Celebrity vicar Reverend Richard Coles on his book about grief and his late partner's alcohol addiction

The celebrity vicar Reverend Richard Coles talks to Hannah Stephenson about how he’s coped with the death of his partner and his plans for moving on.

Reverend Richard Coles. Picture: Tim Anderson/PA.
Reverend Richard Coles. Picture: Tim Anderson/PA.

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, Coles, 59, has been grieving the loss of his partner David, who died aged 43 just over a year ago from alcohol addiction.

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Today, we meet to discuss 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 tied to 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 just 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 now, 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 to take home and I 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 Coles has revealed publicly that David, 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. The one thing that made it bearable for me was to be able to talk to people who were in the same situation,” explains Coles.

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 Coles would find him passed out on the floor surrounded by broken glass, the dogs desperate to be fed and let out.

Coles says he really tried to get David to seek help, but to no avail. “In fairness to him, 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 that I would stick with him. So he changed it; 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.”

Some might wonder why Coles, who had a busy career and plenty of friends, stayed. “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 untameable.”

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 who 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.”Coles escaped into his TV and radio career to avoid the turmoil at home – a world he says David found difficult and thought it turned Colde "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 [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 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 they’re not coming back.”

Each evening before bedtime, he gives himself a squirt of one of David’s vast collection of colognes. “It’s still just a little bit there when I wake up in the morning. That’s a comfort.”

Despite his fond memories, the book also charts the annoyances that worked their way into the relationship, for instance, 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, Coles’ temper erupted when he discovered his partner was going to take a lease out on a shop and café. 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.”

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.”

The Madness Of Grief by The Reverend Richard Coles is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, priced £16.99. Available now.