Archive for the ‘Charles Ritchie’ Category

the siren yearsA week before the rest of my presents will be unwrapped, Simon presented me with what might turn out to be my favourite gift of the holiday season: his review of The Siren Years by Charles Ritchie.

Charles Ritchie was a Canadian diplomat – I suspect this is the point where 50% of you will stop reading entirely – but, most importantly, he was a superb diarist.  He published four volumes of diaries, following him from his Oxford days in the 1920s to his final diplomatic posting in the 1970s.

The best of these is The Siren Years, which records his experiences during the Second World War when he was working in London at Canada House.  For fifteen years, this has been my gold-standard for wartime diaries.  As I said back in 2012 (when I picked it out as one of my favourite books of the year):

No matter how many times I read this (and I have lost count at this point), it remains the best wartime diary I have ever come across.   Ritchie’s diplomatic and social connections in London exposed him to an extraordinary variety of people, from political leaders and petty bureaucrats to authors and exiled royalty.  The joy of Ritchie’s diaries comes from the meld of political details and domestic ones.  I find it just as interesting to hear about how the Canadian High Commission handled refugee claims as I do to discover what Ritchie saw on his walk through London each day on the way to work or what he talked about at lunch with Nancy Mitford.

It is wonderful to be able to share the books you love with people who enjoy them and so I read Simon’s review with complete delight.

If you are interested in learning more about Ritchie, check out my thoughts on all four volumes of his diaries:

An Appetite for Life (Oxford, 1924-1927)

The Siren Years (London, 1937-1945)

Diplomatic Passport (Europe and America, 1946-1962)

Storm Signals (Washington and London, 1962-1971)

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I always have fun making this list but, for the first time, it was easy as well as fun.  There was no struggling over what belong in each spot and no angst-ridden hours spent juggling the merits of one book over another in deciding which deserved to make the list.  These are, without a doubt, the ten best books I read in 2012.  They have stuck in my mind since I read them and I cannot go a day without recommending at least one of them to friends, family members, other bloggers or people I randomly meet on the street (like the woman I met at the coffeeshop on Friday.  Such are the dangers of engaging me in conversation).  Without further ado, here are ten best books I read in 2012:

Best Books of 2012 - Part 1

10. The Home-Maker (1924) – Dorothy Canfield Fisher
This is, quite rightly, one of the best-loved Persephone titles among readers.  It is a wonderfully thoughtful book about gender roles, societal pressure, and personal fulfillment and treats all of its characters – adult or child – with respect for the everyday struggles they face.

9. Two-Part Invention (1988) – Madeleine L’Engle
This book was heartbreaking, beautiful, and, above all, surprising.  It is a portrait of L’Engle’s forty year marriage written during her husband’s final illness but it is also a reflection on her faith and what religion meant in her life.  It is a highly emotional and intelligent book and I cried more tears over this than anything else I read this year.

8. The Siren Years (1974) – Charles Ritchie
No matter how many times I read this (and I have lost count at this point), it remains the best wartime diary I have ever come across.   Ritchie’s diplomatic and social connections in London exposed him to an extraordinary variety of people, from political leaders and petty bureaucrats to authors and exiled royalty.  The joy of Ritchie’s diaries comes from the meld of political details and domestic ones.  I find it just as interesting to hear about how the Canadian High Commission handled refugee claims as I do to discover what Ritchie saw on his walk through London each day on the way to work or what he talked about at lunch with Nancy Mitford.     Best Books of 2012 - Part 2

7. Leningrad (2011) – Anna Reid
I still get chills thinking about this book, which looks at what happened to those trapped in Leningrad while it was under siege during the Second World War.  It is uncomfortable and upsetting to read but so very well done.

6. The Headmistress (1944) – Angela Thirkell
Possibly the most perfectly-formed of Thirkell’s Barsetshire novels, The Headmistress focuses on the experiences of the Belton family during the Second World War.  Mrs Belton, the middle-aged mother of three, is one of Thirkell’s best heroines.  Her struggles to understand her adult children and to live with her constant fear for her sons broke my heart.

5. The Laskett (2003) – Roy Strong
A gardening tome that even non-gardeners would love, this book describes the evolution of Strong’s garden at his country home, The Laskett.  Though there are plenty of details about the garden’s layout and plant choices, what makes this book special are the stories Strong shares about the friends and experiences that influenced the garden’s formation.  This is a garden that clearly reflects both Strong and his wife’s personalities and experiences and it is a book that acts as a tribute to their delightfully unique lives.  Best Books of 2012 - Part 3

4. Good Evening, Mrs Craven (1999) – Mollie Panter-Downes
A wonderfully varied collection of short stories about life in England during the Second World War.  Panter-Downes’ domestic focus exactly suits my tastes as does her interest in the quiet disappointments and muted struggles faced by her characters.  There is nothing sensational about the events in these stories, making them both relatable and, to me, touching.

3. It’s Too Late Now (1939) –  A.A. Milne
2012 was the year of Milne and as much as I loved his plays, his pieces for Punch, his passionate plea for pacifism, and his light verse, it was his autobiography that gave me the most pleasure.  Looking back on the first fifty-odd years of his life, Milne joyously recalls the happy days of his childhood and, later, his determined pursuit of a writing career.  It has nothing in common with gossipy tell-alls and that is part of what I loved about it.  It is a fun book to read and I suspect Milne had even more fun writing it.

2. Fräulein Schmidt and Mr Anstruther (1907) – Elizabeth von Arnim
It has been a long time since I’ve fallen as hard for a fictional character as I did for Fräulein Rose-Marie Schmidt.  These letters, written to her erstwhile suitor Roger Anstruther, reveal a woman who is both romantic and practical, youthful and mature.  She is clever and funny and resilient and I want to be her almost as much as I want to befriend her. the-element-of-lavishness

1. The Element of Lavishness: Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner and William Maxwell  (2001) – edited by Michael Steinman
I read this in January and, honestly, no other book I read this year came even close to eclipsing it in my affections.  I had never read anything by either Warner or Maxwell before and knew very little about either of them but that made no difference.  Through their letters, I got to know both of them intimately and to witness the wonderful warmth and depth of their friendship as it evolved over the decades.  While both were extraordinary writers, it is Warner’s letters I remember the best now, almost a year after I read them.  She wrote beautifully about the domestic details of her life and the letters written between the death of her partner Valentine and her own death are as good a record of aging and loss as I have ever read.

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When I finished reading the last diary entry in Storm Signals by Charles Ritchie, I was reluctant to put the book down.  I have been a fan of Ritchie’s diaries since I was twelve years old and first discovered them on the shelf of my school library.  I always enjoy any time I spend reading his books and never tire of rereading them.  It is impossible not to grow attached to a diarist when you’ve followed him over the course of almost fifty years.  He is wonderfully familiar to me; I know him as a reckless, enthusiastic youth, a sophisticated, heartless bachelor about town, an eager new ambassador, and a middle-aged veteran who is granted the very best postings.  When I come to the end of the diaries, it is always difficult to say goodbye.

Since last autumn, I’ve reread all four volumes of Ritchie’s diaries in chronological order.  I started with An Appetite for Life, covering Ritchie’s late teens in Canada and England, moved on to The Siren Years, a record of Ritchie’s wartime experiences in London and easily one of my favourite books, and enjoyed Diplomatic Passport, chronicling Ritchie’s first years as a diplomatic representative (as opposed to staff member) in post-war Europe and America.  The final volume, Storm Signals, is a selection of Ritchie’s diaries between 1962 and 1971, during which time he served as Canadian ambassador to the United States before moving on to his final diplomatic posting, as Canadian High Commissioner in London.

As usual, the focus of the diaries is more personal than professional.  A reader looking for specific details about the business of the day would be disappointed.  Ritchie records his impressions and opinions without ever dwelling on anything that could be considered sensitive information.  For the general reader, this is more than enough detail.  We learn what he thought of Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, of the political crises of the day, and of the tensions between the Canadian and American governments at the time that created a rather stressful working environment for Ritchie in Washington.  Both presidents kept their distance from Ritchie because of disagreements between the two nations about major issues like nuclear weapons, economic sanctions for communist nations, and the war in Vietnam.

These tensions did keep Ritchie busy during his US posting but he still had plenty of time to keep his diary, thankfully.  One of the delights of Storm Signals is that he takes this time to look back on his life and ponder the strange workings of fate.  Finally, the reader gets to learn a little of how Ritchie spent the undocumented decade between the end of An Appetite for Life and the start of The Siren Years.  He was briefly – and unsuccessfully – a schoolmaster and then in the early 1930s, with few other options available, applied for a fellowship at Harvard (where he had studied for a year after leaving Oxford) that would, as he says, ‘prove a turning point’:

There were two fellowships on offer: one to proceed to France to explore the significance of the word ‘sensibilité’ in eighteenth-century French literature, the other to advanced studies in the origins of the First World War.  I coveted the first and obtained the second.  It was to prove a turning point, for had I been delving into ‘sensibilité’ in the cafés of Montpellier I should not have been in Boston to take the examination for the Department of External Affairs and ergo I should not now, as an aging Ambassador, be sitting at my desk in Washington wasting the government’s time with this excursion into the past when I should be studying the statistics of Canadian lumber exports. (8 July 1963)

I would just like to say how enjoyable I think either subject would be, though I can easily understand how in 1931 he was more drawn to the idea of studying in Paris than in going back to Cambridge.

After Washington, the London posting was a dream.  Ritchie got to return to a city he loved, to live in a gorgeous house, and to be near many of his oldest and closest friends.  It was an undemanding, pleasurable appointment and Ritchie welcomed it:

I looked forward to it in a spirit best expressed by my friend Douglas LePan, who wrote, in congratulation, that my motto should be that of the Renaissance Pope – ‘God has given us the Papacy, now let us enjoy it.’

A large part of what makes Ritchie so irresistible to me is his tendency to spout rather romantic images.  He could be, I think, a rather reserved man, as befits a career diplomat, and certainly his early affairs were more about physical pleasure than any kind of spiritual fulfilment, though he did find that in his thirty-year long relationship with Elizabeth Bowen and in his happy marriage to wife Sylvia.  But his sentimentality does show up in his writing and I love when it does:

Voices and music from a next-door party sounding from behind the screen of heavy-leafed trees bordering the garden.  The music plucks at some lost feeling.  The women’s voices sound languorous and exciting.  It is true, no doubt, that the encounters between people at that party are as forced as at the party I have just left, that most are looking beyond each other’s left ear to sight someone more important to talk to.  The laughter in most cases does not contain in its volume one hundredth part of real laughter and is as tasteless as frozen ham, but perhaps it is worth coming to a garden setting under the glossy, unreal light of late evening if two people on the outskirts of the party remember it as the moment when they first met, and carry the memory that it was there that it all started.  (30 June 1962)

I also loved this image (and could certainly relate to his wish):

