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Saturday, 28 February 2004

Lord of Hosts: Henry 'Chips' Channon IV
By Richard Carreno

(Part II of an Introduction to a work in progress)

I was lucky to have this time with Alan Clark. He died, at 71, quite suddenly of a brain tumour in late 1999.

In his last years, Clark had developed -- and nutured -- a persona as the Conservative Party's undisputed, albeit ageing, enfant terrible. No doubt contributing to this dubious title was Clark's trim, chiselled features. Something like Chips before aged rot set in, I thought.

Besides indiscretion and good looks, what, if any, were other shared similarities?

Both, as diarists and historians, had cast a gimlet eye on insider politics at Westminster and on the randy high life of London Society, weaving the two strands seamlessly. Any sliver of salacious gossip, indeed any exchange with the garrulous Channon or Clark as they trolled the Commons lobby, was likely to wind up in their voluminous hand-written notes. Interestingly enough, in both cases, as well, their punctilious daily jottings were open secrets amongst those who would most likely show up as cast members.

Similarities also extended to the unlikely area of fashion; both men sharing the same Savile Row tailor. I had interviewed the tailor a few weeks before initially meeting Clark. The tailor remembered Chips in detail. He also chided, ''Tell Mr. Clark I'd like to see him soon.''

The editor of Clark's posthumous diaries, Ion Trewin, notes, not surprisingly, that Chips was one of Clark's ''heroes,'' and that Clark would ''dip'' into the Channon diaries ''every day as he drank his morning tea.'' I contacted Trewin a while later, and he was agreeable to a follow-up meeting on this and other matters. But, in the end, he repeatedly cancelled out.

Significantly, Clark's admiration for Chips didn't extend to his only child, Paul Channon; nor to the sanctioned editor of Chips's diaries, Sir Robert Rhodes James, another former Conservative MP. Clark had served with the pair during Margaret Thatcher's tenure.

Surely Clark supported my project because he wanted the Channon record set straight. He, like some other insiders, knew that Paul Channon and his scribe, Rhodes James, had heavily bowlderised Channon's autographical sketches. That my disclosures regarding the edgier side to Channon's life might provide no small measure of discomfort to Paul Channon and Rhode James, I suspect that, too, would have suited Clark just fine. There was always a bit of mischief coursing through his veins.

On a crisp autumn morning, in late 1998, Clark and I were in his office in a government building overlooking Parliament Square.

"You know, I'm a congential gossip,'' Clark said, as he screwed his rangy body behind his desk. ''Chips had a gift. To some extent, I share this with Channon. Everyone talks to you. Even if you're keeping a diary. Even if you're a congential gossip.''

Clark was generous in dispensing magnificent titbits. Did I know, for example, that Channon and his erstwhile lover and latter-day procurer, the horticulturalist Peter Coats, once entertained wacky thoughts of having their union blessed by the Vatican? That they even ventured to Rome on his hopeless mission? That Coats, who would dub himself as ''Sir Peter" when traveling in America, had a less fanciful moniker back home, ''Petticoats''?

Finally, Clark detonated the bombshell that he had been holding in reserve. Lowering his voice, he inched up to me.

''Do you have the stolen diaries?''

Stolen diaries?

''Yes, the unpublished diaries. The one from the boot sale in Essex.''

Unpublished diaries? Boot sale?

"I would give anything -- 100,000 pounds -- to see those diaries in that boot sale,'' he said.

My first ''encounter'' with Chips was by the way of the published diaries. These, edited by Rhodes James under the imprimature of Paul Channon, first appeared in 1967, nine years after Channon's death.

I was fascinated by Channon's almost limitless access to power and glamour and, given his lacklustre Chicago provenance, his uncanny and unprecedented dual role as a pre-war Society host and wily Westminster operative. Chips delivered what few others have done: A blow-by-blow portrayal of the interlocking public and private lives of ''the great and the good.''

At first, I simply wanted to review the original hand-written diaries, hoping to see these ''raw'' manuscripts in the British Library. I knew the Library had the texts as a Channon legacy (Chips had reported this himself), and I believed (erroneously, I soon learned soon) that manuscripts would be readily available. In fact, exhaustive efforts by the Library's Department of Manuscripts produced no record of the donation, much less the diaries.

After several weeks of this, I concluded that the Channon ''story'' was expanding. I was beginning to learn about the transformation of Henry ''Hank'' Channon, the only son of an affluent, but nondescript Chicago merchant, to that of his doppelganger, Sir Henry ''Chips" Channon III, MP. Popping up regularly were tantalising, suppressed details: homosexual lovers; dissolute ways; drug use; and an ambivalence regarding Jews and Nazis.

