Henry ‘Chips’ Channon: The Diaries 1918-38

Edited by Simon Heffer

Hutchinson, £35

Review by Alan Taylor

Diarists, like double agents, are drawn to the shadows. They are flies on the wall, peepers through keyholes, compulsive eavesdroppers, clandestine recorders. The best diarists tend to be bit players; they don’t run things but they bear witness to those who do. Samuel Pepys, the doyen of diarists, was secretary to the Admiralty with a ringside seat at the court of Charles II, while James Boswell gatecrashed his way into the confidence not only of Samuel Johnson but also of Voltaire and Rousseau. The diaries both kept were not intended for public display, which in part accounts for their astonishing frankness. They wrote without inhibition (the curse of most failed diarists), their greatest fear being that their wives would read their outpourings.

Henry Channon, known to his chums as Chips, is of their ilk. Coming from a wealthy American family, he was an outsider in England from the end of the First World War to his death in 1958. As he records, he had, like his hero Pepys, “unusual opportunities for intimacy with interesting people and almost genius for being at the centre of things”. He was also a fluent writer with a Tolstoyan gift of bringing alive roomfuls of people. His diary is testimony to his insatiable curiosity, manic sociability and breathtaking snobbery. Here was a man who would have gone to the opening of a nail bar, albeit one which would not have hoi polloi among its clientele. Few were the nights he spent at home twiddling his thumbs and when he did, he worried that he had been snubbed or was no longer flavour of the month. Thus, his diaries are a wonderfully embellished and salacious Who’s Who of an age of rapacious privilege.

Born in Chicago – “this cauldron of horror” – in 1897, Channon was the only child of a ship owner and banker. He seems to have had little time for either of his parents; years could pass without him paying them a visit. Contact with his distant father usually involved requests for money. Twice he mentions that his mother dotes on him yet she has never “made me a present”. In 1924 he had an annual allowance of £800 (around £50,000 today) and in the years to come he would have much more, not least because of his marriage into the Guinness clan. So divorced from reality was he that in 1925, when the government decided to subsidise the coal industry, he writes: “But is it wise to drop palliatives to the proletariat, who go on clamouring for more?”

Like many of his kinsmen in the early decades of the last century, he preferred Europe to the United States. On learning that 231 Americans were killed during Independence Day celebrations, his response is: “What a pity there were not more.”

Paris, which he had first visited as an adolescent, was his playground even as German bombs rained down on it. Many were the wild oats he sowed there. From the mid-1930s onward he was a Conservative MP but he was little more than lobby fodder. Blessedly released from responsibility, he was free to adopt the role of observer. Thus, he gives invaluable accounts of the Abdication of Edward VIII – “Will the monarchy survive this blow?” – and the appeasement of Hitler, of which he approved. In 1935, Channon writes: “My secret sympathies are ever with autocracies, and I’d rather have the Nazi-ism and Fascism on my side than Russian Soviets or tense nervy croaking French Frogs. We seem not to know where our interests lie.”

Where Channon’s interests lay is clear. He was anti-communist, anti-Semitic and anti anyone below-stairs. Together with other English politicians and panjandrums, he partook of the Nazis’ hospitality at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. As Simon Heffer, the diaries’ deft editor, notes in his introduction, “Channon would have had to be blind and stupid (and he was neither) not to have noticed the horrific acts carried out by Hitler’s lackeys against Jews and other opponents of the regime.” Seeing the Führer at a rally, he reports: “One felt one was in the presence of some semi-divine creature: I was more thrilled than when I met Mussolini ...; more stimulated than when I was blessed by the Pope.” He was taken to see a “labour camp”, which had been given a makeover to impress gullible visitors. As far as Channon was concerned, it could have been Butlin’s. “England could learn many a lesson from Nazi Germany,” he concluded. “I cannot understand the English dislike and suspicion of the Nazi regime.”

It is difficult to know what to make of such remarks. Channon was smart, sophisticated, well-connected and well-read. He must have known the depths to which the Nazis were prepared to plummet yet he embraced them like a convert. Göring is “a loveably disarming man”. Goebbels, meanwhile, is “dark, intelligent and slightly sinister”. Odious, oleaginous Ribbentrop is invited to dinner. There is something childlike about Channon’s naive enthusiasm, his determination to be noticed, his desperate and rather pathetic desire for praise.

In the early years of the diary, before his marriage in 1933 to Honor Guinness, he was flagrantly and prolifically bisexual, visiting brothels and living with Viscount Gage on whom he doted like a puppy. Channon liked to watch his friends fornicate and even agreed to allow Montagu Summers, the “brilliant” literary critic, clergyman and charlatan, to thwack him with a dog whip. Readers may feel this is the least he deserved.

As the diaries progress, a portrait emerges of a society debased by inbreeding, congenital conservatism, spurious entitlement and unearned wealth. Ironically, Channon, its most passionate advocate, offers perhaps the best argument for its demise. Revolutions have been staged with less cause.

A heavily edited and expurgated edition of his diaries appeared in 1967 but we can now see that was a whitewash. This edition will run eventually to three volumes, the first of which comprises nearly 1,000 pages. It is testimony to Heffer’s work, wit and wisdom as an editor that one’s sole reservation concerns its unwieldy heft.