Interview: Rev Richard Coles
PUBLISHED: 12:35 28 April 2017
The Rev Richard Coles, former pop star, gay icon, and popular TV presenter-broadcaster, has a new book out. Katie Jarvis visits his Northamptonshire vicarage to talk about Bringing in the Sheaves
The Reverend Richard Coles opens wide the door of his gingerbread-stone vicarage and apologises for the state of the carpet in the study lined with books.
In some other room, deep in the vicarage bowels, dachshunds Daisy, Pongo, Horatio and Audrey are explaining, in no uncertain terms, that confinement is unacceptable. Aud is especially keen to elaborate on this.
“She’d rip your tights to shreds, if I let her in.”
No mean names.
“Well, yeah. Huge debate. I wanted to name them, obviously, after Rhinemaidens but David wouldn’t let me. So it’s a compromise.”
Richard Coles loves Wagner. Adores Wagner.
“I went to Ring Cycle – first time I’d ever been to Bayreuth; I’d wanted to go all my life – but my tinnitus was really bad. [Most people in pop music, if they get to their 50s, start having tinnitus, apparently.]
“Annoyingly, the Ring Cycle begins very much in the key of E flat, and my tinnitus was sort of in the key of E natural.”
Pitch-perfect tinnitus, then.
The phone rings (a couple of times); and while the Rev imparts the cost of getting married (literal cost, I mean), I examine his bookshelves for personality clues.
Diana Athill. The Theology of the Cross for the 21st Century. Grief Works. Sorting Out Your Finances For Dummies.
“Oh, gosh,” he says, when he’s replaced the receiver. “My books are a point of contention because I have more than we can manage. So David occasionally culls them.”
David (if you didn’t know) is the Reverend David Coles. They civilly partnered after David told him there were others in a queue, if Richard didn’t wish to commit.
“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.”
So this is an ex-pop star’s paraphernalia…
Four dachshunds/Rhinemaidens manquées, with names at the more courageous end of the scale. A study full of books and theology. A deep love of Wagner.
Only the tinnitus fits, really.
Except. Well, just look back at those photos of the Communards, the 80s pop duo that propelled Richard Coles to the number 1 slot. There’s Jimmy Somerville: cool, hard; symbol of the newly-unapologetic 80s gay scene, with a voice that’s both a call to arms and a call to bed.
And next to him on stage, and in all the publicity shots, is a trainee social worker - possibly sent by Glasgow City Council; possibly to make sure Jimmy abides with the terms of some kind of release papers. Or, at least, a tall, bespectacled youth who looks like a social worker.
“Yes,” Richard Coles agrees, unquestioningly, thinking back to those days when his instrumental skills helped the Communards reach chart-topping status.
“I did look like a vicar struggling to get out.”
The readings for today will be from two books. The gospels, aka Richard Coles’s latest, cheerful tome, Bringing in the Sheaves: a romp through the Church’s year, full of anecdotes, theologising-lite, and rumination.
And we’ll also have passages from the Old Testament – aka Richard’s 2015 memoirs, Fathomless Riches - which include ‘Numbers’ (four weeks at number 1); ‘Judges’ (“to be labelled a pouf then was about the same as being labelled a paedo now”); ‘Songs’ (of course there are songs); and quite a few ‘Lamentations’.
Above all, both books include ‘Revelations’.
Some of these revelations are so unvicarly that I would ask you, at this point, to hit the play button and, if you are over 16, to confirm this and choose Continue. (Even the blurb to Bringing in the Sheaves begins “After a life of sex and drugs…”)
The ‘Gospel’ stories are priceless; very, very funny.
The foreword opens as it means to go on, with a description of a phone-call asking Richard to minister to a parishioner, long unwell, now dying. The reverend packs the kit – a stole, an oil stock, and a prayer book – and goes to anoint the departing soul. Richard knows that this man prefers his Psalms in Book-of-Common-Prayer form, and so begins reading accordingly: “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills from whence cometh my help”.
