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?