What seems to be the problem Doctor Coleman?

He's been censured by the Press Complaints Commission and banned by the advertising watchdog. As the host of telephone helplines, including How To Make A Large Penis Seem Smaller, Dr Vernon Coleman irritates just about everyone. So what has he got to be angry about?

Monday 12 July 1999 00:02

Dr Vernon Coleman. He's a phenomenon. He's everywhere. I worked for almost four minutes last week but, still, he makes even me look lazy. Where to start? Well, he's the agony-uncle-cum-sex-columnist for The People. (Q: When we married my wife wore very pretty underwear... now she wears grey underwear which is about as erotic as barbed wire. What should I do? A: Take her shopping...) He's the author of 85 books, most of which he self-publishes then markets with those huge advertisements on the front of The Daily Telegraph. (You know, the ones that read: Irritable Bowel Syndrome by Dr Vernon Coleman. Remember you have nothing to lose but your symptoms! Full money-back guarantee!) He publishes his own subscription- only health newsletter and has a massive website. He also hosts some 200 premium-rate "medical" telephone helplines, the most popular of which are Oral Sex for Men and Oral Sex for Women, which he says have been rung by about 3 million people in Britain. Another is fascinatingly called How to Make a Large Penis Seem Smaller. "It's actually very popular, too," he claims.

I say that, as it happens, I have a very effective technique of my own in this instance. I just stand at the top of the stairs in my Brentford Nylon baby-dolls (circa 1972), with something of a come-hither look in my eye. That tends to reduce things nicely for most blokes. In fact, now I think about it, I might set up my own video phoneline to deal with this particular problem. I could even advertise it in The Daily Telegraph as The Ultimate Shrivelling Experience. Worried, Vernon? "Yes," he says. "I can see you might do me out of business." Might? Might? I'm heading for the Veuve Cliquot Businesswoman of The Year with this one, I reckon. I think, even, I could safely offer a peace-of-mind, money-back guarantee, too. Tragically, perhaps, Vernon does not take issue with me here.

Anyway, we meet at Exeter St David's Station in Devon. I'd wanted to visit him at his home in Barnstaple, but he wouldn't let me. "I'm a very private man." He is waiting on the platform. He is 53 and tall with fantastically mad, woolly hair and a splendid big nose. He looks like he should have been a Dr Who at some point, and not just an ordinary GP, which he was for ten years in Leamington Spa.

He didn't, initially, find it easy to be open about sex. "I remember when I had to give my first vaginal examination. I was more terrified than the woman in bed. Then I went to the sink to wash my hands, took off my watch, and rolled up my sleeves beyond the elbow. The woman didn't actually scream, but she was near it."

Anyway, I am quite peckish, and hope we'll go somewhere nice for lunch. I quite fancy something seasidey with lots of chips. After all, I can't let my cellulite slip, or my stretch marks fade. The Ultimate Shrivelling Experience rather depends on them. Disappointingly, though, he takes me over the track to The Lemon Tree station buffet on Platform 6. I would like to say I've had classier dates in my time, but as I can't seem to recollect any, maybe I haven't.

I order coffee. He orders de-caff. He's a vegan. "I don't eat meat, cheese, milk or eggs. I eat lots of veg and fruit and grains and nuts." I say I tried to be a vegetarian once, and did quite well for ten minutes but then found I just had to have a sausage. Do you ever fancy a sausage, Vernon? "No. NO! I know what's in them... 90 per cent shit and 10 per cent gristle!" There is quite a lot of anger in Dr Vernon Coleman, I think. Certainly, if I was a sausage, I'm not sure I'd wish to bump into him on a dark night. Still, I might look rather better in the baby-dolls, though.

I can now see, actually, that this anger is the main thing about him. That he is driven by anger. He is not just anti-sausage, he is anti-hamburger, too. "I call them harmburgers. Tell your subs to keep that `r' in!" He despises the mainstream medical establishment. "They've sold out to the drugs companies." He despises hospitals and their waiting lists. "Consultants who do things privately have to have an NHS waiting list, otherwise who would want to see them privately?" He is convinced GM food "is the beginning of the end". Or, if it isn't, then the over-prescription of antibiotics is going to do us in. "Infectious diseases are coming back in a huge way..."

Hang on, hang on, Vernon. OK, I'm not going to get chips out of this, but at least I thought we'd get to talk dirty? No, he says, the sexy nudge- nudge, wink-wink stuff is NOT what he's about. The People page. The phone lines. They're "fun and I'm not ashamed of them". But they exist, mostly, to subsidise his other interests. "For example, I've just done a book on animal rights. I've sent out 6,000 flyers for it, even though I know the book will never make a profit." And now he's off again.

He is a fanatical anti-vivisectionist and animal rights campaigner. He also despises mainstream publishers who, in his latest book - the suitably titled How To Publish Your Own Book - he describes as: "The pretentious, pseudo-intellectual, party-going set who vibrate between Bloomsbury and Sloane Square."

Goodness, Vernon, is there anything in life that pleases you? "Oh, yes. A good book... a nice bit of countryside... watching an old movie.... I like Five Easy Pieces very much.... cricket, because it confuses the Americans... I don't really watch telly, except to check Ceefax from time to time to see if the world has ended... nature... animals."

He is totally potty about animals. Indeed it was his cat, Alice, that first got him into self-publishing in the late Eighties. He had written a book "with her" called Alice's Diary which no publisher would touch. So he went it alone and "in the first year, sold 20,000 hardback copies."

Alice, who contracted mouth cancer, had to be put down a few years back and, yes, it has taken Vernon quite a while to recover. "I was inconsolable for weeks. Just getting to the point of not spontaneously crying took about six months. It was exactly the same mourning process as if I'd lost someone close to me."

We have quite a ding-dong about whether animals can suffer as humans can. He insists they can. He keeps sheep. He has a sheep called Karen, "who is black-faced, get it?" No. "Five Easy Pieces... clue!" Still not with you, Vern. "Karen Black! Ha!" Honestly, Vernon. You're too clever for me. Must be all that fruit and veg and grains. "Anyway, Karen had a sister called Cilla. Get it?" I think so. "Cilla was one of the first sheep in Britain to get BSE. She had all the symptoms, kept falling over all the time, then neurologically lost her personality. I had to separate her from Karen but, just before she died, I took her to see her.

"Karen's eyes went wild and she looked terrified. She started to go towards Cilla but then ran away. She could not cope with the pain she was feeling..." I am minded to say that I hope Cilla eventually made a nice jumper for someone. But decide against it.

I wonder, naturally, what Dr Coleman's human relationships are like. I note he is wearing a wedding ring. You're married then, Vernon? "There is a lady in my life, yes." And you're married? "I'm wearing a wedding ring, yes." Children? "No." He is, yes, frustratingly private. What is your house like? "Just a box." What's your earliest memory. "I can't remember." OK, what about the one after the one you can't remember. "I can't remember that, either." I don't think he means to be difficult. And I actually rather like him in his eccentric way. But he's rather like those crazed nutters who go up and down Oxford Street with huge sandwich boards proclaiming, say, that the end of the world is nigh. They just don't want anything to get in the way of the message. The message becomes who they are.

He was born in Walsall, then lived in Staffordshire, and now in the East Midlands. His father, Edward, was an electrical engineer. His mother, Katherine, was a housewife. He was an only child, who decided to become a doctor at 12.

"I used to go to the local library and, for reasons I don't understand, I started getting out medical books." He was, he says, "enthralled" by the idea of becoming a GP - "the old-style sort who was the patient's friend". But after training and then going into practice, he became quickly disillusioned.

"It wasn't the patients. It was the medical establishment. The bureaucracy. The over-prescription of drugs. The way drug companies sent leggy young blondes round to sell whatever it was. Free pens. Golf balls. It just seemed to me doctors were becoming the marketing end of the drugs companies."

Almost inevitably, he ran into trouble with the local bureaucracy, primarily over his refusal to write his diagnosis on sick note forms. "I considered it a breach of confidentiality." He was fined by the DHSS.

He exists, I think, to irritate. He is possibly a workaholic, but not for the usual reasons. Money does not especially interest him, he says.

"I went through the materialistic phase about 10 years ago. I had the big house, and the stuff that goes in it, and the Rolls Royce and the new Bentley and the classic Bentley and the usual crap. The turning point came when the guys looking after the classic Bentley told me I needed a special pressure washer to hose it down after it had been out in the mud. I thought this stuff is starting to own me, and walked away."

Most workaholics are workaholics because they are seeking some kind of approval. Vernon, however, seems to actively seek disapproval. "I've fallen out with just about everybody," he boasts. He says, mysteriously, that he has to keep moving house because "I have a lot of enemies." This is, I think, how he defines himself.

He's managed to just about irritate everyone. He's been censured by the Press Complaints Commission. He's been banned by the ASA. He's been injuncted in the High Court. He can, it is said, be a great pain as a columnist, creating a stink if so much of a comma is moved. True? "Yes. I try to write a column so that it flows. If there's a comma there, it's for a purpose, to give the reader time to pause for breath." He can be spectacularly vain.

I don't know where Vernon's anger comes from. Or why he seems happiest when he's being a thorn in someone's side. We didn't get especially close in The Lemon Tree on platform 6. Yes, he's something of a crackpot but, as I've said, I'm rather pro crackpots and while he doesn't do any harm, he might occasionally do some good. Certainly, he was writing about BSE long before anyone else was taking it seriously. Anyway, time to go. He walks me to my platform to catch the train back to London. We say our farewells. I feel quite battered, one way or another. Some of his tirades seemed endless. By the time I get home, I find I'm very tired. I even go straight to bed without doing any of that come-hither stuff at the top of the stairs. Funnily enough, my partner doesn't seem to especially mind. He might have even muttered. `Thank you, God. I owe you one.'

`How To Publish Your Own Book' is available by mail order from Blue Books, Publishing House, Trinity Place, Barnstaple, Devon. E32 9HJ

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