The Ubiquitous Canadian

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Charles Ritchie (1906–95) was a witty, cultivated Canadian diplomat whose voluminous diaries, a blend of anecdote, commentary and confession, were an ‘escape hatch’ from the confines of his profession. Much of what he wrote was too candid to be published. For instance in 1962, when stationed in Washington, he met Harold Macmillan, who was trying to ingratiate himself with President Kennedy. Macmillan, he waspishly noted, ‘drips “manner” like a buttered crumpet’. This must have been the occasion on which Kennedy disconcerted Macmillan, a complaisant husband, by revealing that he got a ‘terrible headache’ if he didn’t have a woman every two or three days. Unlike Macmillan, Ritchie would have understood. In January 1941, having kissed goodbye to his current squeeze, a pretty young ballerina who was off on tour, he looked forward to ‘early and varied infidelities during her absence’.

From a well-connected Nova Scotian family, Ritchie was educated at Harvard, the Sorbonne and Oxford, where he was unusual in having a mistress. I learnt this when writing the life of Anthony Powell, who overlapped with Ritchie at Oxford, though I don’t think they ever met. Unlike most of the ‘Brideshead Generation’, Powell was unimpressed by Oxford, not least because girls were off limits. He thought undergraduates then were ‘retarded adolescents’, a verdict endorsed by this passage from An Appetite for Life (1977), Ritchie’s undergraduate diaries, which I came across in the course of my research into Powell: ‘These English undergraduates do seem incredibly young . . . They are mostly virgins though they would rather die than admit it . . . They talk about sex a lot but it is mainly smut and endless limericks.’

Angular, beak-nosed, narrow-chested and bespectacled, Ritchie did not fit the mould of a philanderer, but as is apparent from The Siren Years (1974), an edited version of the war diary he kept, he had little diffi

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Charles Ritchie (1906–95) was a witty, cultivated Canadian diplomat whose voluminous diaries, a blend of anecdote, commentary and confession, were an ‘escape hatch’ from the confines of his profession. Much of what he wrote was too candid to be published. For instance in 1962, when stationed in Washington, he met Harold Macmillan, who was trying to ingratiate himself with President Kennedy. Macmillan, he waspishly noted, ‘drips “manner” like a buttered crumpet’. This must have been the occasion on which Kennedy disconcerted Macmillan, a complaisant husband, by revealing that he got a ‘terrible headache’ if he didn’t have a woman every two or three days. Unlike Macmillan, Ritchie would have understood. In January 1941, having kissed goodbye to his current squeeze, a pretty young ballerina who was off on tour, he looked forward to ‘early and varied infidelities during her absence’.

From a well-connected Nova Scotian family, Ritchie was educated at Harvard, the Sorbonne and Oxford, where he was unusual in having a mistress. I learnt this when writing the life of Anthony Powell, who overlapped with Ritchie at Oxford, though I don’t think they ever met. Unlike most of the ‘Brideshead Generation’, Powell was unimpressed by Oxford, not least because girls were off limits. He thought undergraduates then were ‘retarded adolescents’, a verdict endorsed by this passage from An Appetite for Life (1977), Ritchie’s undergraduate diaries, which I came across in the course of my research into Powell: ‘These English undergraduates do seem incredibly young . . . They are mostly virgins though they would rather die than admit it . . . They talk about sex a lot but it is mainly smut and endless limericks.’

Angular, beak-nosed, narrow-chested and bespectacled, Ritchie did not fit the mould of a philanderer, but as is apparent from The Siren Years (1974), an edited version of the war diary he kept, he had little difficulty in realizing his ‘impure thoughts’. You get the feeling that as well as getting off with women, he also got on with them – and they reciprocated.

