Simon Heffer, to whom the job of editing this unredacted version of Channon’s diaries has been granted, must be hugging himself with glee. Still, he is careful to tell us in his sober introduction that he has the family’s full permission, and that no Channons were harmed in the making. He emerges as the best kind of editor, which is to say virtually invisible and without the tiresome urge to compete for attention with his subject. You do feel sorry for him, though, having to keep track of all those duchesses and princelings, not least because their titles keep changing as they shimmy up or slide down the greasy pole of the interwar elite.
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.
Chips’ views are his private confessional, with an eye to future publication. Yet in no way were they idiosyncratic. On the contrary, they faithfully reflected the conventional wisdom of the great majority of the Conservative parliamentary party at the time, and the distaste amounting to hatred of many of them for Churchill. Yet it was Churchill who was right, and Churchill who made the difference.
Heffer has done an exemplary job of editing and exhaustively footnoting the diaries. The question is whether Channon’s account of a legion of vile bodies deserves to occupy three huge printed volumes. The man was wrong not merely about the Nazis, but about everything. And yet. What a quirk of fate it is that, while countless of Chips’s decent contemporaries and especially politicians are today forgotten, the diaries make him an indispensable source for anyone writing of this period.
In his introduction, Heffer declares that Channon ‘never minces his words’. Yet, in a funny way, the words mince by themselves, occasionally executing Firbankian pirouettes ... Even in its dull moments, of which there are quite a few, generally involving interminable lists of forgotten bigwigs attending showy parties, it remains a work of high camp. Might Alan ‘Chatty Man’ Carr be prevailed upon to narrate the audiobook? It kicks off in Paris on New Year’s Day 1918 (the original edition didn’t start until 1934). ‘To be forever 20 in Paris in the springtime... what could be more divine?’, asks Chips.
Channon had all the qualities of a fine diarist: he was supremely well connected, astute, occasionally lyrical, indiscreet and unsparing in his portraits of himself and others, people he loved and admired as well as those he detested. He could be extremely nasty, and often very funny, but also gentle and generous. And he was indefatigable, pouring nearly two million words into his diary, to create an unrivalled guide to the social and political life of Britain in the middle third of the last century...
Channon is a delightful guide, by turns frivolous and profound. But it is when we come to Nazi Germany that his companionship becomes at first embarrassing, then tiresome and finally very unpleasant. He was taken to see a Nazi labour camp, but evinced much more interest in the interior decor in the apartments of the crown princess: “Plush, palms . . . all quite hideous.”
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.
Only now, with the publication of the complete text (this huge volume will be followed by two more) can we get the full measure of this extraordinary man. The book is strangely addictive – just as well, given its length – and one’s feelings about Channon change all the time, in ways that are hard to classify. My attempt here is modelled on the well-known five stages of grief: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance. Reading Chips Channon, the five stages – though it isn’t just a sequence, as elements persist through the book – are Puzzlement, Delight, Exasperation, Repulsion and Fascination.