Anthony Ryle 1927-2016

Anthony Ryle (we all knew him as Tony) died on 29th September at the age of 89 in a Sussex nursing home where he was a resident with Flora, his wife. He had been unwell for a number of years, though nonetheless active until very recently, and he faced circumstances with his customary realism, and the humour which comes through in a number of interviews he recorded in his last years. He also retained his passionate commitments concerning the affairs of individual human lives in general, and politics in particular.

Some of us involved in Tony’s last writing projects have connections with him going back many years, and it is through these that the publication of his diary came about. Other work he had set out to do reflecting on his career, sadly will not be completed as he had intended, but the basis for this already exists in some recorded conversations with psychologist Rachel Bryant-Waugh about the development of Cognitive Analytic Therapy, which we hope will become available in due course.

Meeting him more recently, as I did, one was first struck by his considerable height, notwithstanding a slight stoop, high forehead, narrow eyes and ready grin—a powerful presence in the small house in Petworth to which he and Flora had retired, close to where a significant part of his childhood had been passed. He was always hospitable and keen to communicate.

The large variety of things he had done in the past would emerge, and still keep emerging (his interest in yachts, his translating of French poetry, his singing), though when talking he would stick pretty closely to the matter in hand. Although he would say that his political commitments had, in so far as he could make them effective, gone into his work as a GP and therapist, the importance he attached to politics had clearly shaped his choice of career, and the direction he took in it, and has probably had, as a result, a far greater effect than direct activism would have had. (At one point he had been considering politics as a profession.) It was concern with social justice, the broader humane but radical principles he had grown up with in his family, and his personal experience as family doctor in Kentish Town, then a poor working-class area of London, which prompted him to start developing the psychotherapeutic method which became C.A.T

It was a great privilege to work with Tony on the diary he had written as a schoolboy between 1940 and 1944, and see the extraordinary material he had acquired already at that age. It is a very direct record, without any ambition to write literature: following him from a small(ish) boy fighting water battles while canoeing on the River Cam, to a young man deeply concerned with social justice, and testing his ideas against his reading and conversations—prepared also to express and defend the views thus developed against conventionally-minded authorities such as his school. Without seeming to tell a particularly connected or composed tale, the diary gradually emerges as a kind of Bildungsroman, with a great deal of atmosphere and a strong sense of character and direction. Some of where this story has led is captured in the specialist books which have accompanied his development of a practical and sensitive method of psychotherapy, but also in his contributions to an Oral History of General Practice, and an Oral History of Talking Therapists, both collected at the British Library, and in Rachel’s recordings.

In these last years, his work editing the diary and his conversations and interviews exploring the development of C.A.T. drew together a view of Tony’s slice of history in a very immediate way: a daily diary record, or memories recorded in conversation. He resisted the idea of writing a formal autobiography. The theme of both these stories is observation, sympathy, and a sense of the social context in which one lives and works. In the diary one can see how observant and willing to learn (not necessarily from the school curriculum, but from news and political contacts) Tony was as a youth. When his school was evacuated to Newquay, away from the bomber aerodromes of East Anglia, his interest in life sciences was enlivened by direct observations on the beaches and in the surrounding country. At home in the Sussex countryside, he and his sister dissected creatures they found dead, mixing medicine and biology. He was a keen photographer of birds, which was not so easy with a folding camera and waist-level viewfinder. As a GP, becoming aware of the degree of psychological stress affecting many of his patients, he put into practice his father, John Ryle’s insistence on observation both of patients’ symptoms and their life-circumstances, which Professor Ryle had made the founding principle behind the work of the Institute of Social Medicine at Oxford University, which he led from 1943. These wartime and post-war narratives join up interestingly the radicalism of the nineteen-thirties and forties, represented by Tony’s parents and his own maturing ideas as an adolescent, with the radicalism of the nineteen-fifties and sixties in social and medical thought—especially in attitudes to mental health. In this latter period, when he was working as a GP, Tony was part of the great leap to a universal, free health service – something on which he always set enormous value. The period saw some spectacular, but not particularly durable, departures in politics and clinical psychology. Tony’s work was not like this, and it does suggest that a strongly principled and broadly sensitive, but pragmatic radicalism is the kind which will last.

He was always very open, latterly, about old age and the state of his health, but however practical and unsentimental he was about the finiteness of life, he will be very much missed.


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