[Editor’s note: This is an excerpt from Douglas Gibson’s new book Stories About Storytellers: Publishing Alice Munro, Robertson Davies, Alistair MacLeod, Pierre Trudeau, and Others, running every Friday. The following is from the chapter on diplomat, diarist, and charming dissembler, Charles Ritchie.]
Charles Ritchie should have been a spy.
By day, he worked as a diplomat: dispassionate, discreet, and diligent (apart, of course, from those afternoons when he slipped out to the movies). In his diplomatic role — in the words of the old Elizabethan joke, as “a man sent to lie abroad for the good of his country” — he was very effective at producing shrewd dispatches, as one of those legendary external affairs men whose sheer skill and dedicated professionalism allowed Canada to punch well above its weight in the international ring. By night — even when he was our ambassador to jfk and lbj’s Washington, or to Bonn, or to London — he emerged from his dark-suited carapace to become a wildly indiscreet diarist, a role that allowed him to be a gossip, a boulevardier, a ladies’ man, and a gifted writer with a novelist’s eye and ear, and an insatiable appetite for life.
After he retired in 1971, full of years and honours, he was persuaded to publish some of the daily diaries that he had kept all his life (far beyond the January 15 cut-off familiar to the rest of us). It appeared, certainly from the brilliantly written diaries, that in his life he did much of his best work in the bedroom. He was sixty-six when The Siren Years, an account of his life as a Canadian diplomat in London during the Second World War (including, as the title implied, the years of the Blitz), appeared in book form, to the astonished pleasure of reviewers and ordinary readers on both sides of the Atlantic. C.P. Snow (the distinguished British physicist, civil servant, and novelist, who knew something about diverse talents) hailed the 1974 book as “a brilliant discovery” and pronounced Ritchie “a natural-born diarist.” Comparisons were made, perhaps inevitably, to Samuel Pepys.
In Canada, to the chagrin of ink-stained professional writers in garrets across the land, this retired civil servant’s apparently effortless recycling of his late-night diaries won the Governor General’s Award for Non-Fiction in 1974.
Charles Ritchie — and I’m glad to say that as I came to know him and his writing, and help him bring out his next book, An Appetite for Life, he soon became “Charles” — was never boring. In fact when in 1948, during his years in Paris, he once confessed to feeling ignored, a group of friends organized Ritchie Week, “a week of non-stop parties, dinners, even a ball in Ritchie’s honour. . . . 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 on our street someone had by night chalked up in giant letters the slogan ‘Remember Ritchie.’” He tells us that a clutch of coloured balloons inscribed “Ritchie Week” were even let loose over Paris.
There is a great mystery at the heart of these memorable celebrations, one that challenged Allan Gotlieb, a disciple of Ritchie’s who had a fine diplomatic career (and who took his advice to keep a diary). They were being put on for a man that the baffled Gotlieb, trying to plumb the depths of the mystery, calls “only a mid-level diplomat.” Beyond that, Ritchie was a man without any obvious physical attractions, being in his own words, “beak-nosed and narrow-chested.” Yet the Paris celebrations were organized for this skinny, mid-level Canadian by people who were, as Gotlieb put it, “at the centre of one of Europe’s most sophisticated scenes.” In fact, the moving spirit was Lady Diana Cooper, “the extraordinarily beautiful, aristocratic wife of the British Ambassador to Paris, Duff Cooper,” and her chief accomplice was none other than the novelist-socialite Nancy Mitford.
“How does one explain this phenomenon?” Gotlieb asks. “The answer has to be found in Ritchie’s extraordinary sense of style, his gaiety, his delight as a companion, his joie de vivre, and in the impression he gave of being a grand Whig aristocrat from the eighteenth century transplanted into the twentieth.”
The Whig grandee comparison strikes me as very good. This, after all, was a man who in London chose to take his chances with the Nazi bombs raining from the sky, rather than protect himself underground because, he says, of “the insufferable conversation” in the bomb shelters. And, when he returned one morning to find his flat totally destroyed, he disarms the reader by lamenting the fact that he was left “with only one pair of shoes.” Later, in a busy elevator in the un building in New York, he asks for assistance in pressing the button to his floor on the Whiggish ground that he had “no mechanical aptitude.”
Charm. That was what did it. In Nova Scotia, where he was born and raised, they say, “The third time’s the charm.” With Charles Ritchie it was every time. In international sport some people are said to “swim for Canada,” or “row for Canada.” Charles Ritchie could have “charmed for Canada,” and in a sense that was what he did.
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