Activists plan day-long musical tribute to ‘radical and brilliant’ Robert Dellar

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Mental health service-users are planning a day-long musical celebration of the life of one of the survivor movement’s best-known – and best-loved – activists.

The 12-hour gig at a venue in south-east London will feature “a cornucopia of punk and rock bands”, and will celebrate the life and work of Robert Dellar, one of the founders of Mad Pride, who died last December.

Next month’s tribute has been organised by members of Mad Pride and the user-led campaigning organisation that grew out of it, the Mental Health Resistance Network.

Robertfest* will feature bands that performed in the many sell-out gigs he organised across London, in both mainstream and mental health settings, which raised the profile of the mental health survivor movement, the issues its members were trying to raise, and the idea of mad culture.

After his death last December, Denise McKenna, one of the network’s founders, described Dellar as “radical, anti-establishment, irreverent, non-conformist and funny” but also “disarmingly humble… steadfast and extremely hardworking” and with a “brilliant intellect”.

“Above all,” she said, “Robert was loved by so many people.”

Another friend, Gini Simpson, described him as a “an authentic punk, who opposed the chronic abuse of power he saw around him”, and as “a tenacious force for good in an uncaring world”.

She added: “This is the man who put punk rock gigs on in the acute ward at the then Hackney Hospital, who organised football matches at Broadmoor and who arranged for a stupendous line up of bands to play at the Mad Pride festival in Clissold Park, when the local council were expecting limp cheese sandwiches and ‘carers’.”

The one-off event will run from noon to midnight on Sunday 24 September and will also feature the first of what it is hoped will be an annual Robert Dellar Memorial Lecture, to be delivered by Professor Esther Leslie, a friend and fellow activist of Dellar’s.

Over nearly a quarter of a century, Dellar, who left a partner, Shirley Pearson, and a step-daughter, Sophia, helped organise countless gigs, compilation CDs and direct action protests, and was a key figure in protests against the last Labour government’s plans to introduce community treatment orders.

But he also worked tirelessly to support mental health service-users in a professional capacity for many years, and is remembered for his pioneering work in setting up a patients’ council and advocacy department at Hackney Hospital, a mental health institution in east London. He later set up another user council in Southwark.

And in the autumn of 2010, Dellar organised an anti-austerity protest in Hyde Park that led survivor-activists to set up the Mental Health Resistance Network.

Shirley Pearson said: “When someone dies there are traditions that are part of the wider culture that include somewhat formal funeral services and wakes.

“I found myself asking what would Robert have done when someone we loved and cared for dearly died? He would put on a punk rock concert! So that is what we are doing, as a eulogy to Robert.

“The idea of a Robert Dellar memorial lecture came from Denise McKenna. Hopefully the lecture will be something that is continued as an annual event in the ‘Mad’ calendar in some form or other.

“It is really important that we remember those that helped make life more bearable and Robert certainly did that.”

Zen Jones, one of the organisers of Robertfest, said Dellar was “all about building communities and then throwing different communities together”, and his death had left “a huge hole in the mental health survivor movement.

“He was the inspiration for countless people to realise that they have a voice, and the empowering force that drew people together to organize themselves into action.

“Robert was a natural innovator in everything he did, and driven by the highest of ideals and the purest of motives, empowerment at its core. We hope to capture this spirit at the Robertfest.”

Among those appearing at Robertfest will be Alternative TV, The Astronauts, The Ceramic Hobs, Vic Goddard and the Bitter Springs, The Long Decline, and Dave Kusworth.

*Ticket prices are £5 unwaged/low waged, £10 waged, £20 full price, with any profits to be donated to the Mental Health Resistance Network. It takes place at The Amersham Arms, 388 New Cross Road, Deptford, London SE14 6TY, which is near New Cross train station