I’ve decided this year to try to make more of my London Library subscription. I’ve been a member since 1984 – I think – around thirty years at any rate and since 1990 I haven’t actually been living in London, though I was pretty close when I was in Cambridge. Sadly Sheffield does not have a subscription library and though I have sometimes toyed with joining the splendid Portico Library in Manchester (it has interesting events too), I know I wouldn’t go enough. I manage to get to London once a month, but one of the really marvellous things about the London Library is that they will post books out to you and very prompt and efficient the service is, too. And as I am a country member I am allowed to have fifteen books out rather ten. You can keep the books out for as long you like if no-one requests them and in my case, while I was doing my Ph.D that was literally years. All the same there have been times when I haven’t used it very much and that is a waste, given how much the subscription has gone up in recent years.
So I’ve got a pile of books now,and I have been reading with pleasure, The West End Front: The Wartime Secrets of London’s Grand Hotels by Matthew Sweet. The Ritz, the Savoy, The Dorchester, Claridge’s. What glamour the names of those hotels conjure up: women in silk dresses, men in evening dress or uniform, famous dance bands such as Ambrose and his orchestra. And, Sweet shows, how unsavoury the reality often was. Sweet points that if they ‘were the homes of Cabinet ministers and military leaders, plutocrats and aristocrats’ London’s war-time hotels were also awash with spies, crypto-fascists, adulterers, con artists and swindlers, and young men and women on the make. The stories are all here: of aristocratic jewel thieves, Nazi double agents, deposed monarchs and governments-in-exile. No wonder hotels have been such a useful resource for writers: all kinds of people who are not necessarily what they seem can meet and mingle in them. Agatha Christie often used them as ways of bringing people together or even as settings: Evil Under the Sun, At Bertram’s Hotel, A Carribean Mystery. And it’s not just crime novels. Elizabeth Taylor’s fine novel, Mrs Palfrey at the Cleremont, makes good use of the poignant setting of a residential hotel where the elderly residents eke out their days and try to hang on to their dignity.