Born in Chicago in 1897, Henry ‘Chips’ Channon settled in England after the Great War, married into the immensely rich Guinness family, and served as Conservative MP for Southend-on-Sea from 1935 until his death in 1958. His political career was unremarkable. His diaries are quite the opposite. Elegant, gossipy and bitchy by turns, they are the unfettered observations of a man who went everywhere and knew everybody. Whether describing the antics of London society in the interwar years, or the growing scandal that enveloped the Royal family during the abdication crisis, or the mood in the House of Commons over appeasement, his sense of drama and his eye for the telling detail are unmatched.
A heavily abridged and censored edition of the diaries was published in 1967. Only now, over sixty years after Channon’s death, can the text be presented in all its unexpurgated and sometimes shocking glory. For the first time, readers can look over Channon’s shoulder as he records Marcel Proust pouring out ‘ceaseless spite and venom about the great’ or Cecil Beaton’s unfortunate encounter with a pond at Wilton House. We can trace a complex relationship with Edward VIII that began in equivocation and ended in both loyalty and deep sadness. We get an insider’s view of the major political figures of the era: the ‘dormouse’ Stanley Baldwin, the ‘old time server’ Winston Churchill and ‘the shrewdest Prime Minister of modern times’ Neville Chamberlain among them. And, on a personal level, we can chart Channon’s journey from youthful playboy to contented family man to betrayed husband. Above all, we get a vivid sense of what it was like to be a member of the highest English society in the 1920s and 30s, how they behaved, and what shaped their opinions and prejudices.
Chips Channon may never have been centre stage, but from his seat in the front row of the audience he has left us with a peerless record of an extraordinary period.