Vernon Coleman is a media doctor with knobs on: tabloid superstar, telephone advice line proprietor, prolific author, animal rights activist - and champion of cross-dressing

Geraldine Bedell
Sunday 07 April 1996 00:02

DOCTOR Vernon Coleman, agony uncle for The People, "Professor of Holistic Medical Sciences", arrives with his girfriend Vicky in a Range Rover. One can safely assume that the vehicle isn't hers, because in one of his recent books, People Watching, Vernon advises men that where cars are concerned, "four-wheel drive covered in mud is sexy", while women should go for "something small, sexy and feminine. Don't drive around in anything too large, powerful and aggressive."

Vernon Coleman follows other tips of his own for the sexy man by wearing a signet, but not a wedding ring (which men "usually wear because their wives want them to"), and by leaving his hair "in a loose style". His is long, bouffant and curly, producing a Seventies effect which, combined with his beaky nose, makes him look like a louche Barry Manilow. He also seems to have lowered the pitch of his voice "to make yourself more macho", with the effect that he sounds a bit like Alan Rickman as the Sheriff of Nottingham, though without the irony. In fact, the voice-lowering device has the same unintended effect as it had upon Mrs Thatcher, of sounding over-sincere, plangent with fake concern.

He is very tall, dressed in a white suit - though the weather is still decidedly wintry - a cheesecloth collarless shirt with tucks down the front, and a multicoloured striped waistcoat. Happily, I do not discover whether he follows his other recommendation, to wear "skimpy briefs, brightly coloured or patterned boxer shorts, or lacy French knickers."

Vernon Coleman is a one-man mass-production phenomenon. In addition to a column for The People (3,000 words-plus a week, which would be good going for the most productive journalist), he is the author of 72 books. These are mostly on medical subjects, although there have also been 12 novels in various genres and several volumes of quasi-pornography distilled from his column (eg, I Hope Your Penis Shrivels Up). The column, begun in the Daily Star in 1986, was poached by the Sun in 1988 and moved to The People in December 1992. He is a hot property in tabloid newspapers, the Patric Walker or Lynda Lee-Potter of media medics.

Dissatisfied by the way his work was being handled by conventional publishers, he set up his own publishing firm in 1994, and now has three imprints and a staff of five. He sells mostly by mail order, through ubiquitous newspaper advertisements which promise, for example: "20 ways to look sexy, 12 ways to look like a winner." He runs a lucrative string of telephone advice lines on matters medical and sexual (from "Panic Attacks: How to Conquer Them" to "Penis: Get Used to One Inside You"). And he is a campaigner: against animal experiments, cancer-causing foods, drugs companies and the medical establishment; and in favour of Dr Vernon Coleman's patent medicines - vegetarianism and, his latest prescription, cross-dressing.

He declines my offer to come to see him at his home in north Devon, explaining that he doesn't let anyone know precisely where he lives. Even the staff at his publishing office in Barnstaple have to reach him on a digital mobile phone. "I've annoyed so many people who seem to be quite powerful. There are private detectives wandering around looking for me. They found my house and I had to move. I was getting a lot of threats." What sort of threats? "The usual... not the usual... yes, the usual... men in suits in big cars driving round asking questions about me and strange things appearing in the mail, and gates being left open... and it's all tied up with people saying I'm not qualified and rumours that I'm mixed up with all sorts of nasty people."

This seems rather vague: what sort of nasty people? "There are suggestions that because I'm anti-vivisection I'm a supporter of violent activities, which I'm absolutely not. I've annoyed a lot of industries, which is not just itsy-bitsy. It certainly would be very easy to get at my animals." He has four pet sheep and three cats. I ask if any of them has ever been hurt by the men in suits. "No. But it was... I was certainly getting alarmed, because gates were opened and my animals could get out and all sorts of funny things. So I sold the last house and moved somewhere private."

There is an irony in this jealous guarding of privacy, because, in 1994, Colin Blakemore, professor of physiology at Oxford and a defender of vivisection, obtained an injunction preventing Coleman from publishing his, the professor's, address. Blakemore had already received one letter bomb containing half a pound of explosives and needles when Coleman wrote to him threatening to circulate a pamphlet with his home address and telephone number, to encourage the public "to get in touch with you to discuss your work". Coleman was made to pay damages of pounds 3,500 and costs of pounds 12,500.

