A letter to my grandmother, who watched fiery terror destroy Guernica

I’ll write this in English as you are long dead. I never really knew you – my mother was young and you were old – and I met you just a handful of times.

I remember only one conversation with you, standing on the balcony of a flat near Bilbao in Spain, in about 1975. It was my aunt’s home, although it was your home really. It was the same balcony from which my aunt would later throw herself to her death.

You told me how you stood on the same spot one evening in April 1937 and saw waves of planes arriving, heard the crump of bombs and the terrible noise. You watched the fiery terror destroy the town of Guernica, 20 miles away.

You were a witness to the moment that was the inspiration for one of the world’s greatest artists and one of his greatest paintings. My grandfather, whom I never met, was rounded up by Franco’s fascists not long after, so you took my mother, still in your belly, and her two sisters to France, where my mother was born. I have no idea how you managed, or what that journey over the mountains was like, but I doubt I would be here if you had not.

I know you must have suffered terrible hunger and heartache when you returned to Spain. You endured 20 years of Franco’s reign, during which he punished the Basque region and Catalonia, and all those who had stood against him during the Spanish civil war.

As a young girl, my mother was shipped off to relatives while you struggled to raise three girls as a young widow. It’s hardly surprising then that Mum chose to come to the UK while little more than a child herself.

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Here, there was work and food, and the possibility of a life. In London she met Dad – another Spaniard who came looking for work, too, and they made a hell of a life in these weird and welcoming islands we call home.

And it was here I was born. British to the core, but also, and always, Basque, and Galician and Spanish and a little French, but mostly European. Like you were, like all of us who were born or came here are.

I never really mourned your death, but if everything falls apart – as it did before and might well again – I will always remember and be inspired, and thankful for your courage and fortitude, and how you told of me the horror on that fateful balcony.

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