Culture Trips

Henry ‘Chips’ Channon: The Diaries 1918-38 review – priceless interwar gossip | Autobiography and memoir

The great diarists get away with it. No matter how foolish or spiteful or pompous they appear in print, they transcend faults of character by the simple virtue of brilliant writing. Only it’s not that simple – if it were, everyone would do it. In the first half of the 20th century, no diarist in English would achieve greater notoriety than Henry Channon, AKA “Chips”, his name practically a byword for gossipy flamboyance and indiscretion. When first published in 1967, nine years after his death, the diaries were an instant sensation, a stunning fresco of the British social-political haut monde by an American interloper whose eye never seemed to sleep.

The Penguin edition most of us read was known to have been severely edited, representing a fraction of Channon’s original text, considered by his heirs too hot for the lawyers to handle. So the prospect of an unexpurgated version running to three volumes, of which this tubby tranche is the first, has an irresistible allure, like finding diamond studs in the pocket of a charity shop dress suit. (Some of the missing diaries were actually found at a car-boot sale.) We also have a full 10 years (1918-28) of unseen material – Chips Uncut – to keep us occupied. Woohoo! Will spats go with that suit?

Be careful what you wish for. There may have been reasons other than breach of privacy that compelled the first executors to trim and to telescope. These early years in which Chips is finding his voice as a writer are a mixed blessing. On the plus side, you get dear diary moments without parallel, such as the evening in Paris he’s seated at dinner between Cocteau and Proust amid “a Niagara of epigrams”. Only 21, Chips admits “I felt stupid between the two wittiest men in Europe”: the honesty is characteristic. He’s very like Boswell – the high spirits, the delight in company, the lechery, the silliness – and you feel the anxiety of his insider-outsider status, though Boswell never disowned his Scottishness the way Chips hates being an American.

His longing to be what he is not both fascinates as a form of imposture and exhausts as a spectacle of social mountaineering. Was ever a man more besotted by a grandee? The abundant footnotes, ably and diligently marshalled by editor Simon Heffer, swarm with everything you might want to know about the British aristocracy between the wars, though you wonder if it’s really possible to be as consumed as Chips was by the engagement of a couple named Fruity Metcalfe and Baba Curzon. It’s like reading Bertie Wooster set loose among the pages of Burke’s Peerage, with lots of sucking-up where the jokes ought to be. And yet, to reverse the viewpoint, what did those eminences see in this brattish expat who sat and drank among them, often the only person in the room without a title, a big house and pots of money? (He secured the last two for himself on marrying the heiress Lady Honor Guinness.) What seemingly propelled him to the centre of their society was charm, a genius for friendship and a determination to make himself unavoidable. On not being invited to the Derby House ball in 1927 he writes as one who has glimpsed into the abyss.

Insecurity drives him – it drives all snobbery – but once he is plumped on his wife’s millions and naturalised as a British citizen in 1933, Chips seems more at ease. Still shallow and status-obsessed, he is now able to bring society to his own door – the king himself comes to dinner at the Channons’s grand house in Belgrave Square – and he even has a job, as MP for Southend. His diary gets funnier and darker as the 30s whirl on. His pen portraits of friends and rivals alike are etched in acid. A favourite tic is the unexpected adjective that throws the others into relief, if not into doubt: “Sir Arthur Colefax died today; he was a good man, talented, high-idealled, kind and boring beyond belief”. Any student of the abdication crisis should consult these pages; Chips, with a ringside seat, gives almost a “rolling news” account of the unfolding calamity.

In the run-up to war he is passionately pro-appeasement. His loathing of the French and his infatuation with Nazi Germany make for barely credible reading today, though he was not alone among his class in being awed by Hitler. When, following Munich in September 1938, he hails Chamberlain as “the reincarnation of St George” you hear history’s knell: wrong, wrong, wrong. But diarists don’t have the safety net of hindsight and we don’t read Chips for his wisdom in any case. Of intimate chronicles of the 1930s, the only ones I know to compare to his come from very different quarters – James Agate (Fleet Street-theatrical) and Virginia Woolf (Bloomsbury-intellectual). Both could give Chips a run for his money as a stylist, though given that neither had a title he would probably have considered them beneath his notice.

Anthony Quinn’s new novel London, Burning is published in April (Little, Brown)

Henry ‘Chips’ Channon: The Diaries 1918-38, edited by Simon Heffer, is published by Hutchinson (£35). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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