'I couldn't save David': Finedon vicar Rev Richard Coles' revealing memoir uncovers The Madness of Grief

David Coles died just before Christmas 2019 - they had been together for 12 years

By Alison Bagley
Saturday, 27th March 2021, 7:00 am

It's been a decade since I was last at Finedon Rectory. Ten years ago it was to photograph pop star-turned-radio-presenter and Anglican priest Rev Richard Coles, the new vicar of St Mary's Church.

Welcomed into the modern stone rectory by the unmistakable 1980s pop star, the former Communard introduced me to another clergyman who was sorting through boxes and packing cases - his life partner Rev David Coles. A handsome young man also in a dog collar. He would have been 33 at the time.

Today I've arrived a little bit early at Finedon Vicarage and preparing for an outdoor interview, I've rummaged about for my fingerless mittens and a woolly scarf in the back of my car.

David and Richard Coles in the Holy Land in 2012

Famously Mr Coles is the only vicar in the Church of England to have had a number one single. He is one of the nation's best-loved telly vicars (although Kate 'Gogglebox' Bottley might give him a run for his money), bon viveur, former Strictly Come Dancing and Celebrity Masterchef and Mastermind contestant, TV and radio presenter and all round national treasure.

Getting my things together when I glance up out of the car window, my eyes meet the smiling face of Rev Richard Coles. He is standing in jeans, carpet slippers and a comfy jumper, dog collar slightly askew, and welcomes me kindly.

You might expect a man who has is about to host not one but two online Zoom-based 'gigs' to be precious with his time - a motivational online chat to delight guests of a charity and an awards do are on the agenda but generosity abounds and he not only brings a cup of tea but also a large slice of treacly cake - 'that will be with us all day' he says - courtesy of a kindly parishioner, who has dropped off the treat in a tupperware box enrobed in a Loakes shoe carrier bag.

I too have brought a small gift - a copy of this paper freshly published - he looks pleased and exclaims: "I love the ET. I was in it in 1977 when I had written a musical - I probably had only written a few bars but it was good enough to be in the paper. I was thrilled."

Rev Richard Coles with Pongo

I'm here to discuss his new book 'The Madness of Grief' - a memoir of love and loss a book he 'had to write' after the the sudden and shocking death of his life partner David.

It is sometimes hard to think back to life before Covid, the time pre-pandemic. In December 2019, as a nation we were obsessed by another all-consuming life-changing situation - Brexit.

But on Friday, December 13, 2019, as Boris Johnson hailed a 'new dawn' with his Conservative Party winning a stunning victory, the beloved life partner of Rev Richard Coles was being rushed by ambulance into Kettering General Hospital A&E.

Four days later a 7am message on Twitter from @RevRichardColes announced to the world: "I'm very sorry to say that @RevDavidColes has died. He had been ill for a while. Thanks to the brilliant teams @KettGeneral. Funeral details to follow. "The Lord shall be thine everlasting light, and the days of thy mourning shall be ended."

The Coles

As you would expect from such an erudite and verbally dexterous broadcaster, The Madness of Grief deftly recalls the time from David falling ill, until his January 3 funeral interspersed by flashbacks, and vignettes post-funeral from the year that followed.

He said: "I wanted people to know what it was like for me. It has been a year of bereavements and I wanted to tell people what they might expect.

"Bereavement isn't a linear model of denial, anger, depression etc, it's much more circular than that and much longer. Year two has been harder than year one.

"It's the 'he'll be here in a minute'. There's places that are still out of bounds. I can't use his carving knife for anything but meat and I'm not allowed in the garage just in case I try to do some DIY.

The Madness of Grief: A Memoir of Love and Loss by The Reverend Richard Coles is published by W&N in hardback, eBook and audio download

"I miss David terribly. I worry that he will fade from me. The sudden knowing he's not there is a feeling of intense vertigo, of being poleaxed. There's the phantom cigarette smoke and he comes to me in dreams."

The Coles had been a couple for twelve years and were in a civil partnership for nine. It was David who made the first move to woo Richard after listening to one of his sermons at a church service, introducing himself, keeping in touch and finally sending a clincher text "Don't you get it?" allowing the penny to drop that there was a relationship in the offing.

As the book details David's last days the reader is allowed to get to know the real man - a former nurse who had worked in a South African township who became an ordained priest, an enthusiastic car collector, a musician, barber, son, uncle and brother-in-law and beloved husband.

The heart-wrenching and laugh-out-loud memoir provides a real sucker punch as only half way through the story you are given the cause of death for person you have had fleshed out for you for the previous 77 pages. Stark and clear. The kind, funny, talented dog-loving dapper multi-talented David's illness was alcoholism and it killed him at the age of 43.

