Archive for the ‘Diaries’ Category

I read In the Mountains by Elizabeth von Arnim in the place where it is set: the mountains of Switzerland.  I hadn’t realised at the time that it was set in Switzerland – I was reading it on my e-reader so there was no jacket blurb to remind me – but it was wonderful to begin the book on my first day in Wengen and discover the protagonist describing the very scene that had greeted me on my arrival:

I was prepared to arrive here in one of the mountain mists that settle down on one sometimes for days, – vast, wet stretches of grey stuff like some cold, sodden blanket, muffling one away from the mountains opposite, and the valley, and the sun.

It was quite reassuring to know that the weather hasn’t changed that much over the years, between the summer of 1919 when the book is set and the summer of 2012 when I was there.

The book takes the form of a fictional diary written by an Englishwoman returning to her holiday home in the Swiss mountains for the first time in five years, since the summer of 1914 when war was declared.  The years have not been good ones, for her or anyone else.  She has had a particularly difficult last year (we never learn the details) and is depressed and withdrawn, miserable with a “desperate darkness and distrust of life[…]in my soul.”  She has returned to Switzerland, to the home that used to be filled with friends and laughter and so much youthful optimism.  Now, almost all of those friends who used to join her there are dead and she is very, very alone:

Here I am once more, come back alone to the house that used to be so full of happy life that its little wooden sides nearly burst with the sound of it.  I never could have dreamed that I would come back to it alone.  Five years ago, how rich I was in love; now how poor, how stripped of all I had.  Well, it doesn’t matter.  Nothing matters.  I am too tired.  I want to be quiet now.  Till I’m not so tired.  If only I can be quiet…

Slowly, she begins to heal.  She begins to notice the beauty around her, to take joy in her letters and books, to feel interested in life again.  And then the tone of the book changes completely.  This first bit was quiet but lovely, full of the diarist’s humourous everyday observations and reflections on the rehabilitation of her soul.  But then she meets two widowed sisters, the very respectable Mrs Barnes and the very adorable Mrs Jewks.  They have been living in Switzerland together for some time, though they – especially Mrs Barnes – are still vocally patriotic Englishwomen.  Suffering from the heat lower down in the valley, our diarist takes pity on the middle-aged sisters and invites them to stay with her.  Though their presence makes life decidedly awkward – especially since Mrs Barnes appears terrified to share any personal details about their lives with their hostess and so is never relaxed in her presence – the company is good for our diarist and the mystery they present keeps her inquisitive mind busy.  As their visit lengthens, the diarist finally uncovers their quite innocent secret and the explanation for why they have remained in Switzerland for so long rather than returning to England.

With the introduction of Mrs Barnes and Mrs Jewks, the story shifts from one of von Arnim’s thoughtfully introspective books towards one of her charming fairy tales.  Both women are so endearing: Mrs Barnes, though outwardly reserved, is incredibly devoted to her sister and would do anything for her, and Mrs Jewks is simply the sweetest, most loveable creature in existence, who likes nothing more than to please others.  They have had some difficult years – especially Mrs Barnes, who felt the shame of their self-imposed exile most keenly – but after they meet our diarist things began to change.  When the diarist’s terribly respectable uncle – for what could be more respectable than a dean of the Church of England? – arrives, a happy ending seems within grasp.  Uncle Rudolph, a widower, quite naturally falls in love with the entirely lovable Mrs Jewks, which would solve the sisters’ problems, and, as his niece observes, the acquisition of a sweet wife would be a welcome change from his lonely existence:

It must be a dreadful thing to be sixty and all alone. You look so grown up.  You look as though you must have so many resources, so few needs, and you are accepted as provided for, what with your career accomplished, and your houses and servants and friends and books and all the rest of it – all the empty, meaningless rest of it; for really, you are the most miserable of motherless cold babies, conscious that you are motherless, conscious that nobody soft and kind and adoring is ever again coming to croon over you and kiss you good-night and be there next morning to smile when you wake up.

It is a nice book but a rather odd mix.  I enjoyed the story of Mrs Barnes and Mrs Jewks but I am more drawn towards the kind of writing von Arnim displayed at the beginning of the book, when the diarist may have come across other characters but only in passing: the focus was on her, on her thoughts and feelings, and no one could write those kinds of passages as well as von Arnim.  As I read more and more of her work, it is those introspective books where you really get to know the intelligent, outspoken and always humourous heroines I am most drawn to: Elizabeth and Her German Garden has long been my favourite, though now Fräulein Schmidt and Mr Anstruther (to be reviewed soon) is challenging it for supremacy.  In the Mountains begins with the same kind of promise as those books but changes abruptly into something still nice, but not quite as wonderful.  It was the perfect book to read in Switzerland but that does not mean it was a perfect book.

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I cannot remember the last book that made me cry as much as Two-Part Invention by Madeleine L’Engle and I mean that as the highest form of praise.

Last month, Lisa posted a review of The Summer of the Great-Grandmother by Madeleine L’Engle, a book I had never heard of before.   Like so many children, I grew up reading L’Engle’s children and young adult books but she was never one of my favourite authors.  I liked A Wrinkle in Time, was bizarrely attached to Many Waters, and still keep my copies of A Ring of Endless Light and Troubling a Star on my bookshelf today but I never felt the urge as I did with other authors to find about more about L’Engle herself.  So, until I read Lisa’s review, I had no idea that she had written quite a bit of non-fiction, mostly about faith, but also a set of four memoirs called the Crosswicks Journals, named after her family’s home in Connecticut.

Two-Part Invention is the last of the four journals, published in 1988 but focused on the events of 1986, when L’Engle’s husband of forty years, the actor Hugh Franklin, was dying of bladder cancer.  Diagnosed in the spring and dead by the end of September, his illness was intense and very difficult to read about.  I always struggle to read about illness but this was especially tough, perhaps because the indignity of it felt so cruel, with one ailment piling on top of another and then another as his body weakened.  And, of course, it is made that much more painful since we are witness to L’Engle’s thoughts as she is forced to watch this happen to the man she adores.

The majority of the book is not about Franklin’s final illness but about his life with L’Engle: the subtitle of the book is “The Story of a Marriage”.  L’Engle takes us back to her childhood in New York City and, later, in Europe, where the family moved in hopes of finding a climate better suited to her father’s lungs, damaged during the First World War.  Later, there are her college years (now back in the States) and her early twenties in New York, where, after auditioning for Eva Le Gallienne, Margaret Webster and Joseph Schildkraut, she found herself hired as an understudy for a Broadway play.  I loved reading about her years in the theatre, mostly because it is a world entirely foreign to me.  She was never going to be a great actress – nor did she aspire to be – but she was an excellent observer and her stories about the other actors and their experiences on the road fascinated me.  And it was in the theatre that she met Hugh and they began their courtship.

That background takes up only the first hundred pages or so and I loved it.  Then, moving on to the next section, I was in for a bit of a shock as L’Engle’s started talking about religion and its role in her life.  Since it had barely been mentioned at all until then, I wasn’t quite prepared but then I never am when religion makes an appearance in any book or conversation.  It has never been part of my life, nor have I ever been close to anyone even vaguely religious.  I find it fascinating to read books by intelligent, thoughtful believers, which L’Engle certainly was, but it can make for very strange reading.  For example, I am always momentarily taken-aback when I come across people asking others for prayers or when someone says they have considered a problem “prayerfully” (as their doctor did regarding Franklin’s treatment).  It is a lovely and tender sentiment but it is utterly foreign to me and it took some time to get used to the casual frequency with which prayer is mentioned.

But get used to it I did and, truly, I think this is one of the best perspectives on faith that I have ever read.  Her faith played a major part in L’Engle’s life and it was interesting for me to see what comforted her and also how her experiences made her reflect on her relationship to God and with her religion.  She is not pushy or preachy about her beliefs; this is simply her faith and it is what sustains her.  I really don’t think she could have cared less about trying to convince any non-believers among her readers (which I, as an emphatic non-believer, appreciated).  When she ponders questions of faith (as she does frequently), she does so for her benefit and understanding, not ours.  It makes for a deeply personal book, especially since these reflections and so closely tied to her feelings about her husband’s illness and decline.

Really though, the focus is not on faith or death but on love, specifically the love that sustained L’Engle and Franklin through forty years of marriage.  I grew up surrounded by wonderful examples of healthy, supportive long-term relationships and so the lessons L’Engle notes are ones I grew up hearing, especially “a long-term marriage has to move beyond chemistry to compatibility, to friendship, to companionship.  It is certainly not that passion disappears, but that it is conjured with other ways of love.”  That evolution wasn’t always easy but L’Engle recognizes that the difficult years played just as much of a role in cementing their marriage as the happy ones:

Our love has been anything but perfect and anything but static.  Inevitably there have been times when one of us has outrun the other and has had to wait patiently for the other to catch up.  There have been times when we have misunderstood each other, demanded too much of each other, been insensitive to the other’s needs.  I do not believe there is any marriage where this does not happen.  The growth of love is not a straight line, but a series of hills and valleys.  I suspect that in every good marriage there are times when love seems to be over.  Sometimes these desert lines are simply the only way to the next oasis, which is far more lush and beautiful after the desert crossing than it could possibly have been without.

Throughout the book, L’Engle embraces all that life has to offer, both the joys and the pains.  I was struck by the warmth and love that filled her life, obviously in her marriage but also in the close bonds she maintained with her three children and grandchildren, and her many friends and godchildren.  She and Franklin seem to have had a gift for loving and accepting others and there was a real sense of tenderness in all their relationships, both the long term ones and even the short term ones with Franklin’s dedicated team of nurses and doctors.  I was left with a longing to belong to the Franklin/L’Engle circle of friends – it sounds like a wonderful group to be part of and their marriage, rock solid but always evolving, was at the heart of it.

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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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Can I ever resist a volume of wartime diaries?  No, not really, which is why I picked up Mrs Milburn’s Diaries: An Englishwoman’s Day-to-Day Reflections, 1939-1945 by Clara Milburn, edited by Peter Donnelly.  I had come across it in history book a year or two ago and since then have seen other bloggers reference it, always enthusiastically.  Because of that, I really did not expect to be so underwhelmed by this book.  And yet I was.  I was dreadfully bored before I was even half done and have to admit to skimming the remainder.

Clara is dull.  There are moments where we glimpse what Clara’s day-to-day life was like – discussions of gardening, Women’s Institute meetings, dentist appointments, and her husband’s ailments – but there aren’t really enough to build up a strong idea of how this woman spends her days, who her friends are, what she reads…all the cosy, personal details that make diary-reading so delightful.  Mostly, she keeps very detailed records on the progress of the war, marking down the number of planes lost or ships sunk with the diligence of a war-mad adolescent boy.  Clara has an accountant-like dedication to personally meaningless details.  As a record of what the people were being told, I suppose this information is valuable, and it certainly does show how closely some people were following war reports, but it makes for very boring reading.  Clara’s editorial comments are basically limited to ‘Hurrah!’ when things go well or ‘death to the Germans!’ when things go poorly.

What does make this book special are Clara’s experiences as the mother of a prisoner of war.  For that reason alone, this book is well worth reading.   Alan Milburn, Clara’s only child, was captured at Dunkirk in June 1940 and his absence haunts her for the remainder of the war:

One’s mind seems numbed, and the last day or two I go on, keeping on the surface of things as it were, lest I go down and be drowned.  Every moment Alan is in my thoughts, every hour I send out my love to him – and wonder and wonder.  This queer unreal world, carrying on in some ways here just as before, with this gorgeous weather and summer heat heartening us, and yet most other things so sombre and heartbreaking.  (11 June 1940)

The Milburn household (Clara, husband Jack, and devoted servant Kate) delights every time one of Alan’s letters arrives and views all war news in terms of when it might mean Alan could come home.  They write him faithfully and keep in close contact with the families whose sons are in the same POW camp, sharing news among themselves any time someone receives a letter.  Mostly, they just miss him.  Every Christmas is marked with longing, every birthday spent wondering if he’ll be home before the next.  I found the details relating to Alan’s time as a POW fascinating, especially learning how he spent his time in the various camps and what sort of things his parents were able to send him through the Red Cross.  When Alan does return in May 1945, when the phone call comes to say he was back in England and would be with them soon, I found myself crying.  For Clara, the war was now truly over and she stopped the diary only a few days later; with Alan’s return the “bad years of war begin to fade a little” and “the house is one more a real home” (12 May 1945).

As affecting as I found Clara’s devotion to her son, she never really grew on me.  I did not feel antagonistic towards her (as I did with the excellent but seemingly rather mean diarist Nella Last) but I never came to respect her.  Clara does not seem particularly intelligent and I was annoyed by her fervent patriotism.  My lip curls whenever I come across sentimental tosh like ‘God bless Winnie!’  Clara, who never expresses a sentiment not already emblazoned on government propaganda, seems perfectly happy to follow the guidance of others without ever pausing to consider why she agrees with them.  If there had been some evidence of this ability to reason, I could almost have respected her.  But there wasn’t.  I know there is always going to be a large portion of the population who will be happy to be told what to do and think (as long as the person doing the telling is skilful and Churchill certainly was that) but it also follows that such mindless sheep make for dull diarists.

I know how fascinating ordinary lives can be in the hands of gifted diarist – but Clara Milburn did not particularly have that gift.  She was a nice woman with a very ordinary life and very ordinary thoughts and a very ordinary way of expressing them.  Still, if simply as a glimpse of how families handled the long, uncertain years while family members were in POW camps, this is worth a read.

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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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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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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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Nella Last’s War edited by Richard Broad and Suzie Fleming was everything other reviewers had promised it would be: eloquent, engaging, and fantastically detailed, it’s an unusually coherent and introspective diary that paints a vivid picture of one woman’s experiences during the Second World War.  For those who are not yet familiar with Last, she was a housewife in Barrow (a shipbuilding town on the Irish Sea) and, more significantly for us, a diarist for the Mass-Observation archive for almost thirty years; in addition to her wartime diaries two other volumes have been published: Nella Last’s Peace and Nella Last in the 1950s.  Indeed, it’s difficult to pick up any recent histories of wartime Britain now that do not include at least a few lines from Last!  She seems to have become the voice of the average civilian during wartime, which, for a woman who never considered herself to be clever and wasn’t particularly educated, would no doubt have amazed her:

21 November 1943: I wonder how high the pile is of letters and M.O. diaries I’ve written.  I bet it would surprise me.  I always longed to be clever and write books.  I bet I’ve written a few in the shape of letters and endless scribbles!

While I found it very difficult to like Last herself, I was always appreciative of how ably she expressed herself in her diaries and how clearly her thoughts came across.  I think I came closest to liking her at the beginning of the war when she was thinking about her younger son Cliff and what the war would mean for him:

6 September 1939: I looked at my own lad sitting with a paper, and noticed he did not turn a page often.  It all came back with a rush – the boys who set off so gaily and lightly and did not come back – and I could have screamed aloud.  I have laughed to myself sometimes, thinking what a surprise – shock too – my rather spoilt lad was to get, but it’s not funny now.  He has such a love of order and beauty, not to say cleanness, and I remember stories they used to tell of the last war, of the dirt and mud in France.

Her reflections on her neighbours and colleagues are also particularly thoughtful, illustrating the personal impacts the war had on families and how disparate and unfair those experiences could be:

19 August 1943: Two women have sat side by side for four years at the Centre, sewing at bandages.  One has lost two sons at sea – and now learns her airman son has to be ‘presumed dead.’  Her daughter had to join the WAAF.  The other one’s three sons work in the Yard – have good jobs – and the daughter of twenty-eight is ‘reserved’, since she is considered necessary as a secretary to a boss in the Yard.  I look round the big room at faces I’ve known and loved for over four years.  My heart aches and, even in that small circle, the bravery and courage, the ‘going on’ when only sons have been killed, when letters don’t come, when their boys are taught to fight like savages if they are commandoes – when they are trained and trained and trained, for bodies to endure, and to go and kill other women’s lads, to wipe all the light from other mother’s faces.

For many readers, particularly female ones, the most striking thing about this diary is Last’s growing independence and emancipation from her husband and home.  Last worked for the WVS and Red Cross during the war, and, like many housewives, found liberation from housework and wifely duties in her new commitments.  Never busier than during the war, Last gained confidence but also contempt for her husband who preferred things as they had been for the first thirty years of their marriage, as he had expected them to always be.  Instead, by the time the war ended Last was practically a new woman and her later entries mark quite a different attitude towards her husband than she exhibited at the beginning:

10 May 1945: I love my home dearly, but as a home rather than a house.  The latter can make a prison and a penance if a woman makes too much of a fetish of cleaning and polishing.  But I will not, cannot, go back to the narrowness of my husband’s ‘I don’t want anyone else’s company but yours – why do you want anyone else?’  I looked at his placid, blank face and marveled at the way he had managed so to dominate me for all our married life, at how, to avoid hurting him, I had tried to keep him in a good mood, when a smacked head would have been the best treatment.  His petulant moods only receive indifference now.  I know I speak sharply at times, I know I’m ‘not the sweet woman I used to be’ – but then I never was!  Rather was I a frayed, battered thing, with nerves kept in control by effort that at times became too much, and ‘nervous breakdowns’ were the result.  No one would ever give me one again, no one.

While I may dislike Nella herself, I loved this book and am so pleased to finally know more about the woman who keeps popping up in all my history books.  Her views on patriotism and duty while particularly frustrating were absolutely fascinating: I’m so used to reading the words of over-educated intellectuals and statesmen on whom propaganda had little effect that to glimpse its impact on those who truly listened, who followed instructions to the very letter of the law, is both surprising and thought-provoking.  Her background is so different to those of my favourite wartime diarists (Virginia Woolf, Harold Nicholson, Charles Ritchie) that it was quite the education to see events from her perspective.

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