When somebody dies, they take the future with them
CELEBRITY VICAR RICHARD COLES TALKS TO HANNAH STEPHENSON ABOUT HOW HE’S COPED WITH THE DEATH OF HIS PARTNER AND HIS PLANS FOR MOVING ON
THE Reverend Richard Coles is among our most recognisable clergymen – a former pop star, Strictly Come Dancing contestant, perennial game show guest and genial Radio 4 presenter.
But amid the TV and radio appearances, the luncheon and public speaking circuit and, of course, his work as a vicar in Finedon, Northamptonshire, Rev Coles, 59, has been grieving the loss of his partner David, who died from alcohol addiction aged 43 just over a year ago.
Rev Coles has just published The Madness Of Grief, his account of David’s death and the aftermath, interspersed with anecdotes of their life together and his subsequent journey of grief, the ‘sadmin’ he had to complete with regards to the funeral and other elements of the bureaucracy of death, as he tried to tie up loose ends and navigate life without his partner of 12 years. “I wanted to record what was happening to me when I was in the thick of it. I felt a bit like a war correspondent standing on a street corner when there were bombs going off,” he recalls.
“It’s been tough,” he continues. “The first lockdown was okay, because being at home and not being busy was good for me. But the third lockdown was really tough, so I’m seeing a bereavement counsellor, which feels like the right time.” The title of the book reflects the effect grief has had on him, he explains. “Grief is mad. On the day that David died I went to the shop to get bread and milk and came out with three kinds of Parmesan. I was going through life not thinking things through. Your life is all over the place.”
This is the first time Rev Coles has revealed publicly that David, 43, a former A&E nurse and fellow vicar – he later lost his vicar’s licence – died from alcohol addiction, even though people who knew him had known he was an alcoholic for some time. “It’s not the kind of thing you can keep from people. Also, there’s a conspiracy of silence around someone who has an addiction, which is fatal.”
David would have hated him talking about it, though, he notes. “Like most people who have an addiction, he would have done anything to keep the knowledge of his addiction away from himself as well as everybody else. He wasn’t good at facing up to the reality of his drinking.”
At its worst, David’s drinking made their social life practically impossible. He could become obnoxious – on one occasion the police became involved – and Rev Coles would find him passed out surrounded by broken glass, the dogs desperate to be fed and let out. Rev Coles says he really tried to get David to seek help, but to no avail. “In fairness, he did try, but he couldn’t stop. He changed the way he drank when he realised his absolutely crazy drinking was unbearable. But he also realised I would stick with him. So he didn’t get crazy drunk, he would sip all day, a Coke with something in it.
“I kept a surreptitious eye on the empties so I knew his consumption was way more than it should be.” “I made the decision to stay because even less bearable than the thought of staying was the thought of going. Lots of friends were telling me, ‘ You’ve got to go, this is so destructive,’ but I knew I wasn’t going to and so did he. There was a part of David that was just un-tameable.”
Rev Coles joined an Al-Anon group, designed for those who have people in their lives who are alcoholics, which provided some support. “David was pretty much in denial. Addiction is a very selfish little trope. It blinds and deafens the person it’s got hold of to its reality.” He admits now that he felt angry towards David for some time.
“There’s an overwhelming frustration that this person you love continues to do something that destroys them, and you. It’s like being mistreated by someone. But eventually I came to realise that the last thing David needed was to feel worse about himself.”
Rev Coles escaped into his TV and radio career to avoid the turmoil at home – a world he says David found difficult. “He thought TV turned me into an a*******, full of self-regard and that I would be too interested in looking good.
“But then Strictly came along and if I thought I was going to look good doing that, I was rudely disappointed.
“But I don’t think TV has changed me. I was prancing around on the telly 35 years ago (Rev Coles was in Eighties pop duo The Communards) and, like any vicar, I have a robust sense about the line between a public life and a private life.”
In the book he records the peaks and troughs of grieving emotions, from the initial shock to feelings of loss, loneliness and anger, tears coming when he least expects them to.
