November 22, 2016 · 9:46 pm
This coming weekend marks five years since the first post on this site (which was about four months before the publication of Grand Hotels of Egypt). To mark the occasion I’d like to say a big thank you to everybody that regularly checks in here, and particularly to all those people who’ve left comments or have emailed me directly. Every time my enthusiasm has flagged and the posts have dropped off, there’s been a fascinating or gratifying communication from someone out there and I’ve been inspired to dig up more material to share.
It really is the interaction that keeps this site going. I’ve got a big kick out of hearing from the distant relatives of some of the hoteliers and other characters that I write about in my books and from people whose ancestors travelled to Egypt way back when, especially those who’ve shared diaries and photos with me. I’ve also loved fielding some of the intriguing requests for information that regularly come my way – helping to identify a hotel in Alexandria hotel for an exhibition about Paul Klee in Germany or show what a letterhead from Shepheard’s would have looked like back in 1914 for a dramatisation of one of HP Lovecraft’s weird tales. The query about tessellated pentagonal tiling at the Cataract flummoxed me, though. Next year I’ll also be loaning some of the bits and pieces I own relating to Egypt’s old hotels to a couple of museum exhibitions here in the UK, one on an amateur Egyptologist who travelled to Egypt in 1886/7 and 1890/1 and the other devoted to Winston Churchill in the Middle East. More on those nearer the time.
Meanwhile, please keep checking back regularly, and keep the comments and emails coming. It’s good to know I’m not alone in my obsessions. (The photos, by the way, are from the launch party for Grand Hotels, which took place at Cairo’s Windsor hotel.)
December 26, 2011 · 11:54 pm
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?