Lead book review

Chips Channon’s diaries can read like a drunken round of Consequences

Chips Channon was conceited, snobbish, disloyal, voyeuristic and wrongheaded – all qualities most helpful to a great diarist, says Craig Brown

6 March 2021

9:00 AM

6 March 2021

9:00 AM

Henry ‘Chips’ Channon: The Diaries 1918-38 Edited by Simon Heffer

Hutchinson, pp.1024, 35

Most of the grander 20th-century diarists had a sniffy air about them, looking down their noses at everyone, particularly each other. Henry ‘Chips’ Channon, so snippety in his own diaries, was sniped at in others’. James Lees-Milne thought him ‘a flibbertigibbet’; to Nancy Mitford, he was ‘vain and spiteful and silly’. Kenneth Rose confided to his diary that Channon was ‘a rather stupid man’. When the bowdlerised Channon diaries were first published in 1967, edited by Robert Rhodes James, Rose could not disguise his thrill at how badly they had gone down in his own smart set. At a ‘luncheon party given by Raine Dartmouth at her pretty house in Hill Street… we talk a great deal about the Chips Channon diaries, and all agree how ghastly they are’. The next day, Rose chats to Channon’s old boss, Rab Butler: ‘He says he is disgusted by the Chips Channon diaries.’ Two years later, Rose is still at it: ‘Lord David Cecil, I hear, very much objected to Chips Channon’s diaries, calling him a “traitorous bugger”.’

Rose and the other diarists are no longer with us, which means they are spared the need to read this big, fat, spankingly unexpurgated volume. In his introduction, Simon Heffer explains that many of Channon’s victims were still going strong in 1967, so might have sued the publishers for libel. Channon’s partner and executor, Peter Coats, expunged ‘page after page’, including Channon’s pre-war admiration for the Nazis, his dislike of Churchill, and his multifarious sexual exploits.

Channon’s former wife, Lady Honor, also made merry with the blue pencil, striking out uncharitable references to herself and to the Queen Mother and King George VI (‘he is completely uninteresting, undistinguished and a godawful bore!’). She also safeguarded their son Paul’s political career by removing Channon’s many snooty remarks (‘I despise them really, and their silly standards’) about the people of Southend, which, since 1918, had been the hand-me-down parliamentary constituency of her father, her mother, her husband and now her son.

Upwards of two million words were thus whittled down to 250,000. It says something for the resilience of Channon’s indiscretion that, even after such a fierce whittling, so many readers were delighted and/or offended. Now that everyone involved is safely dead and buried, Heffer has been charged with unwhittling them. He has done his job with scholarly aplomb, providing footnotes galore. This volume runs to 1,000 pages, and there are another two to come.

In his introduction, Heffer declares that Channon ‘never minces his words’. Yet, in a funny way, the words mince by themselves, occasionally executing Firbankian pirouettes:

The Queen of Romania looked ridiculous in a green sea-foam crêpe-de-chine saut-de-lit spotted with goldfish she had painted on herself. Her double chins were kept in place by strands of pearls attached to an exotic headdress.

Even in its dull moments, of which there are quite a few, generally involving interminable lists of forgotten bigwigs attending showy parties, it remains a work of high camp. Might Alan ‘Chatty Man’ Carr be prevailed upon to narrate the audiobook?

It kicks off in Paris on New Year’s Day 1918 (the original edition didn’t start until 1934). ‘To be forever 20 in Paris in the springtime… what could be more divine?’, asks Chips. At this point, Sgt Heffer chimes in with a disobliging footnote: ‘Channon had the habit of lying even to himself about his age.’ Chips was in fact already 21.

He is consumed by a crush on a young man called Bobbie Pratt Barlow. They plan to live together in London later ‘and weave other impossible dreams that will never come true’. Bobbie goes off to the war. Chips reports that in his first letter from the trenches, Barlow says ‘he thinks only of me when he is going into battle, which is nice of him’. In one of many thousands of crisp, helpful footnotes, Heffer notes that Barlow, who lived until 1959, ‘later attracted notoriety for owning a Sicilian mansion… staffed entirely by prepubescent boys’.