Coleman declines to discuss his paradoxical stand on the privacy question on the grounds that he has given a legal undertaking never to utter Colin Blakemore's name again. At any rate, we have to meet at a restaurant in Exeter. Vicky admits that this is quite venturesome: Vernon rarely moves more than 10 miles from home and travels into Exeter only once every two or three months, though she says rather plaintively that she'd like to come more often, "because there's a picture house here. I'd like to go the cinema occasionally."

Vernon is vegan, and an advocate of the mini-meal, taken at 60- or 90- minute intervals throughout the day. "Make meals a thing of the past!" he urges in Food For Thought (1994). "`Grazing' is healthy. And it will help you stay slim. And while you're changing your eating habits, make a real effort to eat less. Most of us eat far too much - dangerously overloading our bodies!" It is impossible to meet Coleman for lunch without feeling that you are intruding a polluted, greedy, citified habit upon him. It is also impossible not to be conscious of a deeply ingrained puritanism, an ascetisism one suspects might be rather pleased with itself.

He eats slowly, as recommended in Food For Thought, and tells me about the scope of his activities. At least, he tells me as much as he can remember. He has a poor recall of dates and of what he evidently sees as irrelevant details, such as where he worked at different stages in his career, whether he enjoyed school, or when he resigned from the NHS. He is absent-minded about which breakfast television programmehe worked on, and whether there was, as he suggests at one point, a threatened injunction against his first book, The Medicine Men, in 1975. One exchange gives some indication of the frustrations involved in interviewing him. Coleman has just told me that he resigned his rolling annual contract with The People last autumn, and will leave the paper next year.

"What will you do afterwards?"

"I don't know."

"Why did you decide to give it up?"

"I can't remember now. I honestly can't remember. I tend to get very uppity about stuff. If anybody changes a word I get terribly uppity and hysterical."

"It was only November. You must remember."

"No. I can't remember. I have rows every week. I can't remember what the specific row was about."

(Interviewer pauses, nonplussed.) "My contract expires in November. So we're talking."

"So this is a ploy to get more money?"

"No, not really."

Certain things, of course, he does remember: that he was right about the addictive properties of tranquillisers 15 years before anyone else, and about BSE, and about Aids not representing a major threat to heterosexuals; the sales figures of his books; the numbers of people who have called his advice lines over the years; that he has "always only ever written books that I wanted to write." But the mist of vagueness that swirls over his account of himself, combined with the flourishes of romanticised self- importance - "I've never touted for a job in my life. I'm far too shy to tout. They just happen" - leave the curious impression of interviewing someone's image of himself.

THE KNOWN facts are as follows. Vernon Coleman was born in 1946, in Walsall, then in Staffordshire, now in the West Midlands. His father was an electrical engineer, his mother a housewife, and Vernon an only child. They were comfortably middle class. Vernon attended Queen Mary's Grammar School For Boys, and cannot remember what he thought about it. His only recollection is of wearing his blue school mac over his combined cadet force khaki uniform one rainy day on the parade ground and being thrown out of the CCF. "Even then I was getting into trouble without really meaning to."

He studied medicine at Birmingham, a fact his opponents have sought to dispute, though the university confirms that he graduated, bachelor of medicine and bachelor of surgery, on 18 December 1970. The confusion about his qualifications may arise partly because he has removed his name from the General Medical Register to preserve the secrecy of his address, and partly because of his habit of including obscure honorary degrees and appointments in his promotional literature. If you send off for one of his mail order books, you will receive a leaflet informing you that Coleman is an honorary DSc, a Professor of Holistic Medicine, and Royal Physician in Sri Lanka. The honorary doctorate and the professorship both derive from the same awarding body, the International Open University, which was founded in the Soviet Union, moved to the Netherlands and is now based in Sri Lanka. The royal physician tag, he explains when I inquire, means he is doctor "to someone who's actually dead. Some king who died. I don't know why they gave it to me."

Before Coleman went to Birmingham university, he spent a year as a community service volunteer in Kirkby, an experience to which he now ascribes revelatory importance. "At the time every bus coming back to Kirkby from Liverpool was followed by a police car, because of the violence. My job was to get the kids there to do voluntary work, and I only got away with it because I was too naive to realise how stupid it was. When I left, the kids in the gang made me an honorary member of the gang. And I was prouder of that, and I still am, than of getting my medical degree. I turned up in a school blazer and tie when I first met these kids, because I didn't think you could go anywhere without wearing a school blazer and tie. By the time I got to med school with a pile of other kids who'd just left school, I was gone; I was a rebel."

No doubt in the mid-Sixties 18-year-olds really did wear school blazers three months after they'd left school, but this story has about it a Don Quixote quality, which feeds his recollections time and again. All his tales tend towards the building up of an image of a lone rebel against the establishment, standing up for the little people against conspiratorial combines.

This self-image is explicit in the column, sometimes - such is his rage - almost incoherently so. "We applaud fat businessmen who cheat the world's poor," he railed recently. "We kneel before the representatives of evil, and pledge allegiance to mediocrity. And yet we claim to be innocent. We blame an unseen `them', but we live in comfort and contentment - slumped in front of the TV, deaf to injustices."

Coleman practised as a GP for 10 years in Leamington Spa, for eight years of which he was married to a nurse. Almost inevitably, he ran into trouble with the local bureaucracy, primarily over his refusal to write diagnoses on sick note forms. He had a legitimate reason for this: depressed people, for example, didn't necessarily want their employers to know why they were taking time off. A couple of years later, the rules were changed. But rather than do as other doctors did, and write something anodyne like "viral infection", Coleman confronted the issue and simply squiggled on his forms.

Wouldn't it have been easier, I ask - and who knows, perhaps even more effective - to have fudged the issue, and meanwhile taken it up through the proper channels? "Yes, it would have been easier, but I've never been able to take the easier course. I have this masochistic capacity for getting into trouble, making things worse by refusing to do what everybody says is the sensible and easy thing to do."

All the time he was practising as a GP he was also writing. "I've written at least one weekly column since I was 18," he says. He can't remember now where these columns appeared, despite the fact that to be a columnist at the tender age of 18, anywhere, is an extraordinary feat. "I can't remember where, but I was writing columns and I'd written several books. Just before Bodypower came out - which was my first really successful book - or maybe just after, I decided to run away to become full-time writer."

Bodypower was published in 1983; it was Coleman's sixteenth book, though his truly prolific phase was yet to come: in 1993 alone he would publish Why Doctors Do More Harm Than Good, Stress and Relaxation, Complete Guide To Sex, How To Conquer Backache, How To Conquer Arthritis; and two novels, Mrs Caldicot's Cabbage War and The Man Who Inherited A Golf Course.

He moved to north Devon, freelanced for newspapers and magazines, was a television agony uncle and continued to churn out books at a breathtaking pace. His column with the Daily Star led him to the Sun, where he promised: "Many people will get more help from my column than they do from the NHS," and thence to the The People, whose editor, Bridget Rowe, says: "He isn't someone who'll just talk about knickers and window cleaners all the time. He's entertaining, but he's also a realist and an optimist. People like to be able to smile their way through their problems."

Coleman's journalism and medical books are characterised by absolute moral certainty about the pointlessness and cruelty of animal experiments, the cravenness of the medical profession in the face of drugs industry manipulation, the cancer-causing properties of meat, and various other aspects of modern life, from people in uniform ("snotty, patronising bastards", The People, 1996) to the Advertising Standards Authority (which recently upheld a complaint against one of his mail-order advertisements). The preachiness also infects the novels: in The Bilbury Revels (1994), which is supposed to be an escapist bucolic idyll, he finds time to fulminate: "Some people I know spend three hours a day watching television. That means that in a year they will spend over 1,000 hours watching other people do things... You could write a book, learn to play golf or grow prize-winning onions in that much time. Television, the oh-so-easy way to entertain yourself, is wrecking companionship, friendship and smothering the imaginations of millions." And so on.

