Skip to Content
Search Icon

Pumping Ship

The Diaries (Volume 1): 1918-38
Henry “Chips” Channon (Edited by Simon Heffer)
Cornerstone, pp. 1024, $75.00

The unhappy tale of Tobermory, the cat who could talk, was told in a short story in 1909 by Hector Munro (Saki), the silkily savage satirist of the British upper classes. Annoyed by the creature’s air of superior knowledge and by his tactless revelations of human dishonesty, a country-house guest tries to silence him by asking,“How about your carryings-on with the tortoiseshell puss up at the stables, eh?”

Disaster follows. Munro recounts, “The moment he had said it, everyone realized the blunder.” Tobermory, after remarking with some dignity that such matters are not usually discussed in public, hints at detailed knowledge of the foolish guest’s own feline nocturnal prowlings. The whole house party soon afterwards unites in fear of the cat and makes a plot to poison Tobermory with strychnine. I will not spoil this marvelous story by saying how the murderous scheme turns out. But the point is neatly made, that the governing classes of England were at that time no better than they ought to be and probably a good deal worse. Perhaps before 1914 they might have got away with it, thanks to universal deference. But the Great War and the new age which followed left them with a choice between reforming themselves to obey the morals they publicly supported or accepting that the middle classes and even the poor might now abandon chastity and restraint, just as they had done. The battle over the abdication of King Edward VIII, which is the backdrop to Henry Channon’s diaries, was a struggle over just this problem. It seemed at the time to be a triumph for the moralists, but like many costly victories it was really a defeat. Millions of British people, living in small suburban houses or in apartments in housing projects, now behave pretty much like King Edward VIII when it comes to their private lives. So do the modern British royal family.

There is no doubt that Henry “Chips” Channon was on the side of the rackety, immoral King, who in 1936 wished to marry a divorced woman and yet somehow remain Supreme Governor of the Church of England, which (contrary to widespread belief) forbade divorce and still technically does. The outcome was not certain. The Church thought opinion was on its side, as things had until recently been very different. Before the hypocrisy of the Edwardian age there had been the genuine moral restraint of the Victorians. Bertrand Russell, interviewed on his eightieth birthday in 1952, recalled his privileged childhood, when the British aristocracy still embraced a severe Protestant austerity of plain living and plain food. Russell said that his grandmother would never even sit down in a comfortable armchair until after dinner, very late in the evening. He was taught from an early age that food—a metaphor for so many other human joys—was for sustenance and not for pleasure. The middle classes maintained this kind of self-denying behavior for far longer than their social superiors. In my own 1950s lower-upper-middle class childhood, a fair amount of discomfort was considered normal and beneficial, and the idea that the devil would find work for idle hands meant that there was seldom a waking minute when I was not expected to be engaged in some useful or improving task. My paternal grandfather, even lower down the social ladder, refused till his death in the 1970s to read fiction of any kind, viewing it as frivolous. We all prided ourselves on being far closer to goodness than the greedy, luxurious, and lascivious French, the sort of people against whom Saint Paul had warned the Philippians long ago, “whose end is destruction, whose God is their belly, and whose glory is in their shame, who mind earthly things.”

This may help to explain why the words “middle class” are an actual term of abuse in Henry Channon’s strange and rather grim diaries, now being published unexpurgated for the first time.It was the middle classes and their morals whom he blamed for the downfall of his beloved young king. I think he was dead right.

A lot of people claim to have enjoyed Channon’s revelations when they were first brought out in the 1960s in a much more restricted form. I suspect this was because they hinted rather engagingly at a seething world of adultery and other libertine wickednesses at the very top of society, which made an increasingly relaxed British metropolitan elite feel less bad about their own moral failings. 

