Review by Elaine Simpson-Long
The second volume of these diaries was delivered by my postman, who was visibly having difficulty handing it over as he had a huge pile of letters and parcels in his arms. Hardly surprising as this second volume runs to over 1000 pages and weighs in at a hefty eight pounds. Not a book to slip into your handbag or to take on the train. It can be daunting to tackle a book this size so I adopted the method I used when reading Volume One, in that I read a year at a time and took notes as I went along.
In my review of the first volume I mentioned how tedious some of it could be. Endless descriptions of lunches, dinners, banquets and balls attended by assorted Royalty all dripping in diamonds and precious stones. After a while one’s eyes can glaze over when one is treated once again to the information that Queen Marie of Romania, or some other European queen, was radiant in emeralds and pearls. The real interest and meat of these diaries came later, when Chip was elected as a member of parliament and we get his views, trenchant to say the least, of his fellow MPs.
In this second volume his observations and bitchiness are in full display. On the re-opening of parliament in November 1938, he observes the arrival of Lady Curzon, “like a great meringue, vast, sugary and imposing”, Lady Baldwin, “thinner since she became a countess, perhaps she wears tighter stays”, the Duchess of Somerset, who “looked like a housekeeper”, and Margot Asquith, who resembled “a Spectre of Death”. He does not go out of his way to endear himself to people….
The second volume opens with Channon, who had been an MP for only three years, acting as parliamentary private secretary to Rab Butler, the under secretary at the Foreign Office, and celebrating the return of Neville Chamberlain (“the man of the age”) with the Munich Agreement in his pocket. But this was as far as he got. By 1943, when the volume ends, he had a reputation for being an arch appeaser (as were many others in society circles at that time) and his chances of promotion had disappeared due to the rise of Churchill, whose attitude to the war was totally different. He calls Churchill many names, an “angry bullfrog” and the “Arch Intriguer”, just to mention a couple from the early entries. When Chamberlain resigned Chips has a diary entry in which he states that “England in her darkest hour had surrendered her destiny to the greatest opportunist and political adventurer alive!!!” He also noted that Hitler “thinks we are an effete, finished race. He is right of course. We shall be a second Holland – in time”. This did not go down well!
I think what I admire about Chips, even though there is a lot to dislike, is his searing honesty in his opinion of himself as well as others. The end of his marriage is described in almost brutal detail and he does not spare himself.
Channon had left instructions that his unexpurgated manuscripts couldn’t be published until sixty years after his death. As before, the diaries are introduced by Channon’s grandchildren, who set the language and mores of the times into context, followed by Heffer’s editorial foreword. This time, a ‘dramatis personae’ with brief biographical details of key people in the text precedes the diaries themselves and proved very useful, in addition to the extensive footnotes. Once again I have to applaud editor Simon Heffer, who has worked on them for years now and tackled this immense task with wisdom and humour. The third and final volume, another 900 pages which takes us up to 1957 the year before Channon’s death, will be published in September.
Elaine blogs at Random Jottings.
Henry ‘Chips’ Channon, Diaries 1938-43, ed. Simon Heffer (Hutchinson, 2021). 978-1786331823, 1120 pp., hardback.
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