The dying man, drugged with morphine, stirs, and Richard reads on: “Out of the deep have I called unto thee, O Lord…”
When he stirs again, Richard pulls his chair closer.
He looks at me and with a great effort says, ‘Shut up, you stupid twat.’
It’s a phenomenon we discuss without rancour. “A lot of ministry in my experience is precisely the priestly bubble being pricked - and the surprise nature of human reality,” Richard Coles ponders.
“There’s this myth, stuffed into us in theological college, that we go equipped with highly sophisticated means at our disposal to be the good shepherd of the sheep.”
What he’s mainly learned since, he says, is a more modest “not to cock it up too much”.
Yes, OK. I get the fallibility of the omniscience bit. But this book is full of surprising people. Or, rather, people who’ve surprised Richard. From his first Holy Communion as a trainee priest, when, as he was about to preach a sermon, someone nicked a handbag from a member of the congregation and made a dash for the north door. To the couple discussing with a vicar-friend their forthcoming nuptials. Just one thing, they added, as they left the wedding rehearsal. They were going for a pirate theme, so could the vicar possibly dress up as Long John Silver?
But surely, though. Surely, after the life Richard Coles has led – all the sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll – there can’t be much left that surprises him.
“Umm,” he says, doubtfully.
“There’s an idea that, somehow, because my CV was exotic, I have had a richer experience of life than others. It’s simply not true.”
Is it not?
“No. On the sort of Jane Austen or Miss Marple principle.
“When I was in the village Grafton Underwood, where I still have a cottage, I had a neighbour, Nancy Brains. Nancy had been in service. In retirement, she lived in an estate cottage on the brook, with a bench in front where she’d sit, which would just give a view of the street. And Nancy really didn’t move very much from there at all.
“And yet, I think she was probably as wise a judge of human character as anyone I’ll ever know. She didn’t miss a trick. Simply from comings and goings, she was able - like a detective - to stitch together sometimes obscure fabric of people’s lives.”
I like his stories. I like the way he tells them, in that modulated, measured Radio 4 Saturday Live voice. Stories that reassuring tell of a life well lived.
The phone rings again.
“It might be an undertaker,” he says.
Let’s go back a bit. To Genesis, as it were.
Fathomless Riches tells the story of how Richard Coles went ‘from pop to pulpit’. He was born in March 1962 in Northamptonshire, where he now ministers, and privately educated at Wellingborough, where he sang as a choirboy.
His mother went to domestic science college in Gloucester (“and once, reading the lesson at Evensong in the cathedral, had to say ‘the pricks of the Corinthians’, which I think must be the only time she has ever blushed.”) His father, brought up in a startlingly wealthy household, was gentle and gentlemanly.
Fairly conventional, then.
So all credit to them both for barely batting an eyelid when their son announced his sexuality. This he did, somewhat unconventionally, by repeatedly playing Tom Robinson’s ‘Sing If You’re Glad To Be Gay’ in front of his mother.
He wasn’t, though.
Glad, that is. Not in his teenage years, anyway. In fact, he found homosexuality – or, at least, the alienation he felt it mandated - profoundly disturbing. His resulting depression – along with the drugs he’d been experimenting with – led to a suicide bid. His brothers discovered him unconscious, and arrangements were made for him to be treated in a private psychiatric hospital.
What’s interesting, in what follows, is not his fumbling first attempts at physical love. Or the later anonymous encounters in laybys and sex in car parks. Or relationships that floundered.
Or his years as a member of the number-one hit group the Communards, when he and Jimmy were feted like kings and worshipped like idols. Adoring girls threw underwear at them (“…we were more likely to wear the knickers than avail ourselves of what was in them”); and they travelled in stretch limos, eating breakfast on a tropical island, lunch in Paris, supper in New York.
No – what hooks me is his sheer, unalloyed honesty. Not just about the sex or the drugs. It’s his descriptions of his own vain, egotistical rage when the world wanted only Jimmy, Jimmy, Jimmy, whose unexpectedly beautiful voice turned Don’t Leave Me This Way from ballad to hymn.
“I hated it that when I was signing an autograph the fan would see him and pull their name from my hands leaving a zigzag of biro where my name should be.”
