OBITUARY:Charles Ritchie

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Charles Ritchie was a distinguished Canadian diplomat who will, however, be mainly remembered as a compelling diarist and, in that capacity, author of one of the finest books on London in the Second World War.

This is particularly appropriate, given his ties with another memorable commemorator of war-time in the capital, the novelist Elizabeth Bowen, and his abiding love for England. He will also be recalled as a wit and bon viveur who "knew everyone", and contrived, well into his eighties, to be the life of dinner-parties from Chelsea to Little Venice despite the trials of becoming what he cheerfully called an "Ancient Monument".

Ritchie, a lawyer's son born in Halifax, Nova Scotia, boasted forebears who "thought of themselves as belonging to the British Empire, than which they could imagine nothing more glamorous". So Pembroke College, Oxford, where, before taking his MA in 1929, he briefly occupied rooms once those of Dr Johnson, was bound to leave a stronger mark than Harvard, which he also attended before joining Canada's fledgling External Affairs Department in 1934. There he served with men like the subsequent Nobel laureate and prime minister Lester Pearson. From his first posting, in Washington, Ritchie the diarist came to co-exist with his diplomatic persona. By the time he initially reached Canada House, London, in January 1939, he was ready to record as dramatic a situation as any diarist could hope for, between sombre stretches of inter-governmental statecraft under siege.

The entries he published in 1974 as The Siren Years portray the tensions and bombardments of London 1939-45 with an evocative conciseness worthy of a prose-bound Louis MacNeice. Ritchie moved easily among the literary likes of Sacheverell Sitwell and Cyril Connolly. But as a London flat- dweller he brilliantly recorded first-hand from ground-zero the bombers' visitations and also helped pull neighbours from the ruins. As a diplomat he dined with the toffs at the Dorchester ("a fortress propped up with money-bags") and shared a fireside chat with the then Queen in April 1941. "To see that familiar postage-stamp face, those gestures of the hands known to millions, that smile that moves strong men to tears, and what is behind it all? Intelligence, enormous control."

The Siren Years focused frequently on women of a more private significance, too, for the dapper Ritchie was a supreme ladies' man, pursuing a wayward ballerina, meeting Elizabeth Bowen at the Tweedsmuirs to usher in an enduring alliance. After the war, Ritchie went on to the Canadian embassy in Paris and consorted beyond the chancellery with the Duff Coopers, Nancy Mitford and Andre Malraux, all featured in the diary volume called Diplomatic Passport (1981). Paulette Goddard he spotted "dripping with diamonds . . . but in the same swimming-pool with Garbo she just did not rate". Princess Margaret looked "a cool little devil with enough in her glance - maline, amused, challenging - to turn the boys' heads".

Married in 1948 to Sylvia Smellie, Ritchie became Canadian ambassador to West Germany in 1954, then to the UN (1958-62), in time for the Congo crisis. But he met the Duchess of Windsor looking "ravaged but unsated, her green eyes brilliant in anticipation of a party . . . nose tilted to scandal".

Ritchie started as ambassador to Washington (1962-66) at a time of US- Canadian strains. The keen-eyed envoy found John Kennedy unusually waxy of skin, "a TV image rather than a human being". Privately he read Blake and Genet and later watched President Johnson explode at the visiting Canadian Prime Minister Lester Pearson following rifts over Vietnam. All this surfaced in the diary volume called Storm Signals (1983) which took him through a brief ambassadorial tenure at Nato and on to the job he treasured most, High Commissioner to London (1967-71).

British-Canadian relations were complicated by respective divergences towards Europe and the United States and it was a troubled time for Britain domestically. But Ritchie revelled in English ways. The new Canadian prime minister, Pierre Trudeau, he found an "icy enigma" but he consoled himself in the company of the noble Bessboroughs, the Stuart Hampshires, et al. He discovered pornography at the Travellers' Club, was assured by a gypsy fortune-teller that "they will never make a gentleman out of you". After one last country-house revel, which starred Anthony Powell, he returned to Canada and eventually marshalled his diaries for publication.

To London he regularly returned. "Let Cartiers and the Ritz be restored to their former glories," he wrote in 1941. "Let house parties burgeon once more in the stately homes of England . . . Let us have pomp and luxury, painted jezebels and scarlet guardsmen - rags and riches rubbing shoulders. Give us back our bad, old world."

C. J. Fox

Charles Stewart Almon Ritchie, diplomat: born Halifax, Nova Scotia 23 September 1906; Canadian ambassador to West Germany 1954-58, to United Nations 1958-62, to US 1962-66, to North Atlantic Council and EEC 1966- 67, High Commissioner in UK 1967-71, Special Adviser to Privy Council, Ottawa 1971-73; books include An Appetite for Life 1978, Diplomatic Passport 1981, Storm Signals 1983; married 1948 Sylvia Smellie; died Ottawa 7 June 1995.

Comments