TThe great chroniclers get away with it. No matter how silly, spiteful, or pompous they seem in print, they transcend character flaws by the simple virtue of brilliant writing. It’s just not that simple, if it were, everyone would do it. In the first half of the 20th century, no chronicler in English would achieve greater notoriety than Henry Channon, also known as “Chips,” his name practically synonymous with flamboyance and gossipy indiscretion. When first published in 1967, nine years after his death, the diaries were an instant sensation, a stunning fresco of British political and social policy. high world by an American intruder whose eye never seemed to sleep.
The Penguin edition that most of us read was known to have been severely edited, representing a fraction of Channon’s original text, deemed by his heirs too hot for lawyers to handle. So the prospect of an unpurified three-volume version, of which this chubby section is the first, has irresistible appeal, like finding diamond studs in the pocket of a charity shop ball gown. (Some of the lost newspapers were found at a trunk sale.) We also have 10 full years (1918-28) of invisible material – Chips Uncut – to keep us busy. Wow! Will leggings go with that suit?
Be careful what you wish for. There may be reasons other than the violation of privacy that forced the first executors to clip and telescope. These early years Chips is finding his voice as a writer are a mixed blessing. On the bright side, you get unparalleled diary cherished moments, like the night in Paris you’re sitting at a dinner party between Cocteau and Proust in the middle of “a Niagara of epigrams.” At just 21 years old, Chips admits “I felt stupid between the two most ingenious men in Europe”: honesty is characteristic. He’s a lot like Boswell: the good humor, the delight in company, the lasciviousness, the foolishness, and you feel the anxiety of his inside-outside status, though Boswell never repudiated his Scottish character the way Chips hates being American. .
His desire to be what he is not fascinates as a form of imposture and exhausts as a spectacle of social mountaineering. Has a man ever been more in love with a great one? The abundant footnotes, skillfully and diligently arranged by editor Simon Heffer, are packed with everything you might want to know about the British aristocracy between the wars, though one wonders if it is really possible to be as consumed as Chips by compromise. from a couple named Fruity Metcalfe and Baba Curzon. It’s like reading Bertie Wooster loose between the pages of Burke Nobility, with a lot of stamina where the jokes should be. And yet, to reverse the point of view, what did those eminences see in this spoiled expat who sat and drank among them, often the only person in the room with no title, a big house and lots of money? (He secured the latter two for himself by marrying heiress Lady Honor Guinness.) What apparently propelled him to the center of their society was charm, a genius for friendship, and a determination to make himself inevitable. Not being invited to the Derby House ball in 1927, he writes like someone who has glimpsed the abyss.
Insecurity drives him, drives all the snobbery, but once he’s earned his wife’s millions and naturalized as a British citizen in 1933, Chips seems calmer. Still shallow and obsessed with status, he can now bring society to his own doorstep (the king himself comes to dinner at the Channon’s great house in Belgrave Square) and even has a job as a deputy from Southend. His diary gets funnier and darker as the 1930s progress. His pen portraits of friends and rivals are acid etched. A favorite tic is the unexpected adjective that brings others to the fore, if not in doubt: “Sir Arthur Colefax died today; He was a good man, talented, of high ideals, kind and boring beyond imagination. ” Any student of the abdication crisis should consult these pages; Chips, with a front row seat, offers almost a “rolling news” account of the unfolding calamity.
In the run-up to the war, he is passionately in favor of appeasement. His abhorrence for the French and his infatuation with Nazi Germany make for an unbelievable reading today, although he was not the only one of his kind to be in awe of Hitler. When, after Munich in September 1938, he greets Chamberlain as “the reincarnation of Saint George”, the sound of history is heard: bad, bad, bad. But the chroniclers do not have the safety net of hindsight and we do not read Chips for his wisdom in any way. Of the intimate chronicles of the 1930s, the only ones I know to compare with his come from very different quarters: James Agate (Fleet Street-theatrical) and Virginia Woolf (Bloomsbury-intellectual). You could both give Chips a shot for your money as a stylist, although since neither of you had a degree, you probably would have considered them below your knowledge.
Anthony Quinn’s new novel London Burning published in April (Little, Brown)
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism