Britain, from Armistice to Hungry Thirties

Sing As We Go: Britain Between the Wars

Simon Heffer, London: Hutchinson Heinemann, 2023, 960pps., £35

KEN BELL finds much of interest in an account of the interwar years, but wishes it was less Tory

Simon Heffer’s Sing As We Go: Britain Between the Wars is the final part of a three-volume work which takes the country from the accession of Queen Victoria in 1837 to the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939. Heffer belongs to the Tory school of historiography, so the reader who expects a social historian’s account of poverty in south Wales is going to be disappointed. History for those of that school is made by statesmen who sit in magnificent drawing rooms where they decide the fate of nations over maps. Sing As We Go is a quintessential account written in that style.  

A sizeable chunk of Sing As We Go is taken up with a reappraisal of Neville Chamberlain, a man condemned in the popular mind as Hitler’s dupe. As Heffer makes clear, appeasement was a policy that began before Hitler even came to power, with the word itself being first honoured with a place in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1933. The British, ever the fans of balancing the great powers off against each other, had been siding quietly with Germany against France since the 1920s. So, appeasement until the Munich Agreement was the policy of a confident British state that did not want France to become too dominant in the years after the Great War. As Heffer writes it was not about “surrender, capitulation or humiliation by or of the appeaser.”

Leaving foreign policy aside, and to be fair to the statesmen of the era, for the first time in British history they had to engage in the “economic management” of the country. It is no wonder that they did not know how to manage a modern state and economy, as nobody had ever had to do that before. So as Chancellor, Neville Chamberlain was not ashamed to admit privately that he was “very frightened at the financial part,” which is pretty much the central aspect of any chancellor’s role. He certainly seemed to make a better fist of the office than Winston Churchill, who admitted that whilst he understood the words of the generals, the economists “all talk Persian.”

Neville Chamberlain (second from left) visiting Newcastle slums in 1925. Image: Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums

As Chancellor, Chamberlain helped grow the economy during the Great Depression by spending large sums on rearmament, a fact that was much criticised at the time and is often forgotten today. As Prime Minister the output increased, leading Stafford Cripps, that most cadaverous of vegetarians, to comment that “every possible effort” had to be made to stop military recruitment. He even went on to tell a group of future aircraft builders that they should “refuse to make armaments.” It is hard to believe that Cripps would later be appointed as Minister of Aircraft Production in the Churchill government. Such things can only happen in Britain. Nevertheless, Britain was better prepared for war in 1939 than she would otherwise have been had Chamberlain not spent so many millions on the armed forces throughout his time as Chancellor and then Prime Minister.

The economy by 1937 was booming, but not in the heavy industrial areas of south Wales, northern England and the Scottish central belt. Heffer refers in passing to the distress in such areas, but it is not really the concern of his school of historiography to consider people who live below the elite level, so Heffer asks us to concentrate on the economy as a whole where output and prosperity increased.

Heffer deals with the Irish War of Independence very well indeed, with an even-handedness that surprised me. He is no fan of Eamon de Valera, but few of today’s Irish historians are; the reappraisal of de Valera has been very harsh on the man and his record. That said, he is clearly impressed with Michael Collins, a man who was probably one of the finest guerrilla commanders of the twentieth century. It was Collins who ordered the killing of the ‘Cairo Gang’, a high-level squad of British counter intelligence officers, an action that was carried out with brutal efficiency one Sunday morning. Many were still in bed when the IRA squads burst in and killed them, some in front of their wives or mistresses.

Heffer makes much of the shock and outrage that this action had in the USA and does rather play down the fact that the killings destroyed the British counter-intelligence operation in Dublin. The countryside was largely controlled by the IRA, and the Sunday morning operation in Dublin meant the capital city was also largely controlled by Collins’ men. I suspect that General Collins was happy to take that outcome, and could live with a few outraged headlines from across the Atlantic.

Simon Heffer is on firmer ground when he considers the London negotiations between the British government and the Irish plenipotentiaries to end the war. We are back to the world that Heffer loves the most, that of statesmen in drawing rooms, passing the port and taking momentous decisions. We are given some interesting vignettes of the negotiations, with Collins, the guerrilla leader, complaining to the arch-imperialist Winston Churchill that the British had put a £5,000 reward on his head. Churchill showed Collins a £25 reward poster that the Boers had put on his head two decades earlier. “Collins laughed and the air cleared,” when Churchill pointed out the disparity between the rewards offered that was clearly in Collins’ favour.

The negotiations were conducted on both sides by men who acted in good faith and who wanted a settlement, so compromises were possible. The Irish agreed to take over the Royal Irish Constabulary, change the name and keep the officers. The British accepted that their paramilitary unit of former British officers known as the ‘Auxiliaries’ or ‘Black and Tans’, who mainly guarded fixed locations such as police stations, were a British problem and cost that was not to be charged to Ireland. The British quickly withdrew both units from Ireland, paid them their outstanding wages and discharged them from service.

This level of reasonableness leads us to the final third of the book which is concerned with Chamberlain’s negotiations with Hitler. Heffer makes clear that it is a failure of Chamberlain that he did not cotton onto Hitler’s nature sooner than he did. As Heffer points out, Chamberlain’s supreme self-confidence led him to believe “that he was right” in just about everything, and it took him until early 1939 before he was forced to conclude that Hitler was “half mad”. However, Chamberlain’s reputation will need more than this volume to repair it from the charge that he was Hitler’s stooge, but it is a fair start to the process. Few people realised just what a chancer Hitler was, but at least when that realisation finally dawned, Neville Chamberlain, more than any other, was the man who ensured that Britain had modernised armed forces that could enter the lists against the rearmed Germany.

Viewed overall, Sing As We Go is a solid account of how Neville Chamberlain and others struggled to come to terms with the Britain that emerged from the Great War as the country groped, almost blindly at times, towards the next one. The Britain of Victoria’s era would have dealt with Ireland as she dealt with the Indian Mutiny of 1857. Indeed, it is not too much of a stretch to argue that historically the British treated the Indians and Catholic Irish as if both were dodgy natives who needed a firm hand. By 1921, the British seem to have been pleasantly surprised that Michael Collins and his men were not the dubious natives of the popular imagination, but actually reasonable chaps with reasonable demands. That changed attitude would stand the British in good stead a generation later when it came time to negotiate the end of the Raj.

One last portion of ‘Chips’

Chips Channon. Photo: National Portrait Gallery, Creative Commons licence
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.

Channon in later life. Photo: National Portrait Gallery, Creative Commons licence

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.

Another portion of Chips

Chips and Honor Channon

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.

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.