Chips, with everything

Mr Heffer has produced a monumental second volume on Henry ‘Chips’ Channon to match his first

This article is taken from the November 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

Diaries are captivating, they tell us so much about so much. They magic up the mood behind the headlines of the time and the slang, preoccupations and prejudices of the day. Alan Clark’s entries from the 1970s illuminate the era’s industrial strife with acid observations of dirty train compartments and slovenly guards, supply us with every seventies slang word under the sun for urination and coin a sartorial look known as the “demi-Heseltine”. They also depict the diarist’s hopes, fears and private feelings.

Henry ‘Chips’ Channon: The Diaries 1938-43, edited by Simon Heffer (Hutchinson, £35)

Alan Duncan’s debut diaries published earlier this year paint a self-portrait that is funny, fretful, fussy and sometimes fickle in ways that the debonair despatch box image masked from his audience.

They tell us, too, much about the editor, if there is one. In 1966, Robert Rhodes James’s “Chips” was our first glimpse at Sir Henry Channon’s diaries. It shows someone limited by both the libel laws (Anthony Eden, Diana Cooper, Rab Butler, Honor Svejdar and many other key actors were still alive) and the accepted rules of reputation (Churchill, though dead, was still a memory sacred and unassailable). He was also constrained by Channon’s executor Peter Coats who did to the Rhodes James manuscripts what Princess Beatrice did for Queen Victoria’s journals.

No such niceties have restricted Simon Heffer’s magisterial makeover of the Channon canon, with the second volume of his triptych covering the period 1938 to 1943. Here we see the neophyte diarist of the 1920s mature into the worldly, sometimes melancholy society sophisticate standing at the side of great events, though never quite at their centre, as war clouds gather over Europe and Britain wrestles with appeasement.

There is much more new material which helps crystallise and colour the period

Volume two begins with three breakdowns: that of peace abroad as Nazi demands on the Sudetenland threaten war before the “miracle” of Munich; consensus at home on appeasement as the British Cabinet and the Conservative Party demand a tougher stance on Hitler’s territorial ambitions; and the demise (albeit a sad, slow one) of Channon’s marriage to Lady Honor Guinness, daughter of the Earl of Iveagh and heiress to a share of the huge brewing fortune.

This latter misfortune, thanks to these diaries, is for the first time revealed to be much more complex than supposed. On 25th October 1938 Channon records Honor is “in a depressing, gloomy mood which cuts my heart and drenches my hopes”. His wife’s “nerves” and the growing estrangement which saw her take long trips abroad is evidently very painful to him. He reports with honesty and sadness their difficulties that predate by at least a year the arrival in his life, and in short order his bedroom, of his long-term companion and “pierrot” Peter Coats.

There is much more new material which helps crystallise and colour the period. The entries for September 1939 as Britain goes to war are as fulsome and fascinating as anything Alan Clark wrote about the fall of Thatcher. Through Channon’s eyes, and pen, we see the excitement and the confusion in Parliament, the Foreign Office and in Downing Street as time runs out on the British ultimatum on Poland.

We watch him mix a “very icy martini” to fortify Rab Butler before he confers with the Prime Minister about joint action with France (though whether Rab was fortifiable is another question). We sense the taut atmosphere of the Commons as statements are first announced then delayed whilst the Government assesses the Italian offer of mediation.

We catch a glimpse of the surreal as Sir Samuel Hoare, dressed in black tie, stands alone in the Cabinet Room watching the Cabinet “war” and “peace” parties grapple over how to respond. These entries are long and detailed, but Mr Heffer is right not to clip them for their effect is electrifying and, as heavy as the volume is, one cannot put it down.

We also see inside the 1930s social whirl. Evelyn Waugh wrote about the antics of the “Bright Young Things”. Channon’s world, though much older, is no less bright as he chronicles a seemingly endless procession of brilliant parties, dinners and suppers that divert democracy’s diplomats and dilettantes on the eve of war. In November 1938 Channon votes in the Commons until late at night, “looked in” at a “small supper party” thrown by Sibyl Colefax, gives Duff and Diana Cooper a lift home to the Admiralty then returns to the Colefax party where he argues violently with Noel Coward who is “bitten by Communism”.

