On Thursday, February 9th, at 7pm I will be giving a talk on my book, Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight at Blackwell’s Bookshop on Broad Street, Oxford. Tickets are free and are available by calling 01865 333623.
Putting to one side the articles in the Oxford Times and Oxford Mail, which discuss an apparently needless postponement of the talk – Blackwell’s effectively caved into complaints and then misrepresented them to me as messages of a threatening nature so I would agree - it is still worth clarifying one point of fundamental importance. Into The Arena is not a piece of pro-bullfighting propaganda. And it’s not just me saying that. Here’s what the press said:
Fiske-Harrison’s argument that the interplay between man and bull, when done with the highest skill, merits the tragedy will not convince many readers. But his descriptions of the fights are compelling and lyrical, and his explanation of different uses of the matador’s capes is illuminating. One begins to understand what has captivated Spaniards for centuries. This complex and ambitious book examines not only life in the bullring but also Spain’s cultural identity and modern ideas of masculinity. Fiske-Harrison admits that with each of his fights he knows more, not less fear. When he kills his first and only bull he feels not triumph but overwhelming sadness for a life take.
Provides an engrossing introduction to Spain’s “great feast of art and danger”…brilliantly capturing a fascinating, intoxicating culture.
Uneasy ethical dilemmas abound, not least the recurring question of how much suffering the animals are put through. But this remains a compelling read, unusual for its genre, exalting the bullfight as pure theatre.
Fiske-Harrison did not expect to fall in love with bullfighting when he saw it for the first time in 2000. A philosophy student and member of the World Wildlife Fund and Greenpeace, he would argue with his brother about animal cruelty. But then he travelled to Seville and had his eyes opened by the beauty, dignity and art of the sport. Fiske-Harrison recounts his year spent studying the matadors, breeders, fans and the bulls themselves, set against the backdrop of the campaign to ban bullfighting in Catalonia.
Others have been there before, not least Ernest Hemingway, the 50th anniversary of whose death neatly coincides with this travelogue. Hemingway concluded that bullfighting was ‘moral’ as it gave him a ‘feeling of life, death and mortality’. Fiske-Harrison comes to much the same conclusion, albeit after considerable soul-searching… He develops a taste for the whole gruesome spectacle, but what makes the book work is that he never loses his disgust for it…
This is an informed piece of work on a subject about which we are all expected to have a view. But what I really enjoyed about Into The Arena is that after nearly 300 pages I still couldn’t quite decide whether bullfighting should be banned or allowed to flourish.”
It’s to Fiske-Harrison’s credit that he never quite gets over his moral qualms about bullfighting; the book is at its strongest when he uses his degree in biology to investigate the cruelty question… Into the Arena is full of intriguing detail… an engrossing introduction to bullfighting.
The question of whether a modern society should endorse animal suffering as entertainment is bound to cross the mind of any casual visitor to a bullfight. Alexander Fiske-Harrison first tussled with the issue in his early twenties and, as a student of both philosophy and biology, has perhaps tussled with it more lengthily and cogently than most of us…
In researching it, Fiske-Harrison spent nearly two years following a clutch of toreros, several of whom became his friends. He studied their art and learned some of it himself, all the while trying to come to a decision about the morality of a sport that is also an art form. His eye-witness reports of bullfights are particularly good. He transposes the spectacle into words with great success, conveying the drama of the corrida while explaining individual moves and techniques with eloquence and precision.
I hope these in some way go to defend the claim that I have written an impartial book on bullfighting. Since returning to the United Kingdom, I freely admit that I have found myself putting across a balancing view, which is, by definition, not itself quite so balanced. When so many are screaming that the subject is so morally repugnant that we shouldn’t even discuss it, then I have been known to shout back that the moral high ground is not theirs to hold etc. A neatly symmetrical corollary of this that has been my fractious relations with the British pro-bullfighting lobby, leading to my harsh analysis of them in my book and my resignation last year from the Club Taurino of London (which I joined as part of my back in ’09.)
One problem has been that a great deal of focus since publication last year, predictably, was on my own killing of a bull in the Spanish style for the final chapter of the book. I am in part to blame for this, allowing my publishers to highlight it for marketing purposes. So what began as a book which is in part reportage, in part travel memoir, became a book by a torero. This is deeply unfortunate and also not true. I no more became a torero than Robert De Niro became a boxer in preparation for the film Raging Bull: by which I mean that I trained as one, and performed as one, but I do not make my living as one, nor is it the centre-point of my life.
(This De Niro idea is not mine but a friend’s, who called my book a work of “Method writing”, the literary equivalent of Method acting. This was no random assocation: I trained as an actor at the same acting school Robert De Niro attended, the Stella Adler Conservatory in New York, when Adler’s greatest former pupil, Marlon Brando, was its chairman. As Brando put it: if you want to make art from something, first live it.)
The only reason I entered that ring was to present as complete a picture as possible of bullfighting, which meant experiencing the darkest part of the matador’s art (matador means killer). However, it was a pale shadow of what a licensed matador de toros undergoes. There was no “public”, there was no surgeon, I had trained for less than a year rather than a decade, and the bull was a novillo of three years, not a toro bravo of four.