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Richard Coles: ‘I still don’t think David is dead’

Richard Coles has flitted between pop-star fame and religious devotion in his journey grappling with his sexuality and self-confidence
Reverend Richard Coles, Communard, clergyman. The Madness of Grief: A Memoir of Love and Loss by the Reverend Richard Coles is out now (Orion, £16.99) Interview: Jane Graham @Janeannie Photo: Alex Teller / Guardian / eyevine

As a musician, journalist and parish priest, there’s not much that Richard Coles hasn’t dipped his toes into.

He soared to fame as a sax player for pop group Bronksi Beat in the 1980s, before retreating to the comfort and safety of the church.

Now, shortly after the release of his book, A Memoir of Love and Loss, his Letter To My Younger Self details how he grappled with his sexuality, faith and grief following the death of his partner, David.

I was a very awkward gay teenager, completely in the closet. I was in an English public school, where, if I had made my sexuality known, I probably would have had quite a rough time of it. I was full of desire for people who couldn’t desire me back. Which was boring. And I looked like Maureen Lipman in drag.

I came out when I was 16. I made my mother listen to Tom Robinson’s Glad to be Gay five times before she said to me, are you trying to tell me something? I don’t think it came as a huge surprise but my mother is of an age and background where they didn’t really know what gay was. They thought of homosexuality as a disgraceful criminal thing, so it was difficult for her to deal with that. But I just wasn’t able to live without being truthful about it. I knew if I didn’t I’d go mad. With friends I was a little more hesitant because I didn’t want to be ostracised. That would be awful. And also my best friend – I was hopelessly in love with him, so that made it slightly complicated. But I did tell him, and he was very charming about it. I think he must have known. We’ve talked about it since, and had to wipe the tears of laughter away. We’ve been best friends since we were nine. I love him and he loves me.

I always loved music. I’d written to Benjamin Britten when I was eight years old, and told him it was my intention to become the world’s greatest composer. We had a very good music department at school, and I sang in the chapel choir. Then, when my voice broke, I played the organ, and I was playing the piano and the violin as well. So there was always lots of music. That was one thing I could shine at.

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2012 With husband David at the Mount of Olives overlooking Jerusalem. Photo: Kevin Jackson

The turning point for me was meeting Jimmy Somerville. I’d been thinking, if I don’t get myself together now no one’s going to do it for me. Then I started working with Jimmy and I thought, this is a horse I’m going to back. And I was really lucky, I just happened to back a brilliant horse. It was Jimmy really, his brilliance, that hauled me up and hauled me out. I’d never met anyone like him, he dazzled me with his extraordinary self-possession and his resourcefulness and his toughness. He grew up in a tenement in Maryhill, in a sectarian part of Glasgow. His family were all Orangemen. So as you can imagine, that was not always a congenial place for Jimmy to be. He had grown up fighting for his life. Tough, tough, tough, tough. I don’t think he’d met anyone like me either; middle-class English public school-educated. So we really enjoyed each other. 

The problem with Jimmy was, when things got tough, if we fell out, we didn’t really have any shared way of dealing with it. Jimmy only really had nuclear war, he could never do conventional warfare or negotiation. So that was really difficult. Plus, if you’re young and ambitious as I was, and you’re around Jimmy Somerville, that could be a mixed blessing. On the one hand, you get to share in his brilliance. On the other hand, you get to wilt in his light. That was really difficult to admit, that I was consumed with envy.

Mine is the story of someone going from atheism to faith. I was a confirmed atheist who grew up singing in church. I always intellectually thought it was complete shite. It was only when I got to my late 20s that I started wanting it. So I found my way back to church. My rational self was going, what the hell are you doing there, in the belly of the beast? Stay away, stay away. But I was really hungry. And here was food, and I just needed to eat. So I did. And the moment I did I just realised it was for me. 

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2012 With husband David at the Mount of Olives overlooking Jerusalem. Photo: Kevin Jackson

When faith came I stopped feeling that existential angst. I felt, ahh, we’re not alone. It’s always just given me confidence about lots of things. It brings comfort and consolation and solace but it also brings challenges. It’s not easy, and the longer you do it, and the more you do it, the harder it gets. Like most things worth doing. But I’ve never had a moment’s doubt. I feel a bit embarrassed about that, I feel I ought to have a dark night of the soul. There’s lots of things I do doubt – myself, the integrity of our world… and I doubt the future. But I don’t doubt that.

What would I want to say to the 16-year-old me? One would be, it’ll be OK. Two would be, people actually will want to shag you. But the main thing would be, you might feel unlovable and hideously unattractive now, but you’re not. The day will come, when you’re knocking 60, when you’ll look back at photographs of yourself when you were 23 and think, why did I always think I was ugly and undesirable? But I was very damaged.

“I still don’t think David is dead. I mean, I know he’s dead, but I don’t think he’s dead”

I have a really good relationship with my mother now. We’ve always been very close, I’m a total mummy’s boy. And I’ve always been very happy to be one actually. Mum is still with us, she has dementia now, she’s not very well. I see her regularly, two or three times a week – I was with her yesterday actually – and we laugh and laugh and laugh. Even though she can’t always remember what century it is. She’s quite satirical and she has a very funny turn of phrase. I went to see her and I was lying on the sofa and she looked over and said, your belly… And I said yes? She said, it looks like one of the Maldive islands. That’s very her.

People think I’m really nice. I’m not. But even when I try to reveal the rather mixed reality of me, people nevertheless seem to find it sort of cute and funny. Someone once described me as a potential national treasure and I think if you’re in the frame for that, people project this idea about you being a genial avuncular character. But I’m really not. One of the things I’m quite looking forward to in retirement is I’m going to make no effort to pretend that I am. Then again, Billy Connolly is a kind of national treasure and he isn’t always nice and no one minds. I don’t think I’ve ever marvelled at a genius performer as much as I have at Billy Connolly. 

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It was instant when I met David [né Oldham, Coles’ partner; they were in a civil partnership from 2010 until David’s death in 2019]. I met him when he heard me preach a sermon and I ponced a cigarette off him afterwards. It was the day of the smoking ban, July 1, 2007. We met and then we were just immediately together. And no matter what happened, I knew I had to stick with him. That was really hard sometimes. Sticking with alcoholics doesn’t always go well, and it was really, really hard. Lots of people who are addicts… so much of it has to do with fear and shame and people aren’t at their best in the grip of fear and shame. 

After a while he realised I wasn’t going anywhere and I think that made him feel better. But the really hard thing for me was, he just wouldn’t, couldn’t stop drinking. I knew we would run out of road eventually but when it came I wasn’t prepared for it at all. We went house hunting, all over the country, on the Black Isle, in Kintyre. All these places, all these plans. But I think I must have known the whole time that those golden age of retirement twilight years were not going to happen.

I still don’t think David is dead. I mean, I know he’s dead, but I don’t think he’s dead. I have this constant sense of him being somewhere in the world, knitting, or going to the Co-op and spending a fortune. So he’s still around. But not. I’ve got a new dread which I’ve never had before. Of him fading. So at nights so I put on a dab of his cologne and I have the dogs in bed with me – one of them snores and it sounds a little bit like him. So that’s a bit of a comfort. But it’s lonely. 

The Madness of Grief: A Memoir of Love and Loss by the Reverend Richard Coles is out now (Orion, £16.99)