On a later occasion during wartime, he gives a cocktail party for royalty at his house in Belgrave Square, dines at the House of Commons then rushes to the Savoy for a small supper party with champagne that goes on into the small hours. Some Members today complain about long nights at the House, but in the 1930s it seems the British ruling class never slept — and neither did their chauffeurs. The names recounted in these entries are a roll call of the political, literary, social and financial powers of the age.

The striking thing is how repetitive they are. Whether in the Commons, in society salons or at the Mirabelle, the same names crop up again and again. In 1962, Anthony Sampson clinically dissected Establishment power structures in his seminal work Anatomy of Britain. In his detailed diaries, Chips Channon did the work unwittingly a generation earlier.

The unexpurgated entries also tell us vividly the private story of Channon himself. Born to wealth, and married into wealth greater still, we see a figure who, though inside the Establishment, remained essentially an outsider. An American who became British, Channon won a seat in Parliament but never progressed further than bag carrier to Rab Butler, despite his devoted attachment to both him and Neville Chamberlain whom he dubbed “a saint”.

He prized his friendship with members of the Royal Family, primarily the Duke and Duchess of Kent, but never joined the innermost circle. He never became a privy counsellor and was knighted only in the last year of his life. His was a world of society hostesses, cocktail parties and court levees. Of shopping trips to Bond Street, dinners at The Ritz and languid weekends in country houses; the world of a glittering gadfly.

It was also one of casual racism and anti-Semitism which, though not unusual for the time, was ugly and unpleasant. Yet despite his many friends and obvious adoration of his young son Paul, it was a lonely existence essentially unfulfilled until Peter Coats joined his life after 1939. Coats was also fundamental to Channon’s life after death. As his literary executor Coats altered, and in places re-wrote, the diary to remove racial slurs and the cattiness that litter the unexpurgated pages.

Mr Heffer has undertaken a painstaking appraisal of the original manuscript, not the bowdlerised version passed off to Robert Rhodes James

Channon’s soul was poetic, but he had a poisonous pen. Anthony Eden was an “ass”, Duff Cooper a “bantom cock”, Churchill an “angry bullfrog”. Neville Chamberlain was “the greatest man of all time”. Coats’s chiaroscuro played upon the poetry while drawing the venom, presenting a highly stylised portrait of his friend. Cleaning the canvas was Mr Heffer’s challenge, and in so doing we learn a lot about the new editor and his craft.

Mr Heffer has undertaken a painstaking appraisal of the original manuscript, not the bowdlerised version passed off to Robert Rhodes James. He has erred on the side of inclusion, excising little and allowing Channon to speak for himself. He has, very helpfully, included a dramatis personae in his introduction, detailing the key players in Channon’s world.

He has also included a great many footnotes to each page — and it is here that Mr Heffer, who is a man of great learning, wears that learning like a British Warm. For there are far too many. Page 87 has eleven footnotes; page 845 manages to get by with eight. Most pages have at least four, and many are too long. The note on Quintin Hogg and the Oxford by-election runs to fourteen lines and contains a sub-plot within the sub-plot.

Some notes, for example the information that Moss Harris & Sons was a society antique store of the time, are genuinely helpful. By contrast, the footnote describing Adolf Hitler, one assumes, is for the benefit of Martian readers. Granted, Channon was a name-dropper of considerable enthusiasm but the effect of all these editorial distractions is to draw the reader away from the narrative and into too many blue-blooded byways.

One has to concentrate hard on the entries and read the footnotes later. But it is worth the effort. Mr Heffer has produced a monumental second volume to match his first. Clearly he has enjoyed his work marshalling the original manuscript and anyone interested in the social and political life of Britain of the period should enjoy his effort

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