I was not sure that I liked this then, and I am even less sure now. What is the purpose of this hefty first volume (more are to follow) of uncensored confessions and revelations?  Why will it undoubtedly prove to be one of the publishing events of the year? The taboos it breaks died long ago, along with the social order of the time.  The author’s predominating homosexuality (then subject to blackmail and criminal prosecution) is clearly described. There are orgies and brothels, and close descriptions of royalty. There is a tongue-tied and embarrassed account, full of misery and painful to read, of the collapse of his marriage, first into sterile emptiness, then into mutual betrayal, finally into a sort of permanent sour and hostile despair. Later (in events not recounted in this volume) the union would end, when Channon formed a permanent relationship with a male lover. The reader feels especially for Channon’s only son Paul, no doubt much loved by his father, who appears to have survived this and had a successful and happy life, at least until his daughter Olivia died tragically while at Oxford, apparently from the effects of drink and drugs.

But tragedy is softened by luxury and the flattery which comes to those who can provide it. Channon, with his beautiful houses and gorgeous dinners, believed he had become “a power in society” even if he was also a “nonentity in Parliament.” Such acute moments of self-knowledge relieve the desert of tittle-tattle and spite which makes up much of the book. There are Rolls-Royces and Ritzes (though London’s Savoy Hotel is deemed irretrievably middle-class, that withering curse). There are luxury sleeping berths on grand express trains, and there are incessant country house weekends and fashionable London weddings. And Channon is not left celibate for long by the failure of his marriage. Before and after his marital crisis, there are very clear hints of a shadowy, secret homosexual life whose wide exposure would at that time have spelt ruin and worse, though it was plainly obvious to his intimates, who mostly did not care, having their own sins to worry about. The half-exposure of these affairs reminded me of another privileged, closeted homosexual of the time, the now-neglected novelist Hugh Walpole. It brought to mind Walpole’s mysterious description in his book Jeremy of “that world of shining white faces in dark streets, of muffled cries from shuttered windows, of muttered exclamations, half caught, half understood.”

Diaries are more fun if you can at least like the diarist a little. But I found myself very much disliking Channon, certain that, had we met, we would have despised each other on sight. I am, after all, middle class, for Channon a term of contempt from which there is no recovery. He warns repeatedly against this peril, saying for example “One must be so careful with these middle-class people for their standards are so different from one’s own.” I’ll say they were. He complains that far too many people are “hopelessly middle class.” Even to employ a parlor maid rather than a dozen live-in servants, as he does, is to be “middle-class.” Anything further down the stairs (as we shall see) is beneath contempt.

Then there is the problem of his favorite topics. Yes, of course it is gossip, but a lot of it is sour old lady gossip, of affairs, diamonds, more diamonds (one noblewoman is described as being hardly able to walk for the weight of hers), rumored lesbianism, more diamonds, family scandal, and illness. Or it is too much information, revealed out of a sort of misplaced bravado. He confesses a weakness for watching his friends fornicate and for being “fascinated by evil.” He admits to being “frequently horrified” by the scandalous nature of his own diary. He would have done better to have been embarrassed. He smacks other people’s bottoms until they glow red, like ripe tomatoes. Eventually he also has his own bottom spanked by a fake Catholic priest. Channon maunders from time to time about becoming a Catholic, and on one occasion even visits Westminster Cathedral to pray for the success of a dinner party. But he dismisses Anglican services as “hollow and hypocritical,” though of course enjoys the coronation of George VI, to which he is invited in 1937. Yet his friend Emerald Cunard informs him that “Christianity is only for servants,” and this must have lodged deep in his mind, for his scorn for the servant class is absolute, causing him to sneer at H.G. Wells for “betraying his servant origin,” remarking sarcastically that the great writer’s mother was “a most excellent lady’s maid,” as if that counted against either of them rather than being greatly to the credit of both. Worse even than this, he notices that unemployed hunger marchers, who have tramped hundreds of miles to draw attention to their workless, ill-fed, ill-housed plight, do not smell too good. Remarking that the men’s faces were “dark, wicked and unclean” he complained that “the stench was unpleasant.”A Marxist revolutionary could not invent a figure so repellently indefensible.      

So much of what he records about his subjects is discreditable or miserable that I was repeatedly reminded of Charles Ryder’s Paris dinner with Rex Mottram in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, in which Mottram talks about the problems of the Marchmain family. Ryder remarks with a cat-like slash of claws: “Those were the kind of things [Rex] heard, mortal illness and debt.”

