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The Madness of Grief: A memoir of love and loss, by Richard Coles

23 April 2021

Mark Oakley reviews a bereavement observed

THERE are many reasons to admire Richard Coles. High on the list for me is his ability to embody plausibly in the public arena a Christian faith that is interested in people’s lives. He represents a Christianity energised by questions, irony, and a chuckle, always quick to celebrate life’s quirky discoveries. Some complain that he doesn’t evangelise enough on air. His evangelism, it seems to me, is that which Gandhi referred to as being rose-like: it attracts by simply being what it is. We are drawn to the fact that it has no designs on us except to share its mortal and fragile splendour with us.

The Madness of Grief (Features, 9 April) does exactly this. Trying to hold on to some map through the blizzard of bereavement after the death of David Coles, his partner, Richard allows us entry into some very dark and raw places as he recognises that “I am disintegrating in front of you.” He also relates the kindness of friends, the periodic consolations of faith, and a gratitude for the shared and irreplaceable love and strength that his relationship gave to him. The pain of this book lies in the narrative of a man’s having to lay to rest the one who held him up.

As you would expect, Richard Coles doesn’t hide from us the arguments, frustrations, and mutual hurts of life with David. Here are two talented moths fluttering around each other’s flames, energised by each other, occasionally singed, but always in an enviable and adventurous flight together. We look on as they tease each other (David refers to Richard as a “borderline national trinket”) and understand each other, sometimes better than themselves.

It is a book darkened by a very deep loss, and by the destructions of alcohol dependence, but it is also an embrace of the riotous opportunities life can give, and the beauty and cost that we might have to bear if we take them.

The book is peppered with the author’s acute observations. The green uniform of the paramedics is “half paramilitary, half garden-centre”, a dog’s wagging tail proves that he’d make the world’s “worst poker player”. Occasionally, lessons are shared: “As a general rule, try not to be impatient with people in hospital car parks. They may be having the worst day of their lives.”

The consistent theme, however, written in every line and in between them, is that Richard loved David as part of his own soul. “One of the hardest wishes since his death”, he writes, “is that I had not lost my temper with him but had been tender and loving, for he loved nothing more; and when I was not tender and loving it hurt him so much.” David helped him learn how to make space in life for tenderness and sacrifice. He then has to work out, by himself, how he must live apart from him.

I suppose I shouldn’t have been shocked by the letters that the author received from some “Christians”, saying how pleased they were to hear that his partner had died, because they had a sinful relationship and that God had hell lined up for them both. But I was. The overwhelming message in the book, though, is that the thoughtful and humane public, whether Christian or not, want gay people to be happy, even if they are clergy, and want to support and celebrate their love just as they themselves have been supported. Let’s hope that the Church, with some barefaced integrity, can do the same very soon.

A few years ago now, a novel was published by Panayotis Cacoyannis with the same title as this one. In it, we are told that “kindness should always begin with the truth.” This, for me, sums up Richard Coles nicely. In this memoir, he shares his truth, stays kind, and, when possible, brings a smile. His pain is soul-deep and leaves him, we feel, precarious and unsure of himself when alone. By reflecting the hurts of others’ losses with such beauty and integrity, he confirms that it is his open humanity that is priestly. It gives me yet another reason to admire him. May David rest in love.

The Revd Mark Oakley is Dean of St John’s College, Cambridge, and Canon Theologian of Wakefield Cathedral.


The Madness of Grief: A memoir of love and loss
Richard Coles
Weidenfeld & Nicolson £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.30

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