Historicist: I Sing The Body Hygienic
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Historicist: I Sing The Body Hygienic

In his typically over-the-top style, veteran Toronto newspaper columnist McKenzie Porter's provided pointers on when and where to use the bathroom.

Illustration by Sasha Plotnikova.

“For more than 40 years,” Toronto Sun columnist McKenzie Porter informed his readers on November 12, 1976, “I have wanted to write the column that follows. But I have refrained on the grounds of an old fashioned delicacy. Now that general attitudes toward bodily functions are more candid and wholesome I think I may deplore, without being obnoxious, the washroom habits of some men.”

So began what remains literally the shittiest column the Sun ever published. “Body Hygiene” was one of the finest examples of the odd balance Porter struck in much of his work during a 60-year journalistic career: was he really an elitist, snobby Brit who worshipped the ways of the old country or did he love pulling everyone’s leg with the most outrageous commentary he could devise?

The most depressing spectacle a man may see on entering a public washroom to urinate is that of the feet of another man who is seated behind the half-door of a water closet in the act of defecation. There is something wrong with a man who defecates in some washroom outside his home. He is either ill, ignorant or unclean.

That Porter found such an everyday action “wrong” fit the snooty persona he cultivated. As he outlined in a column published on the Sun’s first anniversary, “I believe in free enterprise, the monarchy, freedom of speech, the integrity of the Establishment, the Independence of Canada, the perpetration of historic ceremonies, classical education and traditional art, the wearing of a collar and tie in the city, in a strong defence force and in the practice of personal hygiene and good manners. For these reasons some of Toronto’s leading journalists call me a snob.”

Among those who bestowed that term on Porter was June Callwood, who believed that underneath the caricature he created of an old-fashioned racist/sexist member of the gentility, “he really did have a heart of gold. He was kind of adorable [and] had a huge amount of charm. I’ll never forget the pomposity, but it had to be a joke.” Porter’s son Tim described him as “a cartoonist who used words… People thought he was snooty, but he was sending up people he thought were snooty. He had a forked tongue in both cheeks simultaneously. He kicked uphill.”

The custom of reading the newspaper regularly in a water closet at one’s place of employment is not merely a theft of one’s employer’s time but, often, an offence to the eyes, ears and nose of one’s colleagues.

This didn’t stop Porter from doing so in a picture taken after the column was published. Call it the middle-aged response to the Phi Zappa Krappa poster: Porter, in a finely-tailored suit, reading a copy of the Sun while sitting on a toilet.

Sketches of four Telegram columnists: Ron Haggart, Scott Young, McKenzie Porter, and DuBarry Campau. The Telegram, January 16, 1971.

A healthy, intelligent, fastidious man defecates in his home or hotel bathroom in the morning, before he takes his shower or tub. In this way he ensures that his body is immaculate before he dons his underwear. Defecation in any place where it is difficult to wash the anus is unhygienic. No matter how good the quality of toilet paper available it is never as effective as soap and water.

What spurred Porter to devote columns to matters like the proper time and place to defecate? Often he was provoked by the ribbing of co-workers who baited Porter about the daily habits that the columnist despised among the unwashed masses. As Porter raged away, ideas for a column formed in his head which resulted, in the words of fellow Sun writer Jean Sonmor, in “some specific, and outlandish, prescription for genteel living.”

One of the most impressive ablutionary provisions I ever saw was a latrine for private soldiers of the Indian Army during World War II. Although it was a makeshift affair in range of enemy guns it was equipped with a rudimentary shower made out of old gasoline cans. The private soldiers of this particular regiment, famous for their salubrious appearance, were not content in a latrine with paper. They expected, even in the front line, facilities for washing.

The celebrated freshness of the Indian Army is dependent to a large extent on the regularity of bowel movements. By developing the habit of excreting shortly after arising from sleep, a habit easily acquired by anybody else, the Indian Army soldiers are able to wash conveniently before they dress.

Taking a tip from the Indian Army, many years ago the British Army introduced the seemingly incongruous barrack room custom of serving morning tea to soldiers in bed. Such refreshment is called Gunfire. It promotes the routine of morning evacuation, use of the showers and higher standards of cleanliness and health.

Just as Don Cherry harks back to his days coaching the Boston Bruins, Porter frequently invoked his experiences fighting for Great Britain during World War II. Porter was already an established writer by the time the war began: at 25, he was named news editor of the Daily Mirror, where he broke the story of the abdication of King Edward VIII in 1936. His military service in the Middle East and Italy (where he took four bullets during the battle of Monte Cassino in 1944) earned him a Military Cross.