“It’s stupid little things. I remember finding in the garage a pot of jam that David had made with his writing on and it just destroyed me for a day. You have to manage that stuff otherwise you’d be overwhelmed by that all the time.” With the warmer weather, plants that David planted are emerging in Rev Coles’ garden, another heartfelt reminder of his loss. “There’s a lilac which is just budding now, and I think, ‘Oh, why can’t he be budding again?’ But you have to be tough with yourself and grasp the fact they’re gone and not coming back.”
Despite his fond memories, the book also charts the annoyances that worked their way into the relationship, for instance, Rev Coles found himself irritated by David’s incessant smoking and aversion to the curries he so loves. “Little arguments about food and fags replaced the bigger arguments about his lack of self-care and my failure to help him get better,” he writes.
He says now: “I’m not an angry person generally, but I would suddenly find myself this screaming idiot. It was just frustration.”
A week before David was taken ill, Rev Coles’ temper erupted when he discovered his partner was going to take a lease out on a shop and cafe. He laughs at that now, chuckling that David always had a plan. “I think David knew his number was up and tried to keep that at bay by doing lots of things and getting carried away.”
He wishes he hadn’t lost his temper and had been more tender and loving. “He was very gentle, sweet, loving, creative and very funny. And he loved me. I never doubted that. You only ever get one of those.” Rev Coles now shares his home with two of his dachshunds – five was too much to cope with on his own, so he’s found homes for three of them with friends and family – and can’t envisage remaining in Finedon.
For now, he is contemplating a new life, a new future. “I have good friends on the south coast, so I’m going to head there and see if I can find a new life. I’d like to keep writing and doing the radio – but I’m not looking for adventure.”
He is contemplating retiring at 60, although he says he’ll carry on ‘vicaring’, has just finished his first crime novel, the first in a three-book deal, and is open to TV offers. He’s clearly not ready to put his feet up just yet.
“One of the really tough things about when somebody dies is that they take the future with them. I’ve now put up a framework for my future. It can’t be here or doing what I do now. I’m going to move towards changing that.”
Fiction THE END OF THE WORLD IS A CUL DE SAC
by Louise Kennedy, Bloomsbury Publishing, £14.99, ebook £10.49
Louise Kennedy’s short story collection details the relationships of women in modern Ireland, mixing folklore and fairy tales with the grim realities of life after the Irish economy’s downturn. Her focus is on people in crisis and hiding secrets – a wife left on a ghost housing estate after a mysterious death; a woman on the run from her baby-fixated partner; a landscape gardener who builds his life around an oblivious ex following a shared tragedy. With pin-sharp characterisation, Kennedy uses flashes of humour to draw you into her often unsettling world.
While she takes time finding her feet, and some tales fail to ignite, the later ones show promise.
THE HIGH HOUSE by Jessie Greengrass, Swift Press, £14.99, ebook £9.99 ★★★II
Environmental disaster is the backdrop to this modern dystopia.
The High House follows three survivors of an apocalyptic flood, now holed up in a former holiday home. As the story unfolds in flashbacks, we learn about their lives and the events that brought them there.
You might think there would be considerable drama in the lead up to this disaster scenario, but in truth, nothing much happens.
The focus is on the relationships between the trio – a pair of half-siblings and a local girl. The trouble is, the characters aren’t sufficiently convincing or distinct to generate much tension. Atmospheric and with a great sense of place, the book’s elegant prose makes it pleasurable to read, but it’s no page-turner.
Non-fiction THE MADNESS OF GRIEF: A MEMOIR OF LOVE AND LOSS
by Reverend Richard Coles, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £16.99, ebook £9.99
TV’s most famous vicar, ex-Strictly star and man of a myriad panel shows, Reverend Richard Coles brings us this heartfelt account of his grieving process following the death of his partner David, from alcohol addiction.
He relates David’s body closing down as alcohol damage takes its toll during the final days, the blur of bereavement he feels as he wades through the ‘sadmin’ of the funeral, while attempting to keep a lid on his own mental health as he struggles to adapt to life without his partner. Moving and candid, this book will resonate with anyone who has lost a loved one.