Reverend Richard Coles: ‘A collapsing ancien régime is like Disneyland to me’

The vicar, journalist and former pop star on Lampedusa’s Leopard, the trials of a trilogy – and why Raymond Blanc makes him laugh

The book I am currently reading
Strange Rebels by Christian Caryl, an account of five events in the year 1979: the market reforms of Deng Xiaoping in China; the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan; the election of Margaret Thatcher; the visit of John Paul II to Poland; and the Iranian revolution. I found it in Shaun Bythell’s wonderful bookshop at Wigtown in Scotland and I’m engrossed.

The book that changed my life
St Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians, or as I described it in my widely unread thesis, not by St Paul, not an epistle, and nothing to do with Ephesus. That said, it is one of the most enthralling and challenging explorations of what it means to be a Christian. Once it had captivated me, I tried to turn it into mincemeat with the techniques of textual criticism, but it only became more fascinating and mysterious.

The book I wish I’d written
To write one perfect novel and nothing more would be wonderful. So maybe The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, which I adore. A collapsing ancien régime is like Disneyland to me.

The book that had the greatest influence on my writing
Elizabeth David’s French Provincial Cooking. If I want to see what a carefully turned sentence looks like, hear how it sounds and resonates, I read this. There is no point in trying to write like it, because it would come out arch and stiff and clunky – but she inspires me to keep trying.

The book I think is most underrated
I cannot understand why the novels of the Scottish writer Robin Jenkins are not better known south of the border. I once resolved to make a studio opera out of The Cone-Gatherers, but the thought of the stage machinery necessary to make it work defeated me.

The book that changed my mind
David Olusoga’s Black and British. I read it in lockdown, provoked by the Black Lives Matter protests, and realised that for all my commitment to racial equality, from Rock Against Racism in the late 70s to the toppling of Edward Colston’s statue in 2020, I have never really given anything up, never willingly surrendered anything, to create fairer shares for black people, and I should do something about it.

The last book that made me cry
I just read Susie Boyt’s Loved and Missed in proof (to be published in August). It is about loving an addict, and the costs involved. I had to put it down twice. She writes such marvellous prose, infinitely tender and steely.

The last book that made me laugh
Raymond Blanc’s book of recipes from home, Simply Raymond. He writes like he speaks, with a French accent, and unsmotherable enthusiasm, so that sometimes the text erupts into excited exclamations – bubble bubble!, gentle gentle! They made me laugh out loud while I was cooking. The recipes are brilliant too: simple, but with cheffy touches that make all the difference.

The book I couldn’t finish
I often flake in book three of a trilogy. Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast, for example, or Dante’s The Divine Comedy. Perhaps I want a greater sense of resolution, or a different resolution from the one that’s given.

The book I’m ashamed not to have read
I have not read Jane Austen’s Emma. No excuses.

The book I give as a gift
I love the nature writing of BB (Denys Watkins-Pitchford), who grew up in a vicarage near mine in Northamptonshire, and snap up every copy of Brendon Chase I find in secondhand bookshops.

My earliest reading memory
Ant and Bee by Angela Banner. I think I can remember the words beginning to come together on the page and suddenly I was reading.

My comfort read
Julian of Norwich, the 14th-century East Anglian anchoress. All shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.

• The Rev Richard Coles took part in this year’s Hay festival (hayfestival.org). His book The Madness of Grief is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

Contributor

Richard Coles

The GuardianTramp

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