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In memory of Pete Sanders

by LJ
Published on 14 February 2022


A photo of Pete looking at the camera and smiling

As you will undoubtedly know by now, one of our shining lights, Pete Sanders, left us just over a week ago. He is remembered here by Paula J Williams, his friend and colleague.

In loving memory of Pete Sanders (1951-2022)

My relationship with Pete Sanders, albeit a one-sided one at the time, started in 2005, when the tutors on my second attempt at a certificate course recommended First Steps in Counselling and Next Steps in Counselling Practice. I read them in the wrong order, having read Next Steps as appropriate to the stage of training I was at, but then being hungry for more of this approach, this writing, this writer. They touched me deeply, because although I had been around in helping and therapy worlds for a while, I had never, in all my experiences and readings, seen anyone like me. Every book about therapy I had read at that time was about white, middle-class, straight, non-disabled people seemingly free of mental health struggles, often promoting conservative ideas, or at the very least conformist ideas about upholding the status quo. I read Pete’s books and I began to believe there was room for someone like me in the world of counselling and therapy – someone white and at the time non-disabled, but queer, working class, left-wing, with a history of struggles, a mouthy activist. I finally felt I might be welcome by at least some in this rarified world, even if weren’t by my certificate-level straight, middle-class classmates.

It grew from there. I devoured books he wrote, and books he edited. The publishing house he and his brilliant wife Maggie started from their own home published exactly the work I wanted to read. I bought books my fellow students didn’t. As well as writers who were significant thinkers and educators in the PCA, there were the books about feminism, politics, critical approaches to the medical model and much more. I found people who spoke my language, shared my thoughts. I read somewhere that I could get a free copy of a PCCS book for feedback, so I sent some, and Maggie duly sent me Encountering Feminism. It is still a precious book because it felt like a reward for just saying what I believed – that these books really mattered. A real gift from Maggie and Pete. I dreamed of one day having a chapter in a book like that.  

Some years later, as my own career was developing apace, and I was becoming known a bit more widely, I felt brave enough to send him a friend request on Facebook. I was surprised and delighted when he accepted. Our relationship moved into the real world. We shared political posts, posts about therapy and the direction of travel in the UK and the world, the threats to the Person-Centred Approach…and we shared jokes and memes and laughter.

In 2018, PCCS Books announced a 25th anniversary conference in Manchester. I determined to go to it, to meet the PCCS team and to finally meet this important Facebook friend, Pete Sanders, and the wonderful Maggie who sent me my book, in person.  At the same time, I met Pete’s close friend, trusted colleague and co-author, Paul Wilkins, who quickly became my partner. That gave me a whole other dimension to my relationship with Pete, not least because before I realised I was in love, I had asked Paul to be my writing mentor, and he said they were looking for someone to co-author a new edition of ‘First Steps’ – one of the two books that had started my entire journey. I was determined that I would be that co-author, and eventually I wrote to Pete, sharing with him my published work and making my case. He came to spend some time with us, and asked me to share my ideas for the book. I did, and he was convinced to bring me in to join him and Andy Rogers for the 5th edition of First Steps in Counselling. Having convinced him, I then had to find a way to convince myself that I could do it! But his – and Andy’s – absolute trust in me helped me find that belief in myself. It seemed to me that once he accepted I was the right person, his support, encouragement, challenge and belief never wavered, and that made all the difference to me. He told us he was entrusting us with his baby, and we knew what a precious thing it was, and were determined to do him proud - to keep the essence of a book that meant so much to us whilst bringing it up to date and incorporating the social justice perspective we all felt matters so much.

During the writing of ‘First Steps 5’, Pete, Andy and I met fortnightly for a year on Zoom, during the pandemic. We shared the practical things about the book but we also shared our lives and our beings with each other. We shared our health and disability struggles, our Covid anxieties and frustrations, our isolation, our feelings about ScopEd, and more. A real intimacy developed between the three of us, and we worked so well together, being able to challenge, support, and even ignore each other as needed, knowing it would be ok, that we all really accepted and understood each other to a large degree. My relationship with Pete had moved from remote and one-sided, to distant but mutual, to close but mediated by Paul, to mutually close of our own accord.

Many people knew Pete much longer than I; many people had worked much more closely, were much more involved with him and his work.  My own partner has suffered a much greater loss than mine. And yet…we all feel our losses, and each of us grieves what we have to grieve, our own way. When Paul shared the news of Pete’s death, Facebook was quickly filled with posts about it. Many of them included Paul’s own post about the death of his dear friend, and a photo of Pete and Paul, that I had taken one night when we had dinner together. It was confusing, this mix of public and private grief. The public figure – activist, champion, educator - and the friend who discussed marmalade, concerts in the church at the bottom of the garden, and gigs at “Mother’s” in his younger days. I cried a great deal, but each time I looked at Facebook and found my photo shared in another counselling group, I was reminded of that visit, and of how, at breakfast the next morning, Pete told me he had dreamed that he and I were shooting rats with a shotgun, and through my tears I kept laughing at that memory.

Before Covid, Pete gave the Mary Kilborn Lecture at Strathclyde. He asked Paul and I to come, telling us it would probably be his last speaking engagement. It was. And what a speech it was. I vividly remember the slide of the inner-city pub, and – as so many people remember – his repetition throughout of the phrase, “First, mend the fucking pavements!”.  Such a powerful phrase, exhorting us to attend to what is most important, what can make the most difference, what can improve people’s lives at the simplest level. That, and his other favourite phrase, which may not be suitable for publication but involved a swear word and a political party, will be a significant part of how I remember him. That, and shooting rats, and his unwavering encouragement, support, belief in me, and his absolute integrity.

We have lost a giant of the counselling world; I have lost a precious friend. He leaves a legacy for so many of us in all he did – for counselling, for justice, but above all, for human beings.

Paula J Williams

February 2022