INTERVIEW: Rev Richard Coles on The Madness of Grief
- Credit: Reverend Richard Coles
The Reverend Richard Coles has been many things in life – chart-topping band member, journalist, radio and television star, Church of England priest. In December 2019, he took on the hardest role of all – widower – when his partner, the Reverend David Coles, died aged 43. Katie Jarvis spoke with him about The Madness of Grief, the book he has written on his bereavement
‘I have a confession to make,’ I say to the Reverend Richard Coles.
‘Oh, please do!’ he encourages, all enthusiasm.
The awkward thing is this. I have a birthday cake in the oven (not a euphemism) that the recipe falsely promised would be ready 15 minutes before our Zoom call.
‘How old is your son?’ he asks, as if all interviewers nip off on birthday-baking errands mid-call.
Then, as I return to screen, Richard disappears off – like two people in an Alpine weather house. He’s having to sort out Pongo, who’s barking in the way only a dachshund in love can bark.
‘Oh, sorry! It’s Ozzie, the postie. He’s one of those postmen who wears shorts all year round and has very impressive legs. Pongo gets excited.’
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Richard Coles is in his study: piano – with tidy stack of sheet-music – in the background; white shelves covered with books that have amicably budged up, allowing artful objets to join them; a crucifix on the wall at the back.
When I interviewed him last, at his gingerbread-stone vicarage in Finedon, Northamptonshire, books and dogs also wove their way into the conversation.
As did David, his partner. Of course he did.
In ways that made me laugh:
(‘I had quite a lot of books from when I was a reviewer – signed and dedicated first-editions – which I can no longer find. I have an awful feeling – though David denies it – that they went to the second-hand bookshop.’)
In ways that reflected the compromises and negotiations of a successful relationship:
(‘I wanted to name [the dogs] after Rhinemaidens but David wouldn’t let me.’)
The Reverend David Coles died unexpectedly, aged 43, just as Christmas 2019 was inexorably approaching.
The book Richard has written about his partner’s death – The Madness of Grief – is moving, wise, funny, courageous, honest. And beautiful.
‘How are you?’ I ask Richard Coles.
I ask because I’ve just lived, through his book, the trauma of him losing David, his partner of 12 years. A trauma he unflinchingly describes in The Madness of Grief.
Such as the paragraph where David is lying on a hospital trolley, four medics in scrubs gathered around, one holding out a consent form. Even though Richard is watching David vomit copious amounts of blood, his brain is just not getting it. ‘Ooh, let’s not do the one with a risk of death, please,’ he jokes.
And they all just look at him.
In the end, it’s David who takes it upon himself to compassionately explain, ‘They are going to operate, but I might die. I love you.’
In the corridor afterwards – David’s devastating words still fresh in the air – a genial stranger’s voice calls out, ‘Oh look, it’s the Strictly Rev! Do us a twirl, Rev!’
I read with compassion about the moment a doctor tells Richard nothing more can be done for David; yet stubbornly he clings to life.
The family visits; close friends call in to say goodbye, including Charles and Karen, Earl and Countess Spencer. David, in a period of consciousness, whispers to Richard, ‘Kiss me, kiss me’, which Richard tenderly does. ‘TISSUE, TISSUE!’ David clarifies, crossly.
Then, afterwards, the true beginning of losing someone: where Death – greedy snatcher of all we love – selfishly demands more, washing out pictures you hold in your mind until they fade like photographs in sunlight.
Even, finally, the lingering memories of someone’s smell: ‘of fags and Jo Malone and whisky’.
I ask Richard Coles how he is for many reasons; not least because I, too, recognise like an old friend his descriptions of Guilt, Death’s civil partner:
If Richard had known – if only he’d known – that David’s birthday, three days before he was taken off a ventilator, would be his last: ‘[I’d have] Bought him a Rolex – not that he would have wanted one, but would he have liked the gesture? Whisked him off for a night at Claridge’s, which he would have liked without any qualification at all? Or just given him more of my attention than I actually had, because I was tired and Rick Stein was confiting a tomato on television that night?’
And then there is added guilt. If guilt were a burger, this would be Guilt with fried onion, eggs, bacon, cheese and salad. The Works.
Because David died of alcoholism.
And even though you know you tried everything, that small voice in your head insists you could have made a difference, if only…
‘I do sometimes torment myself by thinking about small things. Differences that could have happened that might have saved him. Of course, it’s nonsense. When you think about it rationally, you realise you can’t snatch the tumbler from their hand. And it’s their decision to do it. You can make the most powerful, persuasive argument in the world, but it’s not you; it’s them.
‘Fear and anger and grief and guilt are closely related; the revolt of the rational person against this bizarrely, outrageous fact of death. I think a lot of religion starts there: A confrontation with this outrageous reality of death that provokes a desire to explore that mysterious end of life where it starts blending into something beyond life.’
