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.

Any doctor will tell you that washing with soap and water after excretion is a precaution against minor and major ailments of the rectum.

A common cause of so-called food poisoning is the handling of dishes by restaurant workers who have failed to wash their hands properly after defecation. All staff washrooms in restaurants should be equipped with bidets, or showers, and the use of such, after defecation, should be mandatory.

Porter’s concern for proper cleaning techniques among food service workers is understandable given the role food played in his arrival in Canada in 1948. Tired of dealing with postwar rations in Europe, the proud carnivore once claimed that he chose Canada because of its bountiful supply of meat. Once here, he began a long association with Maclean’s magazine as a feature writer. Porter joined the Telegram in 1962 and soon became a columnist and arts critic. The outrageous tone of his work resulted in many scrapped columns—when one of Porter’s pieces that was printed resulted in the Telegram losing a libel suit, publisher John Bassett couldn’t bring himself to fire a decorated war veteran. Porter continued writing for the Telegram until the paper folded in 1971, and then joined many of his co-workers in launching the Sun.

It’s hard to say whether the Sun might have entertained as a joke Porter’s suggestions for signs to be posted on its bathroom doors:

It is essential, of course, to provide water closets in all places of employment and in public buildings for the use of persons who need them at odd times. But to encourage better habits in the general population each public water closet should carry on its half-door the notice: For Emergency.

On the inside of the door, for the edification of the user, the following notice should be posted: “This Water Closet is Provided For Persons Suffering From Temporary Irregularity of the Bowels. Healthy Persons Use the Water Closet At Home Where It Is Possible To Wash The Body Before Adjusting the Dress.”

The floating heads of McKenzie Porter. Clockwise from top: the Toronto Sun, December 8, 1972; the Telegram, August 9, 1967; the Telegram, July 29, 1968.

Reaction to “Body Hygiene” filled the Sun’s letter page for the following week, which provided the editorial page editor ample opportunity to test their potty humour skills. Among the responses to outraged readers who thought Porter need professional help: “We thought it best he get it out of his system”; “Now we know what gives him such a healthy flush”; “It was a moving column”; “He felt he had to flush the truth out”; “Porter thinks the Trots are socialists.” The column became so notorious National Lampoon republished it in their March 1977 issue.

While “Body Hygiene” amused many readers, other Porter columns attracted strong criticism, especially his frequent defence of the apartheid-era regime in South Africa—Porter tended to depict the white Afrikaners as having benevolent paternalistic instincts when it came to the black majority. In a February 1989 column discussing a Toronto Life article on Italians who stacked Liberal nomination meetings, Porter declared that ethnic groups were seeking political power “by methods alien to British practice.” He proposed that “no Canadian citizen born outside Canada, save the child of citizens working or vacationing abroad, should be allowed to become a candidate, or to vote, in any municipal, provincial or federal election.” The tone of the column so outraged some local politicians that a movement led by Jack Layton prompted Toronto city council to pull ads from the Sun until a front-page apology to the Italian community was printed, along with an excerpt from the Canadian Charter of Rights. While Sun publisher Paul Godfrey admitted he disagreed with Porter’s column, he refused to give in to council’s demands. Porter was on vacation during much of the furor, leaving others throughout the Toronto media to defend his right to say something as silly and offensive he did: if his modest proposal was carried out, he wouldn’t have been able to vote either. The City eventually gave up waiting for an apology and restored its advertising.

Following his departure from the Sun in 1990, Porter continued to freelance, including several colourful appearances on the “Facts and Arguments” page of the Globe and Mail. When he died at the age of 95 in 2006, the Globe remembered him as “the very personification of political incorrectness decades before the term was coined.” Perhaps Porter was being playfully provocative when writing about toilet etiquette, but given how long he lived, there could have been some wisdom in his immaculate crapping rituals.

Additional material from The Little Paper That Grew by Jean Sonmor (Toronto: Toronto Sun, 1993) and the following newspapers: the November 2, 2006 edition of the Globe and Mail; and the November 1, 1972, November 12, 1976, November 16, 1976, November 17, 1976, November 18, 1976, November 19, 1976, and February 6, 1989 editions of the Toronto Sun.

Every Saturday, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.