The interwar years are not, broadly speaking, remembered fondly. Yet the parallels with modern times are too obvious to avoid. Britain was on the way down. Her empire, even at its greatest geographical extent, was clearly weakening. No longer the premier industrial power, she was hemmed in, first by the rise of the US and then the fascist dictatorships. The British endured a pandemic and grim economic times – the Spanish flu and the Great Depression. At Westminster they were poorly led, though the political crises of the age – from the 1926 general strike to the abdication – never produced the revolutionary changes many on both the left and right expected. It was as if the British people were somehow lost, only to find themselves again with the outbreak of war in 1939.
In some ways, the landscape is very familiar. This was already a modern, car-based economy, vomiting up the ribbon developments and standardised housing where so many of us still live. It was a society enjoying mass, American-produced entertainment. It was a culture inflected with modernism; hedonistic, and increasingly open to sexual experiment. But the Britain of the 1920s and 1930s was also much more stratified, industrially regimented and fiercely class-divided in an almost Victorian way. Its politics were class politics.
Importantly, this is the last historical period so heavily written. With broadcasting still in its infancy, it is an age we must approach primarily through the record of its leading writers – George Orwell and DH Lawrence, WH Auden and TS Eliot, JB Priestley and Stella Gibbons.
And, of course, Henry “Chips” Channon, that snobbish, social climbing, wickedly entertaining bisexual American interloper who scrambled his way into the higher echelons of the aristocracy and indeed the monarchy, married into huge wealth and a Tory parliamentary seat, and wrote some of the most compelling diaries of the age. When these were first published in 1967, they caused a literary scandal. Many of those mentioned were still alive. It turns out that the original diaries, edited by the former Tory MP and historian Robert Rhodes James, were heavily redacted and bowdlerised. Had they been published in full then, the libel suits would have been ruinous.
Today, many of those who might have been hurt or damaged most, from his son (the former Tory cabinet minister Paul Channon) to the Queen Mother, are dead and gone. So a new, much longer version, including previously unseen material, is now appearing in a comprehensive new edition, scrupulously edited and annotated by Simon Heffer. It is the first of what promises to be three fat volumes. The first obvious question is: how much new do we discover?
The short answer is, a lot. But first it should be admitted that, when Channon is up against other writers giving an account of the aristocracy in the last days of its pomp, he is only quite good.
Though he tried his hand as a novelist, he is no match for Evelyn Waugh’s ferocious intensity. An outsider – Channon loathed his native America for its democracy, lack of class distinction and associations with his hated parents – he misses, or misunderstands, nuances that an insider such as the treacherous Nancy Mitford explains brilliantly. On the commercial upper-middle classes on whom the whole “moth-eaten musical brocade” rested (not Larkin’s religious beliefs, I mean here, but aristocracy), Channon is useless. He simply doesn’t see these people. For them, John Galsworthy is the go-to writer. Finally, if you really want to understand the interwar upper classes, you need a historian, such as David Cannadine – or, for the monarchy, perhaps Kenneth Rose.
It’s not that Channon doesn’t penetrate these inner sanctums. He’s like a deathwatch beetle on Benzedrine. He drills his way into balls, dinners and country house weekends, squeezing his elegant form between European heads of state and English grandees, exchanging catty remarks with dowager duchesses or King George’s solemn children. As soon as he has married a member of the fabulously wealthy Guinness family, he has the King (by now Edward VIII) round to dinner. And the American celebrities who amused the aristos are in the diary jostle too – Tallulah Bankhead, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Cole Porter, Fred Astaire.
[see also: George Orwell and the road to revolution]
It’s just that Chips is, certainly in his younger years, a bit of a ninny. He is so desperate to “make it” in society, and so hypnotised when he gets there, that it’s far too much who and not enough what. He lists who sat next to whom, who was excluded and who is feuding with whom this week rather than the pungent verbal detail. On the rare occasions when he does relate the actual exchanges, there is little detail or colour. For instance, “Lady Scarbrough is very angry with the Astor clan” – American, by origin, of course – “‘What did they do in the War of the Roses?’ she demanded.”
