Alan Clark, from close reading of the first volume of “Chips” Channon’s diaries, published in 1967, thought the writer to be “snobbish, arriviste, but intensely observant.” Little did he know that in a then unpublished entry, Chips considered Alan’s parents, whom he met when his father Kenneth Clark was appointed Director of the National Gallery, to be “chic, snobbish, clever, charming and a ‘touch bogus.’” The Channon diaries were the model for Alan Clark’s own, and both men could claim to be amongst the greatest political exponents of the artform in the twentieth century; their works full of caustic humour, honest self-reflection, sharp insights and wild indiscretions.
The 1967 volume covered the period from 1934 until Channon’s death in 1958 but was heavily edited to minimise legal action from those still living. Yet Chips started writing his diaries in 1918, and the full manuscript is estimated to be over two million words in length, of which only around 250,000 had previously been published. Chips didn’t want his full diaries to be made public until sixty years after his death and now, thanks to the Channon family, and the masterly editing of Simon Heffer, we have the first instalment; a 1,000-page tome covering the period from 1 January 1918, to Neville Chamberlain and Adolf Hitler signing the Munich agreement in September 1938.
In his diaries has lain undisturbed the kind of honest insights into people’s lives, loves and attitudes that anxious relatives have carefully removed from many family archives over the years.
Chips was born in 1897 into a wealthy Chicago shipping family and launched himself into English high society whilst studying at Oxford. And in his diaries has lain undisturbed the kind of honest insights into people’s lives, loves and attitudes that anxious relatives have carefully removed from many family archives over the years. My first interest in the Channon diaries came whilst writing a biography of Sir Philip Sassoon. It has generally been assumed that this bachelor millionaire politician was gay, and here, in a previously excluded entry, Chips tells us whilst staying at Sassoon’s estate on the south Kent coast, about “The boyfriends! About half of the Air Force, of which he is the chief come and go…with amazing ease and familiarity, much to the jealous and righteous annoyance of those not sufficiently well-born or, more important, sufficiently handsome, to be invited.”
The first half of this new volume of diaries is full of the hedonistic lifestyle of a wealthy young man in the Roaring Twenties. There’s the stripping game with actress Tallulah Bankhead and a friend, after a night out at Mayfair’s Embassy Club. From The Lido in Venice in 1925, amidst a gathering of Cosmopolitan bright young things, wearing swimsuits and G-strings, he bemoans, “the same scandals; the same decadent people. Oh! Why must Venice ever attract the world’s scum?” In April 1928, he sets off with his close friend George Gage for ‘adventure and debauchery” in Berlin, where they join up with the bisexual British diplomat Harold Nicholson for a tour of the city’s cabarets. “The first contained nothing but men dressed as women … Later we went to two ordinary dancing places and we saw men actually kissing each other.”
Himself bisexual, Chips had many close male friendships, most notably with Prince Paul of Yugoslavia, of whom he writes, “No such intimacy with another human being has ever been mine.” Channon had a romantic attachment to royalty, particularly the Prince of Wales, later Duke of Windsor, and his wild and stylish brother, Prince George the Duke of Kent. Chips hoped Germany would restore its throne in the 1920s and when Hindenburg was elected President in 1925, which some hoped would lead to the end of the Weimar Republic, Channon noted, “secretly I am glad whereon the pendulum swings towards monarchists – I am all for absolute monarchies and inquisitions and forced Catholicism.” The Catholicism came not from his American upbringing, but the influence of an old priest in Paris in 1918, L’abbe Mugnier, a confidant of Marcel Proust. Channon noted, his doctrines were “so beautifully and insidiously expressed… at the end of two hours my hereditary resistance was broken down and I became a Roman Catholic in heart at least and realise I will continue to be so all of my life.”
I am all for absolute monarchies and inquisitions and forced Catholicism – Henry “Chips” Channon
In 1933 Chips married the heiress, Lady Honor Guinness, and they entertained in grand style at their London home, 5 Belgrave Square, and Kelvedon, their country estate in Essex. In 1935, he took over from his mother-in-law, the Countess of Iveagh, to become the Conservative Party MP for Southend. The second half of this volume of the diaries is dominated by the great political events of the late 1930s. Channon supported the King during the Abdication Crisis, and here he casts a critical eye over Queen Elizabeth, later the Queen Mother; “a Queen Elizabeth was “a gentle soul, unambitious, but with a streak of treachery and gay malice”.
In 1936, he was also appointed as a parliamentary aide to Rab Butler, then a junior minister at the Foreign Office, and these diaries include considerable new material that was edited out of the 1967 volume, particularly relating to Channon’s views on appeasement and the rise of Nazi Germany. In 1936 he was invited to the opening of the Berlin Olympics, where he noted when Hitler entered the stadium, ‘one felt one was in the presence of some semi-divine creature’. He also enjoyed parties hosted by leading Nazis, including “the famous, fantastic Goring.” Fiercely loyal to Neville Chamberlain, Chips was dismissive of Churchill’s warnings about Hitler. Following a House of Commons debate in 1937 Channon wrote, “what utter nonsense” he talks about Germany, believing that Winston had become “obsessed” at the “Nazi peril.”
This book ends before Hitler’s betrayal of the promises he made to Neville Chamberlain become clear. Two further volumes of diaries will be released in 2021 and ’22 which will not only delight the general reader with their wit and charm, but also be an invaluable resource for writers and historians for many years to come.
Damian Collins is the Conservative MP for Folkestone and Hythe.