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‘My life is not over. But it feels like it is sometimes’: the Rev Richard Coles on losing his partner | Life and style


Death is par for the course for the Rev Richard Coles. Whether it’s pastoral care for the bereaved, discussions about the afterlife with parishioners or being called out to perform the last rites – death comes with the job. But since his partner, the Rev David Coles, died in December, a lot about death has taken Coles by surprise.

“I got in the other night,” he says, “and fed the dogs and lit a fire and cooked some supper. I got into my pyjamas and had a nightcap. I then looked at my watch and it was 10 past six.”

Coles is still adjusting to the quietness of a household that has recently halved in size. David’s death at 42 was unexpected, the result of an underlying health condition that had caused internal bleeding. When he was rushed to A&E in an ambulance for surgery, Coles assumed it was just another day; he had a carol service that evening to prepare for. But David never recovered from the operation.

Coles is sitting on a worn beige sofa in the living room of his village vicarage in Finedon, Northamptonshire, his dog collar poking out from behind a grey jumper. One dachshund (Pongo, nine) is draped over his lap, snoring, the other (Daisy, 11) is nestled against his side. Coles did have three more dachshunds – Audrey, Horatio and General Custer – but after David died, he found five were too many to look after. He reluctantly rehomed them with David’s mother and brother, and his dentist. “They went to good homes, but it was so hard,” he says. “Seeing them go, with their little dog faces, was just horrible.”

Although it’s a title he has often spurned, Cole is Britain’s de facto celebrity vicar, a result of his pop-stardom with the Communards in the mid-80s – which included the No 1 dance smash Don’t Leave Me This Way, and his position as one of the most high-profile gay clergymen in the world. His warmth and ability to distil the most complicated ideas have drawn fans from the unlikeliest of places (he was once described as the “atheist’s favourite vicar”).

Millions of listeners tune in to hear his measured, soothing tones on BBC Radio 4’s hugely popular morning show Saturday Live. His television work has ranged from competing on MasterChef and Strictly Come Dancing to hosting Songs of Praise and Have I Got News For You. He is also a prolific presence on Twitter – so much so that he has given it up for Lent.

Being a gay former pop star, who swears and admits to having taken drugs, has made him a modernising force in the Church of England just by virtue of being there. And to many, he represents the best of what the church can be.

Yet now, a man who so often helps others to examine life’s moral questions has found himself in need of help. He is now looking to others for guidance to help him through grief. The flock is leading the shepherd. One widow gave Coles her late husband’s accordion, an instrument he’s always been keen to learn (he can so far play three songs, including the Godfather theme).

“After David died, there was a woman at the hospital who had been widowed, too. She said, ‘You’re going to be mad, for a while. People will never be as nice to you again as they are now, so milk it for all you can.’” Coles can attest to the madness. The day after David’s death, he went to the supermarket and came back with three different types of parmesan.

A lot about grief has surprised him: the volume of “sadmin” you have to do when someone dies, how much harder it is travelling for work alone (“I always used to call David when I stayed in a hotel on my own”), the sting of typing out a text message to his partner, then realising he is no longer there.

The hardest part has been looking ahead. “I’ve had to subtract David from the future and that has taken all the future with it,” says Coles. “It’s a bit blank. I think: ‘What the fuck am I going to do? Play the accordion and go to bed at 10 past six, I guess. Of course, it’s not the end of my life. But it feels like it’s over sometimes.”

Coles, 57, was born in Kettering, not far from his present parish. He was always, as he writes in his 2014 memoir, Fathomless Riches, “screamingly gay”. Not being able to pass as straight never bothered him. “If you come from somewhere like Kettering, you feel a moral responsibility to fly the flag of flamboyance,” he says.

Coles came out to his mother when he was 16 by playing Tom Robinson’s record Glad to Be Gay very loudly four times in a row.





Coles and his late partner David Oldham.



Coles and his late partner David. Photograph: Courtesy of Richard Coles

Once out, however, things unravelled for him. “I had a mental crisis after I came out,” he says. “I think, for some time, I hadn’t been open about my sexuality and when I was, there was a release of inner tension, and that became a crisis.”

He attempted suicide and was diagnosed with clinical depression; he was admitted to St Andrews psychiatric hospital in Northampton. “Life seemed to be pretty futile, and I just couldn’t see why you would want to do it.”

Depression has been a constant companion for Coles. “I’ve never felt as desolate as I felt then,” he says. “But you look around the world sometimes and wonder why you wouldn’t be depressed. But there’s so much to not be depressed about too.”

It would be some time before he found the church. He moved to London in the 1980s, immersing himself in the city’s growing gay scene. He met Bronski Beat’s Jimmy Somerville in Gay’s The Word bookshop in Bloomsbury. Although Coles didn’t harbour an ambition to be a pop star, he had been a choirboy and played saxophone at school, and Somerville asked him to join the band. In 1985, they broke away and formed the Communards.





Richard Coles and Jimmy Somerville in 1985.



Richard Coles and Jimmy Somerville in 1985. Photograph: Ilpo Musto/REX/Shutterstock

“I didn’t particularly want to be a pop star, so when it came along it was never something I longed for, and never something I couldn’t imagine not doing,” he says. “I was stupid and I had a lot of money I didn’t really do anything with, so I just spent it on lots of ecstasy.”