When I woke this morning and saw sun on the melting snow I closed my eyes, pulled the eiderdown over my head, and wished that I lived by myself in an isolated autumnal château in France with high walls round it, with books, a fire in the library, the smell of leaf mould in the garden outside.  (22 December 1962)

And, of course, there are Ritchie’s credentials as a reader.  He is always reading, frequently something I have never heard of.  His notes on reading remind me of Alberto Manguel, not because they read the same books (though there is some overlap) but there is something about the way both men approach reading and the way they both write about it that seems similar.  How could I not be drawn to someone who says “I can’t go on reading Vanity Fair as I am bogged down among Amelia’s tender tears and rhapsodies and I will not skip to get back to Becky Sharp”?  Or who finds Shakespeare’s plays so stirring that they hinder his recovery from illness: “I spent the afternoon recovering in bed.  Read Antony and Cleopatra and became so moved and inflamed by it that I could not get to sleep at night.”  Ritchie reacts to books like the best kind of reader.

Though Ritchie’s relationship with Elizabeth Bowen was intense and long-lived, it is rather nice to read about his appreciation of his wife Sylvia in these entries.  Though, it must be noted, he edited these diaries for publication himself and they are highly censored, holding back the most personal and potentially hurtful details about his affairs.  Still, both his casual and more thoughtful comments about how much he loves Sylvia are very welcome.  He seems to be almost surprised at his real affection for her and at how highly he values her company and misses her during her absences.  Theirs was a pragmatic marriage but, at least from his viewpoint, a very successful one – quite surprising given Ritchie’s heartless promiscuity in his youth.

As I finished reading, knowing that I had come to the end of Ritchie’s elegant and entertaining diaries once more, I felt the same way as I always do when I finish this cycle: thankful for Ritchie’s gifts as a diarist but frustrated that he did not publish more.

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My love for Charles Ritchie’s An Appetite for Life and The Siren Years is well documented.  I adore those books.  I wish everyone would read them, particularly The Siren Years, as examples of what really well-written, well-edited diaries can be like and if you, dear reader, take only one recommendation from me, let it be this: try Ritchie.  Just don’t start with Diplomatic Passport: More Undiplomatic Diaries, 1946-1962.

It is not that it is a bad book – far from it – but it is not a good introduction to Ritchie.  In his younger years, both as a student in Halifax and at Oxford (An Appetite for Life) and as an energetic and sociable staff member at the Canadian High Commission in London (The Siren Years), Ritchie had plenty of time for introspection and an active personal life, making for a number of both thoughtful and highly entertaining diary entries.  But Diplomatic Passport covers the first years of Ritchie’s very successful career as a diplomatic representative, when he was working all hours and barely had the time to have a personal life never mind write about it.  It’s a wonderful book if you already know Ritchie and are happy for him to talk very little about himself but I think it might prove frustrating for unfamiliar readers who would probably want to have some idea about the author.

The diaries begin in 1946 in an uneasy post-war world.  The changes wrought by the Second World War only put more pressure on the men and women trying to rebuild and to create a lasting international peace. The strain is intense and the worst of it, Ritchie thinks, is borne by the young men who not only have the anxiety of tending to their young careers but also of searching out or attending to their wives:

International affairs have become a battlefield where the rules of war are relevant, and the strains on the combatants are as gruelling as on the battlefield.  You need physical, mental and nervous strength.  But, hardest of all, you cannot afford too many distractions.  That is not so bad for the old men who live only for ambition.  It is hard on the young; they tire more easily and are more vulnerable to their own mistakes.  The Old Boys have made so many that one more or less does not matter to them.  Then the young ones have the other battles of love to contend with.  They are fighting on two fronts.  They must have time to sleep with their wives or someone else will do it for them.  (21 August 1946)

In the years documented in Diplomatic Passport, Ritchie covers a lot of ground.  It is a short book, with some years barely mentioned and others only captured with a handful of entries, but it tracks Ritchie from Ottawa to Paris to Bonn (West Germany) to New York and finally to Washington.  Exhausting.  He also picks up a wife, Sylvia, along the way and, though she is barely mentioned in these diaries, there is a noticeable lack of female conquests (which took up a considerable amount of his youthful energy).  I am sure these years were a whirlwind to live through, as each move brought with it a more impressive job title: counsellor at the Canadian Embassy in Paris; Ambassador to West Germany; Permanent Representative to the United Nations; Ambassador to the United States.  Because Ritchie preferred to focus on his personal life when he published these diaries, there are very few details about his work and achievements, just impressions of those who he worked with, general thoughts on the issues of the day, and humorous anecdotes from various events, like this one from his time in West Germany:

I went over today to Dortmund to open an exhibition of Eskimo art.  I have already opened three exhibitions of Eskimo art and am becoming sick of the sight of it.  This exhibition was in the museum at Dortmund and the museum officials had told me that they had very few funds to provide refreshments, so I sent over several cases of rye whisky.  The people at the museum had never seen rye before and the Director asked me if it was ‘a kind of liqueur or a sort of wine.’  After the speeches were over, tall glasses filled with undiluted rye whisky were handed round on trays and drunk recklessly, so that before the reception was over everyone was more or less drunk.  It was by far the most successful exhibition of Eskimo art I have ever attended… (21 February 1957)

The most enjoyable, light-hearted entries are from Ritchie’s time in post-war Paris.  The country may have been devastated but the company of fellow diplomats was excellent and always entertaining.  Ritchie’s observations of the social and political changes taking place (and the telling quotes he took down from others) made for some fascinating reading.  I particularly loved this account of a dinner party for the Dominion delegations at the British Embassy in Paris, with the uneasy melding of classes after Labour had come into power:

The prevailing social tone of the evening was British lower middle class.  Since Labour came in in England they are the rulers – the politicians.  Their servants of the upper class – the professional diplomats and officials – joined benevolently in the fun, taking the attitude ‘they are really rather dears and it is nice to see them enjoy themselves in their simple fashion and we must not seem patronizing,’ except for one who remarked to me, ‘This is where experience at Servants’ Balls and Sergeant’s Messes comes in so useful.’ (13 October 1946)

I already mentioned the greatest, most bizarrely fantastic Parisian escapade here a few weeks ago, but it bears repeating.  Ritchie had counted Lady Diana Cooper, wife of Duff Cooper, Britain’s then ambassador to France, and Nancy Mitford as friends during his days in London (both show up several times in The Siren Years) and they all found themselves together again in Paris.  I can only wish I had friends this glamourous or extravagant:

Not long ago I was sitting next to Diana at a lively luncheon party where the cross-five of conversation was sizzling away. Twice – three times – I attempted to join the fray without success. Turning to Diana I said: ‘I cannot understand it. Am I invisible, or inaudible? I have so much to say and no one pays attention to me.’ She fixed me with her azure eyes. ‘Something,’ she said, ‘must be done about that.’ Something was – with Nancy Mitford acting as her lieutenant, Diana organized Ritchie Week, a week of non-stop parties, dinners, even a ball in Ritchie honour. She roped in half Paris – surprised French hostesses found it was the smart thing to join in this charade. Old and new friends showered us with invitations. Whenever we appeared, a special anthem was played to signal our entrance. Verses were addressed to us – on the walls of the houses in our street someone had by night chalked up in giant letters the slogan ‘Remember Ritchie’. Nancy I think it was who had an even more daring inspiration – a clutch of coloured balloons inscribed ‘Ritchie Week’ were let loose over Paris. (The newspapers reported that one of these had floated as far as Boulogne, where it was picked up by the mystified inhabitants, who asked themselves what it might portend.) It was an apotheosis of a kind, and who but Diana could have devised such a fantasy? (21 June 1948)

Isn’t that extraordinary?  Part of what makes Ritchie’s diaries such a delight are these unexpectedly sensational moments, which happen with greater frequency than you would believe.  The people he collects around him or just encounters are extraordinary.  It’s thrilling enough to come across the truly famous names but he is also wonderful at introducing me to people I’d never heard of before (generally diplomats or journalists) and making them seem completely marvellous, convincing me that I must track down all the information I can about them.

Though I would recommend new readers start with one of the earlier volumes of Ritchie’s diaries, this is nonetheless an excellent book.  As usual, Ritchie provides a captivating, intelligently observed perspective on the events of the day.  As Ritchie’s jobs change and he becomes more important, the focus does shift more towards his work, his thoughts on political and diplomatic matters becoming the most common topics while friends and family are largely unmentioned – a change in priorities for both Ritchie and the reader!  But, more importantly, the diaries never become dull.  Where he once wrote about drunken nights at university (excellent training for a career as a diplomat) or affairs with ballerinas, he now writes with equal animation about Suez and the Congo.  Though his topics may have changed, his diaries remain just as entertaining as ever, chronicling a truly fascinating life.

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It’s quite a humdrum Thursday here, as Thursdays (particularly rainy ones) are apt to be, and I couldn’t help but feel a bit envious while reading the following, from Charles Ritchie’s Diplomatic Passport:

Not long ago I was sitting next to Diana [Lady Diana Cooper, wife of Duff Cooper, Britain’s then ambassador to France] at a lively luncheon party where the cross-five of conversation was sizzling away.  Twice – three times – I attempted to join the fray without success.  Turning to Diana I said: ‘I cannot understand it.  Am I invisible, or inaudible?  I have so much to say and no one pays attention to me.’  She fixed me with her azure eyes.  ‘Something,’ she said, ‘must be done about that.’  Something was – with Nancy Mitford acting as her lieutenant, Diana organized Ritchie Week, a week of non-stop parties, dinners, even a ball in Ritchie honour.  She roped in half Paris – surprised French hostesses found it was the smart thing to join in this charade.  Old and new friends showered us with invitations.  Whenever we appeared, a special anthem was played to signal our entrance.  Verses were addressed to us – on the walls of the houses in our street someone had by night chalked up in giant letters the slogan ‘Remember Ritchie’.  Nancy I think it was who had an even more daring inspiration – a clutch of coloured balloons inscribed ‘Ritchie Week’ were let loose over Paris.  (The newspapers reported that one of these had floated as far as Boulogne, where it was picked up by the mystified inhabitants, who asked themselves what it might portend.)  It was an apotheosis of a kind, and who but Diana could have devised such a fantasy? (21 June 1948)

What could be more wildly, bizarrely glamourous?

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I started two books on New Year’s Day, knowing that if the first failed me (it did not) the second, a perennial favourite, would still guarantee a wonderful beginning to the year.  After more than a decade of reading and rereading, The Siren Years by Charles Ritchie has never once let me down and remains the finest book I’ve ever read about wartime London and one of my top five favourite books of all-time.

For those who missed being introduced to Ritchie a few months ago when I reviewed An Appetite for Life (it was also one of my favourite books of 2011), a few words: Charles Ritchie was a Canadian diplomat who, at the height of his professional career in the 1960s, served, among other postings, as Ambassador to  the United States and as the Canadian High Commissioner to the UK.  But more importantly, he was an unparalleled diarist.

I have read so many volumes of war time diaries over the years but this remains my favourite.  While this collection begins during Ritchie’s time with the Canadian legation in Washington and ends in 1945 with him back in Ottawa (after an excursion in the spring to the San Francisco Conference that established the UN), the bulk of his entries deal with his time in London where he served as private secretary to Vincent Massey, the Canadian High Commissioner.  Ritchie had such a magnificent prospect on the events of the day: at the High Commission, constantly dealing with refugees, Brits and ex-pats trying to flee to Canada for the duration; in conversation with various embassies and both foreign and British politicians; and in his dealings with his large and varied circle of friends, full of intellectuals and major literary figures.

I first read this book when I was twelve years old, giddily exploring my new school’s library and coming upon all sorts of treasures.  I fell in love with it immediately and now, looking back, I can see how well it armed me to analyse much of my future reading.  Then and now, I have always loved reading about the Second World War, particularly novels or memoirs that focused on life on the home front.  But I was always bothered by books that portrayed a tirelessly optimistic Britain – the Britain of wartime propaganda and Churchill’s speeches – full of brave citizens sure of victory, conspicuously free of anyone who would dare to contemplate a successful Nazi invasion.  And, after rereading Ritchie’s diaries, it’s clear where that scepticism came from:

My office is the door of escape from hell.  Day after day the stream of people press in.  Today, for example, some of the Austrian Rothschilds (escaped from a concentration camp) are trying to pass their medical examination to go to Canada.  Would I arrange a financial guarantee for them?  The wife of one of the wealthiest men in England is trying to get out of the country.  Her husband is a Jew and a leading anti-Nazi.  Will I get her a letter to prove (on very flimsy grounds) that she is a Canadian?  Lady B, looking radiant, comes to ask if I would arrange for her son’s prep-school to be affiliated with a boys’ boarding school in Canada and to migrate there en masse.  The Marchioness of C, in the uniform of the Women’s Naval Auxiliary Unit, wants to get three children out to Canada at once.  Two Canadian journalists want to get their wives out but there is a mysterious delay in getting their exit permits.  The Spanish Ambassador wants us to get accommodation for his daughter, his mother, and a troop of maids and governesses on board the next ship.  They are going to Canada for a little rest from the nervous tension of the war.  He knows he is slipping with his own government and may be in exile himself any day.   The Polish Ambassador wants us to take the wives and daughters of one hundred high political and diplomatic dignitaries.  Count X, the anti-fascist with a price on his head, must leave for Canada at once on a mission of great importance.  I have only touched the edge of one day’s work.  I do not mention my own friends and relatives who want to get out.  Here we have a whole social system on the run, wave after wave after wave of refugees, and these are only the people at the top, people who can by titles, letters of introduction, or the ruling manner force their way into Government offices and oblige one to give them an interview.  What of the massed misery that cannot escape?

The sense of the dissolution of civilized society is overpowering.  (26 June 1940)

Ritchie and his political and diplomatic friends spend a lot of time contemplating various outcomes of the war, both before it begins and once it is in play.  In conversation with Canadian, British, Australian, and Hungarian friends, the possibility of defeat is a very real option and everyone seems to have thought through how they think the terms of surrender should be structured.  These are practical men, considering all possible outcomes, and a number of their proposals are quite plausible.  After all, they are not military men, they are diplomats: they think in terms of negotiations, not battles.  The idea of redrawing the map of Europe is exciting to them, a chance to correct the errors of the Treaty of Versailles, an opportunity to create real, lasting peace and forge strong, cooperative relationships between nations.  Ritchie makes you see how exciting the possibilities were, even as destruction raged across Europe.

Mostly though, Ritchie is frustrated by the war, by the noncommittal yet interfering Canadian Prime Minister, the bane of everyone at Canada House (particularly Mike Pearson, judging by the biographies I’ve read), and by the terrifying ignorance of the British Foreign Office, who laughably propose to win favour with French-Canadians by forming close bonds with France (“I only hope to God that they know more about other foreign countries than they do about Canada”).  He is bothered by the sentimental theatrics of Winston Churchill’s speeches (while acknowledging his oratorical style) and he loathes the aggressive vilification of the opposing forces that allows the Allies, with callous indifference, to ignore the devastation being brought down by their bombers on major cities throughout Europe:

Talked with George Ignatieff [also with the High Commission] today about this ghastly raid on Sofia where we have wiped out the whole centre of a town, which has no shelters, is built of wood, and is inhabited by people most of whom seem to be pro-Ally.  The horror of these destructive attacks on the cities of Europe!  It is such a revolting way of waging warfare and no one seems to try and realise what we are doing.  It may be necessary, but at least we should accept the guilt and not send out brave, callow youths as our scapegoats to bomb in our names while we treat the news like a cricket score.  (19 January 1944)

Though I am (clearly) fascinated by the political, Ritchie’s diaries are primarily focused on his personal life: his friendships, his day-to-day engagements and, of course, his affairs.  Though humble in appearance, Ritchie was an incorrigible and wildly successful Lothario.  He begins in London with an irritating, snobbish American ballerina (whose absences he characteristically looks forward to as a chance to stray) but in the spring of 1941 he meets Elizabeth Bowen.  So begins the great friendship and love affair that would last until Bowen’s death in the early 1970s.  She becomes a fixture in his diaries, with frequent mentions of their conversations, parties with her friends, and her work on the novel she would dedicate to Ritchie, The Heat of the Day.  Ritchie, enthralled by her, is at his most poetic:

Of what is her magic made?  What is the spell that she has cast on me?  At first I was wary of her – ‘méfiant’ – I feared that I should expose my small shifts and stratagems to her eye which misses nothing.  Her uncanny intuitions, her flashes of insight like summer lightening at once fascinated and disturbed me.  Now day by day I have been discovering more and more of her generous nature, her wit and funniness, the stammering flow of her enthralling talk, the idiosyncrasies, vagaries of her temperament.  I now know that this attachment is nothing transient but will bind me as long as I live.  (2 June 1942)

Ritchie’s social life is a bit of a marvel.  Bowen introduces him to a few of her literary friends but even before meeting her he is surrounded by authors, socialites, intellectuals, and aristocrats.  His life is a dizzying array of busy nightclubs, dinners out and house parties in the country.  There are lunches with Nancy Mitford, Christmases with the Sacheverell Sitwells, and on-going friendships with misplaced Central European royals.  How he picked up most of these people I have no idea but he seems to have known most of them before taking up his work at Canada House.  As a sophisticated, intelligent, witty man, I have no doubt that he was an entertaining guest:

I suffer less than usual during this party as a result of consuming one glass of champagne after another in quick succession.  I realized that this was necessary when somebody came up to me and said ‘You look like Banquo’s ghost’.  After that I felt I must go home immediately or get tight.  I am glad I chose the latter course.  (12 Jul 1938 – Washington)

Yet even Ritchie the sophisticated bachelor could get tired of his hectic life, though knowing how he loves his mistresses one can hardly take his wishes for domestic bliss too seriously:

I am sick of my present hectic life – the work, the miscellaneous loveless affairs, and the mixed drinks.  I wish I lived in a small provincial town and spent the evenings reading aloud the Victorian novelists to my wife and adoring daughters. (29 March 1941)

Though Ritchie does not include a lot of specific details on daily domestic life (not in the way that Mass Observation diaries do, for instance), focusing instead on his work and social engagements, some fascinating glimpses do slip in.  For instance, he marvels at being able to walk through all the garden squares in London, now without the foreboding gates that kept them private for so long, and records how, after his flat is hit during the Blitz, he finds himself living in first a hotel and then one of his clubs with only one suit and one pair of shoes.  “The Depart of External Affairs will never approve replacing suits from Sackville Street at twenty pounds per suit,” he sadly reflects.

I had also never realised how frequently Ritchie refers to his personal reading: seeking refuge in “the warmly-coloured, variegated women’s world of Colette” during the Blitz, longing for Halifax after reading Hugh MacLennan’s Barometer Rising, rejoicing in Shakespeare, thrilling to the romance of Joseph Bédier’s Tristan et Iseult…the list goes on, including countless titles and authors I have never heard of.  It is always comforting to feel that one is in the company of an appreciative reader, as though that similarity alone suddenly makes him more trustworthy (but doesn’t it?).

This review is rapidly growing out of control, but indulge me one last nostalgic ramble.  I am endlessly fascinated by the stories of Canada House during the war and this is the book that launched my interest.  Wartime London in general interests me but, as a Canadian, it is amazing to me to think of Mike Pearson, Charles Ritchie and George Ignatieff, all major post-war political and diplomatic figures, working together under Massey, developing their ideas of what Canada should be alongside one another.  All three were Oxford educated and comfortable (particularly in Ritchie) in English society but they all developed into passionate Canadians who dedicated their lives to serving Canada, believing in its promise and their shared vision for its future.  Throughout my teens, they were my heroes, both for their strong sense of duty and their inspiring idealism.

As I said (many, many paragraphs ago in the introduction), The Siren Years remains the finest book I’ve ever read about wartime London.  It is more comprehensive and more stylishly written than anything else on offer, with the beguiling, sophisticated Ritchie at its heart.

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Oh, the excruciating pain of making this list!  I am very pleased with the end result but how cruel to have spent the last few days playing off my favourite books against one another to get down to the ten you see here (and ten it must be for when I attempted to make a list of fifteen things got wildly out of hand).  What I did realise quickly was what an excellent reading year I’ve had, full of wonderful, memorable books.  May 2012 bring more of the same!

10. The Unlikely Disciple (2009) – Kevin Roose
The best books are the ones that get you so excited that you cannot stop talking about them, so that soon all your friends and family know exactly what you’re reading.  That is what happened while I was reading The Unlikely Disciple.  Roose, then an undergraduate at Brown, went ‘undercover’ for a semester at an evangelical Christian university.  His insightful, respectful, and very detailed chronicle of his time there left me highly entertained and incredibly engaged, pondering some of the issues he touched on (the influence of religious groups in politics, evangelical Christianity’s attitudes towards women, and journalistic ethics, to name a few) for weeks after I had finished reading.

9. Skylark (1924) – Dezső Kosztolányi
Set in 1899 in a small town in Austria-Hungary, this is the story of Skylark’s mother and father and the joyous week they spend enjoying themselves while their spinster daughter is away visiting family.  Mother and Father’s excitement at their outings to the restaurant and the theatre (and, in Father’s case, a meeting of the local drinking club) is humourously and heartwarmingly told but it is the return of the pathetic, pitiable Skylark (and Father’s outburst in anticipation of her return) that truly makes this a brilliant novel.  A wonderful and sympathetic view of the burden faced by parents with beloved but unmarriageable daughters. 