Ritchie arrived at Canada House in London in January 1939, by which time it was becoming apparent that Munich was not a reprieve but a stay of execution. As Private Secretary to the High Commissioner, Vincent Massey, he had to tread carefully because there was no guarantee that Canada, under its isolationist premier Mackenzie King, would join Britain in another European war. Nor did Ritchie find much enthusiasm for war in the elevated social circles he frequented: ‘I cannot believe’, he wrote in May 1939, ‘that this country will go to war for the Polish corridor.’ But go to war it did, becoming, overnight, a garrison state. On 8 September Ritchie woke at 3 a.m. to the sound of sirens and asked himself, ‘Was there a time when we did not all carry gas masks?’

For almost a year the sirens sounded in vain. Then at the end of August 1940 the London Blitz began. Though nothing like as apocalyptic as people had feared, it turned the Home Front into the front line. The West End took a pasting. Returning home one morning after a night out of town Ritchie found his flat in Arlington Street, just behind the Ritz, reduced to a heap of dirty rubble, with bits of his bespoke suits, ‘wet and blackened’, visible among the bricks. As well as his suits, the cost of which he doubted he could reclaim in full, he particularly regretted the loss of his little green commonplace book.

After a brief sojourn at the Dorchester – ‘a fortress propped up with money bags’, into which ‘the sweepings of the Riviera have been washed up’ – Ritchie then spent a few weeks at Brooks’s, one of several clubs to which he belonged. Clubland was a rich source of anecdote. At the dining table of Pratt’s, where it was not done to pull rank, he saw Anthony Eden, then Foreign Secretary, discomfited by a subaltern. Eden had been ‘holding forth at length on the Mediterranean situation’. The subaltern, just back from the Middle East, ‘turned to a friend and said, “I do not know who that man is but he is talking awful balls.” Immense satisfaction of all members.’

On another occasion Ritchie was told that Stalin was bored stiff by the British Ambassador, Stafford Cripps, because he would drone on about Communism when all Stalin wanted to hear about was Edward VIII and Mrs Simpson. ‘He could not understand why Mrs Simpson was not liquidated.’ (Years later, when serving as Canadian Ambassador to the UN, Ritchie met the Duchess of Windsor at a party, looking ‘ravaged but unsated . . . engagingly full of curiosity and with a nose tilted for scandal’).

The black-out, and the ‘fumbling’ it begat, was something that Ritchie, like everyone else, learned to live with. In town you ‘fumbled for your front door key’ while bits of shrapnel drifted down ‘almost like snowflakes’. Country-house weekends, a welcome change from the oppression of a London Sunday, posed a different sort of challenge after dark. So scrupulously did your hosts enforce the black-out that at night you found yourself ‘fumbling your way by the light of a small hand torch along black corridors filled with unfamiliar furniture to the WC (which one had failed to mark by daylight) or alternatively to the bedroom of your girlfriend’.

On one weekend away Ritchie met Nancy Mitford, ‘a queer mixture of county and sophistication’, who inspired him to try and convey the essence of the milieu to which he thought she belonged, that of Evelyn Waugh’s novels:

In love as in conversation a flavour of insolence is appreciated. With both sexes the thing admired is to do what you want just as long as you want to and not a moment longer. Hence the speed with which partners change in this game, which requires a good eye, a cool nerve and a capacity to take punishment as in any other kind of sport. Toughness is the favourite virtue. Any form of cry-babyishness is taboo except among pansies, in whom it is recognized as an innate characteristic which does not affect their essential toughness . . . Discretion is looked upon as a paltry virtue like thrift. Their gossip is so frank, so abundant and so detailed it is a wonder that their lives are not even more complicated than they are.

One of Ritchie’s early jobs at the High Commission was arranging safe passage to Canada for rich people’s offspring. He sensed that the Old Gang was on the run, and despite his appetite for ‘worldly glitter and bustle’ saw social change as a welcome consequence of total war. He predicted, correctly, that most Englishmen now had ‘no use for the Empire which they consider an embarrassment and a bore’. His boss said his dispatches ‘read like socialist speeches’.

