When the diaries of Field Marshal Earl Haig were published in the 1930s, he was unkindly described as one of the few men in history to have committed suicide after his death. Much the same might now be said of Henry “Chips” Channon, the Chicago-born millionaire, socialite, bisexual, antisemite and feather-brained snob who sat as Tory MP for Southend from 1935 until his death in 1958.
The first version of his diaries, which appeared in 1967, represented only a fraction of the material he had left behind, and which he always hoped to have published. It immediately took its place alongside the journals of Harold Nicolson as one of the most engrossing accounts of English high society and politics in the 1930s and 1940s. Even so there was an unpleasant undertone. “You can’t think how vile & spiteful and silly it is,” wrote Nancy Mitford in the 1960s. “One always thought Chips was rather a dear, but he was black inside how sinister!”
That initial selection, however, was but an appetizer — un amuse-bouche, as Channon (always keen to use a pretentious French phrase rather than a plain English one) would have put it — compared with the full banquet now being served up in three massive, handsomely produced and supremely well-edited volumes. This middle tome alone must run to about half a million words.
Great swathes of material are now included that were considered unpublishable in the 1960s — cruel remarks and libelous gossip about people who were then still alive or only recently dead; virulent passages of antisemitism, defeatism and something close to sympathy for fascism, at least as a bulwark against communism; promiscuous homosexuality and occasionally lurid sexual fantasy (“I would give almost anything to be taken into the woods, stripped and whipped by a fat middle-aged severe woman”) that are eye-widening even to a supposedly less easily shocked reader in the 21st century.
The diaries were originally censored by Channon’s long-term lover, Peter Coats (“Petticoats”), who thereby protected both himself (homosexuality was decriminalized only in 1967), and Channon’s ex-wife, Lady Honor, who lived until 1976. He also, one can see now, protected Channon, who emerges from this extended exposure as considerably less amusing and insightful than he seemed in the 1960s, and even (quelle horreur!) as something of a bore.
Channon was always keen to use a pretentious French phrase rather than a plain English one.
There is, to begin with, the obvious vileness. Tel Aviv is “horrible, a Jew-infested resort”. Jews generally are “a deplorable race and it is for them, is it, that we are fighting?” Julian Amery is “an insinuating Jew boy”. On and on it goes. Only after December 1942, when the sufferings of European Jewry are described in the Commons and “the House as a whole rose and stood for a few frozen seconds in silence”, does the antisemitism begin to let up.
Then there is the almost comical lack of prescience: “The whole House expects war,” he writes on August 24, 1939, “only I do not.” Five days before Chamberlain (“the most miraculous human alive”) is forced to resign in May 1940: “I prophesy that he will weather this storm.” The Churchill government “cannot last very long now” (that in December 1940: the first of several such predictions). Hearing rumors of an impending German attack on the USSR in the summer of 1941, he remarks: “I for one do not believe in this theory.... If Hitler does attack Russia it will be the cleverest act of his whole career.”
There is the absurd overestimation of his own importance and that of his small social circle: “I have frustrated [Churchill]. He little guessed when he antagonised me what a powerful enemy I should become.” “We are ruled by a small group of 30-40 people, including myself.” “Mrs [Ronnie] Greville rang up: she is intriguing furiously against the government”; she “terrifies both society and the government”. As the diaries’ editor, Simon Heffer, remarks, with dry understatement, Channon was never given office because “the view of him among Churchill’s set [was] that he was not entirely serious”.
And, of course, there is the malice (“malice is the currency in all high civilised, aristocratic circles”): “Maureen Stanley is desperately ill and may die; I most certainly hope so. [She is] a vampire, nymphomaniac, a drunkard.” On his estranged wife, a Guinness heiress whose money financed his sybaritic lifestyle: “Every night now I pray that she will soon die.” Churchill is “a selfish, paranoid old ape, charmless, arrogant, grumpy, disagreeable, bullying, irritating”. His hatred of Churchill, who couldn’t abide him, is a constant theme and leads him into weird misjudgments. Of the “finest hour” speech he observes: “I wasn’t very impressed.”
On his estranged wife, a Guinness heiress whose money financed his sybaritic lifestyle: “Every night now I pray that she will soon die.”
The people Channon finds interesting — dukes, minor royalty, the inevitable Diana Cooper (“the greatest woman of all time”; she arrived “with a tiny bag containing only a toothbrush and a nightdress; she unpacked herself”) — are described at exhausting length.
The people he doesn’t — for example TS Eliot, who comes to dinner in July 1943 — are not described at all. The essential nullity of his limited world is encapsulated in the volume’s best joke, after the Allied armies invade Italy: “When I said, ‘Isn’t it wonderful about Sicily?’ Laura [Corrigan] answered, ‘Sicily who?’”
And yet, and yet — I confess it — I could not help enjoying the two weeks it took me to read every word — and because of, perhaps, rather than despite, the egocentric twaddle. (“London is in a ferment today; my snubbing Kenneth Clark has caused a sensation.”)
One surrenders to the rhythm of the endless prose. It is Proust without the insight into human character. It is social life in Pompeii before the eruption. No words of praise are too high for Heffer, who has tracked down every obscure third son of the fourth earl to provide some biographical context, and who interjects the occasional weary, deflating footnote.
When all three volumes are published it will be a monument to scholarship; to what else I am not entirely sure.
Henry “Chips” Channon: The Diaries, 1938–43 is out now in the U.K.
Robert Harris, formerly a journalist and BBC television reporter, is the author of several best-selling novels, including, most recently, V2