In memoriam

A tribute to Robert Johnson  (14 August 1951-8 June 2014)

It is with great sadness that we report the death of Robert Johnson who became a member of the group in 2001 and had been co-facilitating the Barnet Depression Alliance support group for the past 4 years (since May 2010).

Rob was a remarkable man, and very much loved by many. His dedication to the work of supporting those suffering from mental distress was truly inspiring. Rob was a giver and he gave generously, he gave from the heart and he always went that extra mile to help someone out – and that someone included the Stranger on the street as well as the very many people who he encountered in his work – both his paid work at hospital and his voluntary work outside of it for Barnet Depression Alliance and Barnet Voice for Mental Health. Recently when he was rushed to hospital a few weeks ago having collapsed in the park due to a seizure I spoke to him on the phone from the hospital ward. He seemed more concerned about helping a nurse support a fellow patient in the next bed, than discussing his own needs. Indeed, wherever he was, Rob reached out to the people around him, sensing need and responding to it, putting other people’s needs before his own.

Despite having suffered almost all of his adult life (since his 20s) with recurrent brain tumours – and having undergone countless surgeries and other invasive procedures and endless hospitalisations which resulted in some significant disability (he was partially deaf, partially sighted and he suffered with the effects of partial facial paralysis) – he persevered with courage and commitment in serving others. Rob never complained about his condition – I never once heard him say “why me?”  — and I marvelled at the fact that even at the end while suffering tremendous pain and discomfort, he still managed to make it to meetings where he would sit and listen to others, offering support, a listening ear and encouragement.

Rob understood depression because he had been there too having suffered depression as a result of his illness (he suffered almost total paralysis for a year at one point) – and as a result of personal losses – he suffered the breakdown of his marriage and the loss of his brother by suicide.  He therefore had an intuitive understanding of other people’s pain and with patience, empathy and warmth was able to support and encourage others. Peer support is the cornerstone of our support group and Rob truly had that rare ability to support by getting alongside others. In one of his writings he quotes Hopkins “I must absolutely have encouragement as much as the crops rain” – he truly lived this advice.

Rob’s death is a huge loss to us but he went as he would have wished to have gone – in his own bed, in his own home, independent to the end, with all his faculties. His great fear was the possibility of suffering years of disability, confined to wheelchair, and with sensory and mental impairment. He was only too familiar with what this would entail as he had devoted so much time to visiting and supporting people suffering from brain injury and he saw first-hand the sufferings endured by such unfortunate people, many of whom he befriended. I am thankful Rob was spared this.

And where does this leave us? Barnet Voice has lost one of its most stalwart founder supporters – Rob was running Barnet Voice’s Space to Be drop-in right up to the end. He was present at our last DA Tuesday meeting and he ran the Friday creative writing group just two days prior to his passing. We had already discussed and made plans for running a creative writing group together with Barnet DA in the Autumn. Rob was also involved in many other ventures – too numerous to mention here but they include running a “getting into reading” group  with the Reader organisation and running creative sessions at Elysian recovery house in Colindale. That he should have been so productive right up until the very end is a remarkable achievement in itself – very few people would continue to contribute so much in the face of such serious illness.

For me personally he was a wonderful colleague (I have worked with him twice in that capacity) – a truly supportive co-facilitator of the Barnet DA group – and a very dear friend. I have been privileged to know him, I have learned so much from him and will miss our long talks and texts which ranged over so many subject areas from politics to literature. I love to think of him now in a better place, free of pain and I thank God that he departed this world in the way he would have wanted. I only wish God had left him with us for a little longer. Words are inadequate to express how much we miss him.

Our group met on Monday night (June 9th) – coincidentally this was the day we learned of his death (which happened most probably the previous day). It was hard to break the news to our members several of whom wept openly. We had a time of sharing what Rob had meant to us. The subject of the meeting was Coping with the NHS, a subject on which Rob would have had a lot to say. We began by reading an extract from a piece Rob himself had written about being in hospital and his own thoughts on death and confinement. He wrote about the power of the imagination to take you to a better place. He writes about lying very still with his pain and experiencing “a transcendent golden influence at the core of his being” which took him away from the hospital, uniting him with “the common ground of humanity” where he was no longer alone. He writes about never wanting to go into hospital again. Praise God he is now free and never will.