Much of the The People column - and its prime selling point as far as the newspaper is concerned - is pure naughtiness, descriptions from personal trainers of female clients who beg them to massage their breasts, accounts of suburban orgies. Coleman's porn is of the nudge-nudge Fiesta magazine school, interspersed with weak jokes. It specialises in saucy acronyms - "the British Organisation Of Bacchanalian Sexologists (BOOBS)" - and dismal puns. Much of it is merely an excuse for descriptions of sexual encounters, most of them stock situations: students and landladies, virgins in bus shelters, women with three men one after the other in the back of a car on the way home from the office party. In one not untypical recent offering, Coleman responded to a description of Christmas Eve sex by describing a wholly improbable experience of his own when he was a medical student. He claimed to have spent 48 hours in bed one Christmas with twin nurses: "absolutely gorgeous and completely identical, nearly 6ft tall, red hair, 38DD breasts and legs as long as childhood summers." Rather curiously, the names he gave these visions were Karen and Cilla, which are the names of two of his pet sheep.

It is probably as well that Coleman has no lingering ambitions to "poke my fingers into people's orifices", which is how he habitually refers to his former business as a GP: this is a man to whose bedside manner I, at least, would not wish to be exposed. He does, however, have other serious ambitions: to convince us, for example, that "animal experiments are a major factor in iatrogenesis - doctor-induced disease - which is now the commonest cause of serious illness in the developed world" (Betrayal of Trust, 1994). His diatribes are inserted into the columns, where they sit uneasily with the obsessions with penis and breast size. Doesn't he worry that the sex, and especially the silliness of the sex, undermines his arguments?

He answers this question more quietly and more defensively than any other. "There are people in the animal rights movement who complain, who say this is terrible. Not many - I've had two or three letters over the years and I can't tell you how much mail one gets: it's phenomenal. The ones you remember are the ones that hurt, I suppose. But do I say I'm not going to write about sex, therefore I'm not going to write about animals? Or do I put up with writing about sex? Because it's a tabloid newspaper - you can't get 6 million people reading articles about animal rights." Later he says: "I like writing books like Why Animal Experiments Should Stop and Food For Thought, and without my tabloid income early on it would have been difficult to take the risk of writing, say, Power Over Cancer. It's a constant problem which I worry about too. Either I don't write the column at all... Well, it's one of the reasons basically I resigned."

LAST YEAR Vernon Coleman came out as a transvestite. He published a book, Men In Dresses, which he rather grandly promoted as a European Medical Journal Special Report, in which he described himself as "someone who has gained great relief from stress by crossdressing". In fact, the European Medical Journal is just another name for Vernon Coleman. It is one of his imprints, responsible for the medical books (the novels are published by Chilton Designs, and the porn by Blue Books). The survey which constituted the Special Report was actually carried out among readers of The People.

Dressing up in women's clothing is, he tells me, "relatively new. It happened by accident, just fooling around, and I discovered it was relaxing. I have a theory - it's obvious really - that we all have a bit of man and a bit of woman in us, and during the last few generations it's become easier for women to express the masculine side of the person, but men who have any sort of feminine part have to repress it. The urge to succeed, compete, be the best, diminishes. I notice I change: it's an excuse to become softer. I don't become so upset and cross about things."

Coleman's explanation suggests he has an oddly polarised view of gender - but then this is a man whose very fixed ideas about women are not noticeably informed by feminism. In People Watching (1995), women are not only warned away from big cars, but advised to "carry a small handbag to give an impression of helplessness. A large handbag will give the impression that you are totally independent and do not need to be protected by a male." In 1987 he said it was a "tragedy" that by the year 2000 half of all doctors qualifying from medical school would be women. "I think that is an appalling prospect... Women make wonderful nurses - they make rotten doctors." The main problem, he explained, was that neither male nor female nurses liked taking orders from women doctors: "Because they feel inferior they feel the need to push that little bit harder than anyone else."

Coleman once said hospitals would be better places if nurses went round in short skirts, stockings and suspenders. Each week he compiles a photo story for his page, "with four pictures, four words per picture, in one of which the girl has to take her clothes off." He has a strange view of women, certainly; but then he has a strange view of men as well. He is dismissive of large parts of the population and of what he sees as their petty, corrupted ambitions.

The hero of The Bilbury Revels is a vegetarian writer of a medical column who lives in north Devon and keeps four pet sheep. We can probably assume that this figure is not a million miles from Coleman. "The truth," the character seethes, "is that most people are dead at 25: their ambitions, hopes and aspirations confined to acquiring a car with `genuine' vinyl seats and a fully paid-up pension plan. They won't be buried for another half a century but they are doing little more than killing time until life runs out."

Vernon Coleman occupies an isolated moral high ground, disparaging the petty materialistic anxieties that most of us have. For someone who repeatedly says: "I want to change the world," he engages with the world remarkably little. He watches almost no television and claims not to read newspapers. When I remark that having a secret address must make social life difficult, he says: "I don't think anybody has many friends really." Even the campaigning is done alone. He founded an organisation called Plan 2000 to fight animal experiments, but gave it up "partly because it got too big and because I attract a lot of flak. It's run from Hull now." Plan 2000 is not in the Hull telephone directory, and the National Anti-Vivisection Society didn't have a number for it.

The Bilbury Revels contrasts happy country folk - women making jam, men rescuing spinsters in storms - with the stupid, amoral, insincere people (most of them daffy girls) whom the hero encounters in television and publishing. Vernon Coleman loathes the mainstream publishing business, which he sees as full of marketing people trying to tell him what he should write. Indeed, it was his exasperation at responses to an outline for his 1994 book Betrayal Of Trust, one of his various diatribes against doctors, that led him to set up his own publishing company. "To me the ultimate freedom is I can write a book and know it'll get published without some kid editor saying, `Can you change it?' or: `It's politically incorrect, the little girl's got to play with a gun.' " He is now buying back his old titles from their original publishers and selling them anew, mostly through press advertisements. The value of UK sales of his books for the financial year now ending is pounds 371,000, against an adspend of pounds 124,000.

Self-publishing has its drawbacks, not least for someone who writes as fast as Coleman, and there are points at which you want to scream for an editor. The advantage, however, is the opportunity for cross-promotion. Coleman is already adept at this: he uses the People column shamelessly to promote his telephone advice lines (49p a minute in peak time), profits from which he shares with the paper and which he describes as "a lucrative aspect of my contract." And in the back of the books, he includes glowing tributes for other books from the likes of Mr T, Leamington Spa: "Wonderful. One of the best novels I've ever read," plus an astonishing quantity of rave reviews. A fair number of these are from the Sunday Independent: " ... another delightful and amusing story. I rate this one as the best of his 12 novels so far. His fans will lap it up." That testimonial didn't come from here; nor did it come from the Dublin-based Sunday Independent. A search finally turns up a Sunday Independent in Plymouth, where Coleman used to be a columnist.

AFTER LUNCH, Coleman goes outside into the car park to call the office for the latest ad response figures. He keeps a spreadsheet on a pocket computer. Vicky, meanwhile, has returned from her shopping. She is a South African photographer, considerably younger than him, very pretty, and joined him in Devon three years ago. At home she had an exhibition of photographs of an abattoir, but now, she says, she's concentrating on cuddly animals. She would like to publish a book.

I say it must be useful having a live-in publisher. "Oh no," she answers. "That's his. That would be breaking the rules."

Vernon Coleman won't give up his smut-and-shouting journalism. For one thing, it won't let him. Bridget Rowe doesn't believe he is leaving The People. "He's always resigning," she says. "I think last time it was over a comma, and the time before that a split infinitive. But he's not going." The editor of the Glasgow Evening Times, for which he has written a column for the past year, says his copy is "usually superb. One minute he's outrageous and provocative, the next so droll. He's a love-him-or-hate-him character, and there are quite a lot who hate him. But it's good controversial stuff."

Coleman makes a fortune from journalism: The People, he tells me, pays him more than he could ever get being a doctor. More than a Harley Street consultant, I ask? He doesn't know how much a Harley Street consultant gets paid. But he doesn't say no. The problem, though, is that he wants more than that.

"I'm not joking when I say I want to change the world," he says intently. "It's very difficult, though, when the world doesn't want to be changed." !

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