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LORD OF HOSTS
By Richard Carreño
IN LATE 1997, Alan Clark, then seventy-years-old, was preening as the Conservative Party's bête noire. Less to his liking was his other reputation as an aging Lothario. Both images were portrayed in an installment of Clark's tell-all diaries, the first published in 1993 as part of a trilogy that concluded in 2002.
I had written to Clark for an interview. Later I followed up with a phone call at his office in Westminster. Actually, I reached him at his house, Saltwood Castle, in Hyde, Kent. His positive response was immediate.
On a crisp autumn morning, I set out from my flat in Richmond on the District line to Parliament Square. This, for my meeting with one of the then stars of British political and cultural life. Clark was no one to underestimate. He often played the role of toff. One of better-known repartées during a political debate was to refer to his opponent as 'the kind of chap who needed to buy his own furniture.' (Whether he coined the retort or not, the barb still stung).
A gravitas was also associated with him. Well before he wound up in Margaret Thatcher's cabinet in his first go-round in politics, Clark had forged a serious berth as a historian, as author of The Donkeys: A History of the BEF in 1915 and Barbarossa: The Russo-German Conflict, 1941-45. What was also never forgotten in his circle was that he was the son of the late Lord Kenneth Clark, the noted art historian and the former head of the National Gallery.
CLARK'S office was at No. 1 Parliament Street, in a building just adjacent to Big Ben and across from H.M. Treasury. I announced my business to a guard stationed in what was akin to a glass-walled holding cell. He made several official-sounding telephone calls, and then advised me that I needed to wait. To my surprise, I didn't have to very long before Clark's tall, lanky frame was before me, his arms in a scooping motion indicating that I should move along. His chiseled facial features were similar to Chips', that is, in Chips' case, before aged rot had settled in.
The two men had known each other in the 1950s, just a few years away from Chips' death and at a time when Channon was already dissipated by drugs, drink, and drag queens. 'He was already bright red in the face,' Clark remarked. 'He wasn't as sharp as he had been in the 30s.'
Clark ushered me into his office, a rectangular room that its occupant, sparing the Crown the cost of electricity, had arranged to be illuminated by the soft sunlight that bathed the room from windows at the far end. The room was narrow; Clark's desk at the far side, requiring a visitor to walk the full distance of the space to reach a chair. The configuration was intentional. 'Mussolini-like,' Clark called it.
I settled in by window. Clark swung his rangy form behind his desk, situated by the other window. He rested his legs and feet on the desk, assuming power position No. 1.
Clark began, 'You know Channon had no political clout at all. If Channon had had addressed the 1922 Committee, no one would have given him a toss. He had no constituency. He had no power at all.'
'You do know the 22 Committee?'
He was referring to a Conservative Party caucus of backbenchers. I passed muster, and I got the gist of what Clark wanted. A bit of homage.
What did he mean that he found 'solace' in reading Chips?
'Comfort,' he responded. 'A combination of nostalgia and fantasy.'
Clark removed his feet from his desk. As he relaxed, he became more garrulous. Did I know, for example, that Channon and his erstwhile lover and latter-day procurer, the, ahem, 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 would dub himself as 'Sir Peter' when traveling in America and would seemingly get away with the upgrade? That back home, he had a less fanciful moniker, 'Petticoats'?
That Chips was prescient and shrewd. 'The day after the signing of the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact, Chips was writing in his diary, ''There will be war.'' For someone writing at that date, he was pessimistic — and farsighted.'
Yet, Clark averred that Chips could also be simply wrong. His 'cant' supporting Chamberlain and other appeasers who cited time to re-arm was 'humbug.' 'It was an afterthought, a rationalization, and a defective one, at that,' Clark argued. 'This country was never going to be strong enough to fight Germany on the mainland. The idea that we could fight Germany on the mainland was idiotic.'
'No one ever said that Chips was profound. Chips was a social magnet for the governing class,' Clark went on. 'He was very susceptible to the aphrodisiac of power. He was always attracted to power and status. But, in the end, power is stronger than status.'
'Chips was an indefatigable social climber, ' Clark said. 'He was arriviste. But he was also a very good host. His company was very attractive. Each morning, he'd be on the phone thanking people. Society will take them [climbers] if they give good value.'
'You know, I'm a congenital gossip,' Clark confided. 'Chips had that 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 congenital gossip.'
By Clark's reckoning, great gossip was high achievement; Scoop feeding the Daily Beast. 'Chips was miles ahead in knowing that Prince Philip and Princess Elizabeth had been engaged,' he said. 'Check the dates,' he challenged. I did. An entry for 27 October 1944, page 396. Clark was right.
Like Chips, Clark liked to consider himself a story teller. Of indiscreet stories.
Like Chips, he trolled the Commons for any sliver of salacious palaver as he cast a gimlet eye at insider politics. It was — as was the case, as well, in Chips' day — an open secret. Like his predecessor, Clark's notes were transcribed in cursive.
Similarities also extended to the unlikely area of fashion, both men sharing the same Savile Row tailor, Dennis O'Brien of Lesley & Roberts. I spoke with O'Brien a few weeks before, gathering some physical facts about Chips. Height. Suit size, and the like. I suspect Clark was losing O'Brien's favor, however. 'Tell Mr. Clark I'd like to see him soon,' O'Brien admonished.
CLARK and Channon also shared the same publishers, Weidenfeld & Nicolson. They were both Christ Church graduates.
According to Ion Trewin, editor of Clark's diaries and his biographer, Chips was one of Clark's 'heroes,' and that he would 'dip' into the Channon diaries 'every day as he drank his morning tea.' I contacted Trewin to follow up, and we agreed to meet. But after two or three attempts (he'd always back out at the last moment), I gave up.
Clark and Channon also embraced a remarkably similar attitude about received entitlement.
Here's Chips on what matters most: 'I hate and am uninterested in all things most men like such as sport, business, statistics, debates, speeches, war and the weather; but I am riveted by lust, furniture, glamour and society and jewels.'
Here's Clark on travel: 'I will not board any aircraft unless it is a Boeing 747. I won't travel with any carrier other than BA, Lufthansa or Swissair. And I won't sit anywhere except First Class....'
I had been with Clark for almost a hour. As he bid me goodbye at the door (I was seeing myself out), 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? '
'Yes, the unpublished diaries. The one from the boot sale in Essex.'
'I would give anything—£100,000—to see those diaries from that boot sale,' he said.
Lord of Hosts: The Life of Sir Henry 'Chips' Channon
By Richard Carreño
2016 Expanded paperback edition now available from Philabooks|Press
296 pp Fully illustrated Index
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