Mr Coles, 59, said: "It is what killed David, alcohol addiction. What I learnt as he suffered it is not a monolithic thing. People say don't smoke that fag, don't eat that cake, don't drink that drink.

"I couldn't save David. I didn't have any control over it. Guilt comes running along. I am having therapy to help with that - 'If I had done something'.

Richard Coles with Jimmy Sommerville. Mr Coles played saxophone with Bronski Beat on tour and then left to form chart-toppers the Communards

"He was always reinventing himself. He had good ideas but he couldn't see them through because the pattern of his life was so impossible. He would stay up for two days. I was so tired - I must be like what it is to have a new-born baby. I'm still catching up on sleep."

Attending Al-Anon - for families of those affected by alcohol dependency - helped Mr Coles talk to others who were in the same or similar situation to him to share in solidarity but he no longer attends meetings.

In his first year of widowhood, Mr Coles has been supported by many people in the county. From the humble everyday encounters in a Burton Latimer cafe with a group of former shoe workers, who shared their advice on bereavement, to a Christmas getaway at Althorp, guest of Earl Spencer and his family, to escape somewhere with high walls and long drives.

Mr Coles said: "It's a really big deal losing your life partner. The widows of Burton Latimer in Subway made me laugh. They said 'we've genned you up me duck'. It was great.

"Christmas at Althorp was so kind, so immensely kind. They took me in. Charles knows better than most about public attention."

As well as dozens of bouquets of flowers arriving at the vicarage and hundreds of letters and cards of sympathy from friends, neighbours and social media acquaintances, a 'small but lively correspondence' from Christians including one who wished him to know that David was in hell and he "will follow".

He said: "The cops took it away. It didn't really bother me that much but they took it seriously. I get one about once a week.

"They can say what they like. It's about them using me as a sounding board for themselves, it's just static."

As a vicar pastoral care for the bereaved, discussions about the afterlife, or being called out to perform the last rites is part life and work and Mr Coles' faith is that he will be reunited with David after death.

He said: "I know that this is not all that there is. You go back to God and in God there is eternal light. The light of God is very bright and all that remains will be all that is good about you."

The pair will be reunited in death in an adjoining plot in Grafton Underwood churchyard in his beloved Northamptonshire, close to where he grew up in Barton Seagrave.

He said: "If you were an out, gay man in the 1970s you went to London as soon as you could. When I could come back on my terms I did. Kettering is not going to win any prizes but it's who I am and I love it. I love its modesty and humour and its bloody mindedness. It's a classic Midlands shoe town. The villages with their church spires, the rolling fields, with copses and shallow valleys.

"The only thing I would like are more Michelin-starred restaurants and an opera house maybe in Corby.

"I love that I got my Astra Zeneca vaccination by my GP Charles, whom I have known since childhood, when we both went to Sunnylands Kindergarten in Kettering. We were taught by Mrs Gilbert, mother of Prof Sarah Gilbert, who developed the vaccine. That's so Kettering."

Mr Coles reaches 60 next March and feels that might be the time for him to move on from his parish duties and has been invited to live in near an old friend in the south of England.

He said: "I'm going to retire fairly soon. I couldn't think of a better place to be. I do love it here. I used to think as the vicar I would be the first to know everything. It turns out I'm usually the last. We've had problems and we've faced challenges."

Compelled to write the memoir to record his grief and help others, his next literary venture is a novel featuring a crime-solving vicar living in a vicarage in the Midlands close to a grand country estate - the manuscript has just been delivered to the publisher.

As I leave I say I enjoyed his routine on Channel 4's Stand Up To Cancer 'Stand Up and Deliver' when he was pipped to the post by former Conservative Party co-Chairwoman Baroness Sayeeda Warsi to the top spot.

He said: "She was very good. Ever since David mocked my paso doble on Strictly, he left me in no doubt it was a car crash. I haven't been able to watch anything like that. I sulked for a day but it was brutal but deserved.

"He stopped me from being a knobhead. He threw one of my hats away. I looked for it everywhere and admitted not long before he died that he had thrown it away. I’d also like to know where the keys to the Landrover are and the dogs’ vet’s books.

"But I know he loved me and he knew I loved him."

The Madness of Grief: A Memoir of Love and Loss by The Reverend Richard Coles is published by W&N in hardback, eBook and audio download, http://smarturl.it/MadnessOfGrief

Rev Richard Coles arrived in Finedon ten years ago
Pongo and Daisy with Rev Richard Coles