Henry ‘Chips’ Channon: The Diaries (Volume 1): 1918-38, Simon Heffer (ed), Hutchinson, 1.024 pp, £35, ISBN: 978-1786331816
Henry “Chip” Channon was a man who achieved very little on his own in life but the little he achieved gave him a great deal of pleasure because it led to vast wealth and superior social status with practically no effort on his part. Unfortunately the current volume of his diaries, covering the years from 1918 to 1938 lack the vital half-decade when Chips brought off the coup of his lifetime requiring some initiative: wooing and winning Lady Honor Guinness. whose money made it all possible.
Channon hailed from a well-to-do but entirely nondescript Chicago family who provided him with a sufficient allowance to move to Paris in 1917 at the age of twenty-one and take up an ill-defined role with the Red Cross and the American embassy that left him a great deal of time to launch his lifelong career of social climbing. On one occasion he found himself at Kitchener’s headquarters. The Field Marshal, whose repetitive military tactics led to the death of millions, liked to have a boiled egg for breakfast. And every morning without fail, according to his adjutants, who laid bets, he remarked “there is nothing like a boiled egg for breakfast”. Back in Paris a lunch with Proust may have infected Chis with snobbery but not with Proust’s satirical eye.
At the end of the war, Channon proceeded to Oxford to study French and launch his sustained assault on the summits of English social life. Unfortunately, these Brideshead years are not recorded but by the time the diaries take up again he has approached the foothills and is sharing a flat in Mayfair with two young bachelors: Prince Paul of Yugoslavia and Viscount George Gage. All three of them were bisexual and when not frequenting each other they frequented high-class prostitutes. As in everything, Chips was a relentless knob-snob and was constantly mooning over well-born, oak-hearted, clean-limbed Englishmen.
He married Honor Guinness in 1933, whose father was Rupert, the Earl of Iveagh, and whose mother was an Onslow. Chips and his wife both philandered, both with men. She was on her way to Ireland on one occasion when the Holyhead crossing was cancelled, so she came home unexpectedly and found Chips in bed with Terence Rattigan, the playwright. The Onslow Girl did not appreciate finding her husband making the one-backed beast with the Winslow Boy and the marriage eventually failed. They divorced in 1945.
This latest edition of the diaries is generally described as unexpurgated, which suggests that the earlier version, covering the years 1934-1958 and edited by Robert Rhodes James, suppressed a great deal of scandal. Or rather “scandal”, as only Daily Mail readers nowadays are likely to be shocked by revelations about who slept with whom in the 1930s. One has to presume that in those circles everybody was sleeping with everyone else according to inclination, taste and wealth. The most unlikely duo (not mentioned by Chips) must have been when Winston Churchill, feeling that he might be missing out on something, went to bed with Ivor Novello. Very musical, he pronounced afterwards.
But it is exactly tittle-tattle of this sort that is missing from the diaries because what really interested Chips was not love or even lust but status and money. The problem with these unexpurgated diaries is that in leaving nothing out, an awful lot of nothing gets left in. We are treated, day after day, week after week, month after month and year after year to a relentless recording of lunches, dinners, and weekends in the country with … who? Well, the index alone is fifty pages long and consists almost entirely of names while the editor’s footnotes must amount to more than ten per cent of the text.
And what footnotes! Simon Heffer has been a model of diligence, applying extraordinary industry to any name that can be looked up in Burke’s Peerage, Debrett’s, or the Almanach de Gotha. Lesser names appear to be sourced from Wikipedia. Nobody with a title is too minor not to have a full dedicated footnote informing the reader who the title-bearer’s parents were, what their initial courtesy title was and until what date, when they married, divorced and remarried and with what consequences for their titles. An example, almost at random: The diary relates that in February 1928 George (his flatmate) was at Buckingham Palace where the king is being criticised for agreeing to attend the Hamilton-Crichton wedding and a footnote duly explains:
James Edward Hamilton (1904-1979), by courtesy Viscount Strabane until 1913 and Marquis of Hamilton until 1953, when he succeeded his father as 4th Duke of Abercorn. He married in 1928 Lady Mary Katherine (Kathleen) Crichton (1905-90), daughter of Viscount Crichton and granddaughter of the 4th Earl Erne.
Possibly slightly more than we need to know, particularly as Hamilton never makes another appearance in these pages. Not even the most minor member of the caste goes unreferenced, so that each footnote – and there must be thousands of them – becomes an indigestible nugget of the individual’s parents, their initial courtesy title, their subsequent full title, their marriages, divorces and remarriages. Heffer’s diligence knows no limits, though on occasion he can be baffling gnomic. On page 595 a footnote for an entirely minor character named in the text as Ann-Mari Bismarck states baldly “Ann-Mari Tengbom”. Good to know that.
The nominalist nadir is reached when mention is made of de Valera. Who exactly is this hybrid Hiber(n)ian? Were the de Valeras perhaps blue-blooded hidalgos from noble Castile? Better investigate because the king himself has de Valera on his mind:
Monday 14th December 1936. […] the D Of Windsor remarked to Baldwin, ‘You are in a fix, I’m in a fix, but it’s nothing compared to what de Valera is in!’
It would be interesting to know why the king thought this was of any relevance to the convulsions he was putting his own country through. The editor rides to our rescue and the man known to history and his contemporaries as Eamon de Valera is rapidly unmasked in the first three words of the footnote on page 620.
