COMMENT: ‘So much of what we enjoy in north London is a tribute to extraordinary volunteers’

15:00 27 January 2014

Sue Hessel

Sue Hessel

Nigel Sutton 17 Redington Rd London NW3 7QX Tel 020 7794 3008 e.mail

Sue Hessel, chairman of the Haslemere Road Residents’ Association, pays tribute to the man who set up Highgate Counselling Centre.

‘Pass it on..pass it on,” says schoolmaster Hector in one of the most profound lines in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys. He’s talking about English literature – but while Hector doesn’t care about glitz, he understands real treasure: the gift of something healing from a stranger.

Rev Dr Denis Duncan died on Monday, January 6, 2014, aged 93 years. He was one of the founding fathers of today’s Highgate Counselling Centre, the first of its kind in the country.

Whilst “it’s good to talk” was recognised even in Shakespeare’s day – “Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak knits up the o-er wrought heart and bids it break” (Macbeth) – back in the stiff upper lip 1950s, it was still a brave shout. Britain has come a long way and it is partly thanks to the Denis Duncans of this world that it has.

Highgate Counselling Centre began in 1960 in a small room in Jackson’s Lane Church, with a founding ethos that counselling should be affordable for all. It grew fast, taking residences in several other local churches. But it is testimony to the inspired leadership of Denis Duncan, from 1971 to 1986, that it survived this nomadic existence until, in 1979, he finally found it its permanent home in Tetherdown, Muswell Hill.

For more than 50 years, Highgate Counselling Centre has been fuelled by local donations, client contributions, and trained counsellors who donate their services.

With people like renowned Swiss Jungian psychologist Dr Henrietta Meyer at the helm, the most rigorous of standards were ensured from day one.

As one of its counsellors, it was my privilege to be supervised there for almost 10 years, by the gentle yet formidable psychotherapist Renata Symonds. She worked right into her 80s – as sharp as a pin to the end. She taught us to listen; a good counsellor knows when not to speak.

I am always struck by this contrast of great and small here in north London: these formidable masters who were wise and humble enough to know that people in pain – struggling somehow with the loss of love, a child abused a long time ago, a marriage that crashed into the rocks, the grief of a parent – need somewhere small and quiet.

Highgate Counselling Centre is a kind place, a little oasis in this busy bursting powerful city. No glossy brochures, or expensive CEOs, no social media or Twitter, yet it quietly counsels about 100 individual, couples and families every year.

So much of what we enjoy in north London is a tribute to extraordinary volunteers who have carried on the unspectacular weekly work, keeping the plates spinning – until the baton is passed on to the next.

“Pass it on.”


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