The small, fifth-floor office near Yonge Street in downtown Toronto
is pure Michael Coren: British pompous, and slightly eccentric. Row
after row of old English generals, hunting horsemen, and world war
memorabilia hang on the walls; gargoyles and cherubs perch above wooden
bookcases lined with literary greats; a huge maroon silk scarf and the
Union Jack stretch across the ceiling. All are in stark contrast to the
man who's lounging on the couch, wearing navy track pants and a white
During his seven years in Canada, Coren has written for The Canadian Catholic Review, The Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail, Frank, Books in Canada, Quill & Quire, Saturday Night, Maclean's, Toronto Life, numerous smaller
publications, and a host of British newspapers. In addition, he's a
contributing interviewer on TVOntario's Imprint and a once-a-week
commentator on Toronto radio station CJRT. Coren's reputation is that
of a sharp witted satirist-a brackish, bow-tie-sporting man who
assails Canadian political and journalistic heavyweights.
But on this day in October, Coren has been demure, reserved-cheru\ic
even. Until, that is, I mention that a colleague has called him a
Coren emits a short, hollow laugh and leans
forward on the couch. His drooping eyes open wide as he suddenly sits
up and then leans over his clenched hands. He begins to look like one
of the hanging gargoyles. "Who was that?"
I stand tough. "I can't
say, but he said you'll write anything for anybody." As a sneer creeps
across his bulbous face, I ready myself for vintage Coren toxicity.
HAVE CERTAINLY EXPERIENCED IT. Coren has a take-no-prisoners style, and
a list of his victims would read like the wall of a war memorial: For
those skewered in the line of duty-Pierre Berton. June Callwood. Peter
Gzowski. Michele Landsberg. Svend Robinson. The entire Metropolitan
Toronto police force Consider these examples:
AESTHETE, A COMPILATION OF HIS diaries from Frank magazine: I do not
think she can hear me over the cacophony of mastication and slurping in
which she invariably indulges. She tells me that her doctor recently
demanded she lose 180 pounds of ugly fat. In response, she continues,
she has left Stephen Lewis. I am worried. We cannot afford to lose such
an intelligent and versatile wordsmith as Michele Landsberg. That being
the case, I am raising money to send the dear lady to a fat farm. If
you care as much as I do about Canadian letters, please send a
donation, however small, to…
FROM HIS "MEN" COLUMN, THE
GLOBE and Mail, October 20,1993: Some young women are asking close
female friends to be with them for the birth of the baby. Will we
then have mothers-in-law and highschool chums present at the
conception" You're doing wonderfully dear, be brave now. Almost
finished. Soon it'll all be over and then you can have a nice cup of
coffee and a sandwich"
FROM A COLUMN ON RELIGIOUS
BOOKstores, The Idler, November/December 1991: The Evangelicals may be
intolerant, small-minded, and repellent, but at least they hold a
consistent set of beliefs
FROM AESTHETE: LOVABLE OLD
GRUMPY headed radio star Peter Gzowski is not, as he claims, the
illegitimate child of a poverty stricken immigrant Pete's father was Manny Gzowski of Gzowski's Vaginal Vibrators fame, and made a fortune
selling his electrical pleasure-giving devices to bored housewives
HIS PIECE ON CATHOLIC ARCHBISHOP Aloysius Ambrozic, Toronto Life, June
1993: This is one of those moments where Ambrozic indicates a form of
weakness, even impotence. The truth is that he is a man who cares more
about his church than anything else. He tries extremely hard but he
cannot, in the long run, achieve its ends
FROM A BOOK
REVIEW, THE TORONTO STAR, June 27,1993: Can one seriously imagine a
detective priest? Regrettably, it is easier to conjure up the image of
a priest being questioned by secular detectives over abuse charges
AESTHETE: As I RELAX IN MY LAVENDER scented bath, I hear a little ditty
on the radio: "A dog, a woman, a walnut tree, the more you beat 'em,
the better they be."
