It is often said that the best political diaries are written by those who dwell in the foothills of power. Henry Channon’s political career peaked at parliamentary private secretary to the deputy foreign secretary Rab Butler, so he was well-placed to document, and sometimes actively to participate in, the intrigues of those who inhabited the Olympian heights.
Channon’s other great advantage was that he entertained — on an awesome scale. Scarcely an evening passed when he was not either hosting or attending a party in one of the capital’s grand salons: ‘All London,’ as he put it — by which he meant the great and the fashionable — flowed through his drawing room. As we saw in the earlier volume published this year, the King comes to dinner on the eve of the abdication crisis. Although, having backed the losing side during the abdication, Channon is now out of favour with the royals, he still has friends at court. His next-door neighbours are the Duke and Duchess of Kent. This was an age in which the country was still ruled by toffs. Just about everyone Channon knows seems to have aristocratic connections. The voluminous footnotes are a veritable Debrett’s.
Despite his undoubted charm and natural talent for social climbing, the key to his extraordinary lifestyle was his marriage. In 1935 Channon, by birth an American, had married into one of the country’s richest families. His wife, Honor Guinness, was the daughter of the Earl of Iveagh. She came with a considerable dowry. Her parents set the couple up in a grand London residence, 5 Belgrave Square, and a country house, Kelvedon Hall, in Essex. They also largely funded their opulent lifestyle. Even after Honor left (she ran off first with a ski instructor and later with a rough fellow whom Channon describes as a ‘horse coper’), the Iveaghs continued to pay his bills. In addition, they installed him in the family seat in the House of Commons, Southend-on-Sea, which he occupied for 23 years. It was later inherited by his son Paul.
This volume, another doorstopper, begins on 1 October 1938, the day after Neville Chamberlain returned from meeting Hitler in Munich, proclaiming ‘peace in our time’. Channon is a great admirer of Chamberlain’s and remains so long after such admiration was fashionable. By contrast, he loathes Winston Churchill (‘that angry bullfrog, slave of prejudice’), Anthony Eden (‘one of the most unaware, ill-informed people I have ever known’) and the other anti-Munich ‘Glamour Boys’. He regards the guarantee to Poland, which triggered the second world war, as ‘madness’.
There is a good deal of anti-Jewish prejudice. In April 1939 he is to be found praising Hitler’s Danzig speech, which he regards as conciliatory (‘good stuff… all my sympathies are with him’). June finds him celebrating Franco’s victory in Spain. Like many of his contemporaries on the political right, Channon sees Hitler as the best hope of destroying Stalin’s monstrous regime. It was not until December 1942, when Eden reveals to a stunned House of Commons the existence of the Nazi death camps, that a little light comes on.
Misjudgments are legion. This, on 24 August 1939: ‘The whole country expects war and only I do not.’ War was declared ten days later. And this, on 25 April 1940: ‘The country is definitely beginning to tire of Winston.’ Two weeks later Chamberlain resigns and is succeeded by Churchill. But Channon is not entirely wrong. Churchill may have been popular in the country at large, but he was unpopular in the Tory party and remained so for the first two years of his premiership, as one military disaster piled upon another. Although he became prime minister in May, largely to placate the opposition, he did not become leader of the Conservative party until the following October. Channon describes the atmosphere in Caxton Hall where the deed was done:
Halifax was in the chair looking more ecclesiastic than ever. The platform was crowded, but the hall not so; and I couldn’t but recall the last party meeting three years ago when Neville had been elected among such enthusiasm and hope. The atmosphere had been electric and wholeheartedly loyal; today many people were uncomfortable… the atmosphere was chilly, almost frigid… some people clapped without making any noise.
Despite the outbreak of war and the threat of imminent invasion, the great upper-class party continued. Throughout the Blitz and blackout Channon continues to move effortlessly between the Ritz, the Dorchester, Claridges and large country houses. Several nights a week he hosts parties at Belgrave Square. The champagne flows unabated and duchesses ‘drip with jewels’. This is his account of a party at the Dorchester in November 1940, 15 months into the war:
Half London was there…We had four magnums of champagne. I have never seen more lavishness, more money spent or more food than tonight. There must have been a thousand people.
Gradually, however, the war impinges. There is a servant problem: staff at the London residence are reduced from 15 to a mere six. Kelvedon is handed over to the Red Cross, though the owner retains a wing. His beloved son Paul is evacuated to America, along with his nanny. Bombs start falling: one, on Belgrave Square, interrupts one of Channon’s dinner parties. As the dust clears, the first air raid warden to dig his way through the demolished portico is an Austrian archduke (this is no ordinary world). Channon’s weekly drive between London and his country estate takes him through the East End, where he cannot avoid seeing the devastation. He starts giving lifts to hitchhikers (‘I am becoming very simple and democratic’). There are occasional visits to the constituency, where he briefly encounters ordinary mortals, but in the five years covered by this volume he does not make a single speech in parliament.
His personal life is complicated. In the heavily expurgated version, published more than 50 years ago, Honor simply disappears without explanation. Now Channon laments her infidelities at length. His own are also laid bare. He has an ambiguous relationship with his brother-in-law Alan Lennox Boyd. They frequently share a bed and at one point Channon asks Boyd to whip him. Boyd (a future colonial secretary) in turn appears to have the hots for a male US army sergeant. The great and enduring love of Channon’s life is a handsome major, Peter Coats, aide de camp to General Wavell. They eventually ended up living together, and it was Coats who ruthlessly censored the earlier version.
What value are these diaries? Without doubt they are a great work of literature. The pen portraits are wonderfully bitchy and razor-sharp. They shed light on a world that has largely passed away (hedgefunders have replaced aristocrats in the upper reaches of the Tory party — see the diaries of Sasha Swire); but they are primarily an entertainment rather than a work of history. Channon’s political judgments, although unfailingly wrong, were probably more widely shared than many would now care to admit. As for the personalities, his grandchildren were probably wise to wait until just about everyone who might have taken offence had died before allowing publication. So far as I can see there are only two notable survivors from that era: Clarissa Eden, aged 101, and the Queen.
In July 1941 the author’s patron, Rab Butler, was transferred from the Foreign Office to the Board of Education, and with that Channon lost his toehold in the political establishment. He never again held office. By the end of this volume he is hankering after a peerage in the hope of joining that privileged caste of which he was never quite a full member. As to his thoughts when the full enormity of Hitler’s regime was finally exposed and his old enemy Churchill was duly anointed ‘the greatest living Englishman’, we shall have to await the third volume.
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