Tribute to Robert Dellar (1964 – 2016)

A fierce intellect and a pioneer activist – A compassionate activist, author, artist and comrade, Robert Dellar (1964 – 2016) touched the lives of many, writes Ruth Hunt.

ROBERT DELLAR was an activist, author and pioneer in the mental health survivors movement. He was a one-off. A truly remarkable man, who was sharply intelligent, with a mischievous wit and deep compassion.

Robert was born in Watford and after studying at Sussex University moved to London. He spent time with the squatting community, his anarchic spirit evident, even in those early days.

This spirit was matched by a fierce intellect which led to pioneering work in mental health. It was seen first at Hackney Hospital where he set up the patients’ council and advocacy department. At the time this was a radical step and took an understanding of systems and control that few had even considered, let alone acted upon. In the mid-’90s the hospital was closed. In response, Robert set about organising eventful gigs for the former patients.

Following this, Robert worked at Southwark Mind (later Southwark Association for Mental Health), another pioneering step as this was the first user-run Mind group. He produced a magazine which discussed challenging political opinion and provided advice along with visual art, poetry and prose. It was all delivered with humour and an understanding of the issues faced by those at the sharp end of mental health services.

Robert, along with his late friend Pete Shaughnessy and together with Mark Roberts and Simon Barret, was among the founding activists of Mad Pride (1999-2012). This linked mental health demonstrations with rock and roll, theatre, poetry readings and even film screenings. The aim was to educate people on the causes of mental distress and the experiences of those who were users of and survivors of the mental health system. It included issues such as the lack of choice and control regarding treatments as well as the use of force in psychiatric hospitals.

Giving an interview to Vice about Mad Pride, Robert said: “We were quite attention-seeking. People thought it was lively and wanted to get involved. The type of people we attracted was broad — a lot of punks, anarchists, lefties and people with all sorts of clinical diagnoses (Robert himself had been treated on and off for depression and anxiety). But their common experience lay in having the same frustrations about how the mental health services were run. Mad Pride never had a strict definition, it was very free floating.”

In 2002 co-founder Pete Shaunghnessy died and that, in Robert’s words, “knocked us all for six. Mad Pride trundled on for a bit, but Pete’s death really took the sting out of it for us… There was a demo in 2011 against Cameron and Osborne’s austerity cuts in Hyde Park, but that was the last event.”

Robert was a talented author and collaborated with other writers for the book Seaton Point in 1988.

In 2003, he was one of the editors of Mad Pride: A Celebration of Mad Culture, which one reviewer said “celebrates madness largely from the perspectives of users who refuse to be ground down. It asserts the rights of ‘mad’ people without pleading for them, in the belief that we should not push meekly for minor concessions, but instead change the world into a fit place for us to live… It will be of great value to anyone interested in the Mad Pride movement, the psychiatric survivors’ movement, anti-psychiatry movement and other advocates of ‘mind-freedom’.”

Perhaps most notably, was the seminal memoir written by Robert called Splitting in Two: Mad Pride and Punk Rock, with one reviewer commenting: “The weightiness of the subject and the personal tragedies Dellar recounts, are tempered by the defiance that drives the narrative along.”

Robert’s love of the punk rock scene informs the title, which comes from the punk band Alternative TV and mentioned in relation to Mad Pride performances are also the singer-songwriter Nikki Sudden, the two survivor punk bands The Ceramic Hobbs and Rudimentary Peni, Dave Russell, and The Astronauts.

Latterly, Robert was one of the founders of Recovery in the Bin (RITB). This is a user-led group for mental health survivors and supporters. As the title suggests this group was formed as a rejection of the “Recovery” movement in mental health, which RITB says “is being used to discipline and control those who are trying to find a place in the world, to live as they wish, trying to deal with the real mental distress they encounter on a daily basis.”

RITB campaigns against and spread awareness of the cruel treatment of mental health survivors who have faced a barrage of cuts, caps, and continual assessment and re-assessment by the Department for Work and Pensions. They provide welfare rights training and Robert along with others provided support and information to a large group of people.
Although much of the work Robert did was public, he also privately helped and supported friends and comrades — something that could be seen by the outpouring of grief by many on social media, with posts on how and in what ways Robert had supported them.

One such person is Deborah, who got in touch to talk about how Robert had made a difference in her life. “Robert cared about everyone and he cared about what was right,” she said. “He helped me and countless others jump through the hoops of the system and address the many inequalities those in mental distress face, not only on a one-to-one basis but with intelligent and effective activism that genuinely made a difference over several decades. He was absolutely an unsung hero.”

Many have commented that the love and pride he had for his partner Shirley and step-daughter Sophia made these years the most content, fulfilled and happiest for Robert.

In a typically low-key style, Robert posted on Facebook on December 15 that he had to go into hospital and that it was the day before his birthday. “A strange way to celebrate,” he wrote. “Maybe someone will bring me a cake. I have packed for all eventualities and have earplugs and a good book.”

On December 17 Robert died suddenly from a pulmonary embolism. The post mortem revealed he also had pancreatic cancer, which had spread to his liver.

Deborah said: “Robert had so much more to give. My heart goes out to Shirley and Sophia in particular, to Robert’s friends and to all those he helped and supported. So many will miss Robert and will feel lost without him. His loss is profound.”

Robert Dellar (1964-2016) — a pioneer, activist, artist, author and comrade who with compassion, intelligence and an anarchic wit touched the lives of so many — is survived by Shirley and his step-daughter Sophia.

This tribute was originally published in the Morning Star

  • Ruth Hunt is author of The Single Feather (Pilrig Press).