When the diaries of an obscure politician called Sir Henry “Chips” Channon were first published in 1967, they caused a sensation, and not only among those whose names appeared in their index (“vile & spiteful & silly,” announced the novelist Nancy Mitford, speaking for the walking wounded). Channon, an upstart Chicagoan who’d unaccountably managed to marry the daughter of an exceedingly rich Anglo-Irish Earl, moved in vertiginously high circles. As a friend of Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson, he had enjoyed a ringside seat during the abdication crisis; as the Conservative MP for Southend he had looked on with fawning admiration as Neville Chamberlain negotiated with Hitler, and abject horror as Winston Churchill succeeded him as prime minister (Channon was in favour of appeasement). Most eye-popping of all, during a visit to Berlin for the Olympics in 1936, he and various other of his smart English friends had partied wildly with leading Nazis, among them Hermann Göring, whose floodlit garden had been made over to look like a cross between a Coney Island funfair and the Petit Trianon in Versailles – a theatrical coup that seemingly drove both Joseph Goebbels and Joachim von Ribbentrop half mad with jealousy.
But dripping with juice as these diaries were – Channon’s chief virtue as a writer is his abiding awareness that dullness is the worst sin of all, and for this reason they’re among the most glittering and enjoyable ever written – they were also incomplete. When Channon died in 1958, aged 61, his son Paul (later a transport secretary in Thatcher’s government) green-lit their publication. But they would need, it was agreed, to be heavily redacted. Quite apart from his father’s sexuality – among Channon’s male (and often married) lovers were the playwright Terence Rattigan and, almost certainly, Prince Paul of Yugoslavia – pretty much everyone named in the book was still alive. As Chips’s ex-wife, Honor, said at the time: “Some of the catty remarks (which fascinate) MUST be cut.” She was especially worried what Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother might think. When the book did appear, then, it was as a single, slim volume: enough words to fill a Penguin paperback, the edition I owned.
Cut to 2018, when Simon Heffer, the journalist and historian, having been asked by Channon’s grandchildren to edit a new, complete edition 60 years after his death, excitedly took delivery of copies of all the extant notebooks, including those lost volumes from the 1950s that had famously turned up at the family seat, Kelvedon Hall in Essex, after someone bought them at a car boot sale (“I believe these are yours,” said the purchaser to Paul Channon, handing over the goods in a plastic bag). It was, Heffer says, an honour and a privilege to be invited to do this mammoth job – “Chips with everything!” as he puts it – and three years on his labours are finally at an end. The first volume, which runs to more than 1,000 pages, is published next week; the second will follow later this year, and the third in 2022. And so it is that we now know, among a thousand other delicious things, exactly what Channon thought of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother. (She was, he writes, indolent and unambitious, “with a streak of treachery and gay malice”. As for her husband, George VI, he was “a well-meaning bore”, and no patch at all on his brother, David, AKA Edward VIII, later the Duke of Windsor, who though “unintellectual, uneducated and badly bred” would have made a “brilliant” King, notwithstanding his “Nazi leanings”.)
From his own family seat in Essex, Heffer laughs loudly (he’s speaking to me via FaceTime from a rather grandly proportioned study, the bright yellow spines of a collection of Wisden, the cricketers’ almanack, on a shelf behind him). “Of course he’s entirely wrong about David,” he says. “But Chips is the ultimate star fucker, and if you get into that in this country, then the ultimate star to fuck must be the monarch. They were friends from 1924, and Mrs Simpson is an American who, like him, is cracking her way in to high society. In 1935, Emerald Cunard [the noted hostess] is trying to recruit friends for her, and Chips is her first port of call. But when the crisis blows up, he’s got all sorts of channels. He lives next door to the Duke of Kent [another of the King’s brothers] in Belgrave Square; and he’s got his friends in the Commons, so he has [the then prime minister] Stanley Baldwin’s side of things, too. He’s a natural journalist, always on the phone to his contacts, and he has a lot of highly privileged information.”
