Book of the week: Henry ‘Chips’ Channon - The Diaries 1938-43
Edited by Simon Heffer, Channon’s diaries are a ‘great work of literature’ by a less than great human being
“It is often said that the best political diaries are written by those who dwell in the foothills of power,” said Chris Mullin in The Spectator. This maxim certainly applies to Henry “Chips” Channon – a man of legendary social-climbing abilities, but who never “inhabited the Olympian heights” as a politician. The son of a Chicago shipbroker, Channon arrived in England after the First World War, married the spectacularly rich Lady Honor Guinness, and became Tory MP for Southend. Throughout his life he socialised incessantly – and recorded his activities in remarkably frank diaries. In 1967, nine years after his death, a heavily bowdlerised version was published, but they’re now being restored to their unexpurgated glory: this weighty tome is the second instalment of a trilogy (volume one appeared earlier this year). Simon Heffer should be applauded for his efforts, because Channon’s diaries are a “great work of literature”. Full of “wonderfully bitchy and razor-sharp” pen portraits, they “shed light on a world that has largely passed away”.
“I could not help enjoying” these diaries, but their author emerges as hugely dislikeable, said Robert Harris in The Sunday Times. An anti-Semite and a “feather-brained snob”, Channon passionately supported appeasement (Neville Chamberlain is “the most miraculous human alive”) and absurdly overestimated his own importance. Equally striking is his malice – whether describing Churchill as a “selfish, paranoid old ape” or Queen Marie of Yugoslavia as “evil-speaking and smelling”. Nor is his indifference to the War appealing, said Craig Brown in The Mail on Sunday. As London is bombed, he “swans around the city, shopping for bejewelled cufflinks”. Even when his own house is bombed, he does not let it “get in the way of his party-going”.
These diaries are most fascinating when detailing Channon’s private life, “from his partiality to colonic irrigation to his amorous entanglements”, said Rupert Christiansen in The Daily Telegraph. After his wife takes up with a “dark, unscrupulous fellow of the yeoman class”, he becomes embroiled with various men, including fellow MP Alan Lennox-Boyd, with whom he “visits the Turkish baths and indulges in flagellatory games”. Channon is near-peerless as a diarist, precisely because he wrote to “record what happened, not to impress posterity”. A pretty dreadful human being he may have been – but his “candour remains admirable and indisputable”.
Hutchinson 1120pp £35; The Week Bookshop £27.99 (incl. p&p)
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