Cloak and Dagger
Michael Coren found fame by slicing and dicing the country's cultural and political elite. His enthusiasm for the cut and thrust is matched only by his determination to shield his family from those plotting a counterattack
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 TVOntario tee.
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 regularly
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 “literary prostitute.”
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.
OTHERS 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:
FROM 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
FROM 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
FROM 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.
“Literary 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.
“Look, 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 original comment.”
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 gets worse.”
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 target.
“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 notch-or five.
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.
“I 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.”
Coren’s inconsistency 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.”
Paul 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.”
COREN 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.”
Coren 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.”
Coren 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 semiliterate.”
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.”
The 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.'”
COREN HAS 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.
Ex-NAC president 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.”
Coren, 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.”
The piece 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.
“He’s an 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 article.”
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 response.”
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.”
ON 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 stuffed shirt.”
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.”
If so, 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.”
Arielle Piat-Sauvé was the Spring 2015 Senior Editor of the RRJ