When Channon met Waugh (as he met almost anybody who was anybody), he was not quite sure if he was a good man trying to be wicked or a wicked man trying to be nice. How could he have told? Channon was pretty certainly a bad man pretending to be charming, but he was also often plain wrong, in details as well as political judgement. The editor of these diaries, my old friend Simon Heffer, has a great deal of fun with his footnotes. He repeatedly points out Channon’s amusing habit of thinking those he discusses, especially women, are much older than they really are. This is amusing not least because Channon famously lied about his own age, claiming to be two years younger than he was until caught out by the newspapers. This is not the only thing Channon conceals. He manages to hide from the persistent question, which many readers will ask. This man is an irrepressible social mountaineer who briefly reaches the summit of the snob’s Everest and actually has King Edward VIII to dinner in his London house. But who on earth is he? How did he come to be in all these grand houses? Why did others accept his invitations? If those he pursued ever stopped to examine him, would they want his company? In fact, quite a few of those who knew him saw straight through him. Duff Cooper, who appears often in the diaries, sometimes praised, sometimes despised, called Channon a “toady.” In her own diaries, Cynthia Gladwyn—wife of the British ambassador to Paris and the United Nations—accurately dismissed him as “that American pipsqueak (alas, naturalised British).”

The future Sir Henry, nicknamed Chips for no reason I can discover, was born to moderately wealthy American parents in Chicago in 1897. His father owned a fleet of cargo ships, plying the Great Lakes. Somehow he persuaded his parents to finance a faraway life of pleasure in Oxford, Paris, and then London. Until he bagged an English brewing heiress, Honor Guinness, for his wife, Channon sponged relentlessly off his Chicago family. He wasted their substance on riotous living, consuming the profits from their Lake Michigan steamer fleet while living a life of selfish frivolity and making himself agreeable to royalty, however trivial. Deep inside, he knows this life is ridiculous, at one point damning a fellow American, married to European nobility: “She is the most disgusting snob and was so ecstatic at lunching with the King . . . that she will never recover.” Yet he confesses, without much exaggeration, that he only feels happy in the presence of those of royal rank (almost any royal house will do, dethroned or not, from Greece and Serbia to Italy, Portugal, Spain, Prussia, or Bavaria, though the House of Windsor is plainly numero uno). By contrast, almost every time he mentions his parents in his journal he belittles them—for their provincial, unfashionable American ways or their many failings in their key role, of being his parents. It seems to me that an adult of working age can do one or other of these things—sponge off his parents or sneer at them—but not both.

Every so often, stern letters from his bankers compel him to be civil to and about his father, at least until the next check arrives.  He is afflicted with a similar loathing for the U.S.A itself, the supposedly crass and materialistic country from which the money came for all those gold cigarette cases, nine-course dinners, and jeweled cufflinks, which enabled him to float glossily around the world of rich, aristocratic old ladies that seems to have been his preferred habitat and to accumulate friends and acquaintances with names from the world of Wodehouse such as “Fruity” Metcalfe and “Baba Blackshirt.” Professor Heffer’s footnotes, sometimes occupying more than half the page, plunge into astonishing details about the titles of those referred to. Their dry wit is a joy, but I am not always sure when Simon is being funny or when he has just gone too far. My favorite is a note explaining the progress up the aristocratic tree of a nobleman who at last becomes “by courtesy, Viscount Boringdon”—after which there can be no promotion. If all the hyphens in all the names of all these aristos were placed end to end, they would stretch to the moon. But the reader is unwise to skip the genealogy, as the notes also contain small, essential dark gems about minor characters in the Channon drama, such as that such and such a person “drank himself to death.”

