Brilliance blighted by poor judgment
by Simon Heffer
I have just spent three years with Chips Channon, editing his unexpurgated diaries, the first volume of which was published in March (there are two more to come). Chips – I feel we are on sobriquet terms after all this time – had rather a bad press when the heavily redacted edition of these diaries came out in 1967. That edition was ostensibly edited by Robert Rhodes James. I say ostensibly, because Rhodes James never saw the original manuscript of a diary Chips kept, with a few gaps, from 1918 until 1957, the year before his death. He was presented with a typescript prepared by Peter Coats, who had become intimate with Chips during the Second World War. The couple lived in Belgrave Square, more or less as man and wife, from the end of the war until Chips died.
Reputational damage was foremost in Coats’s considerations. In the early 1960s, when he was preparing the draft that Rhodes James would be allowed to see, homosexual relationships were still illegal. His draft not only gave no indication of Chips’s interest in men, it gave no indication of his special interest in Coats. But that was not all that concerned Coats. Chips had held views that played so badly in post-war Britain that Coats deemed they could not be allowed to be broadcast. He had thought in the 1930s that there was something to be said for Hitler and the Nazis; his attitude to Neville Chamberlain was little short of adulatory; and he thought that Churchill was vulgar, a mountebank and a warmonger. Next to these difficulties, the candour with which Chips detailed the characters, sex lives and failings of his friends and enemies was straightforward to deal with. These passages were all excised, in case any of the
many who were still alive decided to sue for libel. (It would have been monstrous if any of them had; Chips, for all his faults, rarely tells a lie, or even inadvertently gets anything wrong, except people’s ages.)
Coats decided that nothing Chips wrote before 1934 would be included, thus denying previous readers any glimpses of Proust’s Paris, where Chips spent the whole of 1918 working for the American Red Cross, and dining nightly with duchesses – and occasionally with Proust. As a result of all this surgery, and the fact that some diaries from the 1950s didn’t turn up until unearthed at a car boot sale in the 1990s – a manuscript of the best part of two million words was reduced to under 250,000.
He was not merely malicious and dark, but found himself posthumously accused of being asinine, trivial, snobbish, vain and vulgar
Yet even this entirely vanilla version of the diaries caused outrage when it was published, because of the bitchery of what was left in. The great men and women of letters of the day – people such as Malcolm Muggeridge and Nancy Mitford – condemned Chips for his “malice” and “darkness”. Reading that edition now it’s hard to see what caused such offence; it makes you realise just how buttoned-up the supposedly Swinging Sixties still were. But for all Coats’s efforts to sanitise his partner, Chips still came out of it badly. He was not merely malicious and dark, but found himself posthumously accused of being asinine, trivial, snobbish, vain and vulgar. Once Coats died, in 1990, it was openly remarked that the two of them had been lovers; Coats himself, in memoirs so arch they could be part of a viaduct, had by then alluded to his close and special friendship with Chips. In their social circle in the 1940s and 1950s everyone knew what was going on, and had a pretty good idea of Chips’s various other dalliances. Between his death and the publication of the diaries in 1967 nobody really cared very much; after the publication, a series of myths and legends blew up around him, some of which will be disproved by the time all three volumes are published.
Volume I, which finishes on the day Chamberlain returned from Munich in September 1938, explodes some of the myths. While editing the diaries I was told more than once that Chips’s wife, Lady Honor Channon (née Guinness, daughter of the Earl of Iveagh) had left him after coming home to Belgrave Square one day and finding her husband in bed with Coats. Not only did this never happen, but by Volume I Lady Honor was already playing around with a succession of men, notably the notorious Hungarian serial husband Count Pálffy (of whom it was said no woman was ever the same again after she had been intimate with him) and a ski instructor, and on her way out of her marriage. She also refused to let Chips into the marital bed.
The main question now that the unexpurgated diaries are coming out is how far Chips’s reputation is going to be affected by them. The worst that seemed to come out of the 1967 edition was that Chips was a lightweight capable of great waspishness. The main thing Coats was keen to conceal – Chips’s homosexuality – is now neither here nor there, and will be of interest only in its salacious detail
(which does not really come until the next two volumes). Oddly enough, his views on Churchill will probably give far less offence now than they did half a century ago, when the great man was still warm in his grave; especially given the mindless campaign to convict and condemn Churchill for a far different offence – racism – than that for which Chips would have charged him.
Chips’s worship of Chamberlain has become progressively less embarrassing since the 1960s. Churchill set the tone of opinion about Chamberlain in the first volume of his history of the Second World War, The Gathering Storm, which was published in 1948, and it pervaded for decades: that Chamberlain had been at best a dupe and at worst an utter fool, and had heaped humiliation on Britain at Munich. Inevitably the reality was more nuanced than that, though the combination of Churchill’s legend, the power of his advocacy and Chamberlain’s relative lack of supporters among academic historians have conspired to conceal that fact. These days, the sort of people who read the Channon diaries would almost certainly have the intellectual curiosity to probe further into Chamberlain’s conduct before deciding that Chips was entirely and hopelessly wrong about him.
But where the diarist would have some explaining to do is in his regard for Nazi Germany. None of the political embarrassments that Coats perceived made Chips unusual in the 1930s. A vast swath of the British establishment admired the Nazis, thought Chamberlain’s attempts to secure peace were entirely sensible, and had had enough of Churchill, whose history of political mistakes stretched back to the Dardanelles. Chips says again and again in his diaries that Hitler is Europe’s bulwark against Bolshevism. He had made a herculean effort to climb to the highest rung of London’s high society; he was steadily cultivating royalty and aristocracy from across the continent – a pursuit of the grand and titled that left him open to accusations of snobbery and made him appear ridiculous. But the class into which he had moved, and many of the friends he had made, were closely connected to those who were the direct victims of the Russian revolution. Now identifying closely with them, Chips felt it was only a matter of time before the Bolsheviks came for him and those he had chosen to associate himself with.
He hardly helps himself in this volume by the glee with which he records being entertained by Goebbels, Goering and Ribbentrop at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin; nor his description of the feeling he had when being in the Olympic stadium to witness the arrival of Hitler. It is somewhere on the scale between an orgasm and a religious experience, though subsequently mildly discounted by his admission about how vulgar he finds the Nazis to be, and that they hardly help themselves by their harsh treatment of the Jews and their other designated enemies. Perhaps the most idiotic aspect of this whole part of Chips’s experience is his belief that one day Hitler will want to shore himself up by masterminding a Hohenzollern restoration, in which Chips will be the best friend of the putative next Kaiser. It sums up the truth about Chips and suggests the reputation he deserves; a man of questionable judgment rather than of evil, part harmless fantasist, part lightweight, but mostly one of the most brilliant observers of human life in the last century, and a diarist of almost incomparable brilliance.
“Henry ‘Chips’ Channon: The Diaries Volume I, 1918-38, edited by Simon Heffer”, is published by Hutchinson, price £35
Simon Heffer is a historian, journalist and Professorial Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham