Sunday, 26 September 2010


I wrote five 'days' for Little Cumbria again recently and went in to record them for Radio Cumbria last week.  Later on that day I had to sign on, and also sometime that week I had a letter from the Tax Credits people.  The 3 things combined in my mind and made me think that I should suggest that Radio Cumbria runs a 'Pet Hates' 5 days for Little Cumbria: the 5 pet hates could become discussion topics for the days they were aired.

The Tax Credits office must be a top contender.  The Inland Revenue used to be really good, and if you wished you could just drop into your local office to talk to someone.  Nowadays you get some drongo at the end of the phone - if you can get through at all - and they seem unable to read as I was actually told that I shouldn't send them letters with their forms.  This apparently applies even if the forms don't ask for the information which you know they'll need and just have to come back to you for.

I know I'm not the only person who has had problems with the Tax Credits office and who finds them a pain in the proverbial: or rather, just completely useless.  One of the women at choir had her monthly sum drastically reduced with no warning because they assumed her son had left school at 16 (he's still there); and she was telling me the story of someone else who had been overpaid and then received lower amounts for 2 years because of that, despite the fact that it was the Tax Credits office's fault.  I hope in the latter case she kicked up a fuss and got it in writing from them that it was their error: we did and they've still tried to reduce our payments, but at least we have something written down.

I know there's an ombudsman for local government, British Waterways, and things like that: is there one for the Tax Credits Office?

Another pet hate of mine is pay and display parking machines, especially when associated with the system whereby you can phone up and pay over the phone instead of using coins.  For a start I rarely have the right change, and will therefore tend to either try to get a disc parking place in Carlisle, if I'm going to be quick, or will go into the Lanes car park which I know will at least take notes and give change, and I think possibly even debit and credit cards.  The station car park used to have a system whereby you could phone up if you didn't have £8 or £12 or whatever you needed to hand: one day I got a ticket, because the parking warden had got the date wrong, and goodness did I have a battle on my hand.  They only gave in by the time I'd written to several local MPs, Virgin Trains, Network Rail, and also pointed out to them that if they checked their CCTV they would see that I was in the right.  I did also ask why on earth anybody in their right mind would try to get away with parking their car there for an entire day without paying.

The other day in Newcastle I tried to use the pay by phone option: only to find that I couldn't because there was no way I could update my switch card number.  They hung up on me because I couldn't type in a number they recognised (let alone the fact that I needed to change the car registration as well).  So I put in only 2 hours' worth, and when I met up with a friend later fortunately she had some cash and I was able to go to feed the meter, as it were: I'm sure if the traffic warden had been on his rounds I would have got done for that despite the fact that I would have paid £5 for the entire day if I'd been able to.

And why are the machines so measly as to not give you change?  The ones in the Lanes, again, do: I guess they have to if you're using notes to pay.  But many, many local authority ones state 'no change given' and then don't even add on a bit of extra time because you've paid 10 or 20 pence more than you needed to because you didn't have the right coins and the machines don't take 5 pence pieces.

A third pet hate is the Job Centre, although I have to say that there have been times when I have gone in and been pleasantly surprised by the staff.  But generally all they are interested in is getting you off the unemployment statistics: they don't even look at what your skills and experience are.  Apparently they get some bonus for every person they get back into work.  Well, when someone comes up with a surveying job which is senior and part-time then fine: I'll apply.  Meanwhile I look at jobs (for example a Business Development Manager job for a construction company in Newcastle) and think "well, is it worth wasting time applying?  a) it's advertised as full-time and the property and construction sector is still notoriously conservative (and whilst I could take a full-time job and ask to go part-time later, now is not really the time to do that)    b) I'm pregnant and whatever the legislation might say..... (etc.)   c) I don't have any business development experience anyway, so whilst in good times I might talk myself into something like that, is it worth the effort at the moment, especially when 2 months after starting I'd be going off on maternity leave....". 