Nor is he exactly faultless on the detail. He gets it wrong on some titles and flags. He constantly gives people’s ages and is wildly out, sometimes by as much as a decade: Heffer’s wryly corrective footnotes are themselves a minor pleasure.
When it comes to the great cultural figures he meets, Channon seems incurious to the point of philistinism. André Gide is “a dreadful, unkempt poet-looking person”. Stravinsky? “A small little man, unimpressive and uninteresting looking like a German dentist. He has no manners.” Proust – with whom Channon may have had a liaison – gets off a little better, but has bad manners, grubby linen and pours out “ceaseless spite and venom about the great”. HG Wells is “common” and “betrays his servant origin”. TE Lawrence is “not a gentleman”. Somerset Maugham? “Of course, not a gentleman”.
The cumulative effect of “society Channon” thus proves exhausting more than amusing. If you’ve ever idly wondered what it must be like to be part of a glittering social whirl, white tie, champagne and castles, then here is your disappointing answer. It means: endless hurried changes of clothes, sore feet, sore throat, late nights, hangovers, a metallic tintinnabulation of chatter-chatter-chatter, and a sprawling background of petty insecurity. In short, utterly ghastly.
There are exceptions. Channon idolised Lord Curzon, the former governor-general of India and cabinet minister, and his portrait of this deeply strange and complex man is gripping. When the people he is describing are particularly fruity, the diary comes alive again, as with a visit to the Duke of Argyll in 1925: “They are an odd brace, this brother and sister both past 50 and still unmarried. Lady Elspeth is the manlier of the two. Her dirty hair and unkempt appearance and appalling figure cannot hide her great beauty and distinction. She wore a knitted dressing gown that very nearly wreaked havoc with my appetite. Argyll talks in a high falsetto voice about Celtic legends and folklore and ritualism and bells – bells are his hobby…”
But it is, of course, political Channon for whom we really turn to the diary. He was at the epicentre of the pro-appeasement wing of the Tory party and high society, and at the heart of the abdication crisis. The earlier version of the diary disguised just how enthusiastic he was for the fascists, as were many of those around him. For much of this period, Channon was a fashionable anti-Semite, who feared above all a socialist revolution and the murder of the aristocracy, perhaps by guillotine.
He gets almost every political forecast wrong. He predicts a decline in socialism in early 1926, and a huge revival of Roman Catholicism. He wildly misreads the 1926 general strike, suggesting it was a “real revolt skilfully engineered by Moscow” which would end in civil war. The king, he says, “is supposed to be white with terror and apprehension”.
Like so many of the British aristocracy, he then turns with childlike awe to foreign dictators. On 6 July 1935 he records: “There is something rather classical in Mussolini’s seaplane flying to Rome being struck by lightning. Luckily he was untouched. It would seem as if the Gods themselves were jealous of this dynamic man – so like God himself.” By November of that year, he is asking himself as an MP: “Shall I have the courage to raise my lonely voice in favour of Germany in the House?”
With London divided he notes excitedly that he and Hitler have the same breed of dog – “my heart warmed towards him” – and in an after-dinner conversation with anti- appeasers such as Duff Cooper and Brendan Bracken, he tells his diary: “I longed to cry out ‘Heil Hitler!’ Secretly, I am pro-German and prefer even the Nazis to the French.”
As Germany rearms and becomes more menacing, Channon only becomes more besotted. On 6 August 1936, when he has been lured to the Berlin Olympics, and Hitler arrives in the stadium, he pens a kind of political orgasm: “One felt one was in the presence of some semi-divine creature: I was more thrilled than when I met Mussolini in 1926 in Perugia, more stimulated than when I was blessed by the Pope…”
This was an important moment. Channon, like so many of the other British guests in Berlin at the time, thought the dynamism and organisation of Nazi Germany was a vision of the inevitable future. This shouldn’t be just about sneering at a weak-minded diarist. We ought to be terrified by mankind’s inability to see even the blatant near future. Channon expected Hitler to bring back the Kaiser and his Hohenzollern dynasty. And he reflected that if the Germans were being a bit beastly to the Jews, then at least the richest and best-connected Jews were still being left alone.