Anne Ince Vize   11 June 2014


My Friend Robert by Jon Attrill

I first met Robert on a Community Network creative writing class in the autumn of 2000. I was waiting outside the door of Station Road (where some of the Network groups took place) when a forbidding figure came out. A few minutes later when I was inside waiting for the class to begin the same figure reappeared, announcing ‘I’m Robert Johnson, the Network user representative,’ in that shop–steward style of his that I would come to know so well.

My initial prejudice immediately vanished and we quickly became friends. When the class ended that Christmas we stayed in touch and soon formed our own writing/art group at Robert’s flat. In some form or other we ran creative writing groups together right up until the Friday before his death.

Rob was passionate about many things: Bob Dylan, Shakespeare, QPR, politics, and mental health (a term he was uneasy with) to name a few. We often read and talked about the same books. If he liked a book he wanted to share it, encouraging (sometimes pushing me) to read something. His favourite was perhaps ‘Hopeful Monsters’ by Nicholas Mosley, a huge book which he seemed to know by heart – I was always amazed by Rob’s ability to remember the details of books he’d read. In return I would lend him the books I liked and thought he would enjoy. Aside from literature we talked about films, football, science and all kinds of other stuff; we went on trips together, went to gigs together, laughed together.

But Robert’s great, underlying passion was people. He really cared about them. Despite his physical problems he worked tirelessly with the energy that would have put a man in good health and half his age to shame. He was a driving force in Barnet Voice, co–facilitated Depression Alliance, ran writing groups and support groups, worked as Activities and Volunteers coordinator for The Trust and, more recently, became a facilitator for The Reader organisation.

One of the things I loved and admired about Rob was that he was genuinely more interested in others than he was in himself. Whilst most of us are busy rushing around worrying about how good or bad we are at this and that Robert was constantly supporting and encouraging others to make the most of themselves and their talents. He was a great listener and believed everyone should do a basic counselling course so they could learn to listen to others better.

Of course Rob was just as good at speaking. The speech he gave at the Arts Depot following a rally against the welfare cuts a few years ago was, in my opinion, better than all the more seasoned speakers that day – powerful because, as always, it came from the truth of his big heart.

Like him, his writing style was unique – witty, insightful, and full of colourful characters, especially when we managed to get him off his soapbox. But then, Rob’s soapbox was one of his most endearing traits. Along with his passion regarding mental health politics, especially what he saw as the medicalisation of human suffering, he hated the injustices of the social system, marched against the war in Iraq, and stoutly defended the NHS. In one of our last telephone conversations he told me of some letters he’d seen in the Guardian relating to an earlier article about a man whose sister had died in squalor in the days before the NHS existed and asked if I could find the article and e–mail it to him. I found this beautiful, moving article and I know Rob would have loved it. Unfortunately by the time I’d sent it to his work e–mail address, unknown to me, Rob had probably already passed away.

Although his family life following his divorce was troubled, he spoke with great love about his dead brother Martin, and also how his wife Veronika had helped him when he first became ill with a brain tumour back in the 70s. In a sense most of us were lucky to have known Robert at all as his surgeon at that time gave him little chance of survival. After the operation a nurse told him he had had the biggest operation ever performed at that hospital.

I could go on and on about Rob’s courage and kindness, how much he helped people and all the things he did to help me on a personal level, but my words would still only be a shadow of the man he was. He wasn’t perfect and was always suspicious of people putting him on a pedestal, saying with typical humour that there was only one way to go from up there. But his faults were minor compared to his great qualities: humour, intelligence, passion, and love.

There are so many memories of him I will cherish such as that loveable/infuriating swagger when he potted a good shot playing pool or snooker, the way he would offer me a tea and then forget to make it because he’d launched into talking about something or other, or the times we’d be walking along the road talking and I’d turn to suddenly see him striding away down the street shouting back ‘See you Jon, I’ll call you,’ because he’d seen his bus coming.

I’m truly grateful that Rob didn’t undergo a prolonged period of severe disability towards the end of his life, his greatest fear. Right up to the end he was still running groups, still socialising, still doing the things he loved.

Rob was a special man. I’m proud to say he was my friend and I loved him. I always will.