I cannot believe my ears. I am so offended by
this humour I find it difficult to contain myself. Don't people realize
the horror of the abuse problem today? I am genuinely angry. After
pausing a moment to regain my composure, I pen a spirited missive to
the Humane Society, informing them of the name of the person who
delivered the rhyme, and advising-nay, commanding-them to take swift
and decisive action
FROM A BOOK REVIEW, THE STAR,
SEPTEMBER 18, 1993: Three cheers for Ken Dryden. Just as I worried that
there would be insufficient entries for this year's Most Pretentious
and Pointless Book of the Year Award, along come the flaccid writings
of a man...once paid a lot of money to stop a lump of rubber from
entering a hockey net and is thus qualified to pass judgment on the
known and unknown world
AS I WAIT FOR COREN'S REACTION TO
being called a literary prostitute, I wonder if he can take as good as
he gives. The answer is no. He's quite thin-skinned, although he'll
often try to veil his anger with a witty response.
prostitute," he says. "Prostitutes will sell their services without a
thought to who the person is, simply for money. They open their legs to
anyone, if that person has cash. I would never do that-I've turned down
work on numerous occasions. I only write what I think is quality.
"I really would stress this point. The Canadian Catholic Review pays me
virtually nothing! I do it because-. That is a very annoying comment. I
would like to know who said that," he says, whispering under his
breath, grimacing, "because I'd like to bash their teeth in.
I've reached a point in my career where people approach me to work for
them, and I just have to say no. Either I don't have the time or I
don't respect what they do. The prostitute thing, what it is in this
country, is if you're prolific, you're envied. Look at my work! If you
think there's a drop in quality, then I'll stop doing as much." He
gestures to a small oak bookshelf stacked with his titles. "It's just
not true, a literary prostitute," he whines in a high voice, pretending
to weep. "The person who said that thing, oh, how banal. What an
What is opinionated "quality" to Coren is
name-calling drivel to others-particularly with regard to his work in
Frank. Written in a Swiftian vein, Coren's diaries follow the style
developed by Auberon Waugh in the British satirical magazine, Private
Eye. Coren's alter ego, who savagely sends up the latest newsmakers, is
that of a British upper-class intellectual stranded in the
incomprehensible backwaters of Canada. (In reality, Coren's a graduate
of Wanstead County High School, who earned his Honours B.A. in politics
at the decidedly unpatrician Nottingham University. His father is a cab
driver and his mother's family descended from Welsh coal miners.) The
Aesthete character, Coren maintains, has some virtue behind his
vitriol. "What I do is attack something like a double standard on AIDS.
Sure, we must find a cure for AIDS, we must put enormous amounts of
money into it..." he pauses. "Look, people are dying all over. When it
was blacks in Africa dying of AIDS, no one gave a toss. Nobody gave a
toss. Suddenly, it's middleclass men in California and everyone goes
crazy about it. It's a double standard. I'm trying to provoke people
into rethinking comfortable points of view."
But former Saturday
Night editor Robert Fulford calls Coren's diaries heavy-laden with
unfunny material. "Watching him construct all those fictions makes me
tired. It's like one guy telling jokes, one after another, but each one
Judy Rebick, former president of the National Action
Committee on the Status of Women, despises what she calls Coren's
Neanderthal scribblings. "I think his diaries are adolescent and
anti-feminist. They're stupid. Making fun of people's size and looks?
It's vile." Globe media critic Rick Salutin says he has hardly read
Coren's diary in over a year: "I thought he used to be quite good when
he started. He used to poke fun at the right-wing establishment and
shed light on its silliness. But when he was off, it was like he was
whacking people on the head with a club." Frank editor Michael Bate
says Coren's diaries are largely criticized by "humourless" people who
don't grasp the subtleties of satire. Although, he adds, that's not to
say Coren's satire has always been on the mark: "When he plays the
overdog and he bangs away at people he thinks aren't important, it
doesn't work as often."
To become a Coren victim you must have some
notoriety: power, fame, or wealth is a good start. Coren half-seriously
calls his political leanings "libertarian." "I don't want the church or
state to tell me how I should or should not make love," he says, which
leaves him plenty of ideological headroom in which to skewer people.
Coren says he doesn't pick his victims indiscriminately-it's all part
of what he calls his "malice towards all" philosophy. If you've
offended his sensibilities and you're newsworthy, you're a potential
"There's this critical hatred of elitism in Canada," he
says, "which is very ironic because it's a very elitist country. There
are certain families-no, dynasties-who run the country but try to act
like they're part of the working class. You know, leaving the g's off
the end of their words-that sort of trash. These people are actually
very powerful, but have to pretend they're not." Coren says it's those
self-absorbed, influential people who deserve to be taken down a
That he does, although even his wife, Bernadette, a
philosophy teacher at Humber College, acknowledges he often crosses the
line. "Oh yeah. He goes way over the top," she says, "but that's the
shock element, the sharpened needle. He has to keep sharpening it,
otherwise he gets dull." She believes her husband's writings force
people to think, to "turn up their mental soil every once in a while."
But Coren dug a deep hole with her when, in one diary entry, he
depicted Mother Teresa getting looped in a bar. Bernadette, a
practising Roman Catholic, took offence. "Sometimes he's so lurid I'm
surprised-I say to myself, 'Who is this man I'm sleeping with?'"
When pressed, Coren admits that not everyone is a potential target; he
does take care to avoid offending a select few. Writer and broadcaster
Daniel Richler, for instance, is a Coren buddy whose name never sees
print in the diaries. Another no-show is media mogul Conrad Black. How
come? After much hemming and hawing, Coren sheepishly gives in.
don't mock people I admire," he says. "It's open season on someone like
Conrad Black. I have a great deal of admiration for Black because he
has bought newspapers and improved them. Look at the improvement in The
Telegraph, The Jerusalem Post, and in Saturday Night. There's no need
for me to do it. I'm redressing a balance."
troubles many. One journalist, who refuses be named for fear of
starting a public feud, says: "If you've got someone taking on
everyone, he's an iconoclast. But Coren only attacks some people, so
he's just a bully." (For his part, the "bully" doesn't understand why
people prefer to remain anonymous when criticizing him. He says he has
only once taken out his anger in print. "Revenge," he says, "is a dish
best served cold.")
One of the people he vociferously attacks is
Michele Landsberg, the Star's columnist on women's issues. The staunch
feminist is a Coren favourite, along with her husband, Stephen Lewis,
and their son, Avi Lewis, a local TV journalist.
A smug and
unrepentant Coren defends his work with vigour. "She exists, therefore
she has to be attacked," he says. "Look, if people come out and say,
'I'm terribly powerful, I'm rich, so fuck you,' then okay. But don't
lie about it. And I think Landsberg does. Her columns are strident and
dull and unimportant. And I attack her size, because you don't put on
that much weight for no reason."
It's at this point that I politely
remind him that he put on over 100 pounds when he came to Canada. His
response is brief, terse: "I was a passionate rugby player and in the
gym every day in Britain. I came over here and ate the same amount, and
in what seemed like two weeks I had put on 100 pounds." He pauses,
glaring at me. "But I lost it very quickly. Anyway, that doesn't
matter. Now I attack Michele because"
IT WOULD PROBABLY
COME AS A SHOCK TO Landsberg and others that in private Michael Coren
is quite personable. Likable even.
A man with three children
(Daniel, 5; Lucy, 3; Oliver, six months), a wife, a mortgage, and a
growing freelance business, Coren is reluctant to bring the private
aspect of his life out into the open, except to his close friends. I
ask him if I can speak to Bernadette, and at first he is very reluctant
to talk about her, much less let me speak to her. As for a foray into
his home-out of the question.
Daniel Richler isn't surprised. "At
heart he's a softie. He likes family and friends above all else. He
draws quite a line between his public, satirical life and his private
one." Another friend of Coren's, while not enamoured of his writing,
echoes Richler. "He's terribly sweet at home. He's a total teddy
bear-he has got a real emotional side."
Coren keeps strict office
hours-weekdays from 6:30 a.m. until mid-afternoonin order to have a
full working day and still have time to play with his children.
Bernadette says there's no doubt about who he is when he's home with
the family. "There's no British standoffishness here," she says. "The
children use Mike as a trampoline."
This clear demarcation between
work and family is created specifically to avoid controversy over his
private life-the same controversy he creates for others as a result of
his Frank diaries. "What I am, in many ways, is a very private person,"
says Coren, "so when 1 get home the door is locked, and I'm there to be
with my children and my wife. There's nothing better for me."
Stuewe, Books in Canada editor and also a friend of Coren's, says
Coren's closed personal nature only furthers his acerbic reputation.
"If they only read his writing that's in the public forum, they're
likely to get a different opinion than if they knew him personally."
BEGAN HIS JOURNALISTIC CAREER in London, England, writing copy for
British publications such as The New Statesman, Time Out, and City
limits, and scripts for BBC-Radio, all of which led to a 1983
nomination for Young Journalist of the Year. A year later, the
23-year-old Coren met John Pilger, a popular British television
personality. The chance encounter led to a new job: researcher and
scriptwriter for a British TV documentary entitled The Outsiders, which
profiled 10 influential Brits outside the traditional power structure.
While the shows were a moderate success, Coren says his 1985 book
version, a question-and-answer transcript, is "not a book I'm
particularly proud of. I wanted to write 10 profiles."
Even in the
early years of his career, Coren was no stranger to controversy. In
1983, he was asked to write Theatre Royal, a book celebrating the
centennial of the Stratford East theatre. But when Coren criticized a
well-liked artistic director "he just didn't know how to run a
theatre"-Stratford East refused to sell the book. The furor and the
resulting press coverage made Coren a critical success and attracted
the attention of Bloomsbury, a British publishing company. The now
marketable Coren signed on to write a biography of British novelist and
critic G.K. Chesterton.
Bernadette says her husband's first
biography was a labour of love-literally. The two first met in Toronto
at a Chesterton conference held in 1986 to coincide with the 50th
anniversary of the author's death. An avid fan, Bernadette was at the
conference with her father when a young man walked up to the podium.
"At first I thought he was going to pour water for the next speaker,
then I realized, he is the next speaker."
The next six months
became a whirlwind of plane trips for the couple. Coren in London,
Bernadette in Toronto. Coren conned, begged, and finagled editors into
sending him over to Canada to do interviews, stories, anything. At one
point he agreed to fly to Chicago to interview Wayne Gretzky, although
now he is the first to admit he didn't-and still doesn't-understand the
game. "I knew nothing. I ended up asking him questions like, 'How do
you balance on those metal blades?' and 'Isn't it cold out on the ice?'
Gretzky knew what was going on, but he was very gracious."
crossed the ocean to live in Oshawa, just east of-and cheaper than
Toronto. It was a decision he immediately regretted. He says he was
"utterly and completely in love" with his fiancee but incredibly lonely
away from his English society. "I realized that the language
similarities were irrelevant. I was far more at home in Germany or
Holland or France than I was here. I was a fish out of water." His
voice trails off. "I just had no idea"
In 1988 he started writing
book reviews for the Star and Maclean's, while beginning a three-year
research period for his next biography, a study ofH.G. Wells. In The
Invisible Man, published early last year, Coren calls Wells an
anti-Semite, a misogynist, and a fraud-harsh words rarely associated
with the author of The Time Machine and War of the Worlds. Although he
swears that he didn't loose Wells solely to create controversy-"The man
called Jews 'parasitic people.' Should I have ignored that?"-his
accusations set off shock waves in the literary world. Douglas Pepper
of Random House, which published both Invisible Man and Aesthete, says
that in many ways the Wells biography is more controversial than
Coren's Frank musings. "He was the first to seriously address Wells'
shortcomings. Other Wells biographers chose to ignore them."
agrees. "In Britain, they're more interested in Wells," he crows, "so
when my book came out, I was page one in every book section of every
newspaper." (He later concedes that his prominence may have been due to
the book's February publication date, a notoriously slow month for
books.) Coren even provoked a feud in print with staunch Wells
supporter and former British Labour Party leader Michael Foot, who
accused Coren of being "pious" and "curmudgeonly." Characteristically,
Coren calls Foot a "doddering old man who on his best days is
Looking around his office, I notice Coren has copies
of Aesthete stacked beside copies of the Wells biography. I ask him if
writing in such diverse styles makes him feel schizophrenic. He says
no, but adds that many of his readers and critics can't seem to accept
that he can be good at writing in a variety of forms: "Some people in
Canada just don't understand. They ask, 'How can you be a biographer
and write the Frank diaries?'" He draws an analogy with a quote from
O.K. Chesterton. "He says something like, 'There's no contradiction
between funny and serious; it's like comparing black and triangular.'
"Sometimes I'm funny," he pauses and smiles, "and sometimes I'm not.
But sometimes I'm just trying to take the piss out of people."
phone rings, perhaps the fourth or fifth time in the last hour. "Yes,
thank you. You'll have it for Tuesday. Bye." Coren's grin is so large,
I'm having trouble seeing his ears. "That was The New Republic. They
rang up and said, 'We've seen your work. Are you willing to do a
1,500-word piece about the Canadian election?' Would I do it? I'd sell
my mother to the Libyans to get the chance to do it.
"Now that's me
being a literary prostitute," he quips, then asks me if I'd do it. "Of
course you would. But now when it comes out, someone will pick it up
and say, 'Oh my god, he's in here too! He's a literary prostitute!' I
mean, they'll say literary prostitute, but what they really mean is,
'That bastard! I want to do what he does.'"
FOUND HIS NICHE PLAYING THE role of the contrarian - a right-wing
firebrand ready to launch politically incorrect missives on demand-and
more and more publications are buying into his act. Stuewe, of Books in
Canada, says he chose Coren to write a publishing column because he's
willing to take an unpopular view. "He's one of those Socratic gadflies
people like to read even though they make you angry. He makes people
think harder why they hold the opinions they do, and there aren't many
journalists in Canada who can do that." Another editor attributes
Coren's success to three things: his ability to turn quick copy, his
non-mainstream ideas, and his ability to provide intelligent discourse.
Last year, Coren's impudence touched several nerves following the
introduction of his "Men" column in the Globe and his profile of
Catholic Archbishop Ambrozic in Toronto Life.
Rebick, for instance, hates the biweekly Globe columns. "The first few
months were anti-feministic pap. Now it's just uninteresting pap."
Rebick, it's true, is still angry, even bitter, that she was passed
over for a Globe column at the same time that Coren got his. Rebick
wrote a personal letter to William Thorsell, editor of the Globe,
calling Coren "the most vicious anti-feminist in the country." Coren,
of course, wears Rebick's criticism like a medal pinned to his lapel.
"What a wonderful thing to be known as.'' Coren says the issues he
chooses to address in the Globe are serious matters. Again he draws an
analogy with O.K. Chesterton, who wrote his own column for many years.
"He could take what was in my pocket, or a piece of cheese, and write a
beautiful column about it. I always think of my column as a pebble. You
throw it into the pond and the tipples are your column."
however, likes to create waves, not tipples: one of his first columns
responded, in the expected Coren manner, to a survey reporting that, at
one point in their lives, 50 per cent of Canadian women had been
victims of attempted or fulfilled rape. "I prefer the explanation that
there are statistics, damn statistics, and lies. If it is really
true...and if, like me, you know many women who have not been thus
treated, to balance out the average there must...be entire cities whose
populations are composed entirely of raped females."
