Henry ‘Chips’ Channon: The Diaries (Volume 2): 1938-43 by Chips Channon edited by Simon Heffer
Hutchinson, £35, 1,120 pages
This doorstop of a book is the second of Henry Channon’s long and much-anticipated uncensored diaries, and it’s well worth the wait. For many decades his heirs withheld permission of publication, fearing Channon’s more stinging comments on those who opposed his – misguidedly, as he eventually realised, but deeply right-wing – political views at the cusp of the Second World War. Some he (often justifiably) considered charlatans would upset worshipping widows and reality blinkered offspring. A sensible approach; wiser to hold fire than shot-scatter Sasha Swire-wise, though a later, living diarist Roy Strong succeeded in including many a withering demolition job without a qualm.
There are some such barbs in this volume, buried among the fact-packed, Hansard-like accounts of daily business in the Commons. Here, as Conservative member for Southend, backing his hero PM Neville (‘Mein Gampf’) Chamberlain’s appeasement strategy, and later private secretary to Rab Butler, Chips gives us access all areas, while in his glittering rococo Belgravia dining room he champagne’d and foie gras’d statesmen and society at after-Westminster-hours soirées, with Chips a combination of Talleyrand and Elsa Maxwell.
His seat and parliamentary position came via the patronage of the family he would soon marry into. The immensely rich Iveaghs, scions of a many-tentacled Guinness beerage, simply adored him. Lady Iveagh handed him Southend on a plate, the Earl shoving many a bung to swell the Meissen porcelain and the silver-gilt. When, due to Lady Honor’s lusting for a rougher amour impropre (”she has a sordid taste for low life… why did she marry that exquisite, orchidaceous, cultured, creature Chips?” he wrote), divorce became inevitable, he received a vast settlement from his doting in-laws. Channon clearly had dignity and impudence in equal measure.
Thus to put him down as a social climber and snob is too easy. A romantic from his youthful arrival in Paris from 1900s Chicago, and entranced by ancient lineage and customs, he simultaneously cultivated artists and writers, Proust among them. A decade later, in London, this blossomed into fully fledged passion for royalty and titles, but one gets the impression this was fuelled by what and why and how such figures existed, not simply who. His agile brain twigged that, in those times, the throned or dethroned monarchs skitting around Europe knew far more of – and were willing to express their views on – crucial situations than the Hello! figureheads of today. It’s surprising to read that the seemingly-mild Marina, Duchess of Kent was a political hot-head, frequently contacting statesmen to give them a piece of her mind. Channon’s heart-to-hearts in tiara’d ballrooms with the Queen of Spain or Crown Prince Tiddlypush milled much inside grist. His circle was snobbish, it hardly knew how not to be; it took time for arrivistes like Waugh and Rex Whistler and Coward (“Noel has set himself up as a political hostess”) or Fred Ashton to be assimilated. Channon, himself in these pages not noticeably witty, has a sharp ear for that of others. The tall, gaunt Lady Asquith “came in, face a death mask. Emerald said, ‘There’s little Margot. Isn’t she looking refreshing?’” And could one resist a lady named Princess Woolly?
And yet, and yet… despite the Benzedrine cocktails and laughter, the parliamentary schmoozing, a melancholy note runs through Channon’s narrative. Early crushes, mostly on aristocratic male contemporaries, while often sharing his bed, are unfulfilled; there are hints at more outré commercial reliefs. Inner loneliness, a self-doubt at the worthiness of his success, pervades until he marries and has the son he adores, but to whom Lady Honor is distinctly cold. Chips assumes a touching, almost motherly care; when Paul is sent to America for the war, his anxiety is palpable. He is never really happy until, during the marriage, he meets Peter Coats who remained his lifetime partner. The account of their early-wartime stay in Cairo shows Chips at his enchanting, and enchanted, best. “I want to live here and become a pasha!” briefly replaces “I want to be a peer.”
That peerage evades him, the “old order” fades, but Channon accepts the new with wary relish. We can expect to meet this more raffish circle in the third volume of these entertaining diaries.
Nicky Haslam is a writer and designer
This article first appeared in the October 2021 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe here.
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