On the same visit he was entranced by Hermann Goering (“his merry eyes twinkled… a lovably disarming man”), impressed by Joseph Goebbels, who he thought looked like Clement Attlee, and was easily fooled by a Potemkin concentration camp (“tidy, even gay, and the boys, all about 18, looked like the ordinary German peasant boy, fair, healthy and sunburned”). He concludes, after a conversation about the left-wing outrages in Spain, that Germany is not communist only thanks to Hitler: “Oh! England wake up. You in your sloth and conceit are ignorant of the Soviet dangers and will not realise that… Germany is fighting our battles.”
Channon, who then gives the reader a ringside seat at the abdication crisis, is delighted that Edward VIII is also rumoured to be a Nazi-sympathiser, and constantly ridicules doddering old Winston Churchill, Duff Cooper and others who could see what was coming. He is honest enough to accept that he is a coward, who desperately hopes he will be too old to fight in any coming war.
[see also: Why Trump isn’t a fascist]
All safely history – yet I think Chips Channon is significant precisely because of his wild misjudgements. They were commonly shared. They were founded on fear of the unknown, and consequent political hysteria. It led him and huge swathes of the English aristocracy to fawn on foreign fascists – never thinking that what started there could come home to roost. In the 2020s, with the democracies again in decline, we should not feel entirely smug.
Another aspect of these diaries that may surprise those who only remember the expurgated version is the extent of Channon’s vigorous sexual life. Here are visits to brothels, in London and Paris; numerous infidelities and the long, deeply serious affairs with other men – though it is only after this period that he meets Peter Coats, the landscape gardener for whom he eventually left his wife, Lady Honor Guinness.
The Labour MP Chris Bryant has recently published The Glamour Boys, about the important role gay men played in the anti-appeasement movement. Channon’s diaries reveal that gay connections were just as important on the other side. When Channon visits Berlin in April 1928, he is as enthralled as Bryant’s protagonists – intellectuals and politicians such as Cooper, Harold Nicolson, Maurice Bowra and Bob Boothby – by the sexual freedom of the city: “later we went to two ordinary dancing places and we saw men actually kissing each other… I never expected it to be so open.”
As the diaries progress, Channon becomes more thoughtful, and analyses himself using the casual misogyny of the day: “Sometimes I think I have the character of a very clever woman – able, but trivial, with flair, intuition, great good taste and second-rate ambition: I am susceptible to flattery, and male good looks; I hate and am uninterested in all the things men like such as sport, business, statistics, debates, speeches, war and the weather…”
Later still, this self-analysis by the man whose friends called him “wicked boy” leads Channon to the most extraordinary political theory. He is analysing the division in London between pro-democracy politicians and the pro-Nazis. And on 29 May 1936 he decides he finally understands what is going on: “It is curious the division of racial mentality, and it reduces itself to a question of sex; all people, whether male or female, who are attracted by men and force are pro-German. The ‘softies’ like Hubert Duggan, who make a cult of female-worship, are pro-French. Duff Cooper, who adores women to an almost insane pitch, and is always trying to rape them in taxis etc, is immeasurably pro-French. Sometimes I wonder whether he is not also a bit pro-war?”
Nobody who was worried about their future reputation would leave a pair of sentences like that lying around.
We don’t read diarists because we admire them, but because they were there, and they note down what they saw and heard. “Chips” Channon was wrong about almost everything. But do we read Boswell, Casanova, Pepys, Alan Clark or even Sasha Swire for their judgement? We do not. We read them to be taken aback, and to question ourselves. Exhausting, massive, genuinely shocking, and still revelatory, this new edition of the Channon diaries is a work of irrigation and genuine scholarship. Few people may read them from cover to cover, but the stories they contain will rattle noisily around our culture for decades ahead.
Andrew Marr’s books include “Elizabethans: How Modern Britain Was Forged” (William Collins)
Henry “Chips” Channon: the Diaries, Volume 1, 1918-38
Edited by Simon Heffer
Hutchinson, 1,024pp, £35
[see also: The art of political writing]
This article appears in the 03 Mar 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Humanity vs the virus