The first volume of these diaries, chronicling 1918 to 1938, is over a thousand pages long and leaves the impression that Chips Channon was rather ridiculous. Whether or not he knew it, he was busy inventing an identity and he did it with such misplaced self-importance that he became a figure of fun, more laughable than anything else. The second volume of the diaries is also more than a thousand pages long, and there is a third volume to come, no doubt just as hefty. But the more you read of Chips, the less likeable he becomes.

In the first place, consider his personal life. In 1933 he married Lady Honor Guinness, whose parents, Lord and Lady Iveagh, were among the richest people in the country. Guinness money paid for Chips’s social climbing, “my long harlot-esque life,” as he put it. “Axis” is the odd euphemistic shorthand that Chips uses for a sexual affair. July 3, 1939, was the happiest day of his life, he was to say, because it was then at a ball that he formed an enduring axis with Peter Coats (unkindly known as “Petticoats”). And even so, Chips goes in for semi-confessions, for instance how he and his brother-in-law took part in “a Rabelaisian scene . . . which I cannot bring myself to describe.” Chips is prudent enough not to speculate why Lady Honor left him. Instead he says that when she is moody and makes a scene she must to be drunk or mad, and he calls the man she eventually goes off with a “horse-coper.”

Chips’s wider world divides into charmers and bores, though all too frequently charmers change effortlessly into bores.

Chips’s wider world divides into charmers and bores, though all too frequently charmers change effortlessly into bores. His sense of superiority is captured in his demeaning use of the adjective “little”—“the little King”; “Sir William Spens is a pleasant little don.” The diary has an account of a meeting with Noël Coward and features affairs with the playwright Terence Rattigan and the popular journalist Godfrey Winn, but otherwise brings out nobody of general interest. Instead Chips preens himself in the company of Prince Paul of Yugoslavia and his wife Princess Olga, King George II of Greece, and the abdicating Duke of Windsor and his brother the Duke of Kent. As for Marina Duchess of Kent, she telephones nonstop and is so beautiful that Chips would marry her if he could. Queen Elizabeth, the wife of George VI and then on the throne, he thinks “fooled everyone, really, for she is a frivolous but friendly fraud.” A grand gala at Covent Garden led to the snobbish boast, “I wore my court dress—I am only happy in velvet really.” In short, “royalty is a heady wine.”

The five years covered in the second volume, 1938 to 1943, were the most dangerous in the whole history of Britain. Adolf Hitler’s Germany was incompatible with democracy. Whether to appease him or oppose him was an existential question. Lady Iveagh, Chips’s mother-in-law, was the member of Parliament for Southend, and, when in 1935 she handed the constituency over to Chips in the old rotten-borough manner, he acquired a foothold in public life.

Nobody now disputes that Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain did not have the character or the experience to deal with a man like Hitler and therefore made the mistake of taking him at his word. He sincerely thought he was keeping the peace at the very moment when Hitler was telling his generals that he had met appeasing politicians and found them to be worms. Chips made up his mind at once. Promoted to the position of parliamentary private secretary to R. A. Butler (a forked-tongue careerist), he had a position in the Foreign Office and with it some influence. The diary is full of abuse of colleagues whom he saw as warmongers, “foolish, carping, finicky, inefficient and futile.” Much of his energy was spent intriguing to have them sacked, which meant dropping poison into ministers’ ears, in his expression.

In his diary, Chips has the courage of his convictions.

In his diary, Chips has the courage of his convictions. He could write about “my hysterical, almost fanatical, worship” of the prime minister and go on to compliment him as “the greatest man of all time.” In fact, appeasement was a form of Vichyite collaboration that could only have ended in British dependency in Hitler’s Europe. Unlike Chamberlain or Chips, Winston Churchill had the imagination to foresee this outcome. It is painful to find Chips denigrating Churchill for his intolerance, his arrogance, and his unfailingly bad judgment. “I have a deep and bitter loathing of him which dates from many years; yet I see his great and many qualities; but he remains a selfish, paranoidical [sic] old ape, charmless, arrogant, grumpy, disagreeable, bullying, irritating, indeed infuriating.” Duff Cooper and Anthony Eden and those whose votes in the end replaced Chamberlain with Churchill are so many Glamour Boys, traitors, and Quislings. Hitlerite fellow-traveling is the other side of the coin. Hitler’s menacing speech of January 30, 1939, is “really reasonable and quieting.” Another of Hitler’s speeches “is good stuff. . . . all my sympathies are with him in what he says.” People “are either mad or blind or both on the subject of Germany.” Chips’s anti-Semitism would not have been out of place in Germany. He calls Julian Amery “an insinuating Jew” and the French President Léon Blum “a Jewish agitator.” Self-deception sometimes rises to black comedy. As late as July 19, 1939, Chips called on the Duke of Buccleuch, an open Nazi fellow traveler: “I assured him that there was to be no war this year.” Five days before the German invasion of the Soviet Union, he prophesises, “If Hitler does attack Russia it will be the cleverest act of his whole career.” Once the war is underway, Chips is blitzed like everyone else and sends his son to be safe in America. Social occasions appear to mean more to him than battles fought far away. He devotes a page to Dunkirk and two lines to Stalingrad. Devotion to Peter Coats takes him to Egypt, where Coats is adc to Field Marshal Lord Wavell.

An experienced historian and biographer, Simon Heffer has edited the diary in the belief that it is a valuable document. The footnotes are marvelously complete, some of them quietly humorous or sardonic, altogether better than Chips deserves.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 40 Number 5, on page 90
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