Chips motors to the front in a Rolls- Royce, just to take a quick peek. While there, he enjoys a game of fireside bridge with General Blackader: ‘We were so snug, it might have been a London club.’ Back in Paris, his schedule remains hectic: ‘Even with a sore throat, I pull myself to luncheon with the Princesse d’Arenberg and to dine at the Duchesse de Brissac’s.’

Throughout his life he had the knack — invaluable for a diarist with dreams of publication — of bumping into all the right people. Edith Wharton, Mrs Patrick Campbell, Evelyn Waugh, Elinor Glyn, John Buchan, Aldous Huxley, Emerald Cunard, Noël Coward, Earl Haig, Salvador Dali, Somerset Maugham, Henri Bergson and the naked Tallulah Bankhead all pop up in these pages. The young Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon is ‘more gentle, lovely and exquisite than any woman alive… I mustn’t fall in love with her’.

Often, entries read like a drunken round of Consequences. During one air raid on Paris, Chips shares a cellar with Winston Churchill, Elsie de Wolfe, the Duchess of Sutherland and Prince Luis of Spain, who is wearing mauve silk pyjamas. Staying at Hackwood for Ascot, he plays Sardines: ‘For an hour Ld Londonderry, Lady Curzon, Biddy Carlisle, Jean Norton and the Aga Khan lay under a very hot bed.’ At a dinner in November 1918, he is placed between Jean Cocteau and Marcel Proust (‘his bloodshot eyes shine feverishly’). Eight years later, he refers again to Proust, ‘whom I knew more intimately than I have confided in this diary’.

There are strong hints of sexual encounters throughout, sometimes with female prostitutes (‘I wreaked my lust on her, undisturbed by her Northumbrian accent’), but more often with male contemporaries. He talks of going on a ‘long honeymoon’ with Viscount Gage, and the two of them enjoying ‘deep long quaffs of intimacy’. Occasionally he ends up in bed with a society lady, but his enjoyment seems limited: ‘Lunched with Mary Baker and tried unsuccessfully to ravish her. I couldn’t get it in. How very ugly are the sexual parts of a woman.’ He drops in on Montague Summers in Richmond and willingly follows him upstairs:

‘You must let down your trousers.’ I undid them and let them slip down to my feet. The old priest, who is of course one of the most charming and learned men in the world, removed one of his slippers (red heel and a large buckle) and smartly struck me on my naked buttocks.

It’s all a far cry from the diaries of Harold Macmillan.

Born in Chicago, Chips came to hate his parents, not least because they were so unashamedly American. ‘I loathe — loathe — loathe them and despise their so-called civilisation.’ He condemned his ‘dreary’ father as thoughtless, particularly where money was concerned: ‘He never refuses if I ask him for it. I wish he would think of it on his own sometimes.’ His father had made his money in banking and shipping. Other than fiddling about with a novel, Chips himself didn’t do a day’s work until 1935, when, aged 38, he was first elected to parliament.

It proved an eventful year. His wife, a Guinness, helped buy them a house (‘not too grand’) in Belgrave Square. Chips decorated it in a style pitched somewhere between Liberace and Donald Trump. Around this time, Emerald Cunard introduced him to Wallis Simpson, who he initially described ‘a nice, quiet mouse of a woman, with large startled eyes and a huge, huge mole’.

Channon has long been celebrated as the beady chronicler of the courtship of Edward and Mrs Simpson. As he manoeuvres his way into their circle, he grows increasingly devoted to Mrs S, ‘a woman of infinite charm, gentleness, courage and loyalty’. He even has a dream about her in paradise, the Archangel Gabriel at her side. ‘You see, Chips,’ she explains, ‘if I couldn’t be Queen of England, I’ve got to be the next best thing, for I’m Queen of Heaven.’

In this new volume, there is plenty of fascinating stuff about those two odd-bods which was absent from the first edition. I particularly liked the tale of Walter Moyne being ‘driven dotty’ by Edward holidaying on his yacht for three weeks in 1934: ‘The Prince sat up until 3 a.m. He would then play the bagpipes on deck, with the result that not even the crew could get a wink of sleep — and he would sleep all morning.’

