What the Taylor Prize Meant

What the Taylor Prize Meant

I worked as an Edmonton-based senior editor of Saturday Night magazine in the early 1990s and visited Toronto every few months to keep up with news at headquarters. On these occasions, my boss, John Fraser, editor-in-chief of the magazine, would drag me to events that his wife, knowing better, refused to attend.

One of these was a dinner at the home of author James Bacque on Heath Street East. A graduate of Upper Canada College (as was John), Bacque had written a book called Other Losses (1989) about American WW2 prisoner of war camps. John had a year or two previous excerpted the book on the cover of Saturday Night under the headline “Eisenhower’s Death Camps.” The burden of the excerpt was that Eisenhower’s policies as Allied Supreme Commander were responsible for the deaths of 790,000 German captives by disease and starvation in internment camps between the years 1944 and 1949. Bacque thought Eisenhower’s vindictive attitude toward the prisoners was responsible for their deaths. Eisenhower, in other words, was a mass murderer and a war criminal. Quite the scoop.

Academic historians stomped on Bacque’s research. Bacque fought back, manfully, unsuccessfully. Virtually all historians now agree with Eisenhower biographer and one-time Bacque collaborator Stephen Ambrose (above middle), who after some initial waffling declared Other Losses to be “worse than worthless” and “wrong on every major charge and nearly all his minor ones.” John Fraser niftily defended Saturday Night as having presented Bacque’s provocative views without endorsing them. Not for nothing had John been the Globe’s dance critic.

Back to dinner. I assumed John was there out of some twisted sense of loyalty to his disgraced author. The guest of honor, I learned on arrival, was Bacque’s “good friend,” the British novelist Julian Barnes (below left). I was surprised and impressed to find Barnes, most famous at the time for Flaubert’s Parrot, at this intimate gathering far from home.

Otherwise, it was a rather stilted evening around Bacque’s dining table. Stilted and odd. The host (above right) insisted on taking from his sideboard and passing around the table a framed color photograph of himself in a whitewater kayak. Afterwards, a young woman, Bacque’s daughter or niece, passed around a framed photograph of her art installation: a canoe, covered in beeswax, stuck halfway through a chain-link fence. She was seated to my left. I asked her what she called the work. “When You’re Inside Me,” she said.

After dinner, John offered to drive Barnes to his hotel. We said goodnight to the Bacques, climbed into John’s Volvo and, as the two of them lit cigarettes, John demanded of Barnes, “Okay, what’s the real story. Why are you having dinner with Jim Bacque?”

It turned out that Bacque, who also wrote fiction and was a fan of Barnes, had sent an unsolicited copy of Other Losses to the author who wrote back a polite note, which led to the dinner invitation. Barnes was in Toronto for some event, possibly the International Festival of Authors, and didn’t know anyone in town. He decided what the hell. He admitted to being a sucker for revisionist history and he’d not followed the Bacque’s reception. He was as glad to get out of there as the rest of us.

(James Bacque died several weeks ago at age 90. I did not see an obituary for him anywhere, which is a shame. Apart from his controversy, the man wrote about twenty books, served as an editor at MacMillan of Canada, and was a founding member of the Writers’ Union of Canada, among much else.)

Another evening with John featured drinks with an old colleague of Fraser’s from the Globe & Mail foreign desk, a man I’d vaguely heard of named Charles Taylor. Like John, he had been the Globe’s correspondent in Red China. Like John, he’d written a book about the experience. For the first hour, they talked about China and their books and internal politics at a Globe that no longer existed as they remembered it. All I recall is thinking that to qualify for the Globe’s China bureau you had to be about five-foot-five with bad eyesight and a private-school education.

John had described Charles to me as “a hack, like us,” and a man obsessed with horse racing. Back in the day, while Fraser and Taylor were swanning about the Far East, I had covered some harness races at Edmonton Northlands. The hordes of desperate, hollow-eyed bettors had depressed me to hell. It had trouble reconciling that crowd and this tweedy, bald little man with his pipe and pudgy hands but I didn’t dwell on it.

As the evening wore on, and on, the conversation finally turned and Charles surprised me with his interest and knowledge of Canadian politics, particularly its conservative traditions. It took me about an hour to figure out that I had read his excellent book, Radical Tories, a celebration of the populist strain in Canadian conservatism (it is long out-of-print but you can find copies here). We wound up bonding over a mutual admiration for the Manitoba historian W.L. Morton. I quite liked Charles Taylor. He was, indeed, a hack like us.

It would take me a year or two to figure out that he didn’t bet on horses. He owned horses. Pretty much all of them. He was Charles Plunket Bourchier Taylor, son of Edward Plunket “E.P” Taylor, who owned Argus Corp., Massey Ferguson, B.C. Forest Products, and much of the rest of Canada.

It also took me until 2008, when I was nominated for it, to figure out that the Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction (founded in 2000) was created by his widow, Noreen, to memorialize Charles who had died in 1997. In my defense, these were busy years.

The Taylor Prize has been the best literary prize in Canada for most of its existence. Not the richest, nor the most glamorous, but the one that has served up the best short-list of nominees in its field, year after year. It was almost always a list of the sort of books I like to think Charles would have read: serious history, biography, journalism, memoir. The prize also worked harder than any other to promote the work and the careers of its nominees, scheduling a full week of events and publicity in advance of its gala luncheon. That’s Kate Harris (above middle), author of Land of Lost Borders, the most recent winner.

This week, Noreen (top of the page with her 2019 shortlist) announced that 2020 would be the last year of the Taylor prize. RBC, its major sponsor, pulled out some months ago. Corporations tend to lose interest, after a while, in the causes they support. It is a blow for the Canadian non-fiction community, to which Noreen had become a maternal presence over the years, and in which the prize was appreciated and held in esteem. Nevertheless, better to go out on top than to wander through time irrelevant like so many other Canadian cultural institutions.

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