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Henry 'Chips' Channon: The Diaries 1918-1938 edited by Simon Heffer

Hutchinson, 2021


Like any afficionado of early twentieth-century British social and political history, I diligently purchased all three volumes of the astonishing editorial achievement that is Simon Heffer's unexpurgated edition of socialite and MP (in that order) Henry 'Chips' Channon's diaries, totaling some 3,000 pages altogether.

Like most, I've spent considerable time looking up key events and figures in the diaries in search of new perspective; but in order to work out what drove this singular character who managed to bag a ringside seat on historical events whilst playing zero useful part in any of them, I decided to tackle Volume I word-for-word.

Enjoyment factor

Predictably, the 950 pages were a slog, despite Heffer's brilliant editing, including enlightening and frequently wry footnotes. But goodness, did it give day-to-day context to a period and characters about which I've read a fair bit. Most of it is inanities, but it nevertheless felt like the glue which holds together all other readings of the social life of European society of the time, and as such was enriching.

It left me thinking ....

How on earth did Chips Channon, a wealthy socialite from Chicago but entirely uninteresting beyond his relentless partying, get invited to pretty much every high society (and frequently royal) dinner, ball, and weekend party across Europe?

He is a relentless snob, commenting on more than one occasion that he really only feels at home with royalty, and with no good word to say about his dreadfully unsophisticated fellow Americans - and yet his origins are opaque. Despite living off family money, he seems to viscerally hate both of his parents for no discernable reason, which can be quite jarring and leaves many questions.

He comes to Europe with money but no connections, and doesn't come across as either interesting or intelligent - so his social achievements, including marrying into the Guinness family and befriending royalty across Europe including Edward VIII, are really quite something.

Yet what is fascinating is how diligently Channon kept his diaries over the course of 40 years (1918-1957), with few breaks. Whilst they don't offer any meaningful analysis of events, he clearly felt the impulse to faithfully record everything as it happened, which in itself is a rare and intriguing insight into his personality. And there is no doubt that - despite having achieved little else - Channon has left us with an invaluable contribution to history.

But my real question is - who was Chips? Why the vicious hatred of his family and fellow Americans - and besides his money, what made him so readily accepted into the highest echelons of European society?

There has been remarkably little written about him. Simon Heffer could do worse than write a biography of Chips Channon for his next endeavour.

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