Wartime hospitality: Chefs evacuate the Ritz during the Second World War (Getty)
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.