Richard Coles does not like being referred to as one of Britain’s celebrity figures, but that is what he undoubtedly is. In the 1980s he had a number one dance hit, Don't Leave Me This Way. He’s done MasterChef and Strictly Come Dancing, hosted Have I Got News for You and every week amuses and reassures listeners of Radio 4’s popular Saturday Live programme.
In his day job — vicar of Finedon in Northamptonshire — Coles has a lot to do with death. He’s on first name terms with the local undertakers, knows the traditional hymns backwards and is adept at displaying the right amount of competence and sympathy required by the newly bereaved. Yet, as he records in The Madness of Grief, when his husband David suddenly died, Coles collapsed, subsumed by a grief that threatened to drive him mad.
David’s death took him by surprise. On David’s last morning at home, he was sleeping in his garden summer house because he was not feeling well. Coles did not wake him, instead heading to the pharmacy to collect a prescription. He returned to find David sitting on the bed, a bowl of dark viscous liquid between his legs, sofa rugs and cushions stained with blood.
This is clearly not the first such incident, even if the cause of the illness remains vague. But this time Coles is told in hospital by the doctors — and then by a distraught, barely breathing David — that he’s not coming back. The families gather. There is talk of bleeds and organ failure, but David is only 43: a complex, intelligent, mischievous human being who loves going on cruises, redecorating, looking after their five dogs and being a vicar himself. It is not until almost halfway through this short gripping book, that we learn the cause of death.
Coles is working through the “sadmin” — the endless administration death bequeaths — including the death certificate. It records GI bleed, spontaneous perforation of the oesophagus, chronic decompensated alcoholic liver disease. David’s illness was alcohol addiction. “He was,” writes Coles “an alcoholic, although I do not like to describe a person in all his complexity in so simplistic a way.”
Most of the previous pages immediately make a great deal more sense. Yet Coles hates thinking of his husband in this light. “I do not want him to be reduced to a word both too narrow to tell you what you need to know about him, and too narrowing of sympathetic engagement for those on the outside of the exacting and tragic and moving and heroic and impossible love that happens between addicts and their dependants.”
As someone who has been open about my own alcoholism, I have re-read that phrase many times. Was Coles ashamed of David’s illness? Did he want to keep it hidden as so many have done, politely recording that death was from “heart failure” or the like?
David drank, writes Coles, “when he was stressed, or anxious, or unsure of himself”. Police had been involved. Their social life became impossible. David lost his license from the bishop. At its worst, Coles would come home and sit outside in his car for fear of what he would find inside.
Drink also changed David’s personality. They lived parts of their lives apart, sometimes barely speaking. “This changed,” Coles writes, “when he went through a bad patch and needed me to look after him, and we would be close again”.
Such a cycle is sadly well known to anyone familiar with the effects of alcoholism. Coles tried a support group for those close to alcoholics, which helped contain his anger, and reconfirm his love. But his guilt is never far away: what more could he have done to stop David drinking? Were his own outbursts of temper to blame? No one who loves an alcoholic who doesn’t make it survives without that guilt.
Coles’ reticence about publicising the cause of death is understandable. He is struggling to keep his husband a person, an individual he loved, not someone defined either by his sexuality or his illness. From the hospital room, Coles starts informing the world and within minutes his online life is humming with condolences and messages. Journalists arrive and start knocking on doors.
Not all messages are well intentioned: “Dear Mr Coles,” began one handwritten note, “I can’t begin to tell you how happy I am to hear of the death of your partner . . . as long as you continue in your anti-Christ ways your pain will continue and I will continue to pray for that, for you and the same for all the others like you.”
The vicarage fills up with flowers. People stop in the street to offer condolences. Christmas looms. Coles accepts an invitation to nearby Althorp Hall, home of Earl Spencer and resting place of his sister Diana, Princess of Wales. The contrast with the sad, empty vicarage is jarring: suddenly Coles takes us through the tapestries and masterpieces of one of England’s grandest stately homes. It’s easy to forget, as you follow the path of his grief, just how famous Coles is.
Before his death, David had bought a plot for his burial and one alongside for Richard. Their love for each other is unquestionable and deeply moving. The book spans the period from David’s arrival in hospital until his burial after Christmas. It has an immediacy that is not born of long reflection and it is all the better for it.
Grief is a madness. It has, supposedly, five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. Perhaps alcoholism involves these five stages as well. Coles may never find the acceptance stage of grief. But by chronicling this period of David’s life and their relationship, he may have unwittingly reached acceptance of living with such a difficult illness.
The Madness of Grief: A Memoir of Love and Loss, by Richard Coles, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, RRP£16.99, 192 pages
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