Contemporaries of Henry “Chips” Channon’s would be astounded that he is generating headlines more than 60 years after his death. The son of a rich Chicago businessman, Channon moved to London shortly after the end of the First World War, where he became an indefatigable socialite, entranced by the British aristocracy. Having become a British subject in 1933, he entered Parliament two years later, but, despite a 23-year political career, rose no higher than a brief spell as parliamentary aide to a junior minister. Then, in 1967, nine years after his death, came the publication of his diaries.
Frivolous, gossipy, and waspish, the diaries were a literary sensation. The foibles and trivialities of recent high and political society were laid bare, and even Channon’s natural enemies could not help but be impressed. “What sharp an eye! What neat malice!” extolled one reviewer, despite blasting the author for his snobbery.
This first edition caused a stir. It could have caused a storm. The editor, Robert Rhodes James, never saw the original manuscripts but was fed carefully edited transcripts by Channon’s friend, lover, and literary executor, Peter Coats. In order to hide the love affairs of Channon and others, to protect the former politician’s reputation, and to prevent the law courts from being overwhelmed by a flood of libel suits, many of the juicier passages had been redacted.
Now, for the first time, the unexpurgated diaries are being made available to the public. They do not disappoint.
The Glitzy Stuff
For the rich and gilded, the period described in this first volume—1918, 1923–28, and 1934–38, with a second volume due in the fall—was a time of unparalleled hedonism. Balls, lunches, race meetings, clubs, and cocktails tumble from the pages in almost unbroken succession. That Channon was both a snob and a social climber is undeniable: he was mesmerized by titles, fascinated by royalty, and obsessed with his own position in what he referred to as the “beau monde.” Fortunately for posterity, he was also an astute observer with an accomplished, if acid, pen.
Memorable portraits from the new edition, meticulously edited by Simon Heffer, include the Duchess of Atholl, “a sex-starved, intelligent, semi-crazed little creature who looks like a downtrodden secretary”; the young Duke of Richmond, the sort of man who “would be perfectly happy as assistant manager of a garage, living in a small flat with lace curtains at the window”; and the future leader of the British Union of Fascists, Oswald Mosley, “a clear fraud, an egotistical sadist revolutionary, a cad of the lowest order.”
Of King Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson, whom Channon courted assiduously, there are full character sketches, as well as numerous appearances. Although the diarist enjoyed the glow of the King’s charm, he realized that it was transitory and that the monarch was also a bounder, petulant and selfish. Edward, Channon writes, was “loyal to nobody … never made real friends, only intimates and then dropped them.” Channon reveals his scheme to marry the then Prince of Wales to Princess Marina of Greece—who later married the Prince’s younger brother, the Duke of Kent—but claims that he was thwarted by that “Queen of bitches,” the Prince’s then mistress, Freda Dudley Ward.
Toward Simpson, Channon was empathetic: “She was dazzled by English life, pleased to call duchesses by their Christian names.” Although he understood the public’s consternation over the fact that their King was “the slave of a slightly common little American who has had two husbands and two divorces,” he regretted that they never knew the positive effect she had on the monarch.
On the subject of the less glamorous but infinitely preferable George VI and Queen Elizabeth (the present Queen’s parents), he is judicious, if not always correct. The Queen, he writes, is “well bred, kind, gentle and slack.” By slack he means “lazy,” and prophesies that “she will never be a great Queen for she will never be up in time!” As for her husband: “He is good, he is dull, he is dutiful.… He is completely uninteresting, undistinguished and a godawful bore!”
That Channon was both a snob and a social climber is undeniable: he was mesmerized by titles, fascinated by royalty, and obsessed with his own position in what he referred to as the “beau monde.”
Among Channon’s more startling theories is that Edward VIII suffered from suppressed homosexual inclinations. Whether or not there was any truth in this assertion, the same could not be said of Channon, who, as the unexpurgated diaries confirm, was actively bisexual, with a preference for men. His great early loves were his post-Oxford housemates, Viscount Gage and Prince Paul of Yugoslavia. Later, despite marrying the heiress Honor Guinness, Channon had dalliances with fellow Conservative M.P.’s Harold Balfour and Jim Thomas.
Channon was a loyal and generous friend, famed for the lavishness of his hospitality. His dining room in Belgrave Square was modeled on the Hall of Mirrors in the Amalienburg hunting lodge, near Munich, and he delighted in entertaining his guests in these rococo surroundings. Explaining his decision to appoint Channon his parliamentary aide, the Foreign Office minister R. A. Butler declared that he needed to attach a first-class restaurant car to his train.
The Ghastly Stuff
“All people whether male or female, who are attracted by men and force are pro-German,” wrote Channon in May 1936. “The ‘softies’ … who make a cult of female-worship, are pro-French.” That Channon had asinine political judgment was clear from the 1967 edition. He was aesthetically and ideologically sympathetic to the Nazi regime, which he considered a bulwark against Communism, and his commitment to the policy of appeasement and his hero worship of Neville Chamberlain were absolute.
Yet however embarrassing Channon’s political views appeared in the first edition, it is now apparent that even these had been sanitized. Thus, we find Channon writing in the new edition: “I don’t believe in war talk. Germany is now openly armed: one day she will attack France, but I doubt if England will go in. I hope not. I don’t care to lose a limb or a drop of blood for those damned French Frogs.”
More disturbing is to see how Channon’s anti-Semitism, not uncommon among his adopted class, allowed him to shrug off the evils of the Hitler regime: “The atrocities in Germany cause very little excitement really,” he confides in August 1935. “The latest Jew-baiting, the beatings, the alleged sexual perversions and outrages—who cares!” Three years later and he is deploring the British government’s belated efforts to re-arm, since “this country has only to have a German alliance and this vast expenditure would be unnecessary,” and lamenting the fact that people “cannot understand the new vigorous civilisation of the Nazis.”
Although Channon was frequently wrong and occasionally repellent, there is no denying his talent as a diarist or the historical value of his diaries. Lacking pomposity or dissemblance, his entries are often witty, sometimes perceptive, and always fascinating. He may never have had a great political career and was disappointed in his ultimate ambition of being made a Lord. Yet it would surely have pleased him to know that he is still being talked about, while many of his more successful contemporaries are long forgotten.
Henry “Chips” Channon: The Diaries, 1918–38, edited by Simon Heffer, goes on sale in the U.K. on March 4. To coincide with the book’s release, Heywood Hill bookshop, in London, will host a conversation with Heffer and British M.P. Michael Gove, streaming from the Heywood Hill Web site
Tim Bouverie is the author of Appeasement: Chamberlain, Hitler, Churchill, and the Road to War