The Diaries 1943-1957
Henry ‘Chips’ Channon and Simon Heffer, Hutchinson, 896pp, £35
KEN BELL closes the book on the celebrated diarist
This third volume of the Channon diaries concludes the publication of all the surviving diaries that have come down to us, and as with the previous two volumes it is a hernia-inducing doorstopper of a book. Chips really saw fit to include just about everything that he did in his diary and by 1943, with his ministerial career over, an awful lot of what went on involved Channon lounging in bed, making long telephone calls to snipe about others and planning his social engagements.
Although the war still had two years to run, it hardly impinged on Channon or his set, so there are few references to world events in this volume. Instead, we are treated to a series of engaging vignettes involving Channon and any number of other men getting it on, as the young people say. In previous volumes, Channon often seemed to want to do little more than allow women to see him naked and dream about young men, but by 1943 he is giving us chapter and verse on his sexual life.
Peter Coates (“Petticoats”), to whom we were introduced to in the second volume of the diaries, was still Channon’s great love, but as he was in India with the army that left Chips with plenty of free time. The House of Commons, according to Chips, was a sort of glorified molly house and Channon was quite happy to bed members from both sides, in a spirit of bipartisanship. Thus he had a fling with Labour’s Raymond Blackburn, an alcoholic who would later be imprisoned for fraud, and ended his days as an assistant to Lord Longford in the latter’s entertaining anti-porn campaign. Nigel Davies was a Tory MP who was also being bedded by Selwyn Lloyd, a future foreign secretary who ended up as Speaker of the Commons. That did not stop him from finding the time to have a foursome with Chips, the playwright Terence Rattigan and Lord Montagu of Beaulieu.
As if there was not enough excitement in Parliament, Chips had the energy to enjoy a four-year fling with a corporal in the Life Guards, until 1955, when the soldier married a woman named Brenda. One likes to think that the money that Chips paid him gave the happy couple a good start to their new life. Channon was generous to all his bed mates, especially Rattigan who took over while Petticoats was away on military service. When Channon’s mother (whom he loathed) died and her final legacy of just over £1,000 arrived in Chips’ account, he spent most of the money on a gift for the playwright.
Channon’s often obtuse comments about the people around him are much in evidence in this volume. Upon seeing the images of starved corpses of concentration camp victims, he wrote: “The rows of dead emaciated bodies all looked like Margot Asquith naked!” At the end of his life, he was still as incapable of predicting the future as he had always been. Thus, in 1952, he predicted that “The new Queen is determined, humourless, serious and will be a success but not loved – after her youth and novelty wear off.”
He wasn’t too keen on the rest of the Royal Family, either. Chips avoided the Princess Margaret and Peter Townsend affair, “as I don’t like either of them”. He blamed it on the “fat Queen Mother” for being too lazy to stop the affair becoming a public scandal, and fulminated that Margaret was “a silly, selfish, ill mannered sensationalist”. Townsend he dismissed with his greatest insult of being “middle-class”. Chips, of course, loathed the middle-class with a passion: “How I detest the middle classes! Two from Southend proposed themselves to tea at the House and stayed two hours, never knowing when to leave!!”
We read Channon for his waspish descriptions of events. Thus, at the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953, we learn that the four Garter knights carrying the Queen’s canopy managed to bungle the operation, and that Lady Carnock “was so drunk that she had to be removed forcibly from the abbey.” For his part, Channon nipped outside several times during the service onto the parapet for a cigarette and a chat with others having their own smoke breaks.
It is a pity Channon only commented on events in which he was directly involved, so there is no analysis of the Suez Crisis of 1956. Simon Heffer thinks charitably that this may be because Channon was in the last year of his life, but it seems more likely that Chips just didn’t care, because he wasn’t at the centre.
Nevertheless, he is a great chronicler of events during the first half of the last century. Even his failure to understand them gives us an insight into how men of his time and class thought; thus he gives us a window into the world of the upper-class Tory grandee, still at the height of his power. As an individual, I suspect that an evening with Channon would be an engaging night to remember.
It is to be hoped that a single volume of the diaries will be produced. This smaller portion of Chips is needed for the general reader who may not wish to plod through endless accounts of conversations with titled people and minor royalty. However, for the serious student of Britain in the inter-war and post-war period, these three volumes taken together are an essential primary source.
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