8. An Appetite for Life (1977) – Charles Ritchie
Ritchie, though he was a prominent diplomat, is now best remembered for his skill as a diarist and rightly so.  This, the earliest published volume of his diaries, covers the years 1924-1927, as Ritchie was finishing off his studies in Halifax and then experiencing the delightful distractions on offer at Oxford during his first year there.  Ritchie is marvellously candid and his daily ponderings – here, unsurprisingly given his youth, focused on women, sex, and school – manage to be both amusing and touching.

7. Christopher and Columbus (1919) – Elizabeth von Arnim
I took the longest time to decide which von Arnim novel was going to make the list but this beat out The Pastor’s Wife by the sheer force of its charm.  A light, fanciful escape from reality, Christopher and Columbus tells the story of two orphaned teenage German-English twins and their exploits once shipped off to neutral America by their uncle during WWI.  While sailing, Anna-Rose and Anna-Felicitas befriend the delightful, doting Mr Twist, an American millionaire who made his fortune by designing a no-drip tea pot.  The adventures of this trio make for enchanting reading, with von Arnim’s witty narrator saving it from descending into anything too saccharine.

6. Earth and High Heaven (1944) – Gwethalyn Graham
Without question, this was the biggest reading surprise of the year.  My first reaction upon finishing was that it was the most Persephone-like non-Persephone book I’ve ever read.  Set in Montreal in 1942, the novel revolves around the challenges faced by Erica Drake, an editor at a newspaper, and Marc Reiser, a lawyer, when they meet and fall in love.  Anti-Semitism and family relationships are at the heart of this novel but it is also full of comments on the war, whether it be French-speaking Canada’s reluctance to be involved or the deadening effect of the destruction of the London Blitz, experienced first-hand by Erica’s sister.  It is an absolutely amazing novel that deserves a much wider audience.

5. Hostages to Fortune (1933) – Elizabeth Cambridge
My love for this quiet novel has come on slowly.  I enjoyed it when I read it, yes, but with each passing month I find myself loving it more.  I remain particularly impressed with Cambridge’s portrait of Catherine and William’s marriage and how it evolves, through separation during the war, the arrivals of babies, and the numbingly chaotic years spent scrambling to raise ( and afford to raise) their three children.

4. The American Senator (1877) – Anthony Trollope
My first encounter with Trollope was an unqualified success.  Since then, I’ve read The Warden and Barchester Towers and enjoyed both but neither came close to equaling my delight with The American Senator.  Was it Mr Elias Gotobed’s comically offensive but generally true statements that charmed me so?  The love story of the gentle, deserving Mary Masters?  Or was it the magnificent anti-heroine, Arabella Trefoil, whose single-minded pursuit of a husband  is awesome to behold?  The combination of these stories makes for an eventful, always fascinating, deeply satisfying novel that quite rightly convinced me that Trollope was an author after my own heart.

3. Wives and Daughters (1866) – Elizabeth Gaskell
I feel a bit of a cheat to place a reread so high on my list but…This book is absolutely perfect and fully earned its spot.  I don’t think I will ever tire of Molly Gibson, Cynthia Kirkpatrick, Squire Hamley or, that most magnificent creation, Mrs. Hyacinth Kirkpatrick Gibson.

2. Howards End is on the Landing (2009) – Susan Hill
In any other year, this book would have probably garnered top spot.  Hill’s memoir of a lifetime spent in the company of books and other authors delighted me from the first page to the last.  Everything about this book was perfect for me.  There was enough of the familiar in Hill’s reading to comfort me (because one of the delights of reading about books is coming across opinions on books you know well) and enough of the new to excite me and make me eager to track down those unknown titles.  Even before I had finished reading my library edition, I rushed out to buy a copy of my very own.

1. Summer Half (1937) – Angela Thirkell
Anyone who has been following my blog this year could have probably predicted that Thirkell would take the top spot.  Since my first encounter with Thirkell last January, I have fallen completely in love with her Barsetshire novels and, of the twelve I’ve now read, I think Summer Half is the most perfectly formed.  It centers on the masters and students of Southbridge School and their interactions with some of the local families.  As with all good Thirkell novels, romance is in the air and the narrator’s sharp wit is there to comment on both the comically disastrous pairings and the ideal but bumbled ones.  Most importantly, Summer Half introduces my favourite Thirkell character, the astounding Lydia Keith.  Of all the books I read this year, not only is this the one that I am most eager to return to, it is the one I most wish I owned countless copies of so I could pass it on to everyone I meet.

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I cannot invent.  I shall never, never be a novelist.  At the same time, I must write.  Why?  God knows.  So that I’m left with this diary, this useless, driveling diary.  If that is all I have, I had better get on with it.  (19 September 1924)

How wonderful it was to reread An Appetite for Life: The Education of a Young Diarist, 1924-1927 by Charles Ritchie!  I’ve read The Siren Years, Ritchie’s diaries written while working at the Canadian High Commission in London from 1937 to 1945, so often that I long ago lost count but I think I’ve only read this earlier volume once or twice, which is a shame but also a delight since everything seemed fresh to me.  Ritchie is, as always, marvelously candid and his daily ponderings – here, unsurprisingly given his youth, focused on women, sex, and school – manage to be both amusing and touching.

