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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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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