And in amongst all this 80s madness, there was another insanity, too. In his photo-album, there’s a snap taken in 1984, featuring a happy group of Richard Coles’s friends – men and women, gay and straight – sitting round a rug in a garden.
All the gay men in it are now dead.
‘The problem with AIDS,’ one national broadsheet proclaimed at the time ‘is that it is not confined to homosexuals.’
(I’m not going into this now, simply because of space; but if you don’t know the scandal of Richard’s claim that he was HIV positive, when he was not, is candidly detailed in the memoirs.)
It’s funny, I tell him, sitting here in the study, with a vicar who looks and seems the epitome of English respectability…
And then contrasting that image with all his youthful outrage; all that activism.
“I think,” he says, moderately, “I am by instinct a conservative but my convictions are radical. So it’s complicated. But homosexuality can rescue you from that. It did me.”
He smiles, fondly.
“I was preaching in Oxford on Sunday, at Brasenose; and, afterwards, we went and had snuff in a wood-panelled room with silver candlesticks.
Did they pass it to the left, I ask, wondering where this story is leading.
“No. Some bloke just came in and said, ‘Do you want some of this?’ But I didn’t have any because I used to smoke, and now I find I can’t abide any sort of tobacco stuff.”
And, then, here’s where the story is going.
“I thought: If my life had continued without the disruptions of adolescence, I could have very easily gone to somewhere like Brasenose and stayed. And I would now be a kind of waspish bachelor don in the corner, correcting people’s grammar… And that would be lovely. I couldn’t think of a more congenial thing to be doing.
“But I think I’d have missed out on a lot, too.”
We talk quite a bit of theology – how the world should pray more because, as humans, we’re “built for it”; how you don’t need to go to church to be a Christian - but that probably means you’re not a very good one. Which all looks dry on the page, so I won’t quote it.
But it didn’t seem too dry, at the time.
And we talk a bit about the constant C of E hand-wringing over gayness in the Church. Hand-wringing that means Richard and David live out their civil partnership in celibacy.
One of us feels anger about this. But it doesn’t seem to be him.
“When I was doing my academic work in New Testament texture and criticism, Dean Burgon – who was dean of Chichester – was horrified at the discoveries of the text critics of the 19th century; critics who, all of a sudden, started seeing that [the Bible] is not the kind of monolithic reality that previous generations had thought it to be.
“This evidence became persistent and, in the end, overwhelming; and poor old Dean Burgon tried really hard to, Cnut-like, hold back that tide.
“He ended up looking a bit of an idiot, really. But I can’t think of someone like that without feeling pathos. Just a sense of a rising note of anxiety in his commentaries. He was obviously frightened. And that’s a horrible feeling.”
We haven’t even spoken about his broadcasting career. There’s quite a lot about it in Bringing in the Sheaves, including his ‘worst ever’ moment, while interviewing Edward Said, who took exception to one of his questions and walked out.
Interestingly, the interview was taking place in Said’s flat, so the renowned intellectual ended up having to knock on his own front door and asking to come back in.
Those moments are few and far between, though. Richard Coles is renowned for his effortless television and broadcasting, known for his presentation of BBC’s The Big Painting Challenge, appearances on panel shows, his Radio 4 Saturday Live ‘magazine’ programme – and various radio God-slots.
Yes, he says; he’s felt horrified, at times, about Brexit and Trump; but you’re more likely to find him watching Countryfile (or taking a break in Minchinhampton – he loves the Cotswolds) than turning out for a demo.
“Not because I don’t agree with the cause – I very often do. I just think I’m probably more useful having a cup of tea and a talk with someone.”
He smiles a kindly smile.
“My 20-year-old self would be very disappointed with the ‘me’ I am now. I can’t see the world but in shades of grey… if that doesn’t sound like the prelude to some terrible pornographic confession.”
Not at all, I say. From a vicar, it doesn’t seem like that at all. In fact, I thought he was about to sing.
For more on Richard, including his new book, visit www.richardcoles.com.