One of the best things in the new edition of the diaries, he thinks, is a top-secret memorandum about the abdication that Channon wrote in 1937. “You and I are of a generation where it’s almost illegal to be rude about the Queen Mother,” says Heffer. “But when he is rude about her, it’s pretty accurate. He got her right, I think – just as, later on, he will depict the Duke and Duchess of Windsor as lost souls. Once he’s an ex-King, the novelty of him wears off.”
Simon Heffer at his home near Colchester. Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Observer
Alarming as it is to hear myself described as the same generation as Heffer, an arch Brexiter who can’t stand spicy food and who says that the thing he has missed most during lockdown is his beloved Garrick Club, I find that I can’t mind too much. He is such unexpectedly good company: at once more theatrical than his splenetic columns in the Telegraph, and (slightly) more considered. And Chips has turned him into a veritable geyser of gossip, even if those doing the bed-hopping, the social climbing, and the clambering up the greasy pole are all mostly dead. As I read the unexpurgated journals, I worried, sometimes, that more might, in fact, be less. Robert Rhodes James, their first editor, didn’t only remove all the sex and anti-Churchill stuff: he saved the reader from an awful lot of name-dropping, whereas Heffer’s footnotes, by necessity, often resemble a page of Burke’s peerage, each minor aristo or miniature European royal duly given a full bloodline. Heffer, though, insists that he never got sick of his subject. Even when Chips was at his most irritating, he was ever fond.
His great redeeming feature is that he knows how ghastly he can be
“He says some silly things. But I felt the same indulgence I have for my sons. I would love to have met him, though I’m sure he’d have been a pain in the arse, always looking over your shoulder to see the next most interesting person coming into the room. His great redeeming feature is that he knows how ghastly he can be.”
Channon never made it in politics. The peak of his achievement was to be parliamentary private secretary to Rab Butler, when he was under-secretary of state at the Foreign Office (explaining the appointment of this rich, social climbing ninny to sceptical colleagues, Butler said it reflected his need to attach a first-class restaurant car to his train). Nor were the two novels he wrote much cop. His real genius was for friendship (though some of those on whom his happiness depended secretly thought him spurious and toadying). “Yes,” says Heffer. “His friends loved him. He was unstintingly generous, and desperately keen to be liked. He found people fascinating, though I think he was rather lonely, too.”
But his loyalty also led him astray. “He never stopped to question if his friends were wrong, and his enemies right. This is why he is all over Chamberlain, raving about him in such an incontinent way [even before Chamberlain travels to meet Hitler in 1938, Channon believes he has saved the world].” What about his attitude to the Nazis? It’s astonishing (and appalling) to see in black and white the full extent of the enthusiasm of the British ruling classes for that regime in the 1930s . “Yes, he says things about Hitler no one in his right mind would think,” says Heffer. “It’s because he sees Germany as a bulwark against Bolshevism. His friends all remember the tsar being shot, and they think the Bolsheviks are waiting to do the same to them. He later recants. But it takes him a while.”
Channon’s family in America was wealthy – his father had inherited a fleet of vessels on the Great Lakes – and this was how he got his start. His mother, who had endowed a library in Paris, had connections there, and the first volume of the diaries begins with him in that city in 1918, where he is employed as an honorary attache at the US embassy. He has dinner with Marcel Proust and Jean Cocteau, and drives to Ypres to see the trenches. After this, he moves first to Oxford, where he does his degree, gets his (still unexplained) nickname, and starts making useful connections; and then to London, where he shares a house with Paul of Yugoslavia and Viscount Gage (another of his lovers), and sets about wooing the Curzon family (Lord Curzon was then foreign secretary).
No one seems to know how he met Honor, the daughter of Lord Iveagh, a member of the Guinness family – the diaries are missing for this period – but with their marriage in 1933, the gates to a lavish world are flung fully open. His father-in-law helps him to buy his house in Belgravia, with its grand dining room, a “symphony” in silver and aquamarine that has been decorated to resemble a certain rococo royal hunting lodge near Munich, and an estate in Essex (though his marriage to Honor doesn’t last; both are determinedly unfaithful – in this volume, she with her skiing instructor). Hugely rich and preposterously well-connected – if there is a ball, Chips will almost certainly be in attendance – he is now well on his way to becoming the Pepys of the interwar years.
