What I did on my Suffolk summer holiday, by BBC presenter the Rev Richard Coles
- Credit: Archant
The former pop chart-topper turned vicar ? in Southwold this week ? tells STEVEN RUSSELL why he’s drawn to The Real Housewives of Atlanta
When the vicar is a former 1980s pop star who topped the charts, you know the conversation is likely to be tinged with eccentricity. And so it is with the Rev Richard Coles – nowadays a Saturday morning fixture on BBC Radio 4, as well as ministering to his country parish off the A14.
He’s in his study, where a gold disc on the wall takes us back 30 years. For musician Richard and singer Jimmy Somerville (you might remember the Ian Hislop lookalike’s very high voice) were top of the pops.
The Communards spent four weeks at number one with a pumped-up cover version of Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes’ Don’t Leave Me This Way and became the UK’s biggest-selling single of 1986.
Hence, on the wall of the vicarage study, we see “my virtuous certificates attesting to my academic excellence, which is quite normal for a vicar, and then alongside is a gold disc, which is quite unusual”. (Don’t go thinking he’s pompous; it’s laced with a goodly dose of self-deprecation.)
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Anyway, it was civil partner David – also a man of the cloth, and “The Revd Vicar Consort”, according to David’s Twitter profile – who put up the memento of those heady synthpop days.
“I’m not allowed to make any home-décor decisions – that’s his department – because I’m colour-blind and frumpy,” says Richard.
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It must be handy having a partner in the same line of work, so to speak. In some ways it is, he says, but you do also need to maintain a life separate from your callings.
“When we’re alone together, we very rarely discuss the Christological heritage of the 5th Century. All I want to talk about is Real Housewives. Well, I’ll talk about Real Housewives. He’s not interested in Real Housewives. I’m very slightly obsessed with Real Housewives.”
Right… Why? “I think it’s because if I’ve been engaged in the pitch and toss of human drama, as every parish priest is, there’s a gap between the ‘afternoon session’ and the ‘evening session’ when I put on the telly and I like to watch things that are not too taxing of my mental or spiritual capacity. And The Real Housewives of Atlanta just hits the spot,” explains the 54-year-old.
“It’s like watching the Kardashians: it’s a strange parade of something that doesn’t seem quite real. And I like that. Escapism, I suppose.” It also doesn’t require much thought.
“My grandmother, when she was in great age, I used to wheel her in a wheelchair – she was practically blind. She used to like being wheeled along the A14 because she just liked watching the shapes of the lorries go by. I sometimes think television can be a bit like that: see the shapes go by.”
Richard’s in Suffolk on Thursday, November 10 for the Ways With Words literary festival at Southwold. His talk, called The Grain and Texture of a Broadcaster’s and a Parish Priest’s Life, is based on his new book Bringing in the Sheaves – Wheat and Chaff from My Years as a Priest.
As he follows the Anglican landmarks – from Petertide, Advent and Christmas to Lent and Easter – the book lays bare daily life in the ministry, with all its drama, challenges and characters. He also pokes fun at himself and talks about some of the famous names he’s met.
Here’s an example of the former. Richard talks about presiding at the Eucharist for the first time – wearing a chasuble (a kind of long poncho) made for the occasion in wild scarlet silk.
“As I processed down the nave I overheard one church warden, a solid Lincolnshire type, say to another, ‘He looks like Shirley Bassey.’”
And here’s one featuring a celeb. Richard was doing the Pause For Thought slot on the Chris Evans breakfast radio show. There’s a man sitting.
“As I sit down I say hello to the man in the hat and coat and he says ‘Hello, Sir’ in reply. It’s only after I’ve done my piece that I realise it was George Clooney.”
I feel guilty delaying the vicar of St Mary the Virgin, near Kettering, because I’ve been told he has to conduct a burial of ashes. “I do. It’s not until 11.30. In fact, it’s the ashes of the wife of my grandfather’s former business partner. A family connection.”
I always think the role of a parish priest must be tricky. I’d struggle to be a leader, perhaps without much supportive infrastructure.
“I don’t really think of it as leadership, particularly. Anyone who works with me and hears me described as a leader would hold their sides as they laughed.
“I see it more as a job of servant, really. Sometimes that involves standing at the front, doing stuff, but I really think the job of a parish priest is to lightly orchestrate the aptitudes of others, really.”
He says the parish of Finedon has lots of people willing to step up and volunteer, “and my job is to try to get that to work in concert as best as possible; though, to be honest, it’s they who do it. I just stand at the front ornamentally, really.”
Is he being too modest here? “I’m really not!”
Does he enjoy having a high profile? Richard’s a committed tweeter, co-host of Radio 4’s Saturday Live talk show and panellist on programmes such as Have I Got News for You and QI, so he’s a media animal.
“Back then” – the mid-1980s pop days – “I wanted nothing more than to be in the spotlight, and rather resented that so much of it fell on my partner – which was an unsayable thing at the time – and that rather made a tension in my relationship with Jimmy Somerville. We’re way past that now, and I wish I’d been a bit more circumspect.
“Now I get much more attention, I think, but it’s precisely at a time of my life when I feel more ambivalent about it. I don’t shy from the spotlight – and, again, no-one would be surprised to hear me say that!”
It sometimes creates tensions, as one of the jobs of a priest involves being self-effacing. “It’s difficult to do what I do without that feeding your narcissism and your sense of self. But you have to just try to keep it in check, and keep aware of the dangers of that sort of thing.
“Although I do like it! Lots of clergy are performers. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, I think.”
Speaking of a high profile, his autobiographical book Fathomless Riches must have put the cat among the pigeons a couple of years ago. It was very frank – very frank – about his life before being born again. (Drugs and, whisper it, sex.) Did it cause ructions?
“No, it didn’t actually. I thought it might be cathartic; what it really did was stir up a load of stuff that had been left alone in the past, and that required a bit of processing. Mostly to do with the effects of the Aids epidemic in the 1980s. I think a lot of us who went through that kind of just pushed that away, because it was so difficult to deal with, and 30 years later, when I started to revisit it, lots of stuff came up that I wasn’t aware was there.
“It was important to be candid, because I wanted to beat anybody else to it and, also, people kept asking me ‘How you did go from doing that to doing this?’ Well, if you really want to know, I’ll tell you. But the minute I started telling them, it involved a certain measure of disclosure.”
Did it startle some folk? “Yes, I think it did.” There was some soothing needed afterwards, he says. “But I don’t regret it. I think it was the right thing to do.”
His parishioners in Northamptonshire “couldn’t have been more supportive and understanding and sympathetic. There’s a mythology that parish priests go around thinking they’re looking after their parishioners; you discover the reality is they’re really looking after you!”
For the record, Richard is sitting with two dogs (they have four dachshunds in all) and a cat on his lap. (Sadly, Moses the cat died after being hit by a car some days after our chat.)
I tell him about the concern in Suffolk about hardship – rural hardship particularly. It’s similar in Northamptonshire, he says, though slightly different. Lots of people who worked in the shoe industry are now working in warehousing and transport logistics. While employment might not be a specific concern, he wonders about the quality of those jobs and the reality of life on zero-hour contracts.
He acknowledges things can be tough in the countryside with its risk of isolation, and resources often weighted towards towns and cities.
There are issues about the affordability and supply of houses, and social care is another concern – “how we care for the elderly, and ourselves as we get older.
“The other thing is the pressure young people are under. I’m more and more struck by the stresses of being a teenager now, and the kind of mental health issues that seem to be bedevilling young people – particularly young women. We tend to wake up to them when it’s a bit too late.”
Does he fancy going into politics?
“No! I have thought about it in the past. There was a time when I flirted with it, and I have a lot of friends in politics. But I’m not tough enough. I’d find the aggro would be too much for me, I think. My brother’s a politician – he’s very good at it, but he’s competent enough in a way that I’m not.”
Former Scotland Yard detective Andy is both a city councillor in Peterborough and deputy police and crime commissioner for Cambridgeshire. “A Tory, unlike me.”
Indeed, Richard is decidedly left-leaning.
“I suppose I’d be Labour, although I’d like to have a clearer idea about what the Labour Party is. I’m a tribal Labour voter. But in my 50s, of course, life seems a bit more complicated than it used to be and the divisions of left and right are a bit blurry for me now.
“We’re living in a very dynamic time, politically. I keep waking up and discovering the world is not quite what I thought it was. Whether that’s symptomatic of our times, I don’t know. I know I find the whole thing very uncertain at the moment.”
One rock on which he can anchor is Saturday Live. He’s happy to carry on as long as he’s wanted. Being half-time vicar at Finedon gives time to do these other things.
Richard will travel down to London on Fridays and return after the show. “I can often be marrying people in the afternoon, having been interviewing people in the morning.”
What does he think of society’s obsession with celebrity? Is it out of hand?
“I think it’s totally out of hand! You often wonder, don’t you, what future generations will make of our generation. I think they will look on our obsession with celebrity culture with bafflement.
“I think it feeds daft fantasies in people. There’s a sort of longing to be famous; a longing to be on the other side of the velvet rope, longing to have your photograph taken by paparazzi – which I think doesn’t really promise much in the way of satisfaction, ultimately.
“I say that… I bumped into (scripted-reality show figure) Joey Essex the other day. He seemed very happy!”
• Richard Coles is at the Way With Words festival in Southwold at lunchtime on Thursday, November 10. Call box office on 01803 867373 to check availability.
• Bringing in the Sheaves is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson at £9.99
Our Suffolk summer holiday!
While Richard is coming to Suffolk in less than a fortnight, he’s no stranger to the county or East Anglia. In fact, he and David spent their summer holiday here.
Where? “Near Clare. Absolutely loved it. It was beautiful. Perfect weather. A cottage in the middle of nowhere.” They had a week there, with the dogs, and a friend of his – padre to the Army Air Corps at Wattisham – came to visit.
“We just hung out. Had a lovely time. Walks. Thought Clare was lovely. And Bury was a great surprise. It always surprises me how near it is. Boom, you’re there.”
With pressures on time, travelling far and wide is tricky. “What we like to do is rent a place where we can take the dogs and is not too far away. If you’ve got only a few days off, you don’t want to spend two of them driving somewhere.
“Once a year we go up to Scotland on a bigger trip, but there’s another place we go to regularly which is only 20 minutes away. Also, if you forget a sprig of garlic, you can always nip home and get it!”
Richard spent boyhood holidays in Norfolk, near Hunstanton, and also loves Wymondham, near Norwich. David was curate there, and Richard spent three months in the town in between leaving his last parish in London and starting in Finedon.
“Funnily enough, I also liked the house. David’s curate’s house was a kind of 1970s Barratt Home, but it was just a really lovely house – swirly carpets and Artex were not the décor we would have chosen, but just really liked it there.”