Channon has a voracious eye for detail. Over dinner at Belgrave Square, the new king suddenly leaps to his feet, announcing: ‘I want to pump shit.’ Just imagine the huffing and puffing if one of today’s screenwriters were to put those words in his mouth. Chips delights in being privy to such royal intimacies: ‘I led His Majesty to our loulou! He then proceeded to pass water without shutting the door, talking to me the while.’ When the word ‘loulou’ appears, the ever-assiduous Heffer pipes up: ‘Channon’s term for lavatory.’ He is, incidentally, a wonderfully diligent editor. As a monoglot, I particularly appreciate the way he has rendered all Chips’s fancy foreign phrases into English, no matter what. So when Chips writes, ‘I feel congestionné’, a handy footnote explains: ‘Congested.’ Every now and then, Chips turns his unforgiving eye on himself, writing in 1935:

Sometimes I think I have the character of a very clever woman — able, but trivial with flair, intuition, great good taste and second-rate ambition. I am susceptible to flattery, and male good looks; I hate and am uninterested in all the things men like, such as sport, business, statistics, debates, speeches, war and the weather; but I am riveted by lust, bibelots, furniture and glamour, society and jewels.

Not a natural fit, then, for an Essex constituency. But his constituents — ‘those frumps and snobs’ — were not the only people Chips considered common. All socialists were common, as were Mary Pickford, Ernest Simpson and Grace Curzon. Sir Hugh Walpole was ‘extremely common’. H.G. Wells was also common: ‘As Emerald said, he betrays his servant origin. His mother was a most excellent lady’s maid and H.G. began life in the housekeeper’s room.’ Marking the death of J.M. Barrie, Channon notes that he was ‘hopelessly undistinguished. These common little litterateurs are all alike when they reach a certain eminence; they bask in aristocratic surroundings.’

The lucky few who are excused his snobbish strictures included all the top Nazis, among them the ‘amiable’ Adolf Hitler: ‘One felt one was in the presence of some semi-divine creature: I was more thrilled than when I met Mussolini.’ At a Berlin party thrown by Ribbentrop in 1936, Chips is impressed by how the ‘famous, fantastic’ Göring’s ‘merry eyes twinkled. He seems a lovably disarming man’. Giddy from the social whirl at the Berlin Olympics, Chips can’t decide whose party was the most enjoyable. Goebbels’s dinner dance for 2,000, with fireworks, was ‘in a way the most impressive’, but then again ‘it lacked the elegance and chic of
Ribbentrop’s and the extravagance and good taste of Göring’s’.

Heffer loyally insists that Channon was ‘not a fascist’ but, rather, ‘a devout anti-communist’. This is pushing it. In 1934, after a VIP tour of a dolled-up German labour camp, Channon concludes:

The camps looked tidy, even gay, and the boys, all about 18, looked like the ordinary German peasant boy, fair, healthy and sunburned… England could learn many a lesson from Nazi Germany. I cannot understand the English dislike and suspicion of the Nazi regime.

As late as February 1938, he writes: ‘I am always surprised when people here cannot understand the vigorous new civilisation of the Nazis.’ In May, he complains: ‘We produce nothing new, whereas Germany and Italy are seething with vigour and life; we have only choruses of cranks! Democracy is absurd.’ In September, he hails Hitler as ‘always right, always the greatest diplomat of modern times’.

In May 1955, Rose recalled in his diary that Channon had once complained to James Stuart, the Chief Whip: ‘Why are you always so rude to me? I never miss a division or cause trouble.’ To which Stuart replied: ‘My dislike of you is purely personal.’ Though Heffer asserts that Channon was both ‘intensely loyal’ and ‘immensely civilised’, the character that emerges from these diaries is, by turns, nosy, touchy, needy (‘the PM called me “Chips’’’), conceited, snobbish, disloyal, wrongheaded (‘so like God himself’, he writes of Mussolini), voyeuristic, sycophantic and shifty — all of them qualities most helpful to a great diarist.

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