Henry (Chips) Channon, former Chicagoan married to Lady Honor of the Guinness family (Photo credit: Bettmann / Contributor)

A chip on his shoulder

The diaries of Chips Channon

Artillery Row Books

In our modern world, it has become more and more common to trash one’s so-called “friends” in a very public manner. Take Meghan Markle’s public denouncement of her husband’s family as an example. Yet, for most of Chips Channon’s life, this was not something that people in polite society did — at least not publicly. To point out every flaw in someone’s character, or expose every sordid scandalous detail in their lives, most often led to the social ostracism of the writer who was judged to have betrayed his friends.

Henry ‘Chips’ Channon, The Diaries: 1943-57, Edited by Simon Heffer (Cornerstone, £35.00)

In the November 1975 edition of Esquire, Truman Capote published an extract from his long-awaited book Answered Prayers, in which he effectively ridiculed his friends and acquaintances, making them appear vapid, ridiculous and insensitive. La Côte Basque 1965 sounded the death knell on Capote’s friendships with most of New York high society, and the majority of those he had named never spoke to him again. As for Chips Channon — Nancy Mitford and Diana Cooper deemed the heavily edited version of his diaries, published in 1967 and edited by Robert Rhode James, to be outrageous. One can only begin to wonder how Chips’ friends would have reacted had they read his unexpurgated diaries. 

Simon Heffer’s editorship of volume three of the Chips Channon diaries is as polished and detailed as the previous two volumes. To edit over 1.2 million words in roughly three years, complete with incredibly detailed and informative footnotes, is no regular feat, and he must be commended for the task. Heffer’s latest edition is particularly exciting as it is the first appearance of Chips’ diaries from 1952–57. The Rhode James edition ended in 1952 with the supposition that Chips’ failing health had caused him to stop writing. Yet, several decades later, a man appeared at the door of the home of Chips’ grandson with the missing manuscript. He claimed to have bought the pages at a car boot sale and, realising what they were, thought it his duty to return the pages to the family. It is surprising that Peter Coates, who had lived with Chips continuously during the last years of his life, had not questioned the absence of five years’ worth of diaries. But then, considering how incriminating those years would have been for him, he would likely have omitted most of the material for the 1967 edition. 

His diaries are littered with mentions of royalty

Chips left his diaries to his long-time homosexual lover Peter Coates, with the intention that their heavily edited publication would provide for him financially. One of Coates’ first acts, in a process that took him five years, was to take out every mention of himself, keeping in mind that homosexuality was still illegal in Britain, and he could have been prosecuted. Therefore, this new edition will be of undoubted interest to scholars of queer history. Yet Chips was far from being faithful, having an affair with playwright Terence Rattigan whilst Coates was abroad on military duties, and regularly picking up guardsmen on nights out. He regularly wrote of his close encounters, nights with lovers that could easily have landed him in hot water.

Chips was incredibly careful with his liaisons and as far as we know was never caught. Yet, he made little attempt to be faithful to either his wife, whom he divorced in 1945, or to Peter Coates, displaying to the reader a deeply flawed man but also a deeply lost one. The diaries reveal that he spent his declining years chasing promotion — and although he did gain a knighthood, he eventually gave up all hopes of political office or entry into the royal inner circle. Knowing everyone who mattered and attending every notable party did not a praiseworthy politician make. 

Little did Heffer know that his publication date would coincide with the day that HM Queen Elizabeth II died. The reader cannot help but view the diaries in light of this shift in historical events and pay detailed attention to Chips’ recollection of the accession and coronation of the Queen. Chips was obsessed with royalty, yet he did not hide his honest opinions, stating that “[Princess Elizabeth] had been, and certainly looked, cross and was ungracious” on a visit to Edinburgh, and on her accession that “the new Queen is determined, humourless, serious and will be a success but not loved — after her youth and novelty wear off”. With the advantage of hindsight, we can say that Chips was somewhat off the mark with this assumption.

His diaries are littered with mentions of royalty: Princess Olga, Prince Paul, the Duchess of Kent, his opinions on the Queen Mother and her political inclinations, his distaste for King George VI, whom he called “uninteresting, unintellectual, and unintelligent”. Chips did not hold back, and he seemed to have forgotten that he was not born British. Perhaps it was his American birth, and slight outsider status, that allowed him to be so rashly honest and to view royals as having human foibles and weaknesses. 

Heffer has given us a veritable treasure trove

Chips did intend that his diaries would eventually be published in full, with a date sixty years after his death being set. That date was reached in 2018, and Simon Heffer was tasked with editing the diaries by the Channon family. These are the unexpurgated diaries of Chips Channon, but they are still incomplete. There are no diaries from 1919–22, Heffer’s theory being that they were too shocking even for Chips, and that he destroyed them before his death. There is a gap of six months in 1946, which Chips did not explain when he took up his pen again. Perhaps he also destroyed these pages, or perhaps Coates did so out of hurt, returning from deployment during the war and discovering his lover’s affair with Terence Rattigan. 

We may never know the answers to these mysteries, but Heffer has given us a veritable treasure trove — over a million words compared to Rhodes James’ 150,000. Several generations of history students have viewed the expurgated diaries as an excellent source of the Second World War. Generations to come will view Heffer’s work as an incredible source for studying the interwar, war and postwar years. Yet, the diaries are also a human story, portraying a man’s life from early adulthood to premature death. Chips knew everyone, went everywhere and had an opinion on everything. Despite planning the eventual publication of his diaries, he did not hold back and gave a real glimpse into his thoughts and prejudices. He was a deeply flawed character, yet he was innately human because of it. Whether we like it or not, we can all see something of ourselves in Chips Channon. 

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