Oh, What a Lovely War

Nostalgia for the war runs deep in our cultural memory; Matthew Sweet's new book shows why

When I was a child in the 1960s the favoured period for nostalgia was the Victorian age, in all its manifestations. A Dickens or a Brontë serialisation seemed to be on television every Sunday. Books about the 19th century — notably Asa Briggs’s works on Victorian life and achievements — were enduringly popular. We learned about the Victorians at school. Perhaps because so much of what we then had of the 20th century had been so very unpleasant — two world wars, or, rather, one conflict that lasted from 1914 to 1945 with a menacing Cold War after it — that there was a natural urge to think back to a relative age of innocence, before the Western Front and Auschwitz. Also, the last of those who could remember the Victorian age and who had participated in it were still alive, and there was the sense that we as a society were clinging on to experiences of which they were the final witnesses.

The same is now true of the Second World War. Those who were in it or witnessed it at close hand are in their mid-eighties or nineties, and may not have much longer to run. Few of us know what it is to cower as a Blitzkrieg rains down on us, trying to murder us and destroy our homes; or to receive the War Office telegram announcing the death in action of a husband, father, son or brother; or to have the contemporary shock of the newsreels of the camps. Anaesthetised by distance, the period becomes alluring. Our experience of it, being vicarious, is exhilarating; we can tune in and tune out when we want to. Its events feel contemporary, yet they are far removed. Its people are recognisable, yet different from us.

A new, and quite superb, book has a highly original take on this popular nostalgia theme: The West End Front: The Wartime Secrets of London’s Grand Hotels, by Matthew Sweet (Faber, £20). Mr Sweet has a fine understanding of British life from the day before yesterday. His book Shepperton Babylon, about the British film industry of the 1950s, remains one of the most entertaining I have ever read on British cinema. This one is every bit as good. Mr Sweet has delved into the history of the great hotels of London during the war period, and also explored the lives of some of the people who stayed, drank, ate and worked in them. Many of them are long dead, in which case Mr Sweet has interviewed their friends and relicts. Others, at a great age, are still alive, or were when he began to research his book a few years ago, and shared their stories with him.

One of the best is about Victor Legg, switchboard operator at the Ritz, who late in the evening of August 31, 1939, put through a call to a guest at the hotel, a man so offensive that waiters bribed each other in order not to have to serve him: Randolph Churchill. Legg listened in, and heard Churchill be told that Germany was about to invade Poland. When Legg dialled the BBC moments later to share the intelligence with them, someone came on the line — presumably from MI5 — to warn him to keep what he had heard to himself. When he finished his shift he walked to Soho to an all-night café and, as Mr Sweet puts it, drank coffee, smoked Craven “A” and ate a bacon sandwich until the rest of the world knew what he knew.

While this book is about grand hotels, it is also partly about the high end of the underworld that frequented them — a subject of enduring interest, perhaps because of the image of the spiv that remains redolent of World War II. We meet all sorts of conmen, including a genuine baronet who tried to sell bogus commissions, an officer who impersonated one of a higher rank and shot himself in a hotel lavatory, and shop-girls passing themselves off as aristocrats in an age when having a title (or professing to have one) was enough to make even the most rational of third parties suspend disbelief. These hotels were also packed with enemy aliens, many of whom were rounded up and sent to internment camps, often with the fascists they despised. They had their share of abortionists, prostitutes and adulterers; while downstairs in the public rooms there were men in uniform, or men in dinner jackets, dancing with their wives — or other men’s wives — to the dance bands that for many epitomise the era. Lewis Stone, one band leader whose widow was interviewed by Mr Sweet, used to leave pauses in his music for the distant banging of bombs to fill in.

The attraction of the period is, I suppose, that this was an age less regulated (at least until war, and the clampdowns that it brought), and more irregular, than ours. In an age before health and safety, one of the chefs in a grand hotel decorated his dishes by spitting the garnish on to it. Then there is the entertainment of watching how human nature copes with a sudden crisis that turns everything upside down. Rationing was slow to make its impact on some hotels; others offered a rehydrated egg omelette that was deemed almost inedible. Perhaps our affection for this period is because we have grown up with stories from parents and grandparents about it. Or perhaps it is that so few of us who remain had to live through it.

Perhaps, too, we are jealous of the resilience with which our parents and grandparents dealt with the ubiquity of death. A man was pulled out of the wreckage of the Café de Paris after a landmine hit it in March 1941 by someone who had touched him for a drink earlier in the evening. The bandleader Ken “Snakehips” Johnson was killed in the blast and much of his West Indian dance band with him. Yet this ghastly event was the provocation for Vaughan Williams’s Symphony No 6, one of the great cultural products of the war, even though the composer denied it was a war symphony. We are nostalgic about the war because we sense it culminated in the triumph of life over death. Books such as this tell us that, in such a supposition, we are absolutely right.

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