Until Germany invaded Russia – ‘an act of madness on Hitler’s part’ – Ritchie feared that the Nazis would never be defeated and that the best that could be hoped for was a stalemate. After Pearl Harbor he saw light at the end of the tunnel, while recording ‘the very human sardonic satisfaction’ that greeted the attack. So far as many British were concerned, the Yanks had it coming to them, and their indignation at ‘treachery’ fell on deaf ears: ‘It is like a hardened old tart who hears a girl crying because a man has deceived her for the first time.’

In his Foreword Ritchie apologizes for the ‘disconnected’ nature of the diary: ‘Situations are left up in the air. Questions are not answered. All one can say is that this is what that life was like.’ One question he does answer, albeit somewhat obliquely, is the identity of this woman: ‘When I die they will find some woman’s name written on my heart – I do not know myself who it will be!’ Ritchie wrote that after admitting that he was now smitten with the ballerina: ‘She is my perennial type.’ But it was not the ballerina who would steal his heart. Within a few months of meeting the novelist Elizabeth Bowen in February 1941 he had become her lover. Less than a year later he confessed that ‘this attachment is nothing transient but will bind me as long as I live’.

So what did this philanderer see in a married woman who was seven years older than him and not, by conventional standards, a beauty? Both Victoria Glendinning, in her edition of Bowen’s letters and diaries, and Lara Feigel in The Love-Charm of Bombs have given detailed accounts of what passed between Ritchie and Bowen over the next thirty-two years, relying considerably on Ritchie’s original diaries, only about a tenth of which were published. Without being lewd, Ritchie is frank about the physical attraction he immediately felt for Bowen, musing soon after they first slept together, ‘How can a woman of forty with gold bangles and the face of a woman of forty and the air of a don’s wife, how can such a woman have such a body – like Donatello’s David I told her when I first saw what it was like. Those small firm breasts, that modelled neck set with such beauty on her shoulders, that magnificent back . . .’

Readers of The Siren Years, published a year after Bowen’s death in 1973, are denied such carnal reflections. And with good reason. In 1948, realizing that it would be a good career move, Ritchie married his cousin Sylvia Smellie. It was not a love match, but it was a very successful partnership that would help propel him to the top of the diplomatic ladder. Sylvia must have known about his feelings for Bowen, otherwise, as we learn from Ritchie’s Epilogue, she would not have endorsed ‘the publication of this book’. But presumably she drew the line at his opening the bedroom door.
Ritchie himself also drew the line at discussing ‘official business’, thus running the risk, as he admitted, of being seen as a privileged loafer. At times, it is true, you do feel that like ‘the Loot’ in Waugh’s Unconditional Surrender, for Ritchie ‘there was no corner of the social world where he was not familiar’. A favourite haunt of his was the 400 Club, a raffish joint popular with Guards officers and their girls. He was there when the Café de Paris, just opposite, was hit, and overheard a girl say to her guardsman escort, ‘Darling, it was rather awful when they brought out all those black men’ – a reference to ‘Snake-Hips’ Johnson and his band, most of whom were killed.

In January 1945 Ritchie was posted back to Ottawa, and in April he attended the San Francisco  conference which drew up the United Nations Charter. After so long spent in a city under siege, where even the sun appeared to be rationed, he found San Francisco magical: ‘The sun shines perpetually, the streets are thronged, there are American sailors everywhere with their girls and this somehow adds to the musical comedy atmosphere. You expect them at any moment to break into song and dance, and the illusion is heightened because every shop and café wafts light music from thousands of radios.’

Only the Soviet delegation under Molotov, flanked by ‘husky gorillas from the NKVD’, cast a chill. How to combat this chill, without responding in kind, would preoccupy Ritchie for the rest of his diplomatic career. But as is apparent from his subsequent diaries – Diplomatic Passport (1981) and Storm Signals (1983) – he never lost his appetite for life.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 71 © Michael Barber 2021


About the contributor

Michael Barber was born in London during ‘the siren years’. Try as he might, he can’t remember the war at all.

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