 1923. Drawing on a report in the following day’s Egyptian Gazette, Rose describes the scene: ‘There was barely room for dancing under the great chandelier, which had been decorated in “magnificent cascades of bougainvillea”. At midnight the lights were dimmed and two dozen white doves released from a balcony above the hotel foyer, an effect rather spoiled by the wags who lowered a squealing piglet on a rope from an upper fanlight. Bags of red and white confetti were emptied on the heads of the crowd, “everybody whistled and screeched, cushions were thrown about and a rugger scrum indulged in by the men”.’

A few weeks later Ali and Marguerite sailed up to Luxor, where they moored their boat across from the Winter Palace and gave lavish parties for the international jetset that had lately descended upon the sleepy Nileside town. Howard Carter attended one of the parties and Lord Carnarvon came over for lunch. But it was not a happy marriage and the two fought constantly – Rose paints Marguerite as a compulsive flirt and venal gold-digger, while Ali was attracted to young men and closer to his private secretary, Said, than he was to his wife. Onboard a steamer bound for Europe, escaping Egypt’s summer heat, the ship’s captain had to step in and keep the peace between the pair. In first Paris and then London the two traded blows in public. Ali appeared with scratches on his face, Marguerite sported livid bruises. She threatened to smash him over the head with a wine bottle over supper at the Savoy restaurant and he threatened to throw her in the river at a Thames-side garden party. It all came to a messy end at around 2.30am on a hot July night in a corridor outside suite 41 at the Savoy – Marguerite fired three shots in quick succession and killed Ali Fahmy. A night porter had just passed the room and he turned and ran back to see Marguerite throw down a large black handgun. When the assistant manager arrived minutes later she was cradling her husband’s head and repeating ‘Qu’est-ce que j’ai fait, mon cher?’ (What have I done, my dear?).

The shooting provoked a mass of publicity – it was the OJ Simpson case of its day. The papers were full of lurid details of sexual jealously, squandered riches and assorted vices – notably Ali’s alleged homosexuality, and Marguerite’s past as a serial mistress and likely prostitute. The trial was a sensation, the verdict a scandal – in a truly appalling exhibition of racism, Marguerite was acquitted of both murder and manslaughter and walked free.

Scandal at the Savoy (you can find it on eBay or abebooks.com) gives an excellent account of the courtroom drama, and provides a fascinating portrait of the sexual and racial attitudes of London society in the 1920s. For more on the antics that went on in the ballroom at Shepheard’s and other Cairo high-society hang-outs, that’s all in Grand Hotels of Egypt.

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Sweet stuff

Published last month, The West End Front by Matthew Sweet is, as its subtitle makes plain, all about ‘The Wartime Secrets of London’s Grand Hotels’. I was eager to read it to see how life in London’s hotels compared with that in the Egyptian hotels I have written about. Unsurprisingly, there are characters who inhabited both worlds. Sweet begins by introducing us to César Ritz (the Ritz, Savoy, Dorchester and Claridge’s are the cornerstones of his book), who also gets a walk-on role in my book as a colleague of George Nungovich, Egypt’s leading hotelier at the beginning of the 20th century. Also cameoing in both of our books is Ritz’s partner, the godfather of cheffery Georges August Escoffier – although Sweet is the one who unearths the lovely detail that he ‘wore high heels to enable him to see into the pans at the back of the ranges’. We have, predictably, Somerset Maugham and Evelyn Waugh in common. My book has the better quotes from Waugh (‘All the hotels in Egypt are bad but they excuse themselves on two contrary principles. Some maintain, legitimately, that it does not really matter how bad they are if they are cheap enough; the others, that it does not really matter how bad they are if they are expensive enough’), but then Sweet manages to include the writer in a sentence about a third party that ends with the untoppable flourish that this person ‘in a state of advanced refreshment, once mistook the Ritz bar for a row of urinals’. Noël Coward is spotted in both books and Winston Churchill is equally inescapable in London and Cairo.

Unlike Grand Hotels, which lets the hotels themselves provide the structure for the chapters, Sweet puts the inhabitants centre-stage, arranging them by type – aliens (the foreign workers), players (the socialites), subterraneans (the gay scene), cons – with each chapter concentrating on a couple of key characters and their individual stories. It’s an acknowledgment that the book is not really about hotels and, in fact, the text spends a lot of time well away from them. The chapter on traitors for instance focuses on Stella Lonsdale who is, according to her MI5 handler, ‘a woman whose loose living would make her an object of shame on any farmyard’. The story makes it into the book on the grounds that the interrogation of Lonsdale took place in a room at the Waldorf.

Which isn’t meant as a criticism. Sweet has been attracted to the idea of hotels for the same reason I was – they are places in which the broadest cross-section of people are gathered together in one place, all sharing the same address for a night or two. Then the following day the cast-list changes. It’s a set up guaranteed to throw up great stories, comic, tragic, and everything else besides, and The West End Front is packed full of them. Sweet also has an enviable way with a phrase – an army officer has ‘a taste for raw onions, violence and nudity’ – and an endless stock of killer anecdotes, like the one about the young boy who requested a kiss from a male guest who was staying the weekend at his parents’ home and then dismissed the chaste peck on the forehead as inadequate: ‘No, kiss me like you kissed daddy’.

Can I recommend you read both our books?

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