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Warlords: An Excerpt

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The Huffington Post Canada is proud to be a returning sponsor of the prestigious Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction. In the weeks leading up to the March 4 announcement of this year's prize winner, we are publishing excerpts from each of the five finalists. The authors have personally chosen the portions they'd like to share, and each excerpt begins with a brief explanation of why that particular passage was chosen.

A note from author Tim Cook:

William Lyon Mackenzie King was Canada's longest serving prime minister, in power for 22 years for much of the period between 1921 and 1948. The rotund and balding King, who had little charisma and spoke poorly in public, was also Canada's war leader during the Second World War. Uninspiring in comparison to the American President, Franklin Roosevelt, and cast to the periphery when in the presence of the British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, King nonetheless led his country through the crisis.

Canada was deeply unprepared for war in September 1939. Although King knew that Canada had to stand by Britain's side in the war, because of ties of history and blood, he hoped that his country would fight in only a limited manner. He sought to avoid a repeat of the blood bath from the Great War, where Canada had fielded an enormous army of civilian-soldiers and suffered over 60,000 dead. In this war against Hitler and his minions, he hoped that Canada would supply arms and food, and possibly train airmen. That type of limited war seemed possible until the cataclysmic fall of France in June 1940, and then Canada became Britain's ranking ally against the Nazis.

It was a desperate time in Canada. Conscription for home front service was enacted. Harsher penalties were brought against those who spoke out against the war, and some Canadians were locked up in prison without recourse to trials. King worked with his able ministers to ramp up the country for the massive production of war supplies, weapons, and ammunition, and his government brought in high income tax on families and businesses. It was not enough. And so King went south to meet with Roosevelt over critical issues of hemispheric defence and finance. The two men were very different, in character and bearing, but they got along surprisingly well. The slippery King had hidden charms. In 1940 and early 1941, he secured important defence and finance deals to allow Canada to keep supporting Britain.

While there were periodic calls by the opposition to depose of King and bring in a more warlike prime minister, King was at his best when keeping the balance between imperialist English Canada and the more wary French Canadians who did not want to see a total war effort. King was often forced to delay and put off major decisions, and was accused of being weak because of such tactics, but he always sought to keep the passions of Canadians in check, and hold off the extremists in English and French Canada. His leadership was that of conciliator rather than conquer, but there were few military, political or economic decisions made in Canada without his knowledge or guidance.

The concept of a limited war was blown away by late 1940, and Canada was a nation fully at war. King toughened up, even as he was pained by the casualties to Canadians fighting in most theatres of war, on land, at sea, and in the air. By war's end, almost one in ten Canadians was in uniform (a million out of 11 million) and some 45,000 Canadians would be killed. King would also face a gut-wrenching
conscription crisis in late 1944, which he survived with deep scars, but survived nonetheless. King
guided the country through major social changes, including universal benefits for Canadians, like the
Baby Bonus, and in laying the groundwork for a prosperous postwar Canada with the Veterans Charter
to aid the return of veterans.

Canada's longest serving prime minister was a political survivor who consistently beat those opponents who underestimated him. He was a complex and canny man, and few realized how good he was as a political operator. King was safe, staid, even boring, like an elderly aunt, who never changed the fading lace and served watery tea in cracked china. Canadians at the time evidently took solace in him. What a surprise when, after his death in 1950, it was revealed that King had a robust spiritual life, found solace in séances with the dead, and kept a 30,000 page diary his entire life that was filled with deep revelations. There was more than met the eye to William Lyon Mackenzie King, the man who had done more than anyone to shape Canada in the first half of the twentieth century.

King had started writing a diary in 1893, and with few breaks, he kept at it until his death in 1950. This incredible document, spanning some 30,000 pages and numbering about 7.5 million words, reveals a thoughtful and conflicted man, who poured out his soul on the pages with sometimes disturbing frankness. The diary, in part, was a record of events to which he referred for guidance, but it soon became a daily ritual that had to be met. King purged his tormented soul each night by putting down his thoughts and deeds, capturing grievances, offering petty observations and justifying his own crippling self-doubt. The diary was a way for him to work through problems, and the countless passages where he documented his own failings reflected his desire for self-examination and improvement. At the same time, he had an amazing capacity to deceive himself, or to make sense of the day by slighting others and putting himself in the best light. Pages were filled with windy rhetoric and moralizing platitudes used to justify his sometimes cruel or self-serving political decisions. At other times, he was excessively hard on himself, deriding his lack of skill at public speaking or his acts of moral compromise. "The Record," as he called his diaries, has become the single most important privately created document in Canadian history, providing deep insight into Canadian society and politics over a more than fifty-year period. It also reveals King, warts and all.

