My father would never have considered himself a symbol of the Anglo-Canadian experience. Actually, he’d probably have wondered what the hell you were talking about. Not that he was lacking in intelligence. Far from it. He was intensely sharp, eager for knowledge, widely travelled and well-read.
One of his childhood friends was playwright Harold Pinter – they attended Hackney Jewish Youth Club together – but while Pinter went on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, Phil Coren became a cab driver. Dad picked Pinter up once in London’s West End. They hadn’t seen one another in years, and Pinter said, “You know Phil, you’re in the honest profession. Mine is just a sham.”
Dad was a working–class Jew from tough, rough Hackney in London. He left school at 15 and two years later was in the Royal Air Force’s Bomber Command. The idea of someone from his class and ethnic background going to university was laughable.
He boxed as a boy – a lot of Jewish kids did back there and back then – and made a name for himself with his fists in the RAF and then after the war as a gifted amateur. Phil Coren was quick, good-looking, streetwise and, after the clawing terror of war, bored and restless.
Like many men of his age, he couldn’t settle down and decided to see more of the world. First was New York and then, because of visas and his British passport, he came up to Toronto for a long-term stay. He worked at Eaton’s and at the job interview was asked about the origins of his name. It was code of course, from people who still embraced a cultural anti-Semitism. But Phil Coren’s cockney accent confused them, and when he said his family had originally been Irish Protestant Corcorans, nobody seemed the wiser.
It was all the more absurd in that on Sundays, he wasn’t at a Presbyterian church but playing semi-professional soccer for a local Jewish team.
He left Canada in late 1950 and never returned. When I was a boy, he sometimes spoke of the “good times” in Toronto and Ottawa, and how rich everybody seemed compared to postwar Britain, but he never gave us many details. It was as though there was something painful at the core of it all.
In 1986, I was invited to deliver a lecture at the University of Toronto, met a beautiful young woman, fell in love and married her a year later. Thus son followed father to Canada, except this time the move was permanent. But we were married in a Roman Catholic church, and dad simply wouldn’t attend the wedding and never visited us in Canada. Mum came over, and we went to Britain. That was the best it was going to be.
Then in 2000 he suffered a stroke. This fit, active man suddenly had the vitality trashed and thrashed out of him. It broke my heart watching him fight to form words, to walk and to be. Yet from that oppressor came a strange liberation. He said he would visit us. Mum and dad, my parents, flew to Canada, and for three weeks we showed Phil Coren his old haunts and arranged meetings with some of his old buddies.
He’d lived on Spadina Avenue all those years ago, and we drove up and down that long, changed road until he said, “Here, it was here.” He got out of the car, walked for a few moments, and then put his head in his hands and began to cry. I hugged him, told him it was OK. He looked at me and said, “I left it too long. I’ve left it too long.”
The last I saw my dad alive was at the end of that trip, as he walked arm in arm with my mother through the departure gate at Pearson Airport in Toronto. A few days later, he had a second stroke, fell badly, and died in hospital shortly afterwards.
After his funeral in London, I went back to my parents’ home, where I had grown up, and I sat in his room and wept. I had to sort through his papers and was constantly jolted into tears as I read notes and letters and saw photographs showing how proud he was of my family. Why, then, couldn’t he have broken through the old feelings and visited us earlier?
Then I understood.
In an old box file were keepsakes from half-a-century ago. At the bottom, as though hidden, was a photograph of a young Phil Coren with his arm around a lovely young woman. As I looked closer, I realized they were standing in front of the Toronto house in which he had lived. Attached to the photo with a rusted paperclip was a letter.
“It just can’t happen Phil. I am so sorry. My parents don’t hate Jews, but you’re not Catholic, and if I married you, they would never speak to me again. I can’t do that to them, and I can’t do that to me. It would never work. I’m sorry.”
There was no name, no address and I’ve no idea who she was. Yes, I have tried to find out. I do, though, now know why he felt the way he did and why he wouldn’t visit.
Did he leave it too long? I don’t know and I will never judge. What I do know is that I miss him very much indeed and that every time I walk or drive by that part of Spadina, I have to fight back tears. n
Michael Coren is an author and broadcaster. He can be reached at [email protected]