Wednesday 17 December 2014

The Siren Years by Charles Ritchie

One of the greatest pleasures I have had in blogging is getting to know Claire's blog. We all know and love her as The Captive Reader, and I am lucky enough to have very similar taste to Claire - we have both followed up each other's suggestions, and have only had the occasional mishap. When I received Charles Ritchie's The Siren Years: A Canadian Diplomat Abroad, 1937-1945 (1974) as a gift in the post, I was very touched - and a little nervous. I trust Claire. But... I thought she might have made a mistake. A book about politics? Me? And the cover did nothing to convince me... Lucky for me, I was wrong and Claire was right. Which makes a total of no recommendations from her that have turned out to be duds.

Ritchie often seems more like a society gossip than a diplomat, and that - you will not be surprised to learn - makes him much more up my street. He describes the people around him with a catty tone, albeit one au fait with national and international politics. Not to mention literature; Elizabeth Bowen was a large part of Ritchie's life, and he is a sensitive interpreter of people.

And who can fail to be moved by any war memoir? The experiences of war, even on the home front, are so foreign to those of most of us today that any description of life then is both fascinating and poignant. Indeed, it is perhaps more so on the home front - because the places, relationships, and roles are recognisable, but thrown into extraordinary relief.

Since it's been far too long since I read this wonderful diary, I shall just give you a series of quotations I noted down from it. After all, I am only going to say 'I love this' after each one, if I elaborate any further.

On public figures from Eton...
What happens to them at Eton? However innocent, stupid or honest they may be they always look as though they had passed the preceding night in bed with a high-class prostitute and had spent the earlier part of the morning smoothing away the ravages with the aid of creams, oils and curling tongs.

On politicians
[...] a few senators and political big-shots whose faces give one a feeling of familiar boredom like picking up an old twice-read newspaper.

On work rituals
Being a Private Secretary is a busy unreal sort of life - unreal because it makes one's day such a programme of events. One does things in a certain order not because one feels like doing them at the time or even because this is the order of their importance, but because they appear in that order on the day's programme. This programme is dictated by the engagements of the Chief, who is in turn a victim of his engagements and spends most of his day in doing unnecessary things which he does not want to do. Yet neither of us is unhappy. We feel that the ritual of our lives is obligatory - we grumble but we submit with satisfaction to the necessity. A day of telephone conversations, luncheon parties, notes acknowledged, visitors received, memoranda drawn up. Exhaustion is merely staleness - we return with zest to the game. What an extraordinary amount of time is spent in saving our own face and coddling other people's vanities! One would really think that the people we deal with were a collection of hypersensitive megalomaniacs.

On war in London
Never has there been such a colourless war - not a drum, not a flag, not a cheer - just sandbags and khaki and air-read shelters and gas-masks and the cultivated, careful voice of the B.B.C. putting the best complexion on the news. London is waiting for the first raid like an anxious hostess who has made all the preparations to receive formidable guests - but the guests do not seem to be going to turn up. Every time the door-bell rings she thinks, "At last there they are," but it turns out to be the grocer's boy delivering a parcel. So the day pass. We look at our watches, turn on the wireless, pick up a novel and wait.

On Oxford, and a building I used to work in
The moment I stepped out of the station I smelt the familiar smell of Oxford. What nonsense the woman was talking the other day when she said that it did not matter if a city were destroyed physically, if its soul lived. Cities are nothing without their bodies. When you have destroyed Paris and Oxford what happens to their souls? Oxford rebuilt in this age! It would be easy to see what it would be like by looking at the new Bodleian Extension - that blankly commonplace hulk which they have dared to plant in the face of the Sheldonian. That is the most distressing thing about Oxford - for the rest the changes are temporary.

On Elizabeth Bowen
"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." Her books show much that you would expect if you knew her only as an acquaintance, he intelligence, her penetrating eye, her love of houses and flowers. These things you would have gathered from talking to her in her drawing-room. But there are certain passages in which her peculiar intensity, her genius, come out, which would be hard to reconcile with this cultivated hostess. That purity of perception and compassion seems to come from another part of her nature of which she is perhaps not completely aware.

On wartime
We have long ceased to find the war thrilling - any excitement in the movement of historic events is gone. There is a vague but persistent worry in people's minds about the coming air raids this winter, but like everything else this is accepted as inevitable. The truth is that the war has become as much a part of our lives as the weather, the endless winter, and when the ice does break there will be no cheering in the streets.


  1. seems like an interesting insight into some ones life simon

  2. Replies
    1. They're great, aren't they? It was one of those books that had so many quotable sections that I didn't really think my own words would help sell it :)

  3. This does sound interesting, and I have to echo you - I have yet to read anything based on Claire's recommendation that I haven't enjoyed.

  4. I've said it before and I'll say it again: I am absolutely thrilled that you enjoyed this! Thank you for being so open minded when I sent it over. I feel like I owe you a hundred or so good book recommendations after all the wonderful books and authors you've brought into my life. I'm not sure I'll ever be able to make an introduction as successful as when you brought AAM's adult works into my life, but I will keep trying!

    1. Sorry it's taken me months to post something about it! I know I'd have been going mad with impatience if I were you.
      Keep the recommendations comin'!

  5. Okay, I'm to find a copy. If you enjoyed this then have a look at Love's Civil War by Victoria Glendinning, it's filled with letters and diary entries between Charles and Elizabeth Bowen. I loved it.

    1. Hopefully you should have luck stumbling over a copy in Canada! And I will definitely keep my eye out for that. Ritchie is quite coy about Bowen, so I didn't even realise the, ahem, nature of their relationship until afterwards.

  6. Would probably have passed this book by, but it sounds absolutely fascinating. Thanks to you and Claire for bringing it to our attention!

    1. It's definitely not one I'd have picked off the shelf in a shop myself, so I'm very grateful to Claire :)

  7. I remember hearing about this a while ago -- probably from Claire! -- and thinking it sounded fascinating, but I haven't been able to get hold of a copy. I'll have to get my library to interlibrary borrow it for me.

    1. Good luck! I look forward to seeing what you think :)


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