- Oops!Something went wrong.Please try again later.
- Oops!Something went wrong.Please try again later.
Nobody knows for certain why Henry Channon was called “Chips”. One theory is that as a young man he shared lodgings with a friend whose nickname was “Fish” – which is rather nice, as it’s hard to think of anyone less likely to have set foot in an ordinary fish and chip shop. For Chips Channon, the ultimate aristocrat manqué, was born with a reasonably sized silver spoon in his mouth, and thereafter worked hard on converting it into a soup tureen of solid gold.
A social climber and networker on a massive scale, Channon knew everyone in English high society in the interwar period, plus an assortment of European royalty and nobility. And, as an MP from 1935, he hobnobbed with all the key politicians, witnessing much business behind the scenes.
It’s not surprising that the version of his diary printed in 1967 became essential reading for historians. Yet those were mere fragments, censored and partly rewritten. Only now, with the publication of the complete text (this huge volume will be followed by two more) can we get the full measure of this extraordinary man.
The book is strangely addictive – just as well, given its length – and one’s feelings about Channon change all the time, in ways that are hard to classify. My attempt here is modelled on the well-known five stages of grief: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance. Reading Chips Channon, the five stages – though it isn’t just a sequence, as elements persist through the book – are Puzzlement, Delight, Exasperation, Repulsion and Fascination.
First, Puzzlement. The diary begins in Paris in January 1918; Chips is working for the American Red Cross (he was born in Chicago), and is 20 years old. He goes to tea with a countess, talks to a duchess and a prince, and then dines with another countess. And so it continues, as he moves effortlessly through the aristocratic world of Proust – indeed, getting to know Proust himself. You wonder: how on earth does he do it, barely out of his teens, and in a foreign country? Good looks, certainly; perfect manners, and a fair amount of money; but also, you have to conclude, copious oodles of charm.
Delight quickly follows, recurring frequently throughout the book, as Channon specialises in sharply funny descriptions. Mrs Cavendish-Bentinck, “dripping with jewels… looks like a ferret that has got loose in Cartier’s”. Stravinsky “looks like a German dentist”. The Marquess of Dufferin and Ava “has a nose the colour of a red turnip” while the Duchess of Atholl “looks like an under-stuffed crocodile and has the manners of a downtrodden governess”. There are plenty of anecdotes, bons mots and delicious tales of scandal.
But then comes Exasperation. The snobbery and social sucking-up are unremitting, almost pathological. Delightedly, he reports Lady Scarborough’s put-down of the American-born Astors: “What did they do in the War of the Roses?” The psychology of Illinois-born Channon here, overcompensating like mad, is painfully transparent. Once he has married into the super-rich Guinness family, he finds that it’s “very difficult to spend less than £200 in a morning when one goes out shopping” – the equivalent of nearly £15,000 today, typically spent on knick-knacks of silver, jewels and china. When he mentions an Irish housekeeper, Mrs Gallagher, it’s the first time in 240 pages that he has referred by name to anyone who is not upper-class or famous.
It gets worse. Repulsion is the only possible reaction to his political opinions. Many people in the UK supported the appeasement of Hitler out of reluctant pragmatic Realpolitik, and/or because they feared a repeat of the previous war’s carnage. But Channon positively admired the Führer; seeing him at the Berlin Olympics, he felt he was “in the presence of some semidivine creature”. Even before that, he had written: “Secretly I am pro-German and prefer even the Nazis to the French.”
Again, the psychology is transparent. He despised America, the land of the “common” man (“I am secretly on the side of the Japs,” he wrote in 1937); he loathed Communism and socialism, which would confiscate wealth and put a stop to aristocratic life; even democracy was “absurd”. Why not turn instead to “the new vigorous civilisation of the Nazis”, where dukes still lived in their castles, and the Görings put on such excellent balls?
Luckily, as we know from the previously published version, he did later change his mind. But in any case the final impression here, and the dominant one, is not Repulsion but Fascination. There are many elements to this. Key details about matters of state appear here for the first time: inside information about the abdication of Edward VIII, given in confidence by the Duke of Kent, for example, or the extraordinary story behind Anthony Eden’s resignation as foreign secretary in 1938, which involved a letter concocted jointly by Austen Chamberlain’s widow and Mussolini’s foreign minister.
Channon’s private life is not without interest too. To the unsuspecting reader, the fact that he is bisexual may dawn rather slowly, though his passionate descriptions of his housemate in his bachelor days (a viscount, naturally) supply more than an inkling. The gradual estrangement from his wife does seem to have been her fault, as she prolonged her skiing holidays to pursue off-piste entanglements with handsome instructors. In these areas, admittedly, readers may be getting less than the full truth. But in the end nothing can be more genuine than Channon’s wholehearted tenderness towards his baby son.
After Fascination, there is just one more stage to add: Admiration – not for Chips, but for his editor, Simon Heffer. The notes here, with their parade of noble titles and flashes of wry humour, may keep the parodist Craig Brown in business for weeks on end, but they will remain a monument to precision and omniscience for decades. Chips Channon, such a stickler for correctness, has been outstickled here, in one of the most impressive editions of our time.
Henry ‘Chips’ Channon: The Diaries, 1918-1938, edited by Simon Heffer, is published by Hutchinson at £35. To order your copy for £30 call 0844 871 1514 or visit the Telegraph Bookshop