Image: Brijesh Patel
March 29 2011
I was intrigued to learn that Roman Abramovich has taken Paul Channon’s house on Cheyne Walk. While not exactly bohemian, it is a little off piste – by contrast, there are parts of Belgravia where they should think of having bilingual street signs in English and Cyrillic.
Anyway, back to the Channon house, which I was fortunate enough to visit on a couple of occasions when I was a young man. I remember being struck at the time by the elegance of the place; it really was like a small stately home plonked beside the Thames, with the air of having being plucked from the pages of a mid-20th-century novel rather than having anything to do with the modern world beyond its walls.
At the time I knew nothing of Sir Henry “Chips” Channon, father of the house’s then owner. Chips was to café and high society of the first half of the 20th century what Greville and Gronow had been the century before. Of course, history has caricatured him as a scandalous bisexual snob who used to pep up his parties by putting Benzedrine in the cocktails. And today his account of socialising with the Goerings makes uncomfortable reading.
Yet there is also a precocity about the 20-year-old who in May 1918 found himself young and in Paris. “What would I not do to have NOW last for ever – to be for ever 20 in Paris in the springtime, what could be more divine? It is dreadful my life – dreadful yet wonderful to skim the cream off life, gliding along on oceans of delight when the world is mourning and is suffering. In the world drenched in misery, is one drop of happiness a sin?” It is almost as if he were simultaneously his older self; who knows, perhaps there was some retrospective editing.
There are superb vignettes, such as when he finds himself at dinner between a young Cocteau and an old Proust. “I felt stupid between the two wittiest men in Europe, drenched in a Niagara of epigrams. Jean is a stylist and his conversation is full of fire and rapier thrusts. He is like some faun that is indulged too long. He is haggard at 26, and his figure and smile have something mythological, something of the centaur, in them.” By contrast, “Proust is quieter, longer-winded and more meticulous. His blood-shot eyes shine feverishly, as he pours out ceaseless spite and venom about the great.” And with Chips’s precocity came an almost Nadar-like photographic eye: at this dinner we learn that Proust’s “black hair was tidily arranged, but his linen was grubby, and the rich studs and links had been clumsily put in by dirty fingers”.
It is a trivial detail, but, rather like the business about the collar stud in A Passage to India, it has a resonance, for me at least, as it is out of such detail that we begin to form a view of Proust the man rather than the monolith bequeathed to us by the books and the historical reputation. That Chips had an appetite for the better things in life is undeniable, but the snob in me likes to believe that it was informed by a broader cultural awareness that gave his aperçus a weight that make them more than just gossip, although of course they were that too.
It is a quality that another diarist, this time one that I knew slightly, Alan Clark, called douceur de vivre, which I suppose you could define as taking a cultivated pleasure in life. He describes a day at his home Saltwood Castle where he takes his Silver Ghost for a spin, muses on Lutyens and Curzon and returns home to his music room where he “played the piano, quite competently, until the light faded. A day filled with trivia, douceur de vivre also.”
Oddly enough, douceur de vivre is not a quality that immediately associates itself with men like Mr Abramovich, with their big yachts, their young wives and plentiful houses in most of the world’s time zones. Nevertheless Abramovich has achieved something, a clever man who is representative of his age; and his diary, if indeed he has the time to keep one, would make interesting reading.