Reviewed by Elaine Simpson-Long
When I was a little girl I kept a diary. It was pink and fluffy with a lock and a key, easily broken if anybody had wished to read my entries. Probably not as they mainly consisted of “got up. Got dressed. Went to school. I hate the teachers. Came home. Had tea, bath and then went to bed.” As you will see, the diaries of Sir Henry Channon M.P. (1897-1958) – otherwise known as Chips – were rather more interesting…
I have always thought that keeping a diary is a dangerous thing. If you are writing a novel you can hide behind your characters and assume ideas and thoughts that are purely fictitious. But when you write a diary no matter how hard you try the real you creeps into the narrative. There is no getting away with it.
To be fair I do not think that Chips Channon makes any attempt to deceive or hide; in fact there were occasions, many of them, when I wished he would be less open and revealing. I am referring mainly to his sexual encounters, of which there were many, and his descriptions of erotic dreams about his various men friends, which pepper these pages. Too much information. I have recently read a review of these diaries in which he was described as a “gay” MP, but it is clear he was bisexual with perhaps a leaning towards loving men more. (Incidentally, the word “gay” is used a lot by Chips in its original meaning, as editor Simon Heffer points out).
When the diaries start in 1918, Chips is living in Paris, at the Ritz naturally. He volunteers for the Red Cross, though he seems to spend most of his time going to Deauville for the weekend and mixing with high society, the higher the better. In Paris he meets Proust, “venomous, predatory and a slob”. Like I said, Chips does not hold back.
What palled after a while with these diaries is the endless list of parties, lunches, dinners, banquets and balls that he seemed to have spent most of his adult life attending. Just reading about them wearied me and filled me with awe at his stamina and the total emptiness of it all.
Lunched with Paul of Greece and his sister in law, Marina who is a large, voluptuous girl with one leg shorter than the other. She would be good in bed.
Dinner at the Obolenskys. I fell asleep during the Russian ballet. Onto the Spanish embassy… all the world in tiaras and diamonds.
… the Sutherland’s ball. The Prince of Wales and his brother disguised as Eton boys, rather grubby ones. Lady Portia Stanley was dressed as a letter box.
I had a row with the smelly slimy Duchess of Athol who looks like an under stuffed crocodile and has the manners of a downtrodden governess.
And so on and so on. There were many occasions when I wanted to hurl this book across the room but as it is over 900 pages long and weighs 3lb this was a trifle difficult to do, so I ended up dumping it while I chuntered into the kitchen to make tea. I have got through a lot of tea bags…..
BUT and here is the BUT – he can write. Boy can he write. I gather he attempted a novel or two which were not particularly good but as a diarist he is simply superb – whether you like him or not is irrelevant. I have to admire the sheer volume of pages he has written through the years and the discipline and stamina required to do this day after day. There are the odd gaps but the entries are nearly continuous.
The part of these diaries that attract the most interest, for me anyway, is his take on the Abdication, and here he is clear sighted and to the point. He admires and likes Mrs Simpson who he thinks had a good influence on the Prince of Wales before he ascended to the throne and there are mentions of nice, charming and thoughtful gestures from the King that were instigated by Mrs Simpson. It is made very clear that she did her best to stop him from abdicating, pleading and begging with him not to do it and her offer of withdrawing from the situation was very real. She was petrified of the consequences, but as we all know the King refused to listen so obsessed was he. Of course being Chips he was worried that the new Court would ostracise him and that he would lose his place in society as he had made his admiration of Mrs Simpson clear.
There are two appendices at the end of the diaries including Channon’s memorandum on the Abdication written in January 1937 and these are a masterly summing up of the event and its protagonists which is worth the entire diaries alone.
So what to make of him?
I found him snobbish (“I am only really happy with royalty”), with a contempt for what he called the hoi polloi which really sticks in the gullet: “one so sympathises with the poor people until they say something so stupid, so tactless and so ill informed that one suddenly hates them”
And then I come to the section of the diaries when he talks about his son Paul who he clearly adores.
I stole up to Paul’s room, he was asleep. After I had tiptoed out he called ‘Find daddy’. I crept in again and he threw his little arms around me. ‘Darling daddy’ and hugged me and I kissed his soft scone smelling cheeks. Then I left him and went to my room and cried like a child. I was so happy to have him with me again and he is so adorable.
So there you have it. I found myself veering wildly from loathing him to then feeling rather sorry for him as his wife Honor was unfaithful and this clearly hurt deeply. She was an uninvolved mother and cut off conjugal relations with Chips which also hurt as he would have liked more children. He understands her fragile mental state and takes care of her with a tenderness that I did not expect. I gather that the marriage failed ultimately because of his infidelity, but his entries regarding Honor are thoughtful and kind, and as I have mentioned his love for his son was deep and real.
In the end, warts and all, I found these diaries totally fascinating, intriguing and irritating all at the same time. His entries when he entered the House of Commons are the best written, probably because he was concentrating on serious matters and did not fully adopt the vicious tone of earlier entries, though he still likes to put the knife in when he feels like it. At one stage while reading I thought that enough was enough and that I would not read any more of the diaries when they are published, but on reflection I think that I will as the next volume will cover the second World War.
I must mention the mammoth task that Simon Heffer has undertaken in his editing of the millions of words in the diaries, and my admiration for the end result. I have recently been re-reading George Eliot’s Middlemarch and the thought came into my mind while reading Chips that this is how Mr Casaubon must have felt when trying to edit and finalise his ‘Key to All Mythologies’ which he had been working on all his life. Mr Heffer – I salute you.
Elaine blogs at Random Jottings.
Henry ‘Chips’ Channon, Diaries 1918-38, edited Simon Heffer (Hutchinson, 2021). 978-1786331816, 896 pp, hardback..
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