My talk on Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight at Blackwell’s of Oxford on Thursday at 7pm

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:

Shortlisted for


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.

Alexander Fiske-Harrison

Photo: Paloma de Gaytán Ayala

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  1. Daisy Eccles says:

    Would your friend who described your technique as “Method writing” be Hugh Dancy or his wife Claire Danes? I have a copy of your book and they are both in the acknowledgments AND in the Giles Coren article on you in The Times…

  2. David Morton says:

    Dear Alexander

    Cannot locate our previous exchanges on this site but said I would comment on your book.
    Generally good stuff on the fiesta brava ringing true in my experience. I salute your courage on entering the ring several times especially despite being somewhat crook on the last occasion.
    Found your comments on the origins of the toro bravo a bit difficult to follow. I too do not much appreciate rejoneo and , yes, many bull fights can be boring.
    I have to confess I was a bit irritated by the name dropping and frequent references to sartorial elegeance. Perhaps you could be the Beau Brummel of the Mundo Taurino?
    I wondered what the chief of the general staff was doing asking you a liberal to visit.Try reading How to lose Small Wars by Frank Ledwidge for an insight into the capabilities of today’s top brass.
    I hold Padilla in high regard and nice to see him carried out of Olivenza yesterday. Iam also fond of Rafaeillo who has a marvellous sense of humour and good report with the public.

    Interested in your remarks about food; Socrates said running a restaurant was a form of pandering

    Could have said more but restricted by this format

  3. Umm, thanks… I guess. I can only say that I cut the number of names to about 10%. After all, I was meant to be describing the world as I found it, and the way I found it was full of people who have names. As for clothing… I really don’t remember writing about it, but maybe I did. One of my last conversations in Olivenza on Sunday was with Padilla and Pedro Algaba, the Seville based bullfight tailor, about clothes… So maybe I do, because that is what they do. Padilla has more than 50 suits of lights in his house.

  4. David Morton says:

    Dear Alexander

    Thank you for your reply.

    What I mean by name dropping is superflous references to the Spanish aristocracy and for example that your friend Adolfo Suarez Illana is the son of a Spanish prime minister.

    I was not referring to traje de luces but frequent remarks about sharp suits and other sartorial details about garments worn outside the ring.
    It wolud seem you were not aware of it.

  5. Again, I am not sure what to say. I describe what I see. And people choose the clothes they wear – in the shop and then again that day – as a deliberate reflection of themselves. To ignore is to fail to describe. If I was overly complimentary in my references, that might be another issue, and I shall look into it, as that would be bias.

    And of course I am going to mention Adolfo’s father, because he wasn’t just “a” prime minister, but the first democractically elected one in Spanish history, having set up the entire democratic structure of the country alongside the King. He also was a bullfighter, and his son, as a direct result of these two facts, is the top amateur bullfighter in Spain.

    I think I get your gist, but I am afraid what you want is not a description of the world of the bulls as it is, but as you wish it were…

  6. David Morton says:

    Continuation of above; this little box has a will of its own.
    I really enjoyed the great majority of the book; the above areas irritated me and would have benefitted from a little more editing.
    I am delighted you made it to Olivenza and hope you found Padilla on good form.

    CTL members often choose Olivenza for their first trip of the temporada; perhaps you bumped into them there.

    If you go again I recommend hotel Rocamador near Barcarrota but may be this is namedropping.
    Best weishes

  7. David Morton says:

    I think you miss my point I cannot see how being a prime minister’s son has got anything to do with the latter being a bullfighter.

    Similarly my remarks have nothing to do with how I see the Mundo Taurino but a critique of specific content within a creative endeavour.

  8. Thank you for the majority compliment. However, putting to one side the fact that I mention what pretty much everyone in the book’s families do to provide context – Padilla’s being a baker etc. – in this particular case it gives one a wealth of information on how others might treat him, particularly in the parentage obsessed mundo taurino. It provides clues as to character – he is hardly fighting out of hunger. The fact that the first democratic prime minister fought bulls, and that his son does as well, tells you how endemic it is to the culture. To fail to mention it would have been a failure of description on a massive level. Not least people saying “of course the book doesn’t mention that part of the reason for Adolfo’s celebrity in the mundo is his father.” There is no way round it, and why try to find one? To avoid looking like you’re name-dropping? That’s as bad as doing it unnecessarily.

  9. David Morton says:

    A propos senor Ilana pere you first mention him on page 19 without reference to the bulls and then on page 216 with reference. This notwithstanding you have stated that the fact that the father was a prime minister influenced the son’s decision to become a bullfighter and I cannot see how this can be. You allude to the Duke of Segorbe, Gerarda de Orleans-Bourbon, The Duchess of Alba and her other titles and Tristan Ybarra’s great great etc grandfather (incidentally I never worked out Mr Ybarra’s connection with the bulls). These unqualified references to aristocracy, social status, lineage together with an emphasis on dress would do well in Hola. It would have been interesting to have some socio political comment for example about the struggle poor boys without connections have to make it in the Mundo and I am sure padilla would have had something to say but perhaps that would have been indiscrete

  10. But I also talk about a lot of people you don’t know.

    The fact is that if someone has a famous name, especially a name famous in the mundo taurino, then I have a duty to explain why. That’s the book is called the “World Of The Spanish Bullfight!”

    Ybarra, sometimes written as Ibarra, is one of the four foundational ranches of the toros bravos. I mention them in the comparison of the bulls’ abilities to take pics. When mixed with Santa Coloma, you get Saltillo, although I actually didn’t name drop that Paloma de Gáytan Ayala who appears in the book is Santa Coloma (brother of the Condé). It was relevant, but since I don’t go into bloodlines that much, it seemed a name drop without an explanation.

    I mention the first Condé de Ybarra (although not that he was a Count), because, as I say, he founded the Feria de Abril, in which the majority of the fights in the book are set, and, alongside San Isidro in Madrid, is the most important bull event in Spain!

    I could argue similarly with the others, but I just don’t see the purpose… We obviously disagree on notions of relevance.

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