I could almost think it's a pain that I got pregnant, but on the other hand I feel that it was almost meant to be: and in addition I'm enjoying exploring 'media and creative' type possibilities which seem to be opening up for me without my trying.  Some of the staff at the Job Centre, of course, do not see that by writing and doing stuff on Radio Cumbria and singing I may be opening up new avenues for myself: in fact I'm sure if they knew that I've volunteered to speak to Brampton Community Centre about their swimming pool plans and that I'm on two committees and one Board they probably wouldn't see the benefit of those either and I'd just have to fill in lots of forms.  I guess the main thing is that none of these things are ones which detract from my applying for 'real' jobs and also I'm still available for interviews and work: though as I get more and more pregnant that is, if I'm honest, having less and less appeal and the thought of freelancing appeals far more.  The University of Northumbria needs some temp. admin. people and whilst I could do it, I'm really not sure I want to traipse over to Newcastle each day (and presumably incur parking costs as well as fuel costs).  I guess that the Job Centre probably wouldn't expect me to do so for a job which only pays £9 per hour.

I do have at least 2 more pet hates (to bring it up to 5) but I'm not going to go on about them here and now as I shall sound not only like a grumpy old woman (which I am) but a VERY grumpy old woman (which I'm not, I don't think).  And anyway it's nearly 10 p.m. and I should go and speak to my Husband before I turn out the light and fall asleep.  Good night!

Monday, 20 September 2010


I loathe jigsaw puzzles.  Helping Daughter with hers (age mostly about 7-9 as she's a bit of a jigsaw fiend and has had a lot of practice) is about my limit.  So I felt a distinct lack of gratitude or enthusiasm when I opened my birthday present from my Godmother to find a 750-piece jigsaw.

However this jigsaw had one major redeeming feature in my eyes: it was a map of the Central Lake District, and I love maps.  Looking at it more carefully, I thought that it might not be too difficult to do: I knew where some of the placenames fitted in overall, which would help, and I thought that if I could get it done then I could cover it with stickyback plastic and use it as a picture on the wall.  I also found that having started it, I was compelled to keep going, especially once I realised that if I did it first thing in the morning without my contact lenses in I could read the very, very tiny print on the box lid quite easily, which made progress somewhat faster.

As I slotted more pieces into place, I grew fascinated by features showing on the map.  I knew Cumbria had an industrial past, but didn't know this was reflected in so many placenames: likewise I hadn't appreciated quite how many disused mines there are in the county.  Having completed the puzzle, with some help from Son, Daughter and Friends of Husband, I have to say I don't want to do it again: but I was pleased that I'd finished it and it will look good on the wall (one day we're going to finish decorating the hall and landing, and I shall have various pictures, including this map, all the way up the stairs).

I'm beginning to get a similar sense of achievement with the garden.  There are still plenty of bits of the garden jigsaw to do: lots of weeding and a space to clear at the front to move some plants to.  But this weekend - again with help from Husband's Friends - I got the rocks up to the bee garden/rockery.  This meant I was able to put in the alpines and various other plants I have bought and transfer some plants from elsewhere in the garden.  The bee garden is now ready to flourish, I hope, next spring and summer.

Since I took this photo yesterday I read that having herbs near the flowering plants helps to attract the bees, so I've also moved some thyme into this area.  I'm just hoping it doesn't take over the whole patch as it was pretty vigorous and well-established where it was and was bought in a small pot last year: but with any luck the new plants will follow its example.  I'm going to add another stone or two to the drystone wall as well, partly to stop people reversing their cars too far over the garden!

I also got Husband's Friends to put some more stones in my 'trench' by the side of the front lawn to create an edge to the lawn and my rose border, and then was able to plant the rosebush I got for my birthday from Special Friend M.  I'm a little worried that the hole I dug for it wasn't really deep enough but I couldn't really get down any further as there were lots of big root remains from the conifer that used to be there.  I'm really pleased with that bed now: when we moved in it was just conifers and green things but at the moment there is plenty of colour there.  I couldn't resist some cyclamen from the garden centre: but I'm not sure whether
they will just die off in the winter and need replacing next year, as some I have from last year in a pot have not yet resurrected themselves.  I do think plants that you have to buy each year are a bit pointless (unless of course you are going to eat them).  I wanted some sweet peas in somewhere until I heard that most varieties need planting every year.

I've also just ordered some double-bloom primroses (Belarina Primula) to put in the border I've created under the trees to one side of the drive: again there used to be a huge conifer there but I've put in heathers (which are struggling a bit), carnations and some other things of which I don't know the name.  I think the primroses will like it there.  I've also stuck some rosemary cuttings in and am hoping that they will take and develop into a low-level hedge.

At some point I will turn my attention to the back, but it's going to take quite a bit of time, effort and money.  Father-in-Law has very kindly offered to put a fence up for us, and I have one climbing rose which is waiting for someone to put some trellis up.  Once I've won the lottery I shall then dig up everything which is there (mostly stones and paving) and put in raised beds for vegetables and herbs: followed shortly after (depending on the size of the lottery win) by a porch to the back door.  After that there's 'only' the side to deal with, which I haven't touched yet and where the weeds are rapidly becoming triffids: I think probably just path is the best bet as it gets hardly any sun.  Oh, and of course, we still need to turn the pond area into lawn....

But I'm beginning to see an end in sight, where the garden needs maintenance rather than major refurbishment.  Roll on that huge lottery win!

Thursday, 16 September 2010


In fact my birthday was Tuesday but I felt like crying: no, I tell a lie, I did cry.  I was tired; Husband forgot to say 'happy birthday' (so therefore the children didn't even realise it was my birthday) and we were meant to get to school early as Son had a trip and so there was the usual palaver and bad temper about getting them out of the door.  I find the entire morning routine exhausting and frustrating, and the fact that I now take them to the same place makes no difference whatsoever.

I am a very bad stay-at-home Mum: not helped by the fact that I also get wound up with worries about money.

Tuesday did in fact improve vastly, helped by lots of messages from friends wishing me a Happy Birthday and making various comments, by being asked to write another 5 pieces for 'Little Cumbria' (mark 2 - revamped), being phoned about a telephone interview for Radio Cumbria for Monday, and then by choir that evening singing 'Happy Birthday' to me.   I also came home from fetching the children from school to find an absolutely gorgeous rose bush from Special Friend M. awaiting me on the doorstep.  It's called 'Skylark' and has delicately scented, beautiful, huge, pink blossoms.  It will soon be in the garden next to 'Gentle Hermione'.

Unfortunately I was so hyper after the exciting prospect of being interviewed and recorded for radio again that I spent about 3 hours in the early hours of the morning awake with ideas and imaginary conversations whizzing around my head.  I'm always on a high after singing anyway: it's similar to doing exercise late in the evening.  You'd think it might make you a bit tired but in fact you can end up buzzing.

I only fell back to sleep at 5.30 a.m., to be woken at 6.30 a.m.  Because as a result I was very tired, Wednesday started poorly as well and was made worse by having to sign on.  I have to sign on every week at the moment and apparently the intermittent extra weeks are when I am meant to have an interview about my job search, and They at the Job Centre are meant to be able to help me.  Judging by the help I received about my C.V. (i.e. zero help and no answers to specific questions I asked), I am somewhat sceptical about what help they can be to me in finding a job: particularly as I feel I am making a lot of effort anyway and not doing only the obvious.  If I sat around waiting for a surveying job I'd probably still be there this time next year.  The rather scatty woman I spoke to even gave me a booklet about job hunting: pah!  Quite frankly I've probably sought and obtained far better jobs than she ever has.  On the other hand if she can find me something which pays me a decent income up to Christmas, and is part-time, then fine.  I think next time I shall take both my C.V.s with me.

Special Friend M's husband, on the other hand, who amongst other things is a qualified Life Coach as well as being an all-round Good Guy, was and is prepared to be far more help.  I had my singing lesson early yesterday evening and while Husband was at Boxing I had a conversation with S.F.M's H. (amazingly I only got one interruption from Daughter: Son was sound asleep).  I had asked for some help in preparing a 'creative and media' type C.V. so we had a good chat about that.  I felt a bit big-headed saying I have a good voice for radio, but I'm not basing that on my own opinion (I don't have a clue), but rather on feedback I have had from people who know what they're talking about: and the fact that I keep getting asked back.  And job-hunting is all about promoting yourself, albeit in a realistic way.  If I hum and ha about whether I'm any good or not then people won't take me on.

