Sunday, November 20, 2011


Finished my chum Matthew Sweet's The West End Front this morning. It's a magnificent, funny and strange collection of stories about London's posh hotels during the Second World War (though he freely extends the scope when it means another good story). It was Book of the Week on Radio 4 last week - you've still a chance to hear Kenneth Cranham reading choice cuts on iPlayer.

Matthew has interviewed more than 100 people - those who were there at the time, or the families of those who have since died. The result is a gleefully gossipy account of some often shocking incidents, carefully backed up with solid documentary research.

The book undermines the sentimental view of the Second World War, the idea of a nation steadfastly keeping calm and carrying on, all stiff-upper lips and good humour. There's scandal and skulduggery, scoundrels, sex and death. Some of the events make for very uncomfortable reading. But really this is a testament to the strangeness of real life - in an extraordinary period of history and anyway. Matthew's got a good eye for the incongruous detail, the grotesque detail, that conjures the period vividly.

There's a wealth of top facts, too. Captain Leonard Plugge, Conservative MP for Chatham, gave his name to any "brazen commercialism in the media". Crooner Al Bowlly (whose work I adore) was killed by his own bedroom door. There's the extraordinary image of Winston Churchill, no longer Prime Minister and so no longer living at Downing Street, installed in the penthouse at Claridges because, his wife said, "We have nowhere to go". It is there, on a borrowed wireless, that he heard the news of Japanese surrender.
"'Then he went out into the rain and there were three old ladies under an umbrella who had heard he was there and gave him a cheer.'"

Philip Murphy, Alan Lennox-Boyd: A Biography (1999), quoted in Matthew Sweet, The West End Front, p. 286.

Many of the lively characters Matthew speaks of - and spoke to - have died, and as he argues the Second World War is now passing out of living memory. This chance to capture and record these fleeting ghosts before they are fully gone is utterly compelling.

No comments: