The Reverend Richard Coles: “I remember”

The Reverend Richard Coles, 55, first found fame in pop band The Communards. He’s now a Church of England priest, and is appearing in this year’s Strictly Come Dancing.

…the midwife said it was a good omen.

I was born in the village of Barton Seagrave near Kettering, Northamptonshire on March 26, 1962. My grandfather and father both worked in shoe manufacturing and, apparently, as I appeared, the midwife exclaimed, “Ooh, Mrs Coles, he’s got clicker’s hands.” Clicking—cutting out shapes from a hide to make up a shoe—was the best-paid job in a shoe factory.


...I've loved music ever since I can remember.

I started playing the piano when I was only four in an effort to copy my funny, flamboyant grandfather Eric Keith Coles who used to sing “Sam Sam Pick Oop Tha’ Musket” while playing his baby grand. When I was eight, my father took me to see a performance of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony at the Albert Hall and I was so affected by it that I kept trying to stand on my chair and conduct.


…I got lucky with my parents, Elizabeth and Nigel.

I have happy memories of climbing into bed with Mum and Dad on a Sunday morning and Dad telling such good stories—ones he’d made up involving a Russian spy called Ram Doddler and another character called Evil Stravinsky. He was a very sweet, kind father and the gentlest and most gentlemanly of men. Both my parents were unfailingly loving and supportive. I remember seeing my mother as a rather glamorous figure. She and my father had busy social lives—playing badminton, attending concerts and going to the local ski club.

Richard with his mother, Elizabeth, and Jimmy Sommerville


…being somewhat precocious.

I had moments of insight when I was still very tiny. Running around the garden one day, I stopped dead in my tracks when the thought occurred to me that things were not necessarily as they seemed. Aged five, I suspected there was no such thing as Father Christmas and stayed awake all night to find out. Of course I pretended to be asleep when Dad crept in with my stocking. My older and younger brothers, Andy and Will, loved to play cowboys and Indians but I read constantly. At six, it was discovered that I had a reading age of 12.


…feeling at peace in the school chapel.

As a family, we only went to church at Easter and Christmas but, at the local public school, we had chapel every morning. That’s where I acquired my love of Anglican choral music and discovered that I had quite a good voice. With my competitive nature, I clawed my way to become head chorister. When I started playing the organ, I found the atmosphere of the chapel gave me such a release from anxiety, and a sense of peace.


...not fitting in.

I loathed football and asked to do knitting with the girls—and I wept bitterly when a boy knocked over my snowman at junior school. I think I knew I was different from the age of about eight. Growing up gay in 1970s Britain, there was a time when I wished I could become heterosexual. To be labelled a “poof” then was the greatest taboo. Teenagehood simultaneously produced a desperate desire for sex and a desperate fear of being thought “queer”. I started to feel physically unattractive and can still be stopped in my tracks remembering what happened at a ceilidh in Kettering. When the music stopped, boys had to peck the cheek of the girls. But when I bent forward, the girl opposite me physically recoiled and said, “Eeurgh!”


He was a voracious reader from an early age


...Tom Robinson helped me come out. 

After leaving school with four O-levels, I went to drama school in Stratford-upon-Avon. The liberal, bohemian atmosphere gave me the opportunity to come out. I played my mother Tom Robinson’s “(Sing If You’re) Glad to Be Gay” two or three times and she said, “Darling, are you trying to tell me something?”


…meeting Jimmy Sommerville.

I first met Jimmy in a gay bookshop in London. His Scottish accent was so strong, I only got a fraction of what he said and he was only a little over five feet. But he dazzled me with his toughness, sexual confidence, style and his interest in me. Perhaps it was the attraction of opposites. A group of us were making a film about young, gay Londoners and we needed music. When Jimmy opened his mouth and sang, he produced a voice like an angel—simultaneously fragile and strong. The room fell silent and a star was born. I was both gratified and envious when he formed Bronski Beat and their debut single, “Smalltown Boy”, reached number three in the charts.


…my first taste of being a pop star.

