Bruce Napier 1949–2020

An appreciation from Mark Williams.

Here’s your starter for ten. 

‘Which 1980’s comedy film, directed by Ivan Reitman, was as famous for the question in its title song as the answer given in the title itself?’  

The answer is “Ghostbusters” and the question in the song was: “Who you gonna call?” The words of the song came back to me as I recalled a moment in mid-1990s when a phone-call came through from an NHS Trust Board, asking me if I might convene an Enquiry into an incident in which a patient in a Medium Secure Unit had assaulted a member of staff. I said I would, but only if Bruce Napier was also on the enquiry team. I knew that without Bruce’s ability to forensically investigate the complex organisational power structures that often lie behind specific incidents, the enquiry would not deliver the change that was needed. If we’re lucky, each of us has a good friend or colleague who we can rely on when we are in need of professional help or advice. For me, and countless colleagues over many years, Bruce Napier was the person we were ‘gonna call’.  

Bruce was a giant of a man –  physically, he stood a head taller than most of us – and psychologically too, he brought with him vast experience. Born in Gateshead and attending Dame Allan’s School in Newcastle until his family moved to Glasgow in his teenage years, Bruce read psychology at Aberdeen, meeting his future wife, Sheila during the first week’s Freshers’ Fair. On graduating, he trained at the Institute of Psychiatry in the early 1970s, then worked as clinical psychologist in Southampton and Mid-Wales.

But it was his role as clinical psychology’s top civil servant at the British Psychological Society’s head office in Leicester which made most use of his extraordinary skills. He joined the BPS Office as deputy to the much-loved Scientific and Professional Secretary, Colin Newman, whose workload in the early 1980s was becoming impossible. There was so much rapid growth in many areas: in the importance of psychology to the public, in the number of new graduates in psychology in the UK, in the number and range of government initiatives and consultative documents that needed a response. This meant that there was a desperate need for more top-level administrative support but also the need for skilled specialist input. Where would such a combination of skill be found? ‘Who you gonna call?’ Bruce Napier. He was just the right person for this delicate role. The promise became reality. Respected by all, inside and beyond his own field, he worked tirelessly to ensure that psychology’s voice would be heard and respected. 

Clinical psychology continued to expand its role during the 1980s, building on the new emphasis on evidence-based approaches in the NHS. He quietly gave support to building the foundations of the profession strong enough for the times. For example, he supported the organisers of the first European Clinical Psychologists conference at University of Kent at Canterbury in 1986. The organisers and speakers read like a role-call of the great clinicians that helped to shape the profession in this era: Frank McPherson, John Hall, Bob Woods, David Westbrook, Paul Salkovskis, Melanie Fennell, Colin MacLeod, Derek Milne, Marie Johnstone, Theresa Marteau, Ian Bennun, Jeff Garland, Barbara Wilson, Helen Dent. Bruce was here, but behind the scenes, helping others, just as he did with his regular column in the DCP Newsletter (‘Bruce’s bits’), his articles on topics such as how to use overseas qualifications in the UK (still a live issue after Brexit) and how lateral transfer to clinical psychology by those already qualified in other branches of applied psychology might work to everyone’s benefit. 

His colleagues who worked with him at that time remember a lovely person, warm, affable, good humoured, self-effacing, and always willing to help despite the enormous pressures of a job where if it is well-done, all runs smoothly and few people notice how things might have gone awry. Bruce was an example of a clinical psychologist who saw that you don't just fulfil the profession's aims by working face-to-face with patients; you also have to tackle systems and strategy.

He was able to bring that same political nous when he came to head the Adult Clinical Psychology Services in Gwynedd, North Wales too. One colleague recalls going to Bruce soon after beginning their first post, wanting to set up a family intervention support network, but who felt undermined by senior management. Bruce talked it all through kindly, and advised taking a long view, and have the goal ‘…. to reach a point where they are asking you to do this, rather than blocking your unasked for initiative.’ Then, if any of his team had a good idea, Bruce was always welcoming of this too – as one colleague recalls – using the phrase "that’s a brilliant stroke of genius". It was a delight to us when he answered the call to help set up and run Bangor University’s Institute of Medical and Social Care Research in the late 1990s, a project on which we worked together until I moved to Oxford in 2003 and he retired in 2004. This was the time that mindfulness was getting noticed as a new approach to preventing depression, and we decided to set up a Centre for Mindfulness Research and Practice. Such new initiatives demand a huge amount of hidden work. Bruce’s steady good-humoured support – pragmatic, practical, can-do orientation – was invaluable. As one colleague remarked: “He believed in what we were doing but in a grounded realistic way.” 

But Bruce had many other interests. From a young boy, he had a passion for Scouting, and while at Leicester he became a Scout leader, Group Scout leader, then Assistant District Commissioner for Leader Training. He and his wife learned Ballroom and Latin dancing while in Southampton, and American Line Dancing in North Wales. His attempts to teach us all to line-dance at our clinical psychology away-event became legendary, as Bruce led us in exercises that tied up both our mind and our feet in incompetent tangles. He had all the gear – cowboy hat and boots – but we were hopeless pupils and as soon as Brown Sugar came on the stereo, he lost us all to old fashioned bopping. He was not dismayed, for he didn’t do anything by halves, throwing himself into things ‘hook, line and sinker’ – most of all, his passion for canal boating. This started when his children Elanor and Graeme were young, and continued until he got to live his dream: retiring in 2004 to a life on the canal boat they had built for the purpose. It was all very well planned – colleagues remember the charts on the wall by his desk of the various designs for the boat. He and Sheila became ‘continuous cruisers’, living on the canals, before getting a home mooring at Mercia Marina in 2011. He made many good friends on the canals, who came to know and deeply appreciate his compassion, his knowledge and skills, his deep interest in them as people, and his infectious enthusiasm for life. His death in January 2020 from pancreatic cancer cut short the plans that he and Sheila were making for a new, lighter boat for the next phase of their lives on the canals – and we in psychology have lost a friend and a colleague who, in a vast number of known and unknown ways, made a profound difference to many people’s lives.

Mark Williams

Oxford, February 2020

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What more can I add to Mark William's lovley tribute to Bruce? I know Bruce always appreciated the high regard in which I held him when we worked together at the BPS office in Leicester. I was so grateful for his help and support during his time as my deputy. He also did a splendid job for the Division of Clinical Psychology.  I am sure there will be numerous of his clinical colleagues who will be saddened to hear of his untimely death when he still had positive plans for his future. He was always a good friend and source of support for me and it is so sad that he is no longer with us. Bruce will be missed by all whose lives were made richer by having had contact with him. His was a life of service to others, a life lived well. Colin Newman,    Eldwick, Bingley, West Yorkshire

Thank you Mark for your lovely tribute to Bruce. He was a wonderful mentor - and I will be forever grateful to him for taking a chance by employing me as an Assistant Psychologist and mentoring me until I became fully fledged as a Clinical Psychologist. When I qualified he treated me as an equal - a subtle, nuanced change in his interactions with me that gave me confidence to overcome the "fraud syndrome" he knew I was struggling with. I missed our chats when he retired but always felt he was available if I really need guidance. I will miss him.