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Monday, 16 February 2004

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(Part I of an Introduction to a Work in Progress)
A few years ago, during an extended research trip to London, my stay happily coincided with the publication of the first installment of the diaries of the late Alan Clark. At the time, in late 1998, Clark was preening his reputation as the Tories bete noire. Arguably, less to his liking, was his other reputation as an ageing Lothario. I say ''happily coincided'' because my own research was leading up to the first-ever biography of that prominent diarist of a generation before, Sir Henry ''Chips" Channon III, the sybartic American-born Member of Parliament and, until his death in 1958, an eminent London Society doyen.

In Britian, Chips´diaries are well known, and often used as a model for this genre of socio-political memoirs. Remarkably -- after almost 40 years since first publication -- they´re still in print. Weidenfeld & Nicolson released a new edition of ''´Chips:´ The Diaries of Sir Henry Channon'' late in 2001.

Despite his American antecedents, Channon is virtually unknown in the United States. Chips was born and raised in Chicago. But when I visited the secondary school there where he had attended, I was met with blank stares. This, though on the face of it, Chips -- he was, since the Revolution, the first male born American and the second American (after Nancy Astor) to be elected to the House of Commons -- would have made for a rather prominent alumnus.

For many Americans, Channon is a footnote. Quite literally. Citations from his diaries are staple fare, popping up in scores of biographies, memoirs, and histories of pre-war Britain. Almost all histories of Churchill and works on the Duke and Duchess of Windsor cite the diaries. Clark, in his history, ''The Tories: The Conservatives and the Nation State, 1922-97,'' gives Channon no less than eight references. Channon had been there. He was the proverbial fly on the wall.

As for Clark's own diaries, the press branded these tell-all memoirs as being every bit as juicy as those by Chips, and I leapt at the chance to pursue this notion of linkage with Clark himself. In reviews, it became an almost a commonplace to bandy the Channon-Clark comparision. The link wasn´t only literary.

Clark had known Chips, in the late 1950´s, at a time when Channon was already dissipated by drugs, drink, and drag queens. Not surprisingly, his star as ''Lord of Hosts,'' his irreverent, self-ascribed moniker, was also waning. ''Chips was already bright red in the fact,'' Clark told me. ''He simply wasn´t as sharp as he had been in the [19]3o´s.''

Clark encouraged my research. We discussed Channon and the twilight years of Empire. And we discussed Chips´s little-known forays into authorship. Channon, remarkably enough, was also a novelist, producing two dreary works, today only notable for their autobiographical allusions. More significant, in Clark´s view, was Channon´s efforts as a published historian, the author of ''The Ludwigs of Bavaria,'' a richly textured work that served as a template for Chips´ own lavish life of high style.

It was plain, based on our conversations, that Clark was a Channon admirer. This, especially, as regards to Channon´s role as historian, rather simply as diarist. Clark fancied himself in this same light, as well. And surely it was not lost on him, too, that The Times, in comparing the two, had declared that between them, Clark was certainly the more ''indiscreet.''

To be continued....