I know much about the rich life of Richard Coles. That, in the 1980s, he had three top-ten hits with Jimmy Somerville as the Communards (including Don’t Leave Me This Way, best-selling single of 86). That he was ordained as a Church of England priest in 2005.
I know he presents Radio 4’s Saturday Live to great acclaim, and regularly appears on television. (I would say National Treasure; but I love David’s description of ‘borderline national trinket’.)
I know he was in a relationship with the Reverend David Coles who, on his Twitter account, described himself as ‘dilettante potter, designer, gardener & narrow boat enthusiast’; posting photos of picture-perfect steak-and-potato pies he’d made days before his death.
But I don’t know much about this man with whom Richard shared 12 years of his life.
So, we talk about him, Richard and I: David Coles, who many assumed to be a middle-class southerner. ‘He played the violin; he liked all the things you would expect a middle-class person to like.’ Knitting, crochet, willow-weaving.
Yet he was born into a working-class Manchester family, and moved to Suffolk, aged 11, with his father’s job.
Unsurprisingly, that’s when the transformation began. Firstly, he tried to hide his roots with a southern accent. ‘Why do you do that? You do that because you are in a space where you feel anxious, I guess.’
As he got older, other pretences were forced on him.
‘He had a short marriage to a woman, which ended when David revealed that he was gay – which was simply unthinkable in the world in which he was living. [At the time], he was part of a religious sect, which believed they were elect and saved; that the end-times were coming and they would all be taken up in Rapture. Everybody else would go to hell.
‘Then, all of a sudden, he was no longer in that charmed circle. He was 20, I think, when he and his wife split up and he came to London to find a new life, but thought that he had been expelled from Eden. And fire awaited. And that was not an easy thing.’
David found happiness with Richard; they entered into a civil partnership in 2010 – celibate because of the Church’s teaching on practising homosexuality.
Yet, despite that happiness, there was still a dark cloud – maybe a legacy of that enforced dissembling; I just don’t know.
Mostly, he was in denial of the fact. And tried to ensure everyone else was, too.
Once, the two of them went to an appointment with a hepatologist, who showed them an x-ray of David’s liver like a huge pickled walnut.
‘When we got home, I said, ‘I’m really concerned about the sclerosis of the liver’. And David said, ‘What sclerosis?’
Perhaps because David was a trained medic – a former A&E nurse – his denial was almost convincing.
‘And because David wasn’t jaundiced, a part of me thought: Maybe he’s OK. Maybe he’s not endangering his life. Of course he was endangering his life. All the evidence was there. But you grab onto what you can, just as he grabbed onto what he could to deny the reality of what was happening.’
What Richard Coles did know was that he couldn’t write The Madness of Grief without writing about alcoholism: David, ‘in all his terror and glory, if I can put it that way.
‘I wanted to remember him truthfully because I couldn’t do better than that. Also, because it’s something that happens to lots and lots of people.’
He consulted David’s family, who agreed.
But there’s another question. Almost before I ask, he’s answered it.
‘I knew David would hate [him writing about] it. Because he would have been deeply, deeply traumatised at the thought of discussion of his alcoholism. He couldn’t bear that in life so the thought of… He would have hated it.
‘But he’s not here anymore. It can’t hurt him. And I needed to say it. And I don’t think I did a disservice to his memory. Because his woundedness was inextricable from his loveliness; and I really, really wanted the world to know about it.’
So, how is Richard Coles?
He’s more or less where he should be, he tells me. He’s seeing a bereavement counsellor, which is enormously helpful.
He’s learned that other widows are wonderful resources of pragmatic advice.
‘They’re lovely. Very practical and tender in their support, and I really valued that. I’m not interested in being told how to grieve. I find that rather irritating, actually. But I do want to know what it was like for you.’
And he has learned that Year Two is tougher than Year One.
‘Even now, I sometimes believe that David is alive somewhere, doing a David thing. I had a dream that I was watching telly and he walked in in his usual way; went past me to the kitchen with the shopping.
‘I said, ‘Oh! I thought you were dead.’ And he said, ‘No. I just wanted some ‘me’ time’. I said, ‘Oh, OK. It’s lovely to see you’. He said, ‘I’m not stopping. I’ve met someone else’. And went out again.
‘I still have the sense of him being him somewhere, crochet-ing furiously or painting something; or, I don’t know, embroidering; doing a cushion. And then, after a while – perhaps it’s a sort of muscle memory – you just know they’re not coming and you just... You want them to. I want him to.
‘I want him to walk through the door. Preferably not to deliver the news that he’s met someone else.
‘But I would quite like him to walk through the door.’
The Reverend Richard Coles appeared at this year's Cheltenham Literature Festival: cheltenhamfestivals.com
The Madness of Grief, A Memoir of Love and Loss by the Reverend Richard Coles, is published by Orion, price £16.99, hardback.