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12Mar

Henry ‘Chips’ Channon review – the celebrated diaries, unredacted

Sex, scandal, kinks and queens … edited by Simon Heffer, these interwar diaries by the Tory MP are a masterpiece of storytelling and character assassination

“What is more dull than a discreet diary? One might as well have a dull soul,” wrote Henry “Chips” Channon in his journal for 25 July 1935. The question was rhetorical at this point, but it’s clear that he already had his future readers in mind. Channon knew he was as good as Pepys, and he had an inkling that it was his diary – rather than his not-very-good novels and his not-very-stellar Westminster career – that would be the key to the enduring fame he craved. A year later he reflects that it is never the goody two-shoes reformer-types whose names go down in history, but the “beaux”. And it is among the “beaux” – the sparkly, charming, lovely ones – that Channon is sure that he and his diary belong.

Like Pepys, who doubled up as secretary to the navy, Channon was an outsider-insider. While his adult life was spent thrillingly among the high-ups – “I’m only happy really with royalty” – his origins were relatively modest. He was born in Chicago in 1897 (although he consistently claimed to be two years younger) to a father who had made a fortune from a fleet of vessels ploughing the Great Lakes. He could write about the upper class so well because he hadn’t been born into even the American version of it. He remained constantly amazed that his wife, Lady Honor Guinness, the brewing heiress, was oblivious to everything that galvanised him – a purloined tiara, a froideur between two duchesses, a debutante getting chubby, a vacuum flask given as a wedding present (common, apparently). Channon shared Pepys’s sexually exhibitionist streak too. While the secretary for the navy had been known to get jiggy in church pews, Chips found himself bent over the altar rail, trousers down, being spanked by an elderly churchman who had a crush on him.

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