It’s almost hard to think of someone who doesn’t appear in the diaries. In volume one, he has a fling with the actress Tallulah Bankhead (“I sat in her dressing room and watched the lovely pink creature change, pink stays, pink flimsy garments, pink tummy…”), dinner with HG Wells (“difficult and petulant… he betrays his servant origin”), and is bent over an altar and spanked by the Catholic priest and werewolf expert Montague Summers (“one should really always do everything once”). Later, Evelyn Waugh, Gore Vidal and Tennessee Williams will all appear.
Are there revelations to come in future volumes? “Oh, yes,” says Heffer, delightedly. “He has an affair with someone very famous in volume three.” To what degree was Channon open about his sexuality? He and his longtime companion, a landscape designer called Peter Coats, lived together, didn’t they? “You are jumping ahead, Miss Cooke, if I may say so. But no, they weren’t an out couple. Their friends knew, but there was a conspiracy of silence. After the war, attitudes became much stricter. During this period, don’t forget, Lord Montagu was sent to prison.” (In 1954, the peer was convicted for inciting homosexual acts.)
Channon’s greatest dream, which was to be elevated to the peerage, never became a reality. “Though if he saw the place now, he might have felt differently,” says Heffer, with feeling. And what about him? Boris Johnson recently put both Evgeny Lebedev, the proprietor of the Evening Standard, and Veronica Wadley, its former editor, into the Lords. He guffaws. “I don’t think he’d have me. I’m in favour of the Lords, but the patronage certainly needs to be reviewed.” Alas, he and Johnson are not exactly best friends these days. “I know the prime minister. I worked with him for years [at the Telegraph and the Spectator]. I’m not a great fan. I don’t think he has the equipment to do the job properly.” What about his cabinet? In a column last year, he described some of its members as mediocrities. “They’re not even that. To call Gavin Williamson a mediocrity is to flatter him.”
Channon on holiday in Deauville, Normandy in 1918. Photograph: © Trustees of the literary estate of Henry ‘Chips’ Channon.
As Heffer and I talk, the continuing problems with the Irish Sea border specifically, and the customs arrangements generally, show no signs of easing – and now there’s mad talk of a tunnel to the Isle of Man (or something). As someone who supported Ukip, does he have any regrets? “No, I really am an unreconstructed Brexiteer,” he says, more gently than you might imagine. “In the 1974 election, when I was not quite 14, I canvassed for Labour on the grounds that I thought Ted Heath had betrayed us by taking us in to the European Community. I didn’t vote at the last election. I couldn’t bring myself to do so. It was a choice between looking in the mirror and knowing I had been responsible for putting Boris Johnson in office, or a man who…” At this point, he says something defamatory about Jeremy Corbyn that connects to allegations of antisemitism, and then goes on: “But now? We’re run by incompetents! It is their fault. Inadequate preparation was made.” He still can’t believe that the government was willing to break international law with its proposed internal market bill last year. “It was breathtaking. Abominable.”
But he hasn’t answered my question. What about companies that are struggling to trade? What about the fishermen, and the daffodil farmers? “Look, I don’t want anyone’s business to go down the crapper,” he says. “But only a small number are affected.” Quoting a favourite Vote Leave figure, he suggests only 6% of UK businesses export to Europe (unfortunately, while this number may not be inaccurate, it’s also misleading, because it translates to an estimated 340,000 businesses). After this, having gone on for a bit about how much he loves his annual holiday in Brittany and how “infantile” it was of Emmanuel Macron to diss the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine, he finally winds up by saying: “In the end, everyone will calm down, and it will all be sorted out.”
Personally, I think this is lame. But it’s also (probably) true. One thing about Channon’s diaries, the first volume of which concludes just before the war in Europe breaks out (later, his house will be bombed in an air raid), is that they leave you with such a vivid sense of perspective. All things really do pass. Reading them for the second time in lockdown, they made me feel a tiny bit better. It’s always good to take a long view – and to throw a party whenever you possibly can.
• Henry ‘Chips’ Channon: The Diaries 1918-38 (Volume 1), edited by Simon Heffer, is published by Hutchinson (£35). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply