Guernica (or Gernika as they like to spell it in, er, Guernica) is a symbol of man’s destructive capabilities. Now, the aim of this blog is not to become clogged down in wordy rhetoric (which is handy as I probably couldn’t manage it anyway) or depress the hell out of anyone who happens to read this, but there’s no way of lightly glossing over the fact that on the afternoon of April 26, 1937, the first aerial bombing of civilians ever recorded took place in this tiny, peaceful Basque town. The German and Italian fighter planes that carried out the slaughter of innocent men, women and children destroyed 70% of the town, leaving an apocalyptic scene that was later interpreted so majestically by Picasso.
From the moment I learnt this, after being introduced to it via The Stone Roses’ b-side, I immersed myself fully in the thorny topic that is the Spanish Civil War. As a direct consequence my literary and art appreciation made several stellar leap forwards, but if I’m being truthful here (this happens occasionally, although I much prefer gross exaggeration as a standard form of expression) despite copious hours of my life dedicated to the Spanish Civil War I still don’t truly, completely, understand what the buggery was happening. Let’s face it, what chance have I got of nailing down the precise goings on when it even confused the stupendously gifted mind of George Orwell who was out there fighting? That guy came up with the name for the most successful reality TV show ever. Not even Simon Cowell is that clever.
To reach Guernica involves heading to Bilbao to catch possibly the slowest train in western Europe that will eventually drop you at a place full of dour, nondescript buildings (unsurprising for a place that was once systematically razed to the ground). Eventually you find yourself in a tiny museum where not a single guide speaks English and all exhibits are in the local tongue. You’re shown relentless displays of misery that start to crush your soul and at just the point when you think it’s all over you find you have in fact missed the main ‘attraction’ of experiencing what it was like to have been in Guernica on April 26, 1937 as bombs explode and the shivering sound of babies howling in despair plunge you into a near psychotic state of gloom.
And after being thanked profusely for your visit you are directed towards an oak tree. And as you stare at it you wonder if perhaps this means more to you than it really should. But a huge part of you derives satisfaction from that because this is your thirst for knowledge and you’re living it firsthand. Afterwards you pop into a local bar where all the men wear creased, tanned faces with fantastically cool berets angled perfectly across their greying hair and all look like they should be outside playing petanque. Some of whom may just have been in town that day when hell paid a visit from the skies. And as you sip on a cold beer and gaze at them all gesticulating madly at the football on the telly you suddenly realize that all this is because once you casually popped into your now extinct local record shop and parted £2.99 of your dad’s hard earned money to buy a piece of vinyl. And you still stop to think about the horror but not too much because you’re on holiday after all. And it’s only then that it hits you that if there is meaning to all this you’ll be fucked if you know what it is. So you drink another beer and watch the footy and raise a silent toast to your old mate; thirst for knowledge.
A stepping stone on my eventual journey to the town of Guernica occurred several years prior when visiting the Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid to check out Picasso’s monumental painting, completed in response to the bombings. Guernica is probably one of barely a handful of paintings that have left me a little bit paralysed when viewing it up close. In a what-leaves-you-more-breathless face off with Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, Picassso’s Guernica gets the Mona Lisa in a headlock, ruffles her hair and laughs in her face. Then it puts her down, pats Mona on the head and says “don’t mess with the big boys luv”. Probably with a Spanish accent though.
I’ve often wondered that if ‘Guernica’ hadn’t been written by perhaps the only band who could claim to be genuine heroes of mine, whether I would have taken such a clinging interest. Made of Stone is one of the Top 5 greatest pieces of music ever committed to vinyl (this is a view that is always liable to change, but for now it feels like Top 5 material. Tomorrow I may not even think it’s one of the Top 5 Stone Roses songs, but it’s my blog and I’ll change my mind if I want to). ‘Guernica’, the song, is in fact Made of Stone played backwards. This was the first song I had ever heard played backwards apart from that freaky theme tune to The Omen trilogy which gave me recurring nightmares for at least 18 months of my life and made me very cautious about taking lifts, double glazing vans and standing under church spires in heavy storms. As songs go ‘Guernica’ could fit snugly into the ‘one purely for the hardcore fans’ bracket, but there appears to be no hidden message from Satan in there and I’m quite certain that it will forever remain in my Top 5 list of songs played backwards. Its chances have been lengthened by that fact I can only think of four off the top of my head. The backwards song is a much under-appreciated art form, but if you should read this and decide to go listen to Guernica on an iPod at great volume in a darkened room; be warned: it could potentially make you do an Arthur Fowler.