Having re-read Harold Nicolson's diary I turned to that kept by another MP, a Conservative one this time, "Chips" Channon and it is my intention to write a long blog that would compare the two. When I say I re-read Nicolson's I mean that I re-read the original three volumes (the middle one of which is now falling apart as I had acquired them all, as is my wont, in second hand bookshops). There is another edition, a one volume one, published almost forty years later that includes some early diaries, excludes some of Nigel Nicolson's comments and expands a few of the entries. This is now being studied by me in the British Library. 

In the meantime, let us consider Sir Henry Channon, "Chips" as he was known to all and sundry for reasons that seem lost in the mists of his early life. He was an American born but more British than the British Conservative politician, author of three books, an inveterate socializer and party giver who knew everybody in society, politics and the arts, a man obsessed with design and beauty and, above all, a diarist. Oh yes, he was also bi-sexual.

He kept a diary, on and off, from 1918 until his death in 1958 and tried to deposit the manuscripts in the British Museum with the proviso that they should not even be looked at for fifty years according to the historian Sir Robert Rhodes James, who edited a selection of them in 1967, and for sixty years according to other sources though that seems to be merely an instruction left by his son Paul (a much more successful politician but less interesting person) in his will.

The British Museum refused to keep them as it is not their policy to keep documents that they cannot even look at for a number of years so the diaries (or most of them and thereby hangs a tale) went back to Paul Channon who, together with Chips's close friend and companion, Peter Coats, decided to have an edited version published. George Weidenfeld, coincidentally or not the publisher of Harold Nicolson's diaries, advised them to ask the young historian Robert Rhodes James to edit it and so it happened.

Rhodes James was an odd choice as he was not particularly sympathetic to Chips either personally or politically but he did seem to warm to the diarist as his work progressed. In any case, many of Rhodes James's own assumptions and prejudices date to the mid-sixties and have undergone some changes partly because of elapsing time and partly because of work done by historians on the period. After all, Rhodes James himself published a seminal book on Churchill, which went a long way towards altering perceptions and undermining the mythology that the man himself had so carefully created.

Amusingly enough, Rhodes James's own political career was not dissimilar from Channon's though he does not seem to have known quite so much and so many people. He was a backbencher under a Prime Minister (Margaret Thatcher) with whom he was out of sympathy, became a PPS at the Foreign Office and after his retirement from the House (which Chips did not do) lobbied unsuccessfully for a peerage, ending up with a mere knighthood.

It seems extraordinary to anyone who reads Chips's diaries that on publication they were dismissed as not much more than social gossip with some prurient hints of carefully excised passages and attacked bitterly by the author's enemies, one of whom was Randolph Churchill. The latter, something of a failure, who is brilliantly and not exactly flatteringly described by Chips at various times, wondered angrily why a young historian should jeopardize his career by editing this stuff. The young historian and, even more, the young politician, son of the diarist, wondered that, too, for a while.

Then things changed. As Rhodes James describes in the Preface to the 1993 edition:
So damning were the reviews that serious historians did not bother to read the diaries. One such was A. J. P. Taylor. Years later, with nothing much else to do on a wet afternoon, he began to read them and was so rivetted that he finished them at one sitting. He then publicly applied the adjective "classic" to them, and wrote me a particularly warm letter of congratulations for my editing.

Gradually, many more people came to share Alan Taylor's revised estimate that this was a social and political document of real importance as well as a compulsive read and enormous fun. there was a call for the complete diaries - which begin in early 1918 - to be published.
These calls went unheeded. Instead, the ultra cautious Paul Channon laid down instructions that they should be kept out of the public eye for another ten years, a somewhat ridiculous idea as nobody mentioned in those pages could possibly be alive any more. Their descendants are but if we are to worry about their feelings, nothing much can be written or published in modern history apart from accounts of battles and lists of legislative proposals.

The 1993 edition is a lazy one. It is nothing more than a reprint of the 1967 one with a short new Preface by Rhodes James, in which he gives an explanation for the break-down of Chips's marriage (his meeting with Peter Coats in 1939, who became his close companion till his death and his wife's subsequent affair with and post-divorce marriage to a Czech airman) and also an odd story about the last volumes of the diary.

The 1967 edition ends with an entry in the autumn of 1953 and an editorial note that, although Chips went on with his life as before despite mounting health problems, he ended his diary then. This seemed inherently unlikely as he would have wanted to record the various political events of the mid-fifties, not to mention his own knighthood of 1957. And so it proved to be.

In 1991 the last volumes of the diary that did carry on till almost Chips's death appeared in a car boot sale in Essex (would Chips have been amused?) and the purchaser, realizing their value and importance, sold them on to Paul Channon. The assumption is that these had been stolen from Peter Coats's suite in the Albany though why they were in his possession, what else had been stolen and why Mr Coats did not mention this fact to Robert Rhodes James in the mid-sixties remains unexplained.

Despite the Preface, the original, as it turns out, erroneous last editorial note is still there in the 1993 edition. That is what I mean about it being lazy.

It really is time for an adventurous publisher to think about publishing the diaries in full with good notes by a reliable editor who will not intrude his or her personality. Chips knew everyone, was present at many important events and wrote about them all. It may be that his own estimation of how important his various private conversations, intrigues and parties is completely wrong or, perhaps, he did play an important part behind the scenes, or, as is most likely, the truth lies somewhere between the two.

His acid descriptions will amuse and cannot be feared as the people he wrote about are beyond human reach. (Chips died in 1958.)

In addition, his information about many supposedly secret events and developments was often completely accurate (much to his editor's surprise), his predictions frequently came true and his political understanding not to be dismissed lightly, as I hope to show in my long(er) blog about his and Harold Nicolson's diaries.

4 comments

  1. Unknown Says:
  2. I could not agree more. Who holds the rights?

     
  3. Pythinia Says:

  4. Yes but... he made assumptions about the people he knew and was invariable incorrect - rather shallow was Chips Channon.

     
  5. Anonymous Says:
  6. The same google search that brought me you also showed me that amazon sells the unexpurgated diaries in both hard cover and paperback.

     
  7. The diaries should be published in full - with some editing of course. I've always assumed Chips was gay and that was the reason (along with his liasons) why he and/or Paul didn't want them published until plenty of time had elapsed, which it now has! But where are the diaries?

     
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