Henry ‘Chips’ Channon: The Diaries 1918-1938 (volume I), edited by Simon Heffer, Hutchinson, 2021, £35, reviewed by Bill Hartley
One of the weightiest publications to appear this year must be Henry ‘Chips’ Channon: The Diaries 1918-38, edited by Simon Heffer. This is to be the first of three volumes and runs to over 900 pages. The Diaries record events in the life of the socialite and sometime MP. An earlier version appeared in 1967 but since many of those referred to, sometimes unflatteringly, were still alive it was heavily redacted. No such restrictions were placed on the latest edition and so Channon’s often waspish pen is given free reign.
In Channon’s world, there were two significant events during the year 1936 and he had a ringside seat at both. The first quite literally since he was a guest at the Berlin Olympics. Given his pro-German sympathies this is hardly surprising. Of course, Channon wasn’t the only person in Britain who saw Nazi Germany as a bulwark against Communism, rather than as the opposite side of the same coin.
Given what we now know about the Third Reich, Channon’s trip to the Olympics has a blackly comedic air. Arriving in Berlin he and his wife are assigned a uniformed Aide de Camp for their stay. Travelling to their hotel, Channon notices with approval the ‘splendidly decorated Unter Den Linden’. No prizes for guessing what it was decorated with. Later he dined with the Bismarck’s. As the reader discovers, the Nazi’s were finding it useful at this stage to ally themselves with members of the old regime, since the German public still held the monarchy and aristocracy in high regard.
Channon seems to have had little interest in the Games themselves and admitted in his diary that he found them ‘boring’. There is no mention in its pages of his witnessing any athletic triumphs. He does note, however, that every German victory was greeted by the crowd with a Nazi salute and enjoys what he terms the ‘gay lilt’ of the Horst Wessel, played as medals were presented.
Going out for the evening, the transport consists of a Rolls Royce driven by a storm trooper. It was party time in the Third Reich and one of the Channon’s first social engagements is a state banquet where he is presented to Reichsmarschall Goering. Channon notes that the founder of the Gestapo was ‘flirtatious and gay’. There was much gossip and whether Channon was in Britain or Germany, he was an assiduous recorder of such trivia. Apparently Goering and Goebbels ‘hate each other’ and Hess is the Fuhrer’s favourite. Well, up until that flight to Scotland in 1941.
On another occasion, after an exhausting day at the Olympics, the Channon’s drop by for tea with the elderly Duke of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, grandson of Queen Victoria and a ‘fervent Nazi’. Fortunately, being an Old Etonian, His Grace is a fluent English speaker.
As these entries unfold it is difficult to decide whether Channon is stupid or just gullible. At one event he meets with a Countess Welczech who tells him about Communist atrocities in Spain during the civil war. This prompts him to note that ‘Germany is fighting our battles’; or perhaps getting in some rehearsal time before the main event. Channon excuses himself from the Games and socialising, so that the helpful storm trooper can drive him out to inspect one of the regime’s camps. He notes that the inmates are ‘smiling and clean’ and that their health and strength are being built up. He cannot accordingly understand the ‘English suspicion of the Nazi regime’. Back on the social front where he was better qualified to report, Channon concludes that Goering’s party beat Ribbentrop’s although in sheer scale Reichsminister Goebbels’ event, with its two thousand guests, must have been hard to top.
1936 also saw the Abdication Crisis, although it’s interesting to speculate about whose crisis it was. Last year reviewing Alexander Larman’s The Crown in Crisis, in The Times, David Aaronovich wondered if it was nothing more than a ruling class psychodrama. Channon was of course in the thick of it, his attitude towards King Edward VIII fluctuating wildy. Essentially Channon appreciates that he (Edward) looked the part but that temperamentally he was hopeless. Mrs Simpson makes her first appearance in his diary on July 7th and with it the sense of a growing scandal. On the 17th he and his wife make up a foursome with the new King and Mrs Simpson. He notes how flirtatious they are with one another. ‘Oh sir’ she responds coyly at one point, evidently not yet on first name terms, at least in public. At the accession of Edward VIII, Channon notes that many in the watching crowd bow as Mrs Simpson passes, believing her to be the Duchess of Kent. Later, Channon’s attitude towards Mrs Simpson cools, as he realises the growing possibility of the King marrying this ‘slightly common little American’.
Just for balance: 1936 was also the year when 58 miners were killed in a colliery explosion, when the Battle of Cable Street took place and when unemployment was very high. The Jarrow Marchers do get a passing mention in the diary but that was about it. For an MP Channon seems to have evinced remarkably little interest in domestic matters, at least those involving people below the rank of King.
Back on crisis management duties, Channon sets himself up as a potential matchmaker, wondering if he might steer Princess Irene of Greece or Princess Cecilie of Prussia in the King’s direction. Given his earlier approval of the Nazi’s it’s difficult to know whether he was joking or not. Eventually even Channon has the sense to appreciate that tactically the best thing the King can do is: get crowned, get married and then present the government with a fait accompli. Channon notes that the King, whilst Prince of Wales, had a tendency to throw himself into new endeavours with a sense of total fixation, be it golf, playing the bagpipes and subsequently, marrying an unsuitable divorcee.
On the 11th of November, the divorce comes through and Channon can’t resist quoting the anonymous American sub editor who came up with one of the best headlines of all time. In seven words he explains what happened, where and to whom, and finds something interesting to say about Ipswich: ‘King’s Moll Renoed in Wolsey’s Home Town’. Perhaps another commentator summed it up best. Evelyn Waugh wrote: ‘The Simpson crisis has been a great delight to everyone… there can seldom have been an event that caused so much general delight and so little pain’. Channon on the other hand seems to have believed Stalin was gloating over the crisis.
Whatever you think of him Channon ranks among the great diarists. He is at turns brilliant, witty, trivial and spiteful, with observations about some figures whose names have stood the test of time. Simon Heffer has done an excellent job as editor and his copious footnotes are often as entertaining as the diaries.
William Hartley is a former Deputy Governor in HM Prison Service