Book review: Henry ‘Chips’ Channon - The Diaries, 1918-1938
Edited by Simon Heffer, the diaries of the Tory MP and ultimate social climber provide an ‘unrivalled guide’ to society and politics in the interwar years
Sir Henry “Chips” Channon (1897-1958) was the ultimate social climber, said Noel Malcolm in The Daily Telegraph. The son of a Chicago shipbroker, he was born with a “reasonably-sized silver spoon in his mouth”, but “worked hard on converting it into a soup tureen of solid gold”. Arriving in Britain after the First World War, he wasted no time in getting to know everyone in English high society, plus an assortment of European royalty. In 1933, he married the very rich Lady Honor Guinness, and two years later became a Tory MP. All his life he kept a diary, which by his death ran to nearly two million words. A version was published in 1967, but to protect Channon’s reputation (and guard against libel), it was heavily bowdlerised. Now we have volume one of the three-part unexpurgated version, heroically edited by Simon Heffer. It’s a fascinating, “strangely addictive” work – which is just as well, given its formidable length.
This enthralling book confirms Channon as the “greatest British diarist of the 20th century”, said Ben Macintyre in The Times. It is packed with “weapons-grade above-stairs gossip”, and superb one-line put-downs: Stravinsky looks “like a German dentist”; Churchill is a “fat, brilliant, unbalanced, illogical, porcine orator”. While definitely “not a banquet to be attempted in one sitting”, it provides an “unrivalled guide” to society and politics in the interwar years. Such was Channon’s knack for “bumping into all the right people” that many entries “read like a drunken round of Consequences”, said Craig Brown in The Spectator. At a dinner in Paris when he was 21, he was seated between Jean Cocteau and Marcel Proust; during a game of sardines at a stately home in Hampshire, he found himself “under a hot bed” with Lady Curzon and the Aga Khan. He also describes his many sexual encounters, sometimes with female prostitutes (“I wreaked my lust on her, undisturbed by her Northumbrian accent”), but “more often with male contemporaries”.
Harder to stomach are his political opinions, said Andrew Marr in the New Statesman. Channon was an anti-Semite and a lover of dictators: Mussolini is a “dynamic man – so like God himself”; Hitler is the “greatest diplomat of modern times”. Still, we don’t read diarists because we admire them, but because of whom they met, and what they noted down. Channon may have been “wrong about almost everything”, but his beady eye and social indefatigability make his diaries “wickedly entertaining”.
Hutchinson 1,024pp £35; The Week Bookshop £27.99 (incl. p&p)
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