His soaring success with the Communards in the late 80s was marred by the HIV epidemic. Coles had a scare when he was diagnosed with shingles, a viral condition often associated with HIV. He had a test and waited the necessary 10 days for the results. During that period he had a fierce row with Somerville – their relationship was notoriously tempestuous – in which he told the singer that he was HIV positive. He also told many of his friends. But the test result came back negative.

“I lied about having HIV,” he says. “It was such a stupid thing to have done. I was lying in a grave in my mind [waiting for the results] and because I had a fight with Jimmy I blurted out that I was HIV positive – I think just to shut him up, actually. Then I kind of went with it. I had to do the rounds and tell people that I wasn’t [HIV positive], which was humiliating. Especially because there were people who were not making it up.”

Is it his biggest regret? “It was not my finest hour,” he says, “and it was tough asking people for forgiveness for having done it, but they did, actually. Of course I regret it.”

Coles lost many friends during the HIV epidemic, including the gay activist Mark Ashton, who was portrayed in the 2014 film Pride. “Half the people you knew died,” he says. “They’d be dead in a week. It was just so traumatic. We were so young. I really still miss some of the people. Mark Ashton – what would he have become? So many men were in their 20s and 30s. God knows what they would have been. I just wish they hadn’t died.”

The epidemic brought Coles closer to God, in a similar way, he says, to the spike in the number of men who sought ordination after the second world war. He spent much of his youth as an atheist (even setting up an atheist society at school), but after the years of fame, drugs and grief, he consulted a psychiatrist, who suggested he see a priest.

Something struck him; he later did a degree in theology and in 2003 was selected to train for the priesthood in the Church of England. Does he ever see a tension between his past and present lives? “As a punk-inspired homosexual pop star, I think vicar actually kind of works, really,” he says. “It’s very countercultural now. It really is, and there’s something continuous between the two things. Although perhaps not everyone will see it that way.” Certainly, Coles is a great performer and public speaker.

He says he never had any issue reconciling his faith and his sexuality – being gay was just “a variation on the universal theory of human sexuality” – and he has had nothing but support from his congregation and his C of E bosses (although some parishioners did leave Finedon when he was appointed vicar in 2011). The Church of England’s stance on LGBT equality, in particular same-sex marriage, has left Coles struggling to represent it at times, however.

“I did choose a profession that is probably the last to hold out against [LGBT] equality,” he says. “It’s so awful… Sometimes I’m ashamed of it and I think: ‘For fuck’s sake.’”

When news of his partner’s death broke, Coles received homophobic letters and emails rejoicing in his loss. “One began, ‘I cannot begin to tell you how glad I am to hear the news that David has died,’” he recalls. “The funny thing is, it didn’t affect me at all because I had enough real shit to be dealing with.”

The police took the letters, assuring Coles that he had been the victim of a hate crime, although an investigation came to nothing.

It was through the church that Coles met his partner, after giving a sermon. David, who was 15 years his junior, approached him after a service and said there were some spiritual questions he would like to talk over.

“From the minute we met – boom!” Coles says. “I never for a minute thought – no matter what happened – we would ever part.”

The couple became civil partners in 2011. “He said that if I didn’t make an honest man of him, he would go off with somebody else.”

Coles laments the fact that he couldn’t marry David. The Church of England forbids same-sex marriage and doing so could have led to both men losing their bishop’s licence, which allowed them to work as priests – they planned to wait until they had retired.

Even in a civil partnership, priests must commit to celibacy. “It’s just ridiculous but it’s where we are,” says Coles, who has always spoken candidly about the fact that he and David were celibate. “It kind of worked and it was OK for us, it sort of suited our lives. But I minded having to.”

Asked what David was like, Coles says his partner brought out the best in him. “I have to be right, and think things through, and work out my position,” says Coles.

“David would have none of that. Sometimes, he thought I was a pompous dick. I’d never had anyone tell me that before. He saved me from the worst things of myself. For some reason, I could take it from him in ways I couldn’t from other people.

“The biggest row we ever had was the day Margaret Thatcher died,” he says. “I gave a whoop of triumph. To me, ‘ding-dong the witch is dead’ was the thing. I hated her all my adult life. He gave me a real bollocking about that.”

David had bought a burial plot long before his death – and one for a bemused Coles. “He came home one day, and he said: ‘I’ve bought our graves.’ I said: ‘Why did you do that?’ He said: ‘It’s a northern thing.’”

Does being a vicar make it any easier to handle death? “Christianity doesn’t get you out of death,” says Coles. “It just says there’s something beyond it. But it doesn’t get you out of loss or grief, or bereavement. It doesn’t spare you any of that. On the contrary, I think it probably intensifies it.”

What does he think David would make of him giving an interview about grief to a national newspaper? “He would be rude about it,” says Coles, laughing. “He would go, ‘It’s not about you.’ He was very good, though. He knew that I needed to have the fires of my rampant ego stoked. And he was always very supportive of that.”





Coles at the vicarage where he lives with his two dachshunds Daisy and Pongo.



Coles at the vicarage where he lives with his dachshunds Daisy and Pongo. Photograph: Fabio De Paola/The Guardian

Despite losing his partner so abruptly, so young, Coles’ faith has not been tested. “It’s not been a religious sort of thing at all,” says Coles. “I’ve never had any sense of him being in heaven and looking down, checking my behaviour. I don’t sense him in the room … none of that at all. He’s just not here.

“But I am a Christian and I don’t think this is all there is. Everything that was good about me and David, that’s not finished. Nothing in that has flickered or faded at all.”

In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted 24 hours a day on 116 123 or by emailing jo@samaritans.org or jo@samaritans.ie. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.

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