Diary of a Somebody

Image: Wikimedia Commons

The Diaries 1918-1938

Henry Channon, edited by Simon Heffer, Penguin, London, hb, 1,002 pages, £35

KEN BELL dives into an interwar atmosphere of complacency and privilege

The complete diaries of Sir Henry “Chips” Channon are now being published and the first volume will be required reading for anyone interested in the interwar period.

Channon was a handsome, wealthy American with an easy charm, who lived on the income provided by his shipping magnate father. He spent most of the 1920s assiduously courting the British upper class, and by the end of the 1920s he had become such a part of English high society that he married a Guinness heiress, and became a British national and a Tory MP. Given that he was born in 1897, it is amusing to realise that the first thing he ever had that approached work was when he became an MP at the age of 38. That was for a seat, by the way, that was in the gift of his wife’s family, as both her parents had represented it. Eventually, Paul Channon, Chip’s only son, would sit for that division as well – proof, I suppose, that the age of the rotten borough is not yet over.

His bisexualism probably also helped his rise, as it looks as if he tended more towards men than women. If my reading of his character is correct, then women would find him safe in taxis, so there was a charming, handsome, wealthy man who wasn’t going to jump on every woman he met, but might not be averse to an evening with one of their husbands, so long as it was all handled very discreetly. Indeed, his sex life is handled discreetly even in the diary. Prince Paul of Yugoslavia seems to have been the great love of Channon’s life, but we are never given any details about how they got it on. He seems to have mooned over the Prince, and it is quite possible that it remained unconsummated.

In the 1920s, he also became entranced by Viscount (George) Gage, and it is possible that his visits to a young prostitute called Josephine may have been partly due to the fact that she also counted Gage as one of her clients. One imagines that as part of the bedroom chitchat, he got her to prattle about what Gage was up to. He did have sex with Josephine, in spite of the fact that he found her Newcastle accent distasteful, but we are not treated to full accounts of their couplings. In fact, that is the way it is throughout the diary as when he visited three very expensive Parisian brothels he took the trouble to tell us their addresses, but not how he had pleasured himself. It may be that he kept his clothes on and only went there to be seen.

On the other hand, he did have a fling with Tallulah Bankhead, and was fairly open in his diary about that, including the hilarious account of playing a stripping card game with her and another girl. The other girl left the room at some point, leaving the naked Chips and Tallulah to enjoy each other, but the most entertaining section comes at the end when she returned and both girls got to watch as Chips slowly got dressed. He was convinced that his body was so perfect that the two girls would enjoy that spectacle, so much so that he dedicated more wordage to the act of getting dressed than to describing his bout with Miss Bankhead.

Before the mid-1930s, Channon seemed to have no interest at all in politics or the major events of the day and his diary is full of the parties he attended, along with quite tedious lists of the very important people who were also in attendance. His catty remarks about some of their personalities will bring a smile to the reader, and it is amusing to read that one woman “has a face like a well-rounded bottom,” or another was so weighed down with jewels that she “looks like a ferret that has got loose in Cartier’s,” but it does wear after a while.

The diary comes alive after 1935, with Channon in the House of Commons and war looming in Europe. His account of the 1936 Berlin Olympics is interesting for his admiration of Hitler and what he was doing in Germany. One suspects that he may also have been quite taken with all the tall, blond, Aryan gods in their tailored black uniforms that he saw, but by that time, Channon, who had been long terrified of the workers, then saw the USSR as the greatest threat to his position, with Hitler as a staunch bulwark against upheaval.

Two years later, his account of the Munich Crisis is desultory in the extreme, as he clearly just wished that the tiresome Czechs would give in to Germany’s demands. When they did, his admiration for Neville Chamberlain knew no bounds, along with his contempt for Churchill and the other doomsayers. Channon was probably in the majority at that time, but it is still interesting that he devoted more space to the 1936 Olympics than to Munich. Then again, Herman Goring had hosted a fine bash at which Channon had been a guest in 1936, and Munich did rather put a downer on the London season that year.

Channon was at his best, as well as his worst, with the abdication crisis of late 1936. As a friend of the future King Edward VIII he was not only aware of Mrs Simpson, but on good terms with her – yet he hardly mentioned her until the story began to break in November 1936. It is as if Channon did not realise the full implications of a foreign, divorced woman marrying a future King and becoming Queen-Consort. Indeed, his failure to even grasp the fact that as head of the Church of England, the King was caught up in a theological battle of his own making is quite incredible. For his part, Channon just saw it all as Stanley Baldwin pandering to the Dominions and the reactionary parts of middle-class Britain. Channon may have been afraid of the working-class, but his distaste for the middle class runs through the diary.

Chips Channon was also at his best as a diarist, politician and friend to the King once it all exploded in November and December that year. He tried to get the King to announce that he had no intention of marrying Wallis Simpson, and hold to that story until after his coronation. He wanted the King to lie, in other words, to buy time until he had been safely crowned; then he could have married Wallis and presented the government with a fait accompli. The King refused the entreaty so Wallis scuttled off to France and Chips came up with a Plan B. She would lie and tell the world that she had no intention of marrying the King, but that failed when Channon realised that the King would have gone to France had she made such an announcement. The thought of the King-Emperor abandoning the country for such a reason is what brought Channon to a realisation that an abdication was the likeliest outcome, but he continued to argue the King’s case right up until the final moment. “We can only combine to save the sovereign and can we?” he wrote in early December 1936, before doing what he was good at which was working the ‘phones, networking long into the evening, and trying his very best to keep the King on his throne.  Let us give credit where credit is due: Channon was quite magnificent in the defence of his friend during those weeks.

In the aftermath, Channon wrote two memoranda that aimed to make sense of the crisis and a diary entry which assessed the personalities of the King and Mrs Simpson. His view was that Edward “suffers from sexual repression of another nature”. He “surrounded himself with extremely attractive men… and even these he dropped as they aged”.  So, Channon, writing as a closet homosexual, saw King Edward VIII as a repressed one.

Chips was not a complete cad, as he also loved his son dearly. That comes through various entries when he will end something unrelated to his family with a sweet comment about his then baby son. Other pleasant aspects are also to be found. On one occasion his wife discovered a half-starved stray dog, which Channon took in and fed. He then looked at the mutt’s collar and found an address, and was able to track down the owner who was on holiday in a converted railway carriage on the coast. Channon, his wife and the dog then climbed into his car, and the dog was restored to his master, who broke down in tears at the sight of his companion. The Channons were invited in for tea and everyone sat around chatting amiably. Channon’s account of all this is respectful to the family and lacks all the malice he used when dismissing the middle-class and their mores.

The Channon diary, unexpurgated though it may be, represses far too much of the author’s private life, so it is not on a par with that of Alan Clark. Yet, he was a wonderful writer who captured the spirit of the twenties and thirties very well – at least, that part of it that involved his wealthy social circle.

However, his repeated failure to spot a looming crisis when it was right in front of his nose marks down his utility for most of the major events of the period, except, of course, for the abdication. His fear of the working class was such that it clouded his admittedly limited political judgement, so in his penultimate entry of this volume he wrote that if war was to come then “I am indifferent to precautions, for if there is a major war, nothing matters. I don’t care to survive in a Moscow world.” The following day, his final entry lauded the “gentlemen’s peace” that was the Munich Agreement. He went on: “The whole world rejoices whilst a few malcontents jeer.”

He got that wrong, but so did most of Britain at the time. It will be interesting to see in the next volume – due out later in 2021 – how he managed to get out of that particular fix when the war finally broke out a year later.