Though King was a bachelor, he continued to have a strong friendship with Joan Patteson, a bank manager's wife in Ottawa. Rumour-mongers speculated that she was his mistress, but there is no evidence of this in King's diary, except for a tantalizing section in September 1920 that was ripped from the book. Hints elsewhere suggest that there may have been a brief and guilty affair, or, more likely, something that came close to it. Whatever the case, the Pattesons--both Joan and her husband, Godfroy-- and King moved past the incident, and he was later to say that his devoted friend Joan, who was several years older than him, "filled the place of his mother in his heart."

Joan introduced King to spiritualism in the early 1920s, and he quickly became a believer. Many middle-class Canadians had turned to spiritualism after the traumatic Great War, their grief at their losses driving the search for an afterlife. Some were intrigued by the modernist thinking associated with seeking out the souls of the departed, while others simply dabbled in it as a parlour game. King had always paid attention to signs and symbols that offered a glimpse into the future. He was obsessed by the magical significance of numbers, and especially the hands on a clock face. He felt a secret thrill when a glance revealed the hour and minute hands lined up, or when they conformed to other patterns that he found pleasing. As one of King's secretaries revealed, "to him there was no such thing as chance: in this ordered universe every person, every happening, a falling leaf, the position of the hands of the clock in his study, had secret meaning for the discerning eye and ear and mind."39 This continual search for hidden codes was evident throughout his life. It became even more important to him as he took on greater responsibility.

While King looked for the portents in his everyday life, he also sought out assistance from those he thought watched over him. He remained deeply connected to his mother, believing that she continued to direct him from the "other side." King and Joan Patteson first experimented with table-rapping in the early 1930s, when he was leader of the opposition. It soon captured his imagination. The activity involved a complicated form of communication with the spirits through guided raps on the table. He engaged in seventy-five sessions in 1937 alone. The spirits provided clues and guidance on many matters, from politics to economics, and sometimes a sheepish King was urged to shed his extra weight. These sessions filled empty holes in King's life, but they occasionally revealed his sickening self-regard, as when he and Joan summoned the spirits of Lady Byng and Sir Robert Borden, both of whom reached across the great divide to apologize for having wronged King in life: Lady Byng for her visible meanness to King after he destroyed her husband's reputation, and Borden for having supposedly spread the lie that King had sought a cabinet position in 1917 (which evidence suggests he probably did, at least before Borden turned him down and he returned to Laurier's side). In these wretched acts of self-deception are stark examples of King's unbounded narcissism mixed with haunting self-doubt.

King also made secret visits to mediums across North America and the United Kingdom. In these sessions, his mother and grandfather offered advice, as did his heroes Gladstone and Laurier, and an assortment of other Liberal leaders in Britain and Canada who had crossed over. King wrote that they and "others are guiding me," although it is important to note that he did not believe they were controlling him. Even when the ghostly messages were maddeningly oblique, or simply wrong, the prime minister's faith was little shaken. And, attesting to the respectful nature of the media at the time, no reporter ever outed the prime minister during his time in power, and King's staff, while aware of his increasing obsession with the supernatural, kept silent on the topic.

If King found solace in the spirits, he also finally found a great love in the land of the living. His dog, Pat,
arrived in 1924, as a gift from Joan Patteson, and soon the Irish terrier was a constant companion. Pat, and the two dogs with the same name that replaced him after his passing, were among King's most important relationships. They brought him much joy and, judging from his diary, helped to soften his character. Witness this passage, which is not unique: "Little Pat came up from the bedroom and licked my feet,--my dear little soul, he is almost human. I sometimes think he is a comforter dear mother has sent to me, he is filled with her spirit of patience, and tenderness & love." King believed fervently that the original Pat contained elements of his mother's spirit. Whether enjoying solitary reading, engaging in the rituals of his religious faith, or playing with Pat, King spent much of his free time without contact with others. That is, except for the spiritual communiqués, which involved his close friends, the Pattesons, and his departed loved ones and heroes. Perhaps it was because he was lonely that spiritualism held such an important role in his life.

Excerpted from Warlords: Borden, Mackenzie King, and Canada's World Wars. Copyright © 2012 Tim Cook. Published by Allen Lane, an imprint of Penguin Canada. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.

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