Nothing compares to Chips Channon’s diaries for their sheer exuberance

‘Why was he born so beautiful, why was he born at all?’ When ‘Chips’ Channon walked into the House of Commons Tea Room in 1951, it was the chant with which drunken Labor MPs around him mocked him. Politically he was inessential, they thought, and epicene. He admitted to being the best-dressed of the MPs, but felt young socialist Anthony Crosland was the handsomest. As keeper of the historical record, however, he left a deeper and more indelible mark than any of his executioners.

Nothing compares to Channon’s unredacted diaries. They are rich, exuberant, hearty and overwhelmingly honest. For those interested in the parliamentary politics of 20th century England, the collusion and jostling between European power brokers, the swansong of aristocratic glamor in Mayfair and Belgravia, the capricious duplicity necessitated by a criminalized sexuality, the newspapers are incomparable. Some readers of the two previous volumes were indignant at the reflexive racism of his generation. Prigs was all in search of relentless pleasure from his set. Despite this delicate disparagement of Channon’s achievement, his shrewd and ruthless self-portraiture makes his life story one of the great ego stories of his century. Its editor Simon Heffer, who was ably assisted by Hugo Vickers, deserves a lifetime award for his strenuous efforts in mastering 3,000 pages of text with such precision and nimble wit.

Channon – a Chicago-born adventurer who was anglicized by a few terms at Christ Church, Oxford – started his diary in 1918 as a real-life counterpart to Proust’s voluminous novel In Search of Lost Time, whom he adored. After his marriage to a Guinness heiress, acquisition of a sprawling house in Belgrave Square and election as Conservative MP for Southend in 1935, Trollope’s novels and Charles Greville’s diaries became the models for his record of parliamentary intrigues, settling of political scores and jobbery.

In this third and last volume of the journals, there are fewer parliamentary scenes. Channon notes Winston Churchill’s fake cordiality, his self-parody and his admiration for the evangelist Billy Graham. He compares Labor leader Clement Attlee to “a buzzing little wasp” on the front benches, “maddening, stilted, self-righteous”. He likes his former boss ‘Rab’ Butler to crush socialist Aneurin Bevan in the debate and back Butler to succeed the ‘weak, hesitant and dumb’ Anthony Eden as prime minister. Edward Heath impresses her as a masterful chief whip. Eden’s replacement by Harold Macmillan as Prime Minister and his languid Edwardian pose give him hope.

Like Macmillan, Channon sees public life as a performance. Aspiring parliamentarians must act, even prance and pose flamboyantly, to achieve political fame. ‘No man who wasn’t at least a touch [homosexual] would ever stand for Parliament,” a Tory MP told him in 1947. Four years later, Channon described Eden drinking chartreuse in the Commons smoking room: “Chips dear” “Chips dear! etc streaked his rambling conversation. He also sees feminine streaks in Patrick Buchan-Hepburn, Heath’s predecessor as chief whip, calling him a “bitch”. of the first order‘ and ‘a governess’. Superabundant testosterone in fellow whip Walter Bromley-Davenport ends his career after he kicks a rebellious Tory MP down a flight of stairs, only to find he assaulted the Belgian ambassador.

Channon never hides his ostentation, his snobbery, his boastfulness rooted in insecurity, his jealous spite and his intolerance of inferiority. But he likes to please his friends, exercise his historical sense and show his tireless generosity of spirit. Her tenderness towards her beloved only child, Paul, is a delight. Speaking knowingly, he accuses Lord Rothermere of “all the harshness and obstinacy of the indolent”. He advocates the public hanging of murderers as a crime deterrent. Most people, he thinks, are submissive masochists who become reliable and devoted if they are snubbed.

Her Siamese cat looks like Vivien Leigh. Hollywood stars, such as Mae West and Danny Kaye, add flair to his parties. He puts amphetamines in the drinks to make his guests whistle. He appreciates matins telephone, during which he does nothing but make and receive intriguing calls about parliamentary conspiracies, sex gossip and parties. He deplores the fact that drinks are served in a room with undrawn curtains, hates the Renoirs and does not like marquises. His favorite book is Harold Acton’s account of dynastic decadence and lethargy, The Bourbons of Napless. He is a fan of colonic irrigation (“all sorts of things came out!”).

The breakdown of Channon’s wartime marriage freed him. He fell in love with a handsome young man named Peter Coats, who became the love of his life. “He’s everything to me,” he wrote after 17 years at Coats. “It soothes, simplifies and colors my whole existence. He is an angel, an inspired golden creature, endowed with all graces and charms. Although both men were possessive, neither found it helpful to be sexually exclusive.

Playwright Terence Rattigan was second only to Coats among Channon’s lovers. His game The big Blue is based on their love triangles. Noel Coward said that Channon had been the factory of Rattigan: the two men, he added, had had “one of the romances of the century”; and at one point the playwright wished he could marry the MP. One evening in 1946, the couple accompanied John Gielgud and his boyfriend Craig Williams, “an American novelty of Sheboygan, Wisconsin’, to see the celebrated production, featuring designs by Cecil Beaton, of Lady Windermere’s Fan. “We were remarkable, the four of us, as we were bejeweled, scented and wore dark red carnations – indeed, we must have looked like popinjays!”

The house in Belgrave Square is disrupted after Channon made room there for alcoholic Labor MP Raymond Blackburn, who had a wife and children in Beckenham. “He has magic for me and I love him,” Channon told his diary. One morning, Blackburn, “naked and shameless, dynamic and fun”, materializes in Channon’s room. On another occasion, after a frenzy with Churchill, Blackburn slips into his landlord’s bed. Their friendship cools after Blackburn brings a woman home and puts her to bed in the Louis XIV bedrooms. Blackburn was subsequently imprisoned for fraud and became a pesky anti-porn campaigner.

One night in 1948, Channon went to Wapping looking for a rough trade, “but somehow it didn’t work out”. In 1951, he was introduced (probably by interior designer Kenneth Villiers) to Douglas Furr, a darkly handsome corporal in the Life Guards, who became his “private friend”. Chips mistakes him for a cockney (in fact, Furr’s father was a successful fishmonger from Hertfordshire who once played professional football for Manchester City) and revels in his “joyful company”, racy talk and banality” refreshing”. “I aspire, sometimes deeply, to a common way of life; common issues, shirt sleeves, sweaty mates,” he wrote after a “rewarding” fight with Furr. They met to mutual benefit for a few years, until in 1955 Furr married a woman named Brenda.

Another private friend is auburn-haired Nigel Davies, who was elected Conservative MP for Epping in his twenties. He takes this “charming, cheerful, impatient” acolyte to meet the Duchess of Windsor in Paris, and the Duchess of Kent at Ascot. Later, after a party again hosted by Villiers, Channon has a quartet with Davies, Rattigan and Lord Montagu de Beaulieu, whom he describes as England’s prettiest peer. He later notes that Davies, although “looking like Veronese”, has “sores in unexpected places”, while Edward Montagu is “surprisingly shaggy”. On another occasion, after “an incredible connection” with Davies, the “insinuating, sweet…exquisite” youngster brags about a recent romp with “sexually ambidextrous” Selwyn Lloyd, the future Foreign Secretary and Speaker of the House of Commons. Commons, days before Lloyd married his secretary.

Do deputies always have one-night stands between parties of the same sex and sometimes between parties? I am not afraid.


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