I shall let Ritchie introduce himself as I certainly could not do any better:

I am seventeen years old at the moment but will be eighteen next week.  By occupation I am a freshman at King’s University here in Halifax.  I have no character that I know of.  I try to be the characters I read about or the people I admire, to enter into their skins and act as they would, but no one notices.  They think I am just the same as ever.  My main vices are selfishness, vanity, self-consciousness, and talking too much.  Also, what the masters at school used to call ‘impure thoughts’, but I don’t know if that is a vice or not.  I am not altogether lacking in intelligence but I do not care about that.  I want to be handsome and dashing and self-assured, but I am angular, beak-nosed, narrow-chested, and wear glasses.  I am quite tall, but where is the good of that?  I am a compulsive diarist and a greedy reader.  (19 September 1924)

While the diaries do technically range from 1924 to 1927, only 1925 and 1926 are covered in any depth.  They follow Ritchie through his studies at King’s University in Halifax and, of more concern to the diarist, his romantic sufferings, on through to his first term atOxford, which proves to be very different than what he had imagined and planned for.

Ritchie’s pursuit of and conflicted feelings over his first love definitely enliven his time in Halifax.  Part of the joy of reading diaries from any period is recognizing that no, really, most things don’t change, that people are essentially the same with the same feelings and urges whatever century or country they may be from.  Ritchie’s group of young Haligonians seem to spend most of their time paired off in the back seats of cars, on sofas in dark rooms, or, when the weather allows, in remote outdoor settings.  Even as he’s pining over his fickle love, that doesn’t prevent Ritchie from enjoying what else is on offer (and, it must be said, there do seem to be a fair number of girls willing to do almost everything without any expectation of emotional attachment, which, clearly, is irresistible to the teenage boy).  But poor Ritchie, his libido is a trial to him, though his angst over it makes for amusing reading:

Wouldn’t it be nice if for one day and night I could stop thinking of sex.  I wonder if other people think of that one subject as often as I do, and not only thinking it.  I sometimes wonder whether I am a bit crazy and this spring weather makes it worse.  What would it be like to be castrated?  A jolly good idea I should think, then I could concentrate on my work, pass my exams, save money, and have a brilliant career.  People say that playing games takes your mind off it: ‘A healthy mind in a healthy body’ and all that stuff.  Certainly I don’t think fencing will make much difference.  Anyway I have not got a healthy mind and I am not sure that I want to have one.  (19 March 1925)

And just as it was interesting to know what young people were doing in the backs of cars in Halifax in 1925, it’s equally interesting to read Ritchie’s observations on how different things were among his British acquaintances once he arrived in Oxford in 1926:

It is quite true that these English undergraduates do seem incredibly young.  It’s the way they have been brought up.  For one thing, they have never had anything to do with girls except sisters and the odd girl they met at a tennis party or a dance.  They have never talked to a girl about anything.  They are mostly virgins though they would rather die than admit it, and they don’t know anything about petting as we practice it at home.  They talk about sex a lot but it is mainly smut and endless limericks.  There don’t seem to be any available girls at Oxford, only undergraduates and whores.  (30 October 1926)

What is particularly interesting to me is how the reality of Ritchie’s life at Oxford completely disregards the dreams and expectations he had built up for it.  Looking back regretfully at the end of his first term, Ritchie can only sigh over what has happened to him:

I went into the musty, empty Union to write a letter to Mother, and could think of nothing to say to her that would not be a lie.  She has an idea of my Oxford life that I used to have before I came up here – that I am taking advantage of a wonderful opportunity for which she is making sacrifices, and how can I explain to her what is really happening to me, especially as I don’t understand it myself.  Perhaps it is a sort of education, but not what we planned.  (15 December 1926)

On first arriving, Ritchie chose to ignore the established, close knit groups of other Canadian students and fell in with a fast set of assorted characters.  He developed a fondness for gambling, which he could not afford, started to be interested in a young married woman, “an enthusiastic amateur” prostitute popular among undergraduates, and, to cap it all off, hosted a disastrous dinner party that saw the guests taking pot shots at street lights from his window, one of which hit a young lady (happily, only a flesh wound).  If nothing else, his life offered variety: one day he’s tagging along when a flamboyantly gay friend goes to a notorious local pub looking to pick up, the next he’s off to a meeting of the Oxford Group.  Oh, Oxford in the 1920s.  Through all of this, he constantly laments his actions in his diary, vowing to turn over a new leaf every few weeks: to devote himself to hours of steady reading each day, interrupted only by exercise, tutorials, and lectures (which he confesses to finding pointless and quickly developed the habit of skipping in favour of reading the lecturers’ books).  The excitement, the guilt, the disappointment, the giddiness – it is an intoxicating mix, the essence of youth and particularly those first few months at university:

I wonder where the notion of ‘carefree undergraduates’, as described for instance by E.F. Benson in his novels, ever came from.  Most of my friends are hag-ridden by debts; dreading exams; and sexually frustrated in one way or another.  Yet who would want to be any where but at Oxford?  Certainly not I.  (14 December 1926)

These diaries were edited by Ritchie himself after the success of The Siren Years and there are obviously passages that were consciously selected because of how they reflected the course of his life: his lament at having no adventures, affairs, or encounters with famous people to record; his mother’s hope that he will people a great, important man of the world; and his own thoughts at various points on entering the diplomatic service:

So little happens to me that is worth recording.  No great adventures or tremendous experiences, or passionate love affairs.  I know no famous people whom I came describe for posterity.  (19 September 1924)

Ritchie went on to become one ofCanada’s most influential diplomats.  Among other postings, he was ambassador to the United States from 1962 to 1966 and was the Canadian High Commissioner to the UK from 1967 to 1971.  He came to have all the adventures and experiences he’d hoped for as a child, met countless people of note, and had a lengthy, very passionate love affair with the writer Elizabeth Bowen.  And, thankfully, it’s all very well and entertainingly documented through his diaries.

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