Monthly Archives: December 2011

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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A boot with history

Somewhere in Grand Hotels of Egypt there’s a line about ‘officers swanning around with suede boots and swagger sticks’. The suede boots and swagger sticks were essential bits of kit for commissioned ranks in the British Army in Egypt in World War II. The swagger sticks disappeared with the British Army in 1952 but the suede boots have gone on to worldwide ubiquity.

They originated in Cairo’s Khan al-Khalili, when South Africans troops had commissioned cobblers to replace their worn-out veldtschoen, voortrekker boots sewn from soft, flexible hides. The Egyptian craftsmen came up with a boot of supple suede with solid crepe soles – it was light, simple (just two eyelets for laces), comfortable and low maintenance, which made it hugely popular not just with the South Africans but with soldiers of all nationalities fighting Rommel out in the desert.

A certain Nathan Clark, great-grandson of the co-founder of Clarks shoes, saw the boot in Burma worn by British soldiers transferred from North Africa. He made sketches and cut rough patterns from newspaper and on his return to the family business in Somerset, England made up some prototypes that he introduced at the Chicago Shoe Fair in 1949. The following year the ‘desert boot’ went into production in small numbers for the overseas market, launching in the UK around 1959. Over twelve million pairs have been sold globally since – their popularity boosted by association with the likes of Steve McQueen, who wore them both on screen (in The Great Escape) and in real life, and counter culture groups like the Beatniks (Bob Dylan used to wear desert boots). They were big with Mods in Britain in the 1960s, while more recently Liam Gallagher’s designed his own as part of his Pretty Green clothing range. Not every wearer has quite such a pedigree of cool: the desert boots’ image was severely dented when Tony Blair, at the time prime minister of Britain, was photographed wearing a pair in 1999. But then durability is another of the boots’ traits.

Nathan Clark turned out to be pretty durable too. The man who invented the desert boot in 1947 died just this summer, age 94.

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Palace intrigue

I was excited to read news reports earlier this year that in the wake of Mubarak’s downfall the palace his administration has occupied since the early 1980s was to be returned to its original use as a hotel. This is the former Heliopolis Palace Hotel, which, so rumour at the time had it, was planned as a casino to rival Monte Carlo – until iron-fisted Lord Cromer, the British Consul-General and effective ruler of Egypt, said ‘No gambling’. Even without the gaming tables it still made the headlines on its opening on 1 December 1910 as one of the world’s largest hotels, with 400 rooms, 55 of which were suites. It had a main dome that soared 35 metres high and the basement service area was so extensive that a narrow-gauge railway was installed running the length of the hotel.









Which is all well and good but you do wonder whether anybody stopped to consider whether Heliopolis was really an appropriate setting for so much luxury accommodation. A new town in the desert, Heliopolis lay far to the north of central Cairo meaning that hotel guests were inconveniently distant from all the tourist sites and well out of the social circle that was one of the main attractions of the Cairo hotel scene. Little surprise that the Palace never recovered from the crash in tourism brought on by the swift one-two of World War II and the 1952 Revolution. Proximity to the airport helped for a while and the hotel was kept busy with over-nighting cabin crew (several airlines also had their offices here) but the last room key was returned in 1958. The following year the building was converted into offices for civil servants. Soon after Mubarak became president in 1981, the Palace became the headquarters of the new presidential administration. So, happy as I was that the public might soon have a chance to venture where formerly only Mubarak’s minions could go, I was also sceptical to say the least. Sure enough, it turns out that the news reports got it wrong; a contact at the department responsible for Egypt’s hotels and tourism told me the comment about the Heliopolis Palace becoming a hotel once more was only a joke and was misreported.

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