Introducing our Topic

4 Minutes Read

The theme of the UKAGP conference this year is “We are not alone – Being with our differences, our commonalities”.  One way of exploring our differences and our commonalities is through telling our stories.  This weekend a new acquaintance told me that her mother was born in Germany in the late 1930s and grew up in Germany during the Second World War and its aftermath, surrounded by the fears engendered by war and by living under a dictatorship.  This story evoked for me my grandmother’s experience of growing up in a different era, a different country, and different circumstances but similarly fearful of the judgements of others and betrayal by her neighbours.  My friend and I have different histories, but we are aware that our present can be similarly haunted by a fear of judgement by the other.  We are not alone.

Writing this introduction to the newsletter has reminded me of the various processes involved in writing assignments on the counselling diploma course at the Gestalt Centre.  Until a few minutes ago, I was panicking because I thought that I had nothing prepared and the dreaded blank sheet of paper was looming large in my imagination.  And yet, deep down, I have been writing this introduction for weeks in the back of my mind and, even as I panicked, I knew that I had been writing it all along.  And that, as with the diploma course, support and inspiration were available to me, if I needed them.  I was not alone.

To begin with, I looked at the contributions which the editorial team had already received, and I found there references to the natural world, blood and earth and to the violence which nature perpetrates and which is perpetrated against nature.  These themes resonated with me because I had been intending in my half-acknowledged preparations for writing this piece to make reference to the words of Rupert Brooke in “The Soldier”: 

“If I should die, think only this of me:

That there’s some corner of a foreign field

That is for ever England.”.

My late father quoted these lines often but what I did not know when I heard him quote them was the deep significance which they held for him and his family history.  For example, it was only after my fathers’ death in 2000 that I discovered that my paternal great-uncle, Francis, was one of over 19,000 British soldiers who died on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, 1st July 1916.  He is one of 72,333 identified casualties of the Battle of the Somme commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial.  

In addition to losing a younger brother, my paternal grandfather also lost a cousin, William Mutum, who had returned to the place of his, my paternal grandfather’s and my father’s birth, Brandon in Suffolk, having been severely wounded in action in the first world war.  William died of influenza in 1919.  He is buried in Brandon cemetery and his death is commemorated on Brandon’s war memorial.  My paternal grandfather’s cousin, Victor Brownjohn, who was born and brought up in Bruce Grove, Tottenham died on 16th May 1917 at the Battle of Arras and is commemorated on the Arras Memorial.

It was only when I started to look closely at the history of my father’s family about five years ago that I understood what it meant for Francis and Victor to be commemorated in this way.  It meant that their bodies were never found, that they disappeared into the mud of the Western Front and, in particular, that my paternal grandfather and his parents (who were living in Brandon at the time) had no body to bury or funeral to attend.

After my father’s death, I also discovered he had lost a first cousin, Eric Mutum, in the second world war.  Eric grew up in Brandon at the same time as my father. He belonged to the Royal Army Service Corps and died in North Africa, aged 24, on 20th July 1941.  He is buried in the Halfaya Sollum War Cemetery in Egypt.  

War is not all bad, it disrupts, and disruption not only destroys but it also creates.  My paternal grandparents met when my grandfather, Harry, was serving in a works battalion in Folkestone during the first world war, Harry and his friend, George Hobson, had been classified as unfit for active service.  George was then re-classified as fit for active service and told that he was to depart for Gallipoli on the following Saturday, in a couple of days’ time.  George had already arranged for his older brother, Thomas, to visit him in Folkestone on that Saturday and, unable to cancel the visit at short notice, asked Harry to meet Thomas to explain that he had gone to Gallipoli.  Harry agreed to do this and, when he met Thomas, found that he was accompanied by his younger sister, Emily.  Emily and Harry married once the first world war had ended, and my father was born in 1920. George returned from Gallipoli in one piece and died at the age of 65 in 1952.

My father was 19 in September 1939.  He joined the army at that point and eventually it changed his life.  In September 1939, he was an ironmonger’s assistant in Brandon.  By the end of the second world war, he had a career as a journalist in Bury St Edmunds.  In addition to Francis, my paternal grandfather had 10 other siblings, of whom 8 survived infancy. There is much about my father’s family which I have only come to know and understand in recent years.  During his lifetime my father, for reasons which I can only guess, gave what I now feel to be a highly edited account of his origins.

There is much more that I could say and there are many more details which I could include. There is not however enough space here for me to go further except to say that this is my land, this is my blood, and these are my people.  And with that land, with that blood and with those people, I am not alone.

The newsletter also includes a piece about endings.  With endings, there are also beginnings. We are moving towards a post-pandemic world with a new geo-political landscape.  The Russian invasion of Ukraine has evoked for many of us painful reminders of Europe’s past. As we move forward, the past is present with us now and we take it into the future.

May we work together in the present with our commonalities and our differences in a way which honours the past but does not allow the past to haunt the future.

Angela Mutum

Gestalt counsellor in private practice

Working with adult clients experiencing loss and life transitions

Crouch End, London

[email protected]

Photo credit: British Library – 1914, World War 1. Highland Territorials in a trench. Photographer: H. D. Girdwood.