Friday, 28 February 2014

The West End Front by Matthew Sweet

published 2011


[From a chapter about exiled Royal families of Europe living in London during World War 2...]







By the morning of 20 March 1944, the crying and shouting and swooning were over and the Claridge’s hairdresser was sticking pins into the future Queen of Yugoslavia. Alexandra’s maid, Rose Holloway, packed up the bridal wear – a veil donated by Princess Marina, the pale oyster satin gown in which Maimie Lygon had married Peter’s cousin, Prince Vsevolod of Russia – and hoicked it round to the Yugoslav Legation...



Afterwards the couple posed for what has become the team photograph of Allied royalty: Queen Elizabeth smiling her tight little smile in fox fur; George VI, the best man, cast in the role of indulgent Uncle Bertie, Princes Tomislav and Andrej, the groom’s younger brothers; Aspasia of Greece, her face a hard mask of triumph…



observations: Apparently the bride wore flat shoes so as not to tower over her husband. That’s the kind of detail you can rely on Matthew Sweet for.

After enjoying his Shepperton Babylon (one of my top 10 books of last year) so much, I would follow him just about anywhere, and this book turns out to be very rewarding. The subtitle is ‘the wartime secrets of London’s grand hotels’, and the chapter headings include Aliens, Reds, Subterraneans, Traitors and Majesties. The stories he tells are extraordinary – there must be material for a fistful of novels here: talking about his cinema book I said ‘it tells a history you can find nowhere else, and you feel that Matthew Sweet has had unique conversations with people who either were never asked before, or are now dead, or both’ – and this description applies equally to this book.

The story of King Peter II of Yugoslavia is excruciating and
King Peter as a boy
complex – he was a boy at prep school in England when his father was assassinated in 1934, and on being removed from there he assumed he had been expelled for illicit sweet-eating, rather than to accede tot the throne. That anecdote somehow sums him up – the hopelessness, the sadness, the lack of understanding. The dramas leading up to the wedding described above are hard to credit, and there wasn’t anything very great in his future either – though his son Crown Prince Alexander (born in 1945 in a corner of Claridge’s accorded the diplomatic status of Yugoslav territory for the duration of his birth) sounds much happier and is now back in his homeland.

It is no exaggeration to say that every chapter of this book contains stories as fascinating and as strange as this one.

The Maimie Lygon mentioned above was a good friend of Evelyn Waugh’s, part of the family thought to have inspired the Flytes of Brideshead Revisited.

The rather dubious Stella in the book – whose conversation is ‘too filthy’ to be written down by MI5 agents - shares with Una, the doughty older lady from Christine Poulson’s Footfall, a liking for the Schiaparelli perfume, Shocking, a strong and iconic fragrance.


**Added later:  Blog friend JS (long-time contributor) sent in this picture, taken in Marseilles, of a plaque marking the spot where young Peter's father was assassinated:



-she says 'preux' is an old-fashioned word meaning something like 'doughty'.  ***

11 comments:

  1. Moira - Oh, this sounds like a fascinating set of insights into that time and those people. Great stories, too. I always especially respect authors who treat famous subjects as just simply human beings who happen to have a title, or a lot of money, or something that makes them famous.

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    1. I think Matthew Sweet gets the tone just right - he makes gentle fun of some people, but is never unnecessarily cruel or snarky, and at the same time is not over-respectful of privilege. A difficult line to trace in non-fiction, but he does it well.

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  2. Moira: Your post reminded me that the Dutch Royal family spent the war in Canada and also had a bit of Ottawa proclaimed part of the Netherlands for a royal birth. Every spring the citizens of Ottawa are reminded of the Dutch presence during the war by the thousands of tulips sprinkled through the city that were given by a grateful Dutch people after the war.

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    1. What a nice story Bill - I was completely unaware of that bit of history, and I am charmed by the idea of the tulips.

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  3. I quite like the sound of this one, onto the list it goes!

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    1. You'll love the spies and the espionage and the lowlifes...

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  4. I love the sound of this - is my Mum going to enjoy it for Mother's Day? And is Sweet well known back home - she's a Radio 2 listener, rather than 3!

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    1. I think your Mum would love it (and well done for remembering UK day!). He does such different things - writing about all of them so well - that he may be below her radar. But well worth discovering. Shepperton Babylon, about the UK film industry is marvellous too.

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  5. Well that was a journey. The book sounds perfect. Not available here new, but I can of course find it at ABEbooks ... I just have to decide what condition, etc.

    But then I also looked at the link for Shepperton Babylon, and then all the other links in that post. I had seen your June post about that book. Both sound great although I should probably star with this one.

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    1. Touch and go Tracy, they're both marvellous books and I love them both. Maybe this one for a US reader? - it will resonate more. I know you and your husband are big film fans, but perhaps you concentrate more on US films?

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    2. When I brought both of these books up to him, he did remember us discussing Shepperton Babylon earlier (I wasn't sure). As with everything else film related, he know much more about British films than I do, and I think he would enjoy that book. We will see. We are both trying to cut down on book buying lately, but not succeeding very well.

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