I’ve just started Simon Heffer’s mammoth work, a new edition of the diaries of ‘Chips’ Channon. A collection was published in 1967 but was heavily redacted, partly for fear of libel suits. Now, Channon’s grandchildren have given permission for a complete edition. Chips Channon is a name you often come across in biographies of his contemporaries but I knew nothing about the man except that he wrote scandalous diaries. I can see that it will take me a very long time to get through this first volume (which was 99p for the Kindle a few days ago) and that I’ll be reading quite a few other books at the same time.
‘How did he do it?’ is my first question. Born in America, which he came to hate, Chips arrived in Paris towards the end of the First World War to work at the American embassy, armed only with good looks and an allowance from his father. He doesn’t say much about his work but instead writes a great deal about princesses, marquises, numbers of aristocrats (which the French have too many of) and deservedly obscure European royalties. His best friend is Prince Paul of Serbia. Who? He’s rather like Lady Montdore in Nancy Mitford’s Love in a Cold Climate, who collects ‘Sirs and Ma’ams’.
My second question is, ‘Why?’ Almost every entry begins ‘Lunched with’ or ‘Dined with’. All those lunches, dinners and dances, followed by a visit to a night club and/or brothel before rolling home at 6am sound utterly exhausting and to me, completely pointless. I’m obviously one of the dowdy, bourgeois people he loathes, the very people who actually get things done, unlike the parasites he ‘adores’. In tears, he leaves his Paris friends and goes to London.
Guess what? In no time our hero is moving in the highest social circles. Dinner with Lord and Lady Curzon, tea with the Duke and Duchess of York (he worships ‘Elizabeth’ and I look forward to reading about his change of heart, later) and friendship with the Prince of Wales, who sounds totally obnoxious. He has the entrée to almost every great house in Britain, including Chatsworth. Did he angle for all these invitations? Was the brown nosing very hard work and was it worth it? It’s all quite inexplicable. ‘Oh’, he wails, ‘if only I was English and Catholic’. He claims to support ‘monarchies, inquisitions and compulsory Catholicism’. Bad luck; he’s a protestant from the mid-west and leaves London (more tears) for a long duty visit home in Chicago. I should think so, considering that his despised family was bankrolling his dissolute life.
Much, much more to come, with plenty of scandals. His character was extreme; he loved or hated and carried on feuds over trivial matters. Whatever you think of him (and he’s really awful), these diaries have a horrible fascination. Brilliant stuff.