Coren did for Toronto Life not only shook up the Catholic
establishment, it shook up the author. The article revolved around an
interview with Toronto's most powerful religious leader, Archbishop
Aloysius Ambrozic, who used words ("frigging" and "bitch") and
expressed opinions (he called the late dictator Francisco Franco "a
conservative Roman Catholic and not a bad fellow") not expected from a
man of the cloth. What perhaps facilitated this revealing look at
Ambrozic was Coren's status as a Knight of the Holy Sepulchre, an
honourary title bestowed on him for his religious writings, conferred
by Ambrozic himself in an October 1992 ceremony. When a local paper
printed reactions to the Toronto Life story a few days later, the
church circled its wagons around Coren and began shooting.
archbishop and he was vulgar," Coren declares. "I submitted questions
in advance and the interview took place, and obviously what they
expected me to do was lie. And obviously what thousands of Roman
Catholics expected me to do was lie. I still get hate mail about the
Bernadette says Coren struggled with his decision to
publish the piece-a dilemma between religion and journalistic
integrity-and when it did get published, he was floored by the negative
reaction. "They said you've been a Roman Catholic for only seven years
[he was raised in a "secular Jewish household" and took instruction
shortly before he met Bernadette]. I mean, that's quite low. Michael
has this idealistic view of life and every time something happens to
change it, he's shocked."
Richler suggests that Coren's reaction
was no different from the reaction his Frank victims have. "What did he
expect? He loves scandal but hates it when it comes his way," Richler
says. "He kicked sand in the faithfuls' eyes-you have to expect a
Coren now says, with an almost incredulous look on his
face, that he doesn't consider himself a Roman Catholic anymore, although he still prays. "The reaction to the piece was what finished
it for me; the reaction from people in authority in the church who
refused to look at what Ambrozic said, but wanted to attack me and kill
the messenger. My wife is Catholic and the children will be raised
Catholic, but that's it. It's just not there for me."
ARRIVING IN CANADA, MICHAEL Coren deliberately set out to make a name
for himself. He succeeded brilliantly. Now when editors want to shock
their readers with unconventional opinions, they're likely to call on
Coren. Ten years ago, Barbara Amiel or Allan Fotheringham would have
got the call.
A colleague calls Coren a "master of self-promotion."
He is, and he's able to make a living because of it. But in Canada,
someone who has Coren's range and cutting panache is attacked more than
applauded. "I don't think he would be as successful as he is now if he
had stayed in Britain," says one local literary editor. "Canadians are
suckers for a good English accent."
Myrna Kostash, chair of The
Writers' Union of Canada, says she's just not interested in the way
Coren sees the world. "I thought he was a type who disappeared the
Englishman of dubious origin who came over and impressed the masses
with his English accent," she says. "I really find him like a premature
Another acquaintance of Coren's says while she
appreciates his need to maintain a bombastic air, it's precisely that
air that irritates her no end. "I think it's a pose," she says. "I
don't think he actually believes there are feminist lesbians with studs
coming after him. It's an act that becomes very tiring."
she's about to get even more tired: Coren has just begun a second
column for the Globe, this one on the arts and literary scene;
beginning this summer is a column for Saturday Night (the new editor
will decide the subject area); in October, Coren's young-adult
biography of religious and children's author C.S. Lewis will be
released. Scheduled for sometime in 1995 is his next major biography,
what Coren calls a "more orthodox look" at the life and times of
Sherlockian author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
BACK IN HIS OFFICE, AN UNREPENTANT Corent takes all the criticism in stride. "People have called me an anti-Semite," he says, as he repeatedly flops the unglued heel of his Brooks running shoe back and forth on his carpet. "I thought it was quite rich since my father's family was massacred in the Holocaust. But I quite like that. I like people to think about me that aren't true. I like to beguile."