I'm also a bit worried that I could pursue the line of writing/voice overs/singing/part-time lecturing and get nowhere, but on the other hand the signs so far are positive and also Husband pointed out that now is my opportunity to do so: it's not as if I'm giving up a huge salary in order to try it all out.

A CD arrived this morning from Radio Cumbria with recordings of my first two 'Little Cumbrias' and of the trails I've done.  I now need to buy some blank CDs, rip and burn the tracks I want (I hope I can separate my voice out from the others) and then send them off to voice-over agencies.  I'm scared but excited: nervous but hopeful.  It's a bit like singing in public: you never know how you're going to be received, and in fact some people like you and some people don't.

I've also got my first singing 'gig' lined up.  I'm going to be singing at a charity bash at the Howard Arms on 9th October.  I'm only singing for half an hour whilst people arrive - almost a warm-up act for the jazz band - but it should be nice and informal I think with people talking and getting drinks rather than sitting watching and listening to me!  Carlisle Living, the local 'glam' magazine will be there, which could be some good publicity (fingers crossed: also hope I don't look ridiculous being so pregnant and not very tall: maybe I'll wear heels just for that 30 mins), and if I do OK it could lead to future, paid, work for the Howard Arms, and maybe even other people if they hear me and like me.  I'm a bit concerned because the Howard Arms guys haven't replied to my email yet: have they changed their minds (and what if they don't like me when they hear me?)?

I wrote all 5 pieces for the new and revised Little Cumbria this morning before fetching Daughter from school.  The brief has become looser which has given more scope for creativity, and I was fairly pleased with what I wrote: I hope they will be too.  I chose the theme of 'Five Great Memories' and wrote about my aunt Janet, without whom I would not have started singing again; turning 40 (when I came first in my age group in a triathlon); memories from working abroad (including the comment that it's lovely to share fantastic scenery but that it can be a bit more emotional when you're on your own); 'performing'; and My Husband. 

I have loads of other things I want to write about and I hope I'll manage to get round to doing so next week: it's amazing where the time has gone this week.  Tomorrow morning I have a practice with my accompanist for the Howard Arms 'gig', and ideally I'd like to go in to try out the acoustics and make sure they've received my email.  Meanwhile I'm also awaiting a response from one of the well-known women's magazines to my article about being 49 and pregnant.

What would be really great would be some feedback if anyone is reading my blog.  Has it become too rambling?  Have I been unemployed for too long now, with no progress, and it's become boring?  I'm trying to cover one subject per post, apart from when I do a general update, but am I trying to cover too many subjects: should I concentrate on just one and start another blog for other subjects?  Let me know.

Meanwhile, there were only a few tears on my birthday (and a big cuddle from my gorgeous and sensitive little boy, who immediately said 'Happy Birthday Mummy' when I told him why I was upset).  It never takes me long to bounce back!

Sunday, 12 September 2010


Last night was a special evening.  Myrna Tennant, aged 15, was leading a concert entitled 'Myrna and Friends: Celebrating Music' at St. John's Church in Upperby.  The aim was to raise funds for her travel to the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester 'junior' school each Saturday.

The programme for the evening was a lovely mix of performers and pieces and the entire event had quite a 'family party' feel to it. Myrna's Mum Mieke had put a huge amount of effort and thought into organising the show and it went really well, though I'm not sure that they will have raised much money from it!

For me the evening was special in more ways than one.  Firstly, it's a privilege to be considered part of Myrna's musical journey, and to watch her voice mature and see her develop as a performer over the past few years has been impressive and also quite humbling.  I am quite amazed that she considers me good enough to be of any help to her whatsoever, as she is far more talented as a singer and musician than I shall I ever be.  She will, if she chooses, definitely be one of the musical talents of the future: which is not to minimise the level of impact and status she has already obtained in the North Cumbrian musical world.

But two other things happened that evening which have made it a landmark occasion for me as well.  One was that the baby was squirming around a lot while I was sitting and listening to the other performers, and that was reassuring as I tend to be so busy with the other two and with 'doing stuff' that I don't always feel him moving as much as I'd like.  The second was a huge confidence boost to my singing.

I had rashly volunteered to do a couple of short solos (having already been asked to do a duet with Myrna anyway).  This was, really, going to be the first real solo work I had undertaken since shortly after leaving University: somehow singing the first verse of Once in Royal David's City in a choir concert last Christmas doesn't really count.

Having found recently that I've occasionally run out of breath during phrases, I was really worried that I had bitten off more than I could chew.  There were some relatively high notes in both my solo pieces, including, in one of them, some sustained top Gs: not really that high in the normal run of things, but the sort of thing which could go completely pear-shaped if nerves affected breathing.  However the acoutics of the church are fantastic to sing in: the 'box' really takes your voice and increases it, and good notes resonate beautifully, almost echoing.  If you want to sing loudly you only have to increase the effort a little and the church does the rest.  Fortunately I sang well (albeit there were some notes which weren't quite as pure as I'd have liked) and the top notes were fine.  Nor was I as shaky as I had feared I would be: I still remember so clearly singing in Carlisle Music & Drama Festival last March and shaking like a leaf!

I think doing an informal 'recital' at home to a very small group of friends a couple of weeks ago had helped: I think public singing, like public speaking, is one of those things where the more you do it the more you learn the tricks to help you control your voice and overcome nerves.  In addition there was another lady of 'older years' who sang a solo, so I wasn't the only middle-aged person doing a solo, and just before my slot Myrna and James Henderson, a talented young flautist, performed a Morricone piece from the music to the film The Mission.  That seemed like a good omen: I had the CD or tape of the music and played it repeatedly in my car when I lived and worked out in the Pyrenees, and I ended up considering it my 'mountain music'.  The Pyrenees was a very special place for me, and I remember one particular day when I was driving up the mountains in dense cloud with that music playing, to burst out into brilliant blue skies and sunshine near the summit.  A thick layer of cloud then lay below us, looking as if you could just step off the edge of the mountain and walk on it.  That is what heaven will be like.

I now feel more confident to pursue other solo singing options, and I'm grateful to Myrna and Mieke for giving me the opportunity to sing yesterday: I'm not sure they realise how much it has boosted my confidence.  I'm never going to make a career out of it, but as I've discussed with a few people, there's something in some of us which makes us want to stand in front of people and perform, whether or not we're really good enough.  My fear is always that I won't be good enough: yesterday evening I felt I was.

Friday, 10 September 2010


I'm not sure whether I had actually mentioned in this blog that we had obtained two new ferrets, both jills: one, a polecat colouring, called Claudia and the other a mere baby and sable, called Madeleine.

Claudia was being a bit obnoxious to the other 3 ferrets - trying to assert herself as top ferret, which Harry and Titus were having none of - so she was left in the run overnight as we worried that if she was in the hutch with the others she'd end up damaging them (or getting damaged herself).

The next morning she was gone, though we could not see how or where........

The good news is that today she turned up.  David was talking to some people walking past the back of our house, who keep ferrets themselves, and apparently she turned up in the White Lion pub a few nights ago!

Monday, 6 September 2010


Bearing in mind the title of my blog I really should update it on how the job-hunting is going, as it hasn't all been negative.

I wrote speculatively to two Universities which offer surveying courses, and got a phone call from one saying they really liked my CV and if they don't manage to fill their two full-time vacancies which are currently being advertised, they will get back to me about possible part-time work: and bear me in mind for anything relevant in the future as well.  I really fancy doing some part-time lecturing and some research and it would fit in well with other plans and ideas I have.

The publishers to whom I sent my book ideas (and a sample of my writing) were already considering an entire series on the same topic: so of course I replied and said I could do the entire series for them, or at least more than one book.  They said they will get back to me in a few months' time: so again at least not a complete 'go away' type response and meanwhile I'm in their files and, I hope, their consciousness.

Then today I was walking back home from the Drs and the Butchers and saw one of the owners of the local hotel.  They're thinking of asking me to sing at a birthday party they're holding in October - I think one year since they bought and re-opened the hotel - so I need to go in to talk to them in more detail as soon as possible.  It would be my first 'real' gig!

That's all on the job front: financially I worked out today that I think I may well be entitled to Maternity Allowance, which you can start to claim from about 11 weeks before the baby is born.  That was a huge relief and also means that in about 6 weeks' time I need not be on Job Seeker's Allowance any more but can leave the major job-hunting effort until the baby is about 5 or 6 months' old.  I do tend to feel that, whatever the legislation states, people will not employ me in my current obviously pregnant state if they can justifiably avoid doing so: and in fact there are plenty of surveyors around looking for jobs, so it's quite an employers' market at the moment.  I say that without any bitterness: as I've mentioned before in these pages, whilst it would be nice to have more money, in many ways I could happily wait until after the baby is born.

I also think I may be eligible for a £500 Sure Start Maternity Grant (I think that's what it's called) which could buy me a new laptop as well as a baby car seat: my in-laws have generously already said they will purchase the buggy/pram.  Some very kind friends (Running Friend A. and her husband) this morning sorted me out with a monitor so I'm now happy as I have computer access and 'document visibility' again, and don't have to rush into buying anything.  A laptop would make a lot of sense as the baby can then have my study as his bedroom and I can work in the dining room or wherever I feel comfortable.  Husband will have to tidy his study up - I was going to say 'a bit', but in fact quite a lot - to make room for a filing cabinet for me and the printer, but until we can afford the loft conversion I think that's a workable solution.  And if I'm not going out to work and he is, at least my laptop and I can have use of his study during the day.

Penultimately, I was on Radio Cumbria last night for a good 30 minutes including 5 pieces of music.  It was an interview I had very much enjoyed doing and sounded on air more like a chat with John Lipscombe than an interview about me, which I was pleased about.  He kept in a bit about his playing Dave Brubeck's 'Take 5' in 6-8 time on a cruise liner and also a section where we digressed completely and started talking about Watford, which is where he's from: it was far more interesting and amusing than if it had been purely me rabbiting about myself.   He's invited me back in a few months' time, which would be great.

The most exciting part of today though was that Daughter started school.  She looked so lovely and quite studious and grown-up in her school uniform, and seemed to enjoy herself.  She told me they did all their times tables right up to 14x and that they did maths all morning: somehow I don't believe her!  However she fell asleep late last night and woke up early this morning and I think the excitement of school along with lack of enough sleep made her rather tired this afternoon as I had to deal with a complete melt-down (4-year-old equivalent of a 2-year-old tantrum) this afternoon.  She was making so much noise that the baby started kicking: which at least shows his hearing is, presumably, OK.

So time now to read to them and get them to bed early, and then do some singing practice.  The trouble with having a computer back is it's very easy to be tempted to do computer things when I should be spending time doing other things (at least I've done the washing-up).  I'm not complaining in the slightest I hasten to add!  Choir starts tomorrow: and singing lessons on Wednesday.

Sunday, 5 September 2010


My parents have taken the children to Talkin Tarn this morning with strict instructions to get them physically tired and hungry (no cake nor ice cream).  Meanwhile I have put roast chicken in the oven - or rather, put a chicken in the oven to roast - and made apple and summer fruit crumble.  I wish Husband was here to enjoy it too and hope he won't be back too late this evening.

I have had a peaceful few hours which I'm expecting to be shattered any moment when two lively children burst through the front door and my Mother starts asking me questions.  I have had a chance to look up job vacancies on the internet, but of course frustratingly as my computer has broken I can't email anybody my CV: it's only the monitor that's bust but uselessly I can't see anything.  I can't upload our photos from the visit to Trotters World of Animals yesterday, nor print them off for Son's Visits Book, which he wants to take to school tomorrow - and there's no point loading them on Husband's computer as it's not linked to my printer (or at least I don't think it is... I should check as Brother-in-Law tried to network them last weekend).

Husband's computer also does not have word, excel etc. on it - so I can't start to write the other articles for which I have ideas.  It's all very frustrating but hopefully someone will be able to lend me a monitor soon and I shall be able to buy a laptop (which then frees up my study, ultimately, for use as the Little Guy's bedroom: not that he'll need it until next spring/summer).

At least I still have computer and internet access as Husband has one as well.  It seemed a bit of a luxury having two computers initially - I didn't have one at home at all until I moved in with Husband - but now I'm glad.  Amazing how dependent we have become on these things, though I'm sure if we had to live without them we could quite easily.

