Diary of a quiet diplomat

The affairs of state and the state of affairs — including the one with the dumb ballerina

CHARLES RITCHIE November 1 1974

Diary of a quiet diplomat

The affairs of state and the state of affairs — including the one with the dumb ballerina

CHARLES RITCHIE November 1 1974

Diary of a quiet diplomat

The affairs of state and the state of affairs — including the one with the dumb ballerina


Until he retired recently, Charles Ritchie, who served both as Canada's High Commissioner to the United Kingdom and as Ambassador to Washington, was one of our most distinguished representatives abroad. Outwardly the quintessential quiet diplomat, he kept throughout his long career a diary of his personal response to the political and diplomatic events he saw happening around him, to the men and women he met.

In wartime England, Ritchie, as Second Secretary at the Canadian High Commission, served as private secretary to Vincent Massey, whose second in command was Lester Bowles Pearson. As both an insider and outsider, Ritchie in his diaries captures the human interest side of prewar Washington, wartime London and the UN charter conference in San Lrancisco.

The excerpts printed here are from The Siren Years: A Canadian Diplomat Abroad which is being published this month by the Macmillan Company of Canada.

July 1, 1937 — Washington: The Canadian Legation is housed in the former home of a millionaire, one of the palaces in such varied architectural styles that line Massachusetts Avenue. The legation is both office and also the residence of the Minister, Sir Herbert Marler, and his wife. Sir Herbert is an impressively preserved specimen of old mercantile Anglo-Saxon Montreal. He looks like a painstakingly pompous portrait of himself painted to hang in a boardroom. He is not a quick-minded man — indeed one of my fellow secretaries at the legation says that he is “ivory from the neck up.” Nevertheless he has acquired a handsome fortune and his successful career has been crowned with the diplomatic posts of Tokyo and Washington and with a knighthood.

The Marlers are quite strong on the use of the word “Excellency.” Once when they were leaving the Legation with their small son I heard Sir Herbert say to the chauffeur, “His Little Excel-

lency will sit in the front with you.” September 12, 1938: I had my first taste of Hitler’s style today. I heard the broadcast of his eagerly awaited speech at Nuremberg dealing with Czechoslovakia. He is certainly remarkable entertainment value. I listened for nearly an hour to him speaking in German with brief interpretive inter-

polations. At the end of that time my nerves were jumping so that 1 could hardly sit still. This was not because of the subject with its implied danger of war — it was that voice, those whiplash snarls, those iron-hammer blows of speech. What a technique! The Germans get their money’s worth all right -the long-drawn sentences with the piled

Chamberlain spoke of the disappearance of Czechoslovakia like a Birmingham solicitor winding up an estate

up climax upon climax until the nerves are quivering — shudders of hate and fear and exaltation going through the audience. But every good story must have a point and the point of Hitler’s story is the outbreak of war. Instinctively every listener longs to get to that point. I heard an American woman say today, “I couldn’t sleep a wink last night after reading the papers and listening to the broadcasts. I was so worried about this war scare.” How much anticipation do you suppose was mixed up with this genuine dread?

December 15, 1938: I am to be posted to London to the High Commissioner’s office, leaving next month. I have loved Washington — the beautiful city itself. I have made friends here, friends made in this happy interlude who may last a lifetime. I feel a strong tug of attraction to this country and these people, yet I know that it is time to go.

March 15, 1939 — London: Went to the House of Commons. Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain spoke of the disappearance of Czechoslovakia like a Birmingham solicitor winding up an estate. Anthony Eden [formerly and later, Foreign Secretary] was moving — even eloquent. I wish I could get rid of the haunting impression that he is still an undergraduate. Looking down from my place in the gallery in the House of Commons on the pomaded ringlets of a brace of young Conservative MPs who were lounging below, I reflected on the excessive attraction that style exercises over my imagination. I would not like to be on the opposite side of the fence from beings so elegant, however clumsy and vulgar the ideas inside those sleek heads.

The moral weakness of the government’s foreign policy lies in the fact that they talk the language of trust while arming to the teeth. If Chamberlain believed in Hitler’s good faith we would not need our big guns. Chamberlain, if he used phrases, might have said, “Czechoslovakia is not worth the bones of a British Tommy.” This is what he means and most Englishmen agree with him. They do not think of the corollary, “England is not worth the bones of an American or Canadian soldier.” They know that while the second proposition may seem as sensible as the first it is not true politically.

May 16, 1939: I said to Mike Pearson [then First Secretary at the Canadian High Commission] today, “Well, we are out of danger of war for the time being.” “Do not be too sure,” he said. “If the Germans attack the Corridor,

Poland will fight and so will France and then we shall be in.” One of the few independent acts in recent French foreign policy has been the guarantee to Poland to fight if the Germans seize Danzig and their definite promise to send army divisions. These assurances were given only four days ago. They may not keep their word if the British refuse to promise their support. Plainly the British attitude toward the threat to Poland is the most important question of the moment. I cannot believe that this country will go to war for the Polish Corridor. Therefore, I think the French will probably desert their Polish allies.

July 10, 1939: To the House of Commons where Chamberlain made his statement of support for Poland over Danzig. It was in so tepid a tone, delivered in such a mechanical manner and

received in such silence that one felt chilled. The German Ambassador must have felt relieved — the Pole disappointed.

September 2, 1939: At seven in the evening Vincent Massey [High Commissioner for Canada] came back from the House of Commons. By then there was a blackout. Three or four of us gathered in his huge office, its walls marked where the oil paintings had been removed to safety, its windows curtained. Mr. Massey stood under the vast chandelier. He was excited — unnatural or too natural. “We sh^ll be at war sometime tonight.” [Britain and France declared war on Germany, September 3, 1939.]

September 8, 1939: Is that humming an aircraft? That faint fluting sound —is it a siren? Our ears have been sharp-

Massey exercised a censorship over anything even mildly critical of the English

ened. Was there a time when we did not carry gas masks? Only a few days ago.

The liner Athenia has been sunk by the Germans. The absurd wicked folly of these utterly unwarlike people being drowned. This war has a quality that no other had. We do not approach it with our former innocence. We are in cold blood repeating a folly which belongs to the youth of mankind. We are driven to it by the force of sheer human stupidity, laziness and error which we have been unable in the last 20 years to overcome.

We awake at three in the morning to sirens. I go for my overcoat, my gas mask, my shoes and stumble through the French window into the garden where the other inhabitants of this boardinghouse are already in the shelter. They are making jokes and meeting with sleepy or nervous responses from their neighbors. The cook says, “We shall be used to this in 10 years.” Then she goes off to the kitchen and comes back with a tray of tea. I get bored with the shelter and come up for air in the quiet garden.

September 17, 1939: Weekend with the Masseys. Mike Pearson was there. He went to a nightclub last night and says there was a crowd of RAF chaps all

having a good time pretending to be tight, pretending to fight over the girls, etc. This was fine and as it should be. But he was disgusted by a group of middle-aged men. survivors of the last war, back in uniform again, singing the old songs of the last war, trying to fancy themselves heroes to the nightclub hostesses, trying to get back the glamour of their own youth. Certainly one war generation should be allowed to die off before another war is started.

March 13, 1940: Mr. Massey wanted me to include in my despatch something to contradict the illusion that England is a class-ridden society. Why illusion? He says that the majority of civil servants did not go to public schools. This may be true of the obscurer clerks but is obviously not true of the men at the top.

April 24, 1940: Mr. Massey has said to me that he would not like to think that the National Archives contained no account from this post of affairs in this country during the greatest war in history. I quite agree, but how is one to report anything when he exercises a censorship over everything that could be considered critical of England? He fears that anything critical might weaken the

“What are tarts?” my new girl asked

purpose of our people at home. But we are in too deep to get out and surely our people have the right to know what is going on and to read things which, if they were over here, they would hear from half the Englishmen they met in clubs. He has an unrivaled opportunity to compile a secret history of the conduct of the war — to illustrate it with social anecdotes and personal impressions of men. But he is too patriotic ever to publish anything that could be considered critical and what is worse he is too blinded by wishful thinking ever to face the conclusions, even when he is alone with his confessional diary before him. Some day he will publish his memoirs. In fact he is looking forward to doing so, but they will be composed in the prose he loves best — that of a Times leading article. It is a pity because he has in conversation the vivacity of phrase to produce a vivid, if superficial, account of the London scene. Alas, his reverence is too much for him.

May 29, 1940: I could hear the guns plainly tonight as I sat writing in the club library — I suppose at the mouth of the Thames. Natalie Hogg says that last weekend she sat in the garden at her place in Kent and could hear the gunfire from France all afternoon long.

The Canadians here are becoming disillusioned about the English. Mike Pearson says, “Never have I been so glad to be a Canadian as in these last days — at least we are not responsible for this mess.”

September 14, 1940: My new girl is a ballet dancer. She is an American girl who studied ballet in Paris and is now dancing with a Polish company in London. She seems very dumb. We were walking along Jermyn Street the other day and by way of conversation I said, “This is a great street for tarts.”

“What are tarts?”

I nearly fell flat on my face in the street and then I explained it was an English term for prostitutes. She clucked her tongue disapprovingly. Sometimes she seems almost half-witted. She looks exactly like all ballet dancers. She has ivory pale skin and a hard body like an athletic boy. The extraordinary thing about her are her eyes which are enormous — the eyes of a tragedy queen.

September 16, 1940: It has come to a state where none of us can be sure that we shall meet each other the next day and we begin to look for a gap in the party.

I went to the lunch-time ballet. It was wonderful to see Les Sylphides and the

The English hate being rescued by the Americans. They know they must swallow it, but God how it sticks in their throats

meticulous attention that went to each movement and step. The permanent importance of an art compared with the noisy, accidental crashing of tons of high explosives. Aesthetic standards are the only ones that stand up in these times. They are not mixed up with the current political-moral mess — not mouthed by Hitler nor by the Archbishop of Canterbury — not understood by either, although the first knows enough of them to hate them. In this world there is still an escape — not away from reality — but back to reality.

This is one of those stimulating nights on which I feel a complete immunity from fear. I put it down to brandy — a blessed drink which the war has made me discover. I walked home down St. James’s Street under a brilliant moon to the usual orchestra of guns. There were autumn leaves thick on the street, leaves on the pavements of St. James’s Street! It is like the fall of Rome! These minor symptoms of dissolution make one sad. No tarts anywhere. If I had met one I should have been compelled to go home with her.

January 10, 1941: The ballerina was rather sweet really. We had breakfast in the Mayfair Hotel — rashers of bacon and great cups of American coffee. She did look beautiful this morning.

Symptoms of Sexual Happiness: 1. I look at people, men and women, from the physical point of view, not by class nor taste but in terms of the senses. Which ones are out of the stream of sex? (How easy it is to see these!) And why? 2. I am temporarily cured of my mania for seeing things in a straight line. I admit and enjoy confusion. The relief is enormous. 3. Time no longer seems to be slipping away from me. I am happy to spend it carelessly. 4. Other people do not seem worth the usual effort. I cannot help treating them casually, often interrupting them and not listening to what they say. 5. I definitely am very much less amusing. The ballerina leaves today with the ballet company on tour. I am looking forward to early and varied infidelities during her absence.

April 1, 1941: The Queen came to tea with the Masseys the other day. I was led in with the other secretaries — we sat down in front of a blazing fire in a circle around her. She sat very upright and talked to us in her sweetly modulated gentle voice. Yes, the charm is there all right, fabulous charm!

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. She was tired by the time she got to us but the timing of her departure, the unhurried certainty of her going, the faint regret that tiresome things made it necessary not to go on talking forever to three secretaries at Canada House. It was a perfect performance.

April 21, 1941: How the English hate being rescued by the Americans. They know they must swallow it, but God how it sticks in their throats. The Americans are thoroughly justified in their suspicions of the English and the English I think are justified in their belief that they are superior to the Americans. They have still the steadiness, stoicism and self-discipline that make for a ruling race, but what will these qualities avail them if the tide of history and eco-

nomics has turned against them? How will the volatile, generous, imaginative, spoiled and impatient Americans manage city populations in the after-war world? With the Americans more than with most people nothing succeeds like success.

September 2, 1941: The first time I saw Elizabeth Bowen [British novelist] I thought she looked more like a bridge player than a poet. Yet without having read a word of her writing would not one have felt that something mysterious, passionate and poetic was behind thqt worldly exterior?

September 29, 1941: “Take it from one of the best living novelists that people’s personalities are not interesting,” Elizabeth said in a dry voice; “except,” she added, “when you are in love with them.”

Massey’s charm springs from his insecurity. He is painfully easy to hurt or ruffle

October 23, 1941: I should like to have seen the Masseys singing the Internationale at the private viewing of the Soviet films. When I came here two and a half years ago there was no more devoted adherent of Chamberlain than Mr. Massey. Churchill, of course, in those days “had no judgment.” I could never get Mr. Massey to accept an invitation to Soviet Ambassador Maisky’s (“I feel uncomfortable with that little man”) but the Masseys have followed the English ruling class in the most spectacular somersault in all recorded history and never have they felt consciously insincere except perhaps now they do feel their conversion to the USSR a little — shall we say — sudden.

March 7, 1942: For some time now I seem to be getting more and more greedy about food. It may be partly due to having considerably less to eat, but the way I wolfed my food at the Masseys tonight was rather too much. What a curious and fascinating character Mr. Massey has — that blend of acuteness and superficiality. He has enormous susceptibility to the more phony forms of charm. What he loves in life is delicatezza — the pleasant surface style. He is a puzzling person because behind his

London Times leading article official views and his carefully polished manner there lurks an ironic appreciation of things as they are and of himself as he is. When he has a decision to make — disappointingly — he always decides in favor of the conventional. His charm is remarkable. It springs, as charm so often does, from his own insecurity. He is painfully easy to hurt or ruffle and full of prévenances for the feelings of others if he happens to like them. If not, he is ruthless.

May 24, 1942: A perfect May day. Elizabeth and I went to Kew. It is hardly worth my while to describe the scene or dwell upon the dreamlike state in which we drifted among ravines of rhododendrons and azaleas. It was a day like a page from one of her books, the involved relationship between the two people who are wandering among the flower beds.

September 14, 1942: I have a new feeling about my fellow Canadians — a feeling that there is good material among the young — idealism, energy, practical ability which somehow never gets a chance to express itself in the public life of the country. I feel that if we can break the crust on top we could

I had lunch with Mackenzie King and I was charmed by the fat little conjurer with the flickering, shifty eyes

make Canada a much better country to live in. What is stifling us is the system — social, economic and political.

May 7, 1944: Lunched with Elizabeth in the downstairs grill in the Ritz. There were pink tulips on the table with pinkish lights. It was odd coming into it from the sunlight and wind. We talked as we did when we first got to know each other. It was one of those times which we shall both remember afterward and say to each other, “That fine, windy Sunday in spring when we lunched underground in the Ritz.”

December 31, 1944: After this war the most we can aim at is a breathing space which, if we are lucky, might last a generation. It is a delusion to talk of permanent peace. The only new element in the permanent human situation is the technical one. As weapons become so much more destructive there is the possibility that the human race may outlaw the more deadly ones and carry on its struggle by common agreement with the less destructive. This would seem unduly optimistic but for one fact — that in this war gas has not been used, even by a Hitler.

April 21, 1945: On the train en route to San Francisco [for the preliminary meetings of what became the United Nations], Luncheon with Mackenzie King and was charmed by the fat little conjurer with his flickering, shifty eyes and appliqué smile. He has eyes that can look like grey stones or can shine with amusement or film with sentiment. He chats away incessantly — he seems very pleased with himself, delightfully so, pleased with his own cleverness and his own survival. He talked of the “fun” of parliamentary tactics which cannot, he added regretfully, be so freely indulged in time of war. I irritated him by remarking that our troops must be thoroughly tired by now. He replied, “They have had two months’ rest” (when, I should like to know) and said, “I knew during the recruitment crisis that they were due for that rest but this I could not reveal.”

Talking of Mussolini he said, “A remarkably finely shaped head — the head of a Caesar — deep set eyes full of intelligence. He did a lot of good — cleaned up a lot of corruption, but he had too much power for too long. They worship false gods in Europe — that is the trouble — Europe is too full of pictures of Napoleon and statues of the Caesars.”

[On May 8, 1945 — VE Day — peace finally came to Europe.]

June 15, 1945: Last week I saw an ad-

vertisement in one of the San Francisco newspapers which described the attractions of “a historic old ranch home now transformed into a luxury hotel situated in a beautiful valley in easy reach of San Francisco.” What a delightful escape, I thought, from the pressures of the conference. Why not spend the weekend there? I succeeded in talking my colleagues, Norman Robertson [of External Affairs] and Hume Wrong [Canadian diplomat] and Jean Désy, the Canadian adviser on Latin-American affairs, into this project and our party was joined by a friend of Jean Désy, the French Ambassador, a senior and distinguished diplomat attached to the French delegation.

Last Saturday we all set forth by car in a holiday spirit to savor the delights of old-style ranch life in California as

advertised to include “gourmet meals, horseback riding and music in an exclusive atmosphere.” As we approached in the late afternoon up the long avenue, we saw the ranch house set amidst a bower of trees, but when we debouched at the entrance instead of the subdued welcome of a luxury hotel we were brusquely but cheerily propelled by a stout and thug-like individual toward a swaying tollgate which opened to admit us one by one on payment in advance for the period of our stay. Once in the entrance hall we found ourselves in the midst of an animated crowd, but what was unexpected was that all the men were sailors and young sailors at that, while the women were equally young and some strikingly luscious. This throng, exchanging jokes, playful slaps on bottoms and swigs out of beer bot-

The girl looked at us and told the sailor, “Those are a bunch of old fairies”

ties, filtered off from time to time in pairs to mount the noble staircase leading to the rooms above. We enquired for our rooms to find that only three rooms were available for the five of us.

It was decided among us that the French Ambassador should have a room to himself, while Jean Désy and Hume shared one and Norman and I the other. In our room we found an exhausted maid slapping at some dirtylooking pillows as she replaced them in position. “This is the fifth time I have made up this bed today,” she observed. “Are you two men sharing this room?” With a look beyond surprise she withdrew. Norman, seemingly not in the least disconcerted, sank with a sigh into the only available chair and addressed himself to the evening paper. The other members of our party were less philosophical. Hume and Jean, appearing in the doorway, rounded sharply on me. Why had I lured them into this brothel? Was this my idea of a joke? I suggested that we should all be better for food and drink. We descended to the dining room, a vast, paneled interior already packed with couples dancing to a blaring radio.

After a lengthy wait we were squeezed into a corner table where we were attended by a motherly looking waitress. “Who are all these girls,” I ask her, “and why all these sailors?” “Well I guess you might call it a kind of meeting place for the boys off the ships and the girls who work near here in an aircraft factory.” Meanwhile the French Ambassador was beginning to show signs of controlled irritation as he studied the menu that had been handed to him. Adjusting his spectacles he read out, “Tomato soup, hamburger delights, cheeseburgers, Hawaiian-style ham with pineapple.” “For me,” he announced, “I shall have a plain omelette.” When the omelette came the Ambassador just touched it with the prong of his fork and leaned back in his chair.with an air of incredulity. “This an omelette!” He raised his shoulders with a shrug to end all shrugs.

At this Jean Désy, perhaps stimulated by the wine or pricked by embarrassment at having exposed his French colleague to such an experience, seized the plate with the omelette upon it and said, “I shall complain to the chef myself about this outrage.” With this he hurled himself into the mob of dancers and made for a swinging door leading to the kitchen. Some uneasy moments passed at our table, then the swinging door swung open. Jean still holding the plate

with the omelette upon it was backing away before an enormous Negro who was bellowing above the music, “Get out of my kitchen. Who the hell do you think you are? Bugger off! Bugger off! Bugger off!” Jean returned to our table. “I shall report him.” he said — but it was difficult to kriow to whom. Soon afterward we repaired to our rooms. As I left the dining room I heard a girl say to her sailor companion, “Those are a bunch of old fairies sleeping together — the maid told me.” The sailor spat, not actually at us but on the floor.

By mutual agreement for which no words were needed our party left the ranch before luncheon the next day and returned to San Francisco.

On the way back in the car the French Ambassador raised the possibility that one of the assiduous gossip writers of the San Francisco press might learn where we had spent the weekend and he asked what effect this would be likely to have on the prestige of our respective delegations and indeed on our own reputations. My own colleagues reassured him by saying that in the event of publicity the episode could be attributed to my misleading them owing to my innate folly and vicious proclivities. This seemed to satisfy him.

July 5, 1945 — Halifax, Nova Scotia: Back in my own country among my own people — how different from the easygoing, superficial Californians. The surface layer here as everywhere is Americanization — the climate that extends over the whole of this continent — the whole Anglo-Saxon world — Babbitt -ry — but here it is a peculiar brand of Babbittry without optimism andit is not deep. Underneath is a queer compound of philosophic pessimism, of rooted old prejudice, of practical kindness to the neighbor and the unfortunate, and unkindness toward the prosperous.

September 4, 1945 — Back in Ottawa on a train: Train after train travels across Canada from east to west laden with soldiers, dropping them off by threes and fours at small towns and in their hundreds at the big cities. The train windows are crowded with their sunburned, excited faces. They lean out in their shirt sleeves, whistling at the girls on the station platforms, making unflattering jokes about Mackenzie King. The women look at them fondly, the men respectfully, and perhaps enviously. These are our heroes. This is the role — everyman his own Hotspur and they play it to advantage — goodhumored, cynical, knowing their way around.