When Jimmy asked me to play saxophone for Bronski Beat, I practised and practised—under the duvet, so I wouldn’t drive the upstairs neighbours mad. I absolutely loved being up on stage with them and thought to myself, Life is going to be different from now on! I bought myself a Fifties-style grey suit from a charity shop to wear on my first trip abroad with the band. Geneva airport looked like Madam Tussaud’s—there were famous people everywhere.


With Paul Weller


…being in the money.

After Jimmy left Bronski Beat, he and I formed The Communards. I was paid an advance of £60,000—a dazzling sum I could hardly imagine—and bought myself a lovely grand piano. I remember that when I paid a royalty cheque into my local bank, the counter clerk barely looked up. His jaw dropped when he saw the six-figure sum! I only have vague memories of buying a speedboat on a wild holiday to Ibiza because I was off my head on drugs.


...meeting Paul Weller.

Jimmy and I got involved with Red Wedge, a collective of musicians wanting to switch young people on to politics. Paul Weller was by far the coolest person I had ever met. Performing “Moving On Up” was the happiest five minutes I’ve ever spent on stage.


…the best of times, the worst of times.

Our success coincided with the first years of the HIV epidemic. We were waiting to go on stage for the Spanish Top of the Pops when a phone call brought the news that our dear friend Mark Ashton had died of AIDS. Everyone was crying and the poor woman from the record company said, “I’m sorry, you’re on,” and we had to walk into a wall of children’s screams and mime our way through “Don’t Leave Me This Way.” The song went on to be the biggest-selling record in 1986. As friend after friend died of AIDS, I could not believe in a universe that made any kind of sense. Some months later, on tour and alone in my hotel room, I felt the strongest pang of homesickness. Not just for home, but for a life that made more sense to me.


Finding success with Jimmy Sommerville


…yearning for peace and sense. 

I started to feel twinges towards religion after I witnessed the extraordinarily devoted care from Christians working in hospices, nursing people with AIDS. Coming back from the Edinburgh Festival, I got off the train early and found myself heading to York Minster where I looked at the Seven Sisters window and tried to decode what the building was telling me. In the shop, I intended to buy a postcard, but bought a silver cross on a chain. It was such a significant moment, for I went in a tourist but came out a participant.


…becoming a student again.

When I told an old friend I was off to take a theology degree at King’s College, London, he replied, “Geology?” It took me three goes before he got it. I discovered how much I loved the communal life based around the chapel, singing in the choir and learning. When I started reading the gospels in the first-century Greek they were written in, they came alive, like rivers flowing through a wilderness.


…the day I was ordained.

After four years’ training, I was ordained to the priesthood at St Botolph’s in Boston, Lincolnshire in 2006 in front of parishioners, colleagues, my family and friends. The beginning of the service was a blur of faces and a wash of sound. Afterwards, I greeted, it seemed, almost everyone I’d ever known. I remember looking into people’s faces—faces that had seen me at my best and my worst, at my most vulnerable and my most triumphant, my sleaziest and my finest. I think there was always a vicar in me, struggling to get out.


With his partner, David, in Scotland


…meeting my partner, David.

I entered the priesthood thinking I would be on my own, but one day I was preaching a sermon in Boston when I caught site of a handsome young man in the congregation, looking at me with something more than curiosity. Afterwards, he introduced himself as David, a member of the Parochial Church Council. On impulse I asked if he had a fag and we stood outside, me in a cassock, smoking on a roastingly hot day. When he came round for lunch a week later, we talked all afternoon. David and I just fit together.


…the first time I visited the Kintyre Peninsula.

When we went on holiday to the Kintyre peninsula in western Scotland, I loved it from the moment we arrived. It’s about as remote as you can get on mainland Britain and so beautiful it’s well worth the epic journey. From our rented cabin, at the edge of a shingle beach, I sat and watched sea otters beyond the rocks. Now we go back every year with our menagerie of dachshunds. It’s a place where I can return to regular periods of silent prayer. In front of the cabin is a life-sized Anthony Gormley figure, lapped by the tides. It is, for me, an image of the priest—feet on the ground but looking out to the far horizon.

Bringing in the Sheaves: Wheat and Chaff from My Years as a Priest by The Reverend Richard Coles is published this month by Weidenfeld & Nicolson at £8.99.


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