George de Valero (1882-1975), who had changed his name, whether legally or otherwise, to Eamon de Valera by the end of the nineteenth century, was a New York-born Irishman who came to prominence during the 1916 Easter Rising. He avoided execution because of his American birth. He was President of the Executive Council of Ireland from 1932 to 1937, and Leader of Fianna Fail from 1926 to 1959, and President of Ireland from 1959 to 1973. De Valera used the abdication as a moment to end the Irish Free State and create a republic, removing from the Irish constitution the notion of a ‘King of Ireland’.
So it seems from Heffer’s gloss that, in a moment of absent-mindedness, the king of England and Scotland has forgotten to abdicate as king of Ireland, and Chips is expressing the hope that the Irishman with the dodgy name will not exploit the anomaly to do something dastardly that might taint forever the divine right of a Hanoverian blow-in to be Ireland’s head of state.
It is widely known that de Valera’s given name was left blank on the hospital register and that his mother was named as Mrs Kate de Valero. When his birth was registered with the state of New York some weeks later his birth cert undoubtedly gave his name as George de Valero. At his December baptism in St Agnes Church he was given the name of Edward, probably after his Uncle Ned, and his surname was corrected to de Valera. So far, in all of these name changes, de Valera seems a bit young to have been the active party, so to suggest that he illegally altered his name is less than scholarly. In the 1901 and 1911 censuses he gave his name as Edward. Like many at the time he sometimes used the Irish form of his name – Eamon. Then, as part of the effort to save him from execution by the British after the 1916 Rising, his mother signed a corrected US birth certificate confirming his name as Edward de Valera. It may have helped, but the British authorities by that stage had realised that the military trial and execution of the leaders of the Rising was proving counter-productive.
He was, of course, president of the Executive Council of the Irish Free State and not Ireland. Perhaps Heffer is unaware that Ireland was partitioned in 1921? The Irish Free State was not ended by de Valera in 1936 but made obsolete by the 1937 Constitution. This was democratically adopted by the people of that state, who reconstituted themselves as the people of Ireland with their own democratically elected president. Edward VIII’s brother, who succeeded him to the Kingdom of Ireland ‑ originally invented out of thin air by Henry VIII of England when he ran into difficulties with his overlord, the pope in Rome ‑ retained some ornamental diplomatic duties until 1949, when Ireland was declared a republic by John A Costello, something de Valera had always been reluctant to do.
Tedious stuff all of this, but it is the job of historians to wade through the facts and produce accurate and succinct summaries set correctly in their context and perhaps even answer the intriguing question: why did the abdicating king think that de Valera was in a fix? A question that cannot be answered when the editor has as little grasp of the political material as his subject and is as obsessed with names and titles.
What of other European leaders of the time? Although Hitler and Mussolini were much admired by Chips & Co, their presence on the London social circuit was necessarily limited, so little extra information is given by Heffer. Rather dutifully we are informed in the footnote marking Mussolini’s first appearance in the diary (January 22nd, 1924) that “Benito Amilcare Andrea Mussolini (1883-1945) had become Prime Minister of Italy in 1922”. On the next page Edgar Algernon Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, who makes a fleeting appearance once in one thousand pages, merits five lines about his various titles. Subsequently we learn from Chips himself that Mussolini possessed personal magnetism and improved public services out of all recognition ‑ but not that he murdered his political opponents. And Adolf Hitler doesn’t even merit a footnote but we can quickly rectify that: “Adolf Schicklgruber (1889-1945) known subsequently by his father’s (illegally?) adopted surname of Hitler was born in Austria and became Chancellor of Germany in 1933. The subsequent twelve years proved turbulent ones for Germany and its neighbours. He died in office in 1945.”
But that is to leap ahead. This volume ends in 1938 and Heffer assures us that two more hefty volumes are to follow. So let us finish with a glance through Chips’s eyes at the central figure of these years, Edward VIII. It’s 1936 and the Channons are ensconced in their Belgrave Square mansion, whose dining room has been refashioned in the Rococo manner without regard to expense. It is to be inaugurated by a dinner party with a guest list topped by the king and Mrs Simpson and tailed by Lady Diana Cooper and Paul, the prince regent of Yugoslavia. “Tiaras nodded, diamonds sparkled, the service was excellent, the dinner proceeded.” After the ladies rose, “the King called to me ‘Sit on my left Chips. Come next to me, Paul.’ We thus had thus a three-handed conversation, the two reigning sovereigns and Chips!!” Things could surely only go downhill from here, and indeed they do. “At length he rose, and said ‘I want to pump shit’ and I led His Majesty to our loulou! He proceeded to pass water without shutting the door talking to me the while.”
Such amusing vignettes are few and far between. And for political intelligence we can only hope that the Mountbatten diaries, currently sequestered in the archives of the University of Southampton, will benefit from the Herculean efforts of the historian Andrew Lownie to have them released to bona fide researchers.
Given the weight of this volume you would need a strong arm to follow Dorothy Parker’s advice not to cast a disappointing book lightly aside but to hurl it with great force. We should instead follow the counsel of earlier reviewers who suggested that the diaries should not be read straight through but dipped into. I fully agree … into a vat of acid prior to pulping.
Peter Kennealy lives and works in Florence. He is currently researching the lives of James Joyce’s pupils, friends, and acquaintances after he left Trieste in 1920.