The sun is shining again, which must mean we've had sunshine for over a week now: so I can't complain and could go outside to plant my narcissi bulbs.  When I get access once more to my photos and so forth I shall have to make sure I take a photo of my chocolate plant, which now has flowers which really do smell of chocolate.

On the radio again this evening I think: I must try to record it this time.

Thursday, 2 September 2010


I have to confess much ignorance of modern history.  Obviously I know something about the First and Second World Wars, and I knew that various artists and writers went to fight in the Spanish Civil War: but there my sparse knowledge ended.  My only excuse is that I never studied it in any depth at school: we 'did' Napoleon at one point and I vaguely remember something about Catherine the Great and Peter the Great in Russia, but otherwise my European history education consisted only of anything relevant to studying Latin or, in History 'A' level, the period from 496 to approximately 1100.

I had also heard of Picasso's painting 'Guernica' without knowing what it was.  Then in the library recently when I was browsing relatively aimlessly for reading material, I came across a book of the same name.  Reading the blurb on the back it sounded as if it might have that mix of fiction and historical background to which I seem to have been attracted in novels recently, and so without thinking too hard or long I picked it up.

Growing up having heard various violent news stories about the Basque separatists, I wasn't sure whether this might be a somewhat biased account of an event.  What I hadn't appreciated - due to my ignorance of any detail in relation to the Spanish Civil War - was the involvement of the Luftwaffe and the Nazis with Franco's efforts to control the country.

Whilst the novel concentrates on and opens with passages which make clear the vibrancy of Basque culture, it makes no detailed mention of the troublesome and difficult Spanish political and economic situation which resulted in the Civil War.  In a way it is clearly pro-Basque, but largely because our sympathies need to be with the victims of the bombing of this small (c.4,000 population: not much bigger than Brampton, or the village in Somerset where I grew up) and apparently undefended and unprepared community.  The novel concentrates on the personalities of the main characters and less on external events, although inevitably those cannot be totally ignored, and even the UK ultimately comes into the picture.

One part of the novel which I think will remain with me, emotionally, is the build-up to the bombing.  As readers we know it is going to happen but the hours prior to it pass slowly, even almost frustratingly.  The characters in the book continue about their daily lives.  Little which is out of the ordinary for them happens during the build-up.  There is talk about possibly cancelling the usual Monday market, but otherwise even once the two main female characters evenutally arrive in the town the only out of the ordinary occurences are that it is full of refugees and a long queue of people is waiting to purchase railway tickets to get out of there.  Life is already unsettled: people have been short of food for months, shelters have been built (and as it turns out, poorly designed): they think they are prepared as they can be for military attack.  What they do not expect is for that attack to come from the sky in wave after wave of Luftwaffe bombings.

When the attack occurs it is almost a relief as the build-up has taken so long, even though the outcome is inevitable: the deaths of some of the characters are predicted and indicated early in the novel.  But the horror of it is worse because we have become involved with the characters as people, even though our main identification is probably with Miguel, working in the woods outside the town.

After the bombing, the deaths and destruction, the pacing of the novel then changes for a third time and there is a quiet and sad period.  World events now come to the fore a little more as the main characters struggle to come to terms with their grief and with what appears to be an empty future.  They cannot, initially, communicate their grief and loss to others: likewise the book tends to concentrate on what is happening rather than descriptions of feelings.  It is not difficult to imagine those feelings, and Miguel's dreams of his dead wife help describe beautifully his suffering.

The build-up to a more positive future is, as one would expect, slow: and it is perhaps somewhat typical of a novel by an American writer that there is almost the obligatory happy ending.  However that is to make it sound trite, which it is not: the discovery of the 'lost baby' perhaps helps the book to reach a conclusion by giving some sense of a better future.

If nothing else this book made me want to go away and read up on Basque history - my interest in border areas arising again! - and there is a useful bibliography at the end.

To conclude: I liked the pacing of the book: I felt the writer was deft in using timing to create atmosphere; I liked the characters described; and whatever the political rights and wrongs of the situation, this painted a vibrant picture of a community hit suddenly by violence.  The shock must have been not dissimilar to the Lockerbie bombing, 9/11, or the Dunblane or Hungerford shootings, as examples.  Innocent people suffered terribly and the question in my mind is always 'was that really necessary?'.