Partying amid the ruins

This is the third and final volume of Henry Channon’s outrageous diaries, and another doorstopper. It opens in July 1943 and continues almost to the end of his life. As we know from the previous volume (2021), Channon’s political career reached a peak with his appointment as a private secretary to the deputy foreign minister, Rab Butler (a post he held from 1938 to 1941). Although he remained in until his death in 1958, he never held office again. He remained, however, extremely well connected.

The war at times seemed a minor inconvenience. Even as the bombs fell, Channon continued to entertain lavishly at his palatial house on Belgrave Square. Most weekends he commuted (often by Rolls-Royce) to his country residence at Kelvedon in Essex. Petrol rating doesn’t seem to have been a problem. As this volume opens he and his boyfriend, the landscape designer Peter Coats, embark on a ten-day tour of the West Country, sightseeing and dining at country houses. On Monday, August 16, 1943, the happy couple sunbathe on Slapton Sands, the beach from which the D-Day landings are being organized: “As we lay naked … some Americans … presumably commandos, made a mock landing from boats at the distance “.

Back in London, a typical working day might include a stroll to the Ritz for lunch, a party at the Dorchester, or both. In between, perhaps, a visit to the House of Commons, where Channon might sleep off the previous night’s excesses in the library. “To the Dorchester … to the Mountbattens’ mammoth cocktail party … Three hundred people, at least” (September 27, 1943). “Rushed to the Dorchester to dine with Lady Colefax in a private room. Large party about twenty-six” (Wednesday, November 3). Early to the House. But at 9.30 am I realised that the Duchess of Kent was coming to lunch and I had neither ordered food nor invited the guests. A bit of telephoning produced both” (Friday, November 5). These entries are not untypical.

Channon’s networks were extensive. Field Marshal Lord Wavell, in the interval between commanding British forces in the Middle East and his appointment as viceroy of India, comes to stay, and much effort is expended on keeping him amused. The bad news is that Coats becomes Wavell’s chief of staff and disappears with him to India, leaving Channon pining for his absent lover. But not for long. There are many other liaisons, notably with Terence Rattigan, the country’s most successful playwright, an intimacy that opens up a new circle of theatrical and literary friends. Noël Coward, John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, and Somerset Maugham all feature.

The exiled kings and queens of Europe, with nothing better to do than gossip and party, are among Channon’s most intimate friends. His closest royal buddy (and, one suspects, former lover) Prince Paul, the Regent of Yugoslavia, having unwisely signed a treaty with the Axis powers, was exiled to South Africa for the duration of the war, but reappears as soon as the war is over. Of all Channon’s European royal friends, only the Greeks, who seem to have spent most of the war in a suite at Claridge’s, regained their throne, unless one counts Umberto II of Italy, who lasted thirty-four days before the Italians got rid of him. The common link between them all is the widowed Duchess of Kent, one of the few people of whom the author unequivocally approves.

The British royals also feature. Channon, an erstwhile supporter of Edward VIII, the Duke of Windsor, is no longer welcome at court; and he, in turn, is scathing about the King and Queen, whom he regards as “bourgeois” and “provincial”. He describes George VI as “a dull, peppery bore, but doubtless well-meaning” and Queen Elizabeth as “a fat, foolish, fraud … her indolence and laziness are proverbial”. In later years, as Queen Mother, she would become a national treasure, but that was not how she was seen at the time by Channon and his circle. Princess Elizabeth is “dignified and determined – and airs her Tory views”. Princess Margaret is a “spoilt, silly selfish minx.” Until last month, of course, Queen Elizabeth II was just about the only person from that distant age who was still alive. It’s easy to see why Channon’s heirs waited so long before agreeing to publication.

From time to time real life intrudes. Even the grandest aristos had sons at the front – Alan Lennox-Boyd, Channon’s promiscuous brother-in-law, lost his three brothers. In the final months of the war V2 rockets start to fall and Belgravia is not immune. There are occasional references to ordinary people. In December 1944 the author makes a rare journey by Underground and notes that the stations are full of “miserable heaps of dirty humanity” sleeping in bunks. His journey between his London residence and his country estate takes him through the East End, and he cannot have failed to notice the destruction and grinding poverty. On one such journey his Rolls-Royce develops a puncture and the author notes that the locals, far from being sympathetic, are hostile. By and large, however, he inhabits a parallel universe to most British citizens, who in that age of deference can have little or no inkling of how the upper classes lived. Those classes were in for a shock.

In 1945 the anticipated Tory landslide does not materialize. Instead the electorate returns a Labor government with a big majority. Channon clings on to his Southend constituency, while professing himself “shocked by the country’s treachery”. What passes for normal life nonetheless quickly resumes. Witness this entry for November 1947, while the nation is mired in rationing and austerity: “[I] lunched with Lady Lowther in a large private dining room at the Ritz, a party in honor of Her Majesty of Spain.” That evening Channon hosts a dinner party at Belgrave Square, by now back to its full complement of ten servants. “The house looked very magnificent, lit up and daubed with chrysanthemums from Kelvedon. I made strong cocktails and laced them with Benzedrine which always makes a party go … Everyone was in gala dress, men in white dress, women dripping with jewels.” Next day’s entry begins: “the town rings with the brilliance and beauty of my party…”.

Who paid for all this decadence? Channon’s extraordinary lifestyle was in part underwritten by an inheritance from his wealthy American parents, but the big prize was his marriage – into one of the country’s richest families, the Iveaghs, owners of the Guinness brewery. To his parents-in-law he owed his seat in parliament (Southend was a Guinness pocket borough, later inherited by Channon’s son, Paul), his town and country houses, and regular subsides. There was a nervous moment when his wife, Honor, ran off with someone Channon earlier described as “a horse coper” (horse-dealer), but the Guinness largesse continued to flow. He spent his declining years hankering after a peerage, but in the end had to make do with a knighthood.

Channon’s admirers regard him as “the greatest British diarist of the twentieth century”, but I beg to differ. True, his diaries illuminate a world that has more or less, though not entirely (see the diaries of Sasha Swire, 2020), passed away. To be sure, he has a sharp wit; But the Channon diaries are in the end an entertainment, and after three volumes and 3,000 pages of winning, dining and self-indulgence, their spell starts to wear off. Other diarists – Jock Colville, Field Marshal Lord Alanbrooke, Lord Moran – offer an equally gripping, much more realistic, picture of the era. “What a foolish, futile, frivolous life”, Henry Channon wrote of one of his contemporaries. Much the same might be said of him.

Chris Mullin was the MP for Sunderland South between 1987 and 2010. He is the author of three volumes of diaries charting the rise and fall of New Labor

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