Sunday, February 17, 2008

The Siren Years - Charles Ritchie

"We know the history of conquered races, the eternal resentment and the eventual revolt. Better to let this generation go through hell and beat the buggers."

Charles Ritchie was a diplomat who acted as Ambassador to the United States and then the United Kingdom. He lived through the London bombings and managed to paint a picture of public opinion that was contrary to Allied propaganda. Something to consider is what Ritchie says about his own book. "Thinking over what I have written. What a pack of lies intimate journals are, particularly if one tries too hard to be truthful."

The Good: Reading personal diaries can be as exciting as watching grass grow but Ritchie's writing is engaging, descriptive and informative. In another life he would have made a good journalist.The book was popular when published and even won the Governor General's Award for non-fiction in 1974.

Here's a sample of his delicious prose. "A week of air raids. Our ears have grown sharp for the sounds of danger - the humming menace that sweeps the sky, the long whistle like an indrawn breath as the bomb falls. We are as continually alive to danger as animals in the jungle."

One alarming fact was how prescient Ritchie was in terms of the post-war world. Ten months after it began, May 1940 he wrote "they tell us that the greatest battle in history is beginning. London is sultry with the rumour of it. The possibility of defeat appears in whispers and averted glances."

This idea of defeat and how public opinion evolved over the course of the war were most interesting parts for me.

February 23, 1941: "It is being dinned into my mind with persistence that after all we may be going to lost this war. No one admits the possibility publicly but you could hardly expect us to do that."

May 2, 1941: "We are in danger of losing the war. As for england she will be outflanked on a world scale and left like the Maginot line, a graveyard of equipment and static armies with nothing to defend except herself."

In three months Ritchie went from 'may' to 'are' and you can be sure that his opinion was in keeping with popular opinion. I know the propaganda machine made it look like the Allies couldn't be anything but triumphant so it's nice to see the real thoughts of the people. Ritchie doesn't go so far as to elaborate on his feelings but you can detect undertones of alarm in his words.

It was also interesting to see Ritchie interacting and working with famous historical figures like Mike Pearson and Vincent Massey. This is where his biting wit really comes into play. He described Mackenzie King as a "fat, little conjurer with his flickering, shifty eyes" and said Harry Truman "looks like a sparrowy, little, old, small-town, American housewife who could shut the door very firmly in the face of traveling salesmen and tramps."

The Bad: I was really looking for more of the big events of the war to be included in this diary. In fact, it's one of the main reasons I decided to read the book. We do get a good descriptions of the bombings and Ritchie evens manages to sneak into France during D-Day Operations. The problem is we only get hints of the aftermath, we only really see Allied camps and the country from the seat of a vehicle. This is understandable as Ritchie wasn't a soldier but he doesn't even write about the end of the war. Surely this event would have merited a mention.

The Ugly: I had some issues with Ritchie's opinion of Americans, despite the fact this is a personal diary. "All the same I feel that I never shall forgive the Americans for not being in this war." I understand the frustration and anger at the American's isolationist policies but at times he goes too far.

"The attack on Pearl Harbour has caused very human sardonic satisfaction to everyone I have happened to see today. This will take the Americans by the scruff of the neck and bounce them into the war." While this was the incident that brought America into the war, the fact that Ritchie was so callous about the incident was off putting. Thousands of people lost their lives in that attack, a fact he seems to ignore.

I also thought Ritchie's opinion of his girlfriends painted him to be something of a jerk. "She has more sense and feeling than one would give her credit for at first. What is shocking about her is the contrast between her romantic looks and her flat commonplace mind. Like many completely uninhibited bores she wins in the end by sheer persistence."

"The ballerina leaves today with the ballet company on tour. I am looking forward to early and varied infidelities during her absence."

Rating: 3.5/5

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