Wednesday, July 22, 2020

A real companion and friend

It’s 70 years to the day since William Lyon Mackenzie King died. He was one of the leading Canadian politicians of the 20th century, having been prime minister for over 20 years. He was also a very committed diarist, writing, or dictating, detailed entries for most of his life up until a couple of days before his death. All of King’s prolific diary output is freely available online thanks to Library and Archives Canada.

King was born in Berlin (later renamed Kitchener), Ontario, in 1874. His maternal grandfather, William Lyon Mackenzie, led the 1837 Rebellion in Upper Canada. King studied at the University of Toronto, the University of Chicago and at Harvard before entering the civil service. He joined the Liberal Party and won a seat in the 1908 election. The following year, he was appointed Minister of Labour in Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s Cabinet. After losing his seat in 1911, he worked as a consultant for a while before, in 1919, being elected leader of his party.

Two years later, in 1921, the Liberals won a general election, and then won again in 1925 and 1926, before losing power in 1930. However, King was re-elected in 1935 and led Canada through the Second World War, benefitting from strong relationships with both Roosevelt and Churchill. He died less than two years after retiring,  on 22 July 1950. Much more biographical information is available online, at Library and Archives Canada, Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online, and, of course, Wikipedia.

Although King was a prolific correspondent and the author of numerous books and articles, by far his most important literary project - according to Library and Archives Canada - was the ongoing, daily writing of his diary, which began in 1893, while he was an undergraduate, and ended in 1950, a few days before his death. Taken together, the diary texts comprise nearly 30,000 pages (more than seven million words) and arguably represents one of Canada’s greatest literary achievements.

King explained his original purpose in writing a diary in the very first entry (6 September 1893): ‘This diary is to contain a very brief sketch of the events, actions, feelings, and thoughts of my daily life. It must above all be a true and faithful account. The chief object of my keeping this diary is that I may be ashamed to let even one day have nothing worthy of its showing, and it is hoped that through its pages the reader may be able to trace how the author has sought to improve his time. Another object must here be mentioned and is this, the writer hopes that in future days - be they far or near - he may find great pleasure both for himself and friends in the remembrance of events recorded, surrounded as they must be, by many an unwritten association. If either aim is reached this present diary will not have been in vain.’

According to an online exhibition hosted by Library and Archives Canada, by 1902 King’s diary had taken an additional role in his life - ‘as a confidant, a friend with whom he could share his innermost thoughts and feelings’. Shortly after the death of a friend he wrote, ‘I am taking up this diary again as a means of keeping me true to my true purpose . . . it has helped to clear me in my thought and convictions, and it has been a real companion and friend.’ King also used the diary to give himself advice (to do better, to work harder), and to berate himself (for gaining weight, for example, or wasting time at parties). Furthermore, for King, the writing of the diary was a duty, an exercise in self-discipline. In the early years, it was common for him to put aside the diary for several days or even months, but in later years it was very rare that he missed a day. He felt remorse whenever he failed to keep it up.

All of King’s diaries are online at Library and Archives Canada! Here are a couple of extracts - two connected with Shirley Temple (for no other reason than that they go with a fine out-of-copyright photograph of the two of them taken on the same day as the second extract), and the third is the very last diary entry King made a few days before he died.

17 August 1937
‘. . . The Coronation pictures were followed by Shirley Temple in Wee Willie Winkle - what I saw of the child rather annoyed than pleased me, a precociousness & forwardness, etc. however, as the play went on she ‘improved’ - there were bits that were quite lovely - a fine little actress, - but one feels it is a mistake so to raise children. . .’

21 October 1944
‘Arrived at the Parliament Buildings at noon had a really interesting afternoon as a consequence. In the Railway Committee room met Shirley Temple, her mother and father, and some of the repatriated boys. . . I was greatly attracted by Shirley Temple - a young girl of great charm, very pretty, very natural; I liked her father and mother, both of whom were quiet, pleasant people. . . I have seldom found anyone more natural than Shirley Temple was, or quicker to adapt herself to every situation. We walked out together to the platform facing Parliament Hill and I sat to her right, and St Laurent to her left. It was quite interesting to watch her methods to rouse the boys to cheer. Very self-possessed, full of joyous freedom and expression in every way. . .

After the proceedings we had a very exciting time. I walked with her to the car, allowed her father and mother to get in, and sat on a small seat myself. We were not more than started when crowds gathered in front of the car and on all sides. It was such that it was impossible for us to move. This kept up all the way to the hotel. Police arrangements not good. . . I expected to find it easy once in the hotel, but there the situation was worse than ever. There was no police, except a big man, who had gone in first and another who joined in later. The Chateau was crowded with children. Young people squeezed in around us. Shirley’s father and I tried to protect her but Mrs Temple got lost in the crowd to one side. To my amazement we had to crash through all the way, to one of elevator doors, leaving Mrs Temple behind. . .

When we came up together everyone was pretty well fatigued. I found my heart beating very fast, and finding it difficult to get my breath. I had not realised how considerable the strain had been. I was really fearful at one stage that the little girl would be crushed. Certainly, if anyone had slipped there would have been a terrible situation. It was quite shocking, having no police, and to have to have let the crowds indoors. I literally had to carry her along from the front door through the gathering to the elevator.’

19 July 1950
‘Last night was a very unfortunate night. I went soundly to sleep almost at once, but wakened because of conditions in the room, too cold, etc. Got nurse to arrange things. Took usual morphine injection about one. Found the room very cold around five past five. The nurse had left the window open, and the temperature had changed. I called to her many times. Put on the light, etc. and finally had to go to her room to come to straighten things in my room. She was saying over and over again that she was sorry. As far as I could see, she was enjoying a meal on her bed, when I looked into the room, she also said she had been writing. It was very disappointing as it was from that time that I found my breathing heavy, and had a broken night’s sleep instead of one of the best I should have had. John brought tea at seven, but again my sleep was broken until ten. I could not get properly rested. At one stage he came to change my gowns . . . I had a new drug this morning . . . Got through a little dictation with Lafleur both before and after luncheon. I really should have gone into the sun at three, but was very tired, and feeling weary, went to bed instead. Evidently this was wise as I slept very soundly until quarter to seven - almost three hours. . . I regret having missed the out-of-doors for a walk through the day. When it came to getting up for dinner, found myself alone to give me clothing part of which had been taken away. Lafleur came to the rescure. I got what was needed and later signed letters. Then, went downstairs for dinner, at quarter to eight, dictating diary to date. Very very sorry to have kept Lafleur all that time.’

This article is a slightly revised version of one first published on 22 July 2010.

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