Remembering Robin Cooper


I had the great privilege - and the good fortune - to know Robin Cooper in two ways.  He was my therapist for several years.  Later, sadly for too few years, he was a close colleague in the PA.

It was John Heaton who suggested I meet with Robin when I was looking for  a new therapist having started the PA training and I have always been grateful to him for that suggestion.  Therapy is essentially a private experience and to my mind should remain so.  What I will say here is that Robin helped me to do something I never thought I’d do and that is become a father.  Part of that process of becoming a father was having to come to terms with that feeling, so common among men I know, of never really having had a father in any real sense.  I am not the only member of our family, I know, who is forever in Robin’s debt

For people in training the experience of therapy is inevitably an educational endeavour also, part of what we regard as our apprenticeship, it’s part of how we come to take up the place of the therapist.   Robin, through his person, through who he was, allowed me to be the therapist I thought I wanted to be 

There are many things I learned from Robin in this apprenticeship.  Two in particular always come to mind.  First, the importance of straight talking,  Straight talking is often an excuse for being aggressive, rude or even bullying.  Nothing could be further from what I mean or what I took Robin to mean.  Rather I’m talking about the importance of saying what needs to be said, of articulating what needs to be articulated and doing so in a way that is appropriate to the people involved and to the context.   ‘I would meet you upon this honestly’, in Eliot’s phrase, an endeavour that lies at the heart of therapy of course, and which, one hopes, we take out into the world. 

A second thing I took from Robin was that sense, that wonder really, at how marvellously complex and fascinating the most simple of events or encounters are if only we care to examine them.  As Bernard MacLaverty puts it in his novel Grace Notes, things are simple or complex according to how much attention is paid to them.  Which is what phenomenology is about of course, that bedrock of the PA, being mindful, thoughtful of the terrain in which we find ourselves, taking nothing for granted, paying thoughtful attention to simple things, as Heidegger puts it. And that was one of the things I loved about being in therapy with Robin.   Nothing was trivial, there was nothing that wasn’t worth going into, opening up, to see what it meant, where it might lead. 

The transition from the relationship of therapist/patient to that of colleagues is rarely easy.  Somehow Robin and I managed it without too much difficulty.  That we did had an awful lot to do with Robin.  Although we never talked about it, I always felt he conveyed a real sense of ‘That was then, this is now.  Let’s just get on with things.’  And we did.  Robin was open to  a new kind of relationship.  He was helpful and encouraging when I was writing my book.  I shall always remember an evening sitting in the living room at Dartmouth Road, sipping a fine malt, discussing one of my draft chapters and talking about Seamus Heaney’s idea of poetry as redress, an idea we both found enormously evocative.

I greatly admired Robin for his learning and thinking, which he always wore lightly.  I know I am not the only one of us to have been moved by him to read Montaigne, Merleau-Ponty and Bachelard, thinkers who meant so much to him and informed his own way of being in the world. His PhD thesis on dwelling and the therapeutic community - based on his time at the PA house in Portland Road - was thoughtful and impressive and really ought to have been published.  Perhaps it could be still.  As it was, I was very pleased to be able to publish in the journal Free Associations two of his papers.  They are witty, incisive, impassioned and profound and deserve to be read and re-read.  His chapter in the PA book, ‘Thresholds ....’ which was my first encounter with him before we actually met, remains to my mind one of the finest pieces of writing in our field.  He was the inspiration behind the new book of essays from the PA which will be out next year and which is, quite rightly, dedicated to his memory.  Although we are republishing one of his articles, there’s a real sense of something missing, Robin’s thoughts now, not those of some years ago.  His promised chapter on common sense would, I know, have been a joy to read and an inspiration to thought.

One of the things that always amazed me about Robin was his seemingly endless, yet quiet energy.  That the PA did not collapse after the bitter split in the organisation a few years ago was a lot to do with Robin - in particular, rallying us all to support the organisaêtion and its vision and doing the tedious yet crucial work of getting a new constitution and democratic structure in place.  Of course he was not alone - I recall a particularly crucial rallying meeting at Dartmouth Road -  but he had a great capacity for motivating others - a word here, a phone call there - keeping things moving.  Our last contact was an encouraging message he left on my answering machine about something I’d been saying about our community households.  That I now find myself working again in one of houses is itself a tribute to what he stood for.  And I cannot but wonder what on earth he’d have to say about some of the difficulties we can still make for ourselves.

Robin was an inspirational force when we really needed him.  That we miss him greatly is obvious.  But we carry on with his work.  He continues to be a guiding spirit when we need him still.

(Talk to the memorial meeting, London, 11 October 2003)

My obituary of Robin was published in the Guardian on 18 July 2002.