IT BEGAN in February of 1991. I had written an article in the Toronto Star about the new wave of satire in Canada and, in particular, the notorious Frank magazine. The journal in question had attempted to eviscerate me on several occasions, but I still regarded them favourably and demonstrated as much in the Star essay. A telephone call from the editor of Frank, Michael Bate, was one of the consequences. "What we need is a diary column, a sort of Auberon Waugh type of thing from Private Eye." Thus was "Aesthete's Diary" born, a bi-weekly journey into what I hope is comic fantasy, iconoclastic animus, political satire, and social provocation; a revelling in the incorrect and the out of favour, a swim in the waters of un-Canadian behaviour.
The diary seemed to work. Quite an audience developed, even a form of cult following. Speculation as to who would write such dreadful things in a national publication flourished. After a year of obfuscation, throwing up the odd miasma at literary gatherings and dinner parties I decided to take off the heavy cloak of anonymity. I was helped in this by the publisher Anna Porter. In her exotic tones she said, "I love the diary, Michael. Peter Worthington told me you wrote it." I had not then and still have not ever met the said Toronto Sun columnist and associate editor.
There are several reasons why I threw wide the doors of the journalistic closet. The first is simple ego - I enjoy recognition, am proud of the writings and rantings in the Frank diary, and wanted people to know who was writing it. The second is more profound. In a country where the literary community has developed incestuous behaviour, apotheosis-like, into an art form, it is of fundamental importance that individual writers tell the truth and state their names. Also the type of material I was writing was of such a controversial nature that to hide behind a nom-de-plume became indefensible. My confidante and counsellor Daniel Richler primed me with fine single malt and explained as only he can that I "had to own up. For you, for us, for everybody who cares."
And then ambivalence. G. K. Chesterton said that abandoning a penname was like experiencing a second birth; Hilaire Belloc though it "an act of losing one's virginity"; and H. G. Wells wrote that anybody who used a literary disguise in the first place was "a bastard with bastard tendencies." Thus, an illegitimate celibate about to be born. A difficult time.
The process began of counting up how many people I had offended in my diary - legions - but that had been my intention and I felt no contrition and would offer no apologies. If these people received my scorn they deserved it. But what of those friends and allies who had not been informed of the situation? I hadn't actually lied about anything, had never denied to anyone that I wrote "Aesthete's Diary." I was merely, to borrow and bend a jesuitical maxim, somewhat economical with the truth.
The evening before the first issue of Frank was published baring my name and my photograph I recalled a conversation that I had had with a close friend, a former editor of the Idler. He was a partisan of "Aesthete's Diary," thought it to be a splendid phenomenon. "But," he insisted, "the guy shouldn't have attacked June Rowlands, the Toronto mayor, in the last issue. That's not right. I mean, she's on our side for Christ's sake." Not for Christ's sake, I am sure, and not on my side for certain. The journalist in question may have felt rather badly treated when I revealed all, but what was more important was his misunderstanding of what the diary is all about. With malice towards all, with trust of nobody. Some pundits accuse me of being conservative, reactionary, rightwing. Well, yes, and well, no. I have actually attacked the government, the Reform Party, the police, racism, and the Canadian establishment far more often than I have radical feminists, militant gays, or assorted fatuous do-gooders. Jaundice is in the eye of the beholder.
A few months after I penned my name to the diary a burly, brutish man approached me at the comer of Bloor and Yonge, and asked, "Are you the one who writes in Frank?" The conversation continued as we walked through traffic, for time has taught me that it is unwise to stop and answer someone who is obviously drunk and potentially mad. "Depends," was my response. "Do you like what you read?" A smile and a wink, for here was a friend. But more alarming, for it reveals an irksome naivete and credulity in Canadian life and letters, is how many educated and informed people refused to believe that it was really me featured above the diary, and instead thought that the editors of Frank were playing a long, elaborate joke. Some joke, some stupidity.
There have been abusive telephone calls, but I thrive on them and relish the success I am obviously having. Indifference and apathy are the greatest punishments, but generally those enemies have been vanquished. In a recent Frank survey, the diary was the most popular column in the magazine and thought by the vast bulk of respondents to be in the "excellent" category. What immodesty, but what else would the writer of "Michael Coren's Diary" exhibit? That Random House has brought the diary and intends to publish a two-year compilation in the summer of 1993 is similarly gratifying and. I hope, sickening news to my victims. If I had remained Aesthete could this have ever happened? I ponder the quandary every day as I walk along the corridor of a downtown Toronto building to my office. Two doors away is the room of the poet David McFadden, whose latest volume is entitled Anonymity Suite. He has placed the dust-jacket of the book on the front of his door. It would now be most out of place on the front of mine.