There was his marriage. A sham? Channon had clinched social position and wealth with grand finality by marriage to Lady Honor Guinness, one of the ''Golden Guinness Girls'' and the eldest daughter of the second Earl of Iveagh. (Society gadfly Gerald Berners quipped that Chips might have then adopted a new coat-of-arms, bearing the motto, ''Nil sine honore'').

Politics? Lord Iveagh had further entrusted Chips with a safe Tory Parliamentary seat in blue-collar Southend-on-Essex. By 1935, as a Parliamentary Private Secretary, Chips was ready to cast his roving eye on his new world of Government, international diplomacy, and high style. This, during six Premierships and four reigns.

In his deluxe townhouse at No. 5 Belgrave Square and at Kelvedon Hall, his Essex country house, the throughly debonair Channon groomed and honed his cock-of-the-walk status. Even during the darkest days of war, Chips maintained a high-flying lifestyle, with frequent dinners at the Dorchester and parties at No. 5. Any excess was always shielded by wealth and by dismissive pre-war patrician hauteur.

Chips paraded his vacuity. ""I hate and am uninterested in all things most men like such a sport, business, statistics, debates, speeches, war and weather; but I am riveted by lust, furniture, glamour and society and jewels.''

His was a beau monde of high drama and a demimonde of low comedy, cast with a ''who's who'' of the period's political and Society glitterait. Among friends were the Prince of Wales and Wallis Simpson (during the Abdication Crisis), Somerset Maugham, Noel Coward, Cole Porter, ''Rab'' Butler, Duff and Diana Cooper, Harold Nicolson, and Society's celebrated female keystone, another American, Emerald Cunard.

Chips also flirted with Ambassador Joachim von Ribbentrop and his personal brand of Nazi bravura. Lovers included Sir Terence Rattigan; Lord Wavel; the King's brother, the Duke of Kent; and Prince Paul of Yugoslavia.

Chips in full flower, bridging the 30's, 40's, and 50's, was a hedonistic bon vivant, a guru of Café Society, a confidant of pashas of power. He was part -- but never in equal parts -- Society maven, voluptué, and politician. And devoted father. During the war, he sent young Paul to New York for schooling -- and safety. (Paul Channon succeeded his father to the Southend seat, retiring in 1997 and, thanks to John Major, a peerage).

In all, Channon's role in the lives of his intimates was greatly more than just a walk-on part. His relationship with each often provided the missing bit, or the connecting link in recounting another memorable life. Chips could cut to the telling observation, or incisive characterisation. He sometimes lied. He frequently exaggerated.

Channon's ''success'' came late. His knighthood, in the 1957 Honours List, came just a year before his death at 61 on 7 October 1958. It was less than he wanted; a peerage was in his sights. Still, amid fanfare, razzmatazz and pageantry, all the panoply of pomp, power, and prestige that Chips adored, Chicago's best-known Cavalier also became its ''First Knight."

More starkly, Chips also slipped into representing an ancien régime of fading Empire, dismantled grand townhouses, and an increasingly irrelevant noblesse oblige. His life was a monumental, narcissistic conceit. Yet without Chips' acerbic rendition of the past, all eavesdroppers on the waning days of pre-war opulence and style would be the poorer.

Ultimately, one of the most compelling elements of the Channon tale and its posthumous sequel, how Chips's testamentary intent to donate his diaries to the British Library and, thus, to the nation, had been thwarted.

What, too, about the other unpublished, ''stolen'' diaries that so intrigued Alan Clark?

In the early winter, thanks to my agent at the time, I ran into Rhodes James at a luncheon held in a grand building not far from Chips' beloved Belgrave Square. I was introduced, and it was immediately clear that Rhodes James had been briefed on my project, "Ring me sometime. We shall talk," he said. That also was not meant to be, as Rhodes James died before a meeting could be arranged.

Some time ago, I wrote to Paul Channon seeking access to the full texts, as I believed -- as a consequence his role in publishing the diaries -- they were in his possession. His prompt reply, excuding an air of finality, came in a hand-written note, ''I am at the present moment considering my father's diaries and all his papers.''

Would there be more? Not likely, according to Gore Vidal, another Channon acquaintence who had told me that he had been always convinced that the Channon saga was the subject of a ''cover-up.''

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