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Saturday, 18 March 2006

Chips


Chips

With the unfortunate Boris Johnson in mind, I can't help but quote portions of the biography of an equally absurd Tory of an earlier era, Sir Henry "Chips" Channon, 1897-1958:
"Born in Chicago on 7 March 1897 (although he claimed 1899 as the year of his birth, until a distressing exposure in the Sunday Express). He was the only child of Henry (II) Channon, who inherited a fleet of vessels plying the Great Lakes, and his wife, Vesta Westover. After accompanying the American Red Cross to Paris (1917), he was subsequently an honorary attaché at the US embassy there (1918). His lifelong Proustian infatuation with the aristocratic civilization of Europe was enhanced during eighteen happy months as an undergraduate at Christ Church, Oxford (January 1920–June 1921). He acquired the nickname of Chips, which afterwards was his London telegraphic address. On leaving university he shared a house in Westminster with Viscount Gage and Prince Paul of Serbia. When the prince became regent of Yugoslavia (1934), Channon described him as ‘the person I have loved most … the only human being with whom I am completely, wholly natural’. Adoring London society, privilege, rank, and wealth, he became an energetic, implacable, but endearing social climber who pursued the Curzons of Kedleston as part of his self-reinvention as an upper-class European. But away from the smart drawing-rooms of Mayfair and Belgravia he was often less comfortable. He seemed spurious to many of those on whose acceptance his happiness depended. To Lady Gladwyn he was ‘that American pipsqueak (alas naturalized British)’ and a ‘twerp’. James Lees-Milne thought him ‘a flibbertigibbet’ and Duff Cooper ‘a toady’.
Channon is chiefly remembered for his diaries which survive for the years 1918, 1923–8, and 1934–53. Discreetly edited extracts compiled by Robert Rhodes James and published in 1967 open with Lady Diana Cooper's announcing the death of King Albert I of the Belgians (12 February 1934) and close with Channon's cocktail party for King Umberto II of Italy (18 November 1953). The intervening entries are by turns scintillating, epicene, snobbish, fatuous, self-mocking, and cliché-ridden. There are captivating descriptions of great parliamentary occasions as well as intriguing confidences about backstairs intrigues; but each page demonstrates Channon's preference for manners over principles. ‘Everybody is on about Chips's diary—you can't think how vile & spiteful & silly it is,’ Nancy Mitford wrote after its publication. ‘One always thought Chips was rather a dear, but he was black inside how sinister!’.
Channon's American patrimony was insufficient for the life he craved. He married on 14 July 1933 a glamorous heiress, Lady Honor Dorothy Mary Guinness, daughter of Rupert Edward Cecil Lee Guinness, second earl of Iveagh, and his wife, Gwendolen Florence Mary Guinness. He proudly doted on their only child, Paul, who was created Baron Kelvedon in 1997. The Channons acquired a sumptuous house at 5 Belgrave Square (1935) and an estate at Kelvedon in Essex (1937). Hospitality at these homes was as effervescent and lavish as their interiors were ornate. The newly married Chips was a thoughtful, shrewd, witty, and worldly gossip who loved to help people. His social radiance could be entrancing; he was resolute in promoting the interests of his friends. The earl of Drogheda found him ‘an immensely kind man, with many acts of generosity to his credit’: when Viscountess Castlerosse sat on a wasp, Chips sucked the sting out of her buttock. Channon wrote of himself in 1935:
I have flair, intuition, great good taste but only second rate ambition: I am far too susceptible to flattery; I hate and am uninterested in all the things most men like such as sport, business, statistics, debates, speeches, war and the weather; but I am rivetted by lust, furniture, glamour and society and jewels."
By Alan Allport at November 15, 2004 02:33 AM

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