Henry “Chips” Channon, Diaries Vol. 2, 1938-1943
Edited by Simon Heffer, Hutchinson, 1,120 Pages, £35
KEN BELL renews his acquaintance with the famous Tory diarist
The Conservative MP and socialite, Henry “Chips” Channon, was a brilliant writer with an acid wit who also had an amazing capacity to misunderstand the people and events of the days he lived through and chronicled.
His wife, Honor, an heiress to the Guinness fortune, had been having affairs since at least 1937 with various muscular European skiing instructors, and this volume begins with Chips devoting many words to his fears that the marriage was breaking up. He could not understand why, and tied himself in knots trying to make sense of Honor’s attitude. In 1940 when the Luftwaffe bombed a farm belonging to Honor, Chips was disgusted by the attitude of Frank Woodman, Honor’s land bailiff, towards her:
He is insolent, swaggers about, and treats her with scant respect. She allows herself to be so familiar with that sort of people.
To anyone reading Chips’ diary entry it is so blindingly obvious that Honor had become Frank Woodman’s lover. When eventually Honor told Chips that she wanted a divorce, he went into an engaging meltdown and then on almost the next page he listed the money that he would make after a divorce, starting with the £5,000 a year that will be paid to him by her for agreeing to it. (That is about £250,000 in today’s money, by the way.)
By that time Chips had met Peter Coates, the upper-class rent boy who was known by those in the know as ‘Petticoats’, and by the more waspish amongst them as ‘Mrs Chips’. The two stayed together until Chips’ death in 1958, but as Simon Heffer points out in his editor’s introduction, Chips spent about £1,000 on Coates between their first meeting in mid-1939 and the end of that year. This would be around £55,000 today, so Chips was clearly much taken with Petticoats.
Channon was no better at understanding the political events that also swirled around him. He had supported Chamberlain’s Munich Agreement with Hitler in 1938, and was devastated at the decision by Germany in March of 1939 to recognize the breakaway state of Slovakia, and then to grab the Czech-speaking rump of Czechoslovakia. However, in Chips’ mind this seemed more like Hitler betraying Neville Chamberlain personally, and less like the mark of a reckless gambler who was always playing double or quits, which is what it was.
The Norway debate in 1940 which led to the downfall of Neville Chamberlain is a masterpiece of reportage, mixed with a complete failure to understand just what was actually going on. Chamberlain won the division by 80 votes, and for Chips that was more than enough. However, it obviously wasn’t when such large numbers of Tories had either voted against their own government or abstained. To Chips’ disgust, the man he hero-worshipped resigned and Steepledick (the mocking nickname that the anti-Churchill faction had for Winston Churchill) took office as Prime Minister. Simon Heffer, who is no bad hand at dry wit, explains that the steeple part of the jibe was a play on the first syllable of Churchill’s name before going on to remind us that the nickname never really took off.
Channon kept his junior government post until mid-1941, and his war entries have a lot of good information. For instance, on 20th June 1941, Channon mentioned to friends that the Germans were going to attack Russia on the 22nd, which they duly did. That information about the attack had reached down to such low levels in the government, and that Channon could mention it over dinner, suggests that knowledge of the attack was pretty widespread in London. Once the attack did commence, instead of looking at ways to aid Russia, Channon slipped into his old habit of not understanding what needed to be done; instead, he dedicated much wordage to what would happen if Germany succeeded in her war-aim. He was convinced that she would win, and that would be the end of the British Empire, and the likes of Chips and his circle.
These caveats aside, Chips wrote incredibly well in a gossiping, housewifely style. He met Lord Alfred Douglas, the infamous ‘Bosie’ who had done so much to destroy Oscar Wilde’s life and reports without comment that Bosie had denied ever being “Wilde’s catamite”. Then, his advice was sought by a constituent who was also the mother of an 18-year-old daughter who was being courted by an over-60s baronet. Chips advised the mother to encourage the match, presumably so that in a few short years the girl could become a merry widow. Finally, he got into the habit of giving lifts to people during the bombing raids and one working man gave him a shilling tip when he alighted from Chips’ car. For once, Chips was rendered speechless. Normally, Chips had an answer for everything, usually very cutting, as at Chamberlain’s funeral in 1940 when he asked a fellow mourner who had not supported Chamberlain if the man had sent a wreath. When told that he hadn’t, Chips remarked that of course, “Decent Judas Blossoms are out of season,” before strolling away to leave his victim seething.
As a war diary this volume is sadly lacking in many ways, but as an account of life during the war for Channon and people of his circle it is a valuable source of information and gossip. Sadly, once Chips was out of office, the social scene takes over almost completely, along with tedious yearnings for Peter Coates who was away with the army.
Regretfully, Simon Heffer made the editorial decision to censor one entry which refers to a still living person. There are only two people this could be – the first being Clarissa Eden, who is 101 and an unlikely candidate. The other is the present Queen, and in spite of Heffer’s protest that the entry “adds nothing to historical knowledge”, that really is for us to decide in a volume that is sold as unexpurgated. That objection aside, enough remains to make this work a worthy successor to the first volume and leaves the reader eagerly anticipating the third and final part, which is due in 2022.
KEN BELL is a Mancunian who fetched up in Mexico, and who now lives in shabby retirement in Edinburgh. He writes as a hobby in his twilight years; a fuller biography can be found at his Amazon author page