As for the private life Channon reveals, nobody disapproves of such things nowadays, so it may have lost some of its original glamor. Nor can the modern world look down on his endless consumption of lunches and dinners, punctuated by hangovers. The poor man becomes so portly that he resorts to wearing a corset, a fact he is very anxious to keep secret, but is really only funny. But many will feel free to be nauseated by his active, gleeful anti-Semitism and his sycophantic passions for individual fascists and Nazis, neither of which can be written off as problems of the times as so many others did not behave in this way. He writes of “oily” Jews, and refers repeatedly to “non-Aryans,” clearly thinking this a smart thing to do. He swears never again to set foot in the “Yiddish house” of Venetia Montagu who is “blinded by her Semitic prejudice” against the supposed virtues of National Socialism. He is extraordinarily unmoved by the quiet, desperate plight of a Jewish craftsman doing some work for him in London, whose relatives in Vienna have disappeared after the Nazi takeover. He says he is tempted to shout “Heil Hitler!” at what he describes as “an enormous Hebraic banquet of all the Jews in Southend.”(Southend, a seaside town on the Thames Estuary, was the place he supposedly represented in Parliament, the only paid work he ever had. He shouldered this task despite having to meet and talk to its heavily middle class population of “frumps and snobs,” not to mention Jews). Well, you may say, this sort of thing was not as rare as it should have been among the European upper crust in the 1920s and 1930s. But in Channon’s case I think the personal callousness and cringing power worship make it much, much worse.  He is, put simply, a rather unpleasant man. He admits to being that nasty, humorless thing, a “practical joker.” At one stately home weekend the practical joking never ends “until the party breaks up or someone is hurt.” How too, too amusing. I lost any feeling of sympathy with him when I read his entry for Friday 15, November 1918, where he confesses that “a most appalling thing” has occurred. The unending late-night noise of revelry in his rooms at the Paris Ritz has caused the woman in the next room to suffer a miscarriage (this blow will, as it turns out, end the parental hopes of the couple involved). Typically pretentious and evasive, Channon uses the French expression fausse couche rather than admitting in clear English exactly what he has done. He then adds the horrible information that he had known he was inflicting misery and had not cared: “She had often complained of the din . . . almost every night…but we never paid any attention, thinking her a tiresome woman.” (Professor Heffer offers no explanation for the ellipses.) Having recounted this horror, he calmly notes the name of the famous person with whom he then had lunch and the aristocratic person with whom he had dinner. Later, in a similar passage of unconscious recklessness, he confesses to taking part in a crazy seventy mile-per-hour road race in which he, his friends, and an unknown stranger escape death or frightful injury by inches.

This is the Henry Channon who is seduced and beguiled by the Nazis, sharing a table frequently with Joachim von Ribbentrop and letting his son play with the Ribbentrop heir. On a wide-eyed visit to Germany, he was fooled by a fake concentration camp, hypnotized by Hitler, and fascinated by Hermann Göring. He concluded that the fat Reichsmarschall had a strong pagan streak and that he was “probably sexually vicious, for I saw in his grey eyes the look I know too well.” During his visit to the Berlin Olympics, Channon did in fact receive a sort of warning that the surface of bonhomie and hospitality concealed something else. Needing to relieve himself during a garden party given by Josef Goebbels (“a democratic function”) on the Propaganda Minister’s private island amid the Berlin lakes, Channon wanders into the woods and is suddenly “seized by rough unseen hands.” For a few short moments he is as brutally handled as an ordinary German might be, trespassing too near the Nazi gods. Of course they let him go the moment they realized he was one of the foreigners there to be fooled, and he took no warning from the incident. And fooled he was, going home to fall in love (as he put it) with Neville Chamberlain, wrongly assuming that the prime minister shared his admiration of the Nazi state.  He even became a minor figure in high politics, parliamentary private secretary (P.P.S.) to Richard “Rab” Butler, a clever, adaptable Foreign Office minister who would one day nearly become his country’s leader. The job of P.P.S. was and remains little more than the carrying of bags and the running of messages, and its lowliness suggests that the political leaders of the time saw through Chips Channon without too much difficulty. What career he had, which was not much, ended with the arrival of war and the discrediting of almost everything he believed. His real triumph, the one he would always savor, was to get King Edward VIII to dine with him at home not long before he abdicated. Chips was particularly honored—and this I think sums up the Channon story of snobbish servility perfectly—when the uncrowned monarch asked if he might use the Channon lavatory. I wonder whether anyone else was ever allowed to use it afterwards. But I am quite sure that the text is wrong here, and what the king (who had served, albeit briefly in the Royal Navy) actually said was, “I want to pump ship!” Professor Heffer, please note.