Vocento: “A Gentleman In The Ring”

(Versión original en español aquí.)

A couple of weeks ago the eleven newspapers of the Vocento Group in Spain – El Correo, El Diario Vasco, El Diario Montañés, La Verdad, Ideal, Hoy, Sur, La Rioja, El Norte de Castilla, El Comercio, La Voz de Cádiz, Las Provincias – ran the following interview with me. The only exception was ABC which ran this one a few weeks before.

Alexander Fiske-Harrison

A Gentleman In The Ring

by Francisco Apaolaza

Having crossed through a dimensional portal, suddenly he appears in the bull-run of Cuéllar (Segovia), in an out-and-out race with Spanish fighting bulls, a copy of the Financial Times rolled up in his hand. With each stride, Alexander Fiske-Harrison, English gentleman, writer, actor and reporter for the British press spans the huge distance between his world of the cultural and economic elite of London and the bull-run of Cuéllar with its dust, hooves, horns and shoe leather. This is the story of how one man crossed through the door of these parallel universes and then relayed it in the first person to the most anciest newspaper in the City.

Now, perhaps, the Financial Times will give a respite to the workhorse of Spanish debt and point instead to Spain’s oldest bull-run. Perhaps the best part of the story is the signature on the article. Fiske-Harrison is not the type of tourist who cannot distinguish a cart-ox from a fighting bull, but is an amateur bullfighter whose curious journey began many years ago while search of new cultures and strong sensations. What he found was very far from his life in a grand English family – a line of bankers – with its studies at Oxford, its games of rugby, horses, shooting and the exclusive red and white athletics blazer of Eton College, where Prince William and David Cameron also studied.

No one would have guessed that a biology student and advocate of the humane treatment of animals would end up on the ‘dark side’, the art of bullfighting, and top it off by killing a three-year-old fighting bull with his own hands. Like almost all amazing things, this bull came to Alexander by chance. The year was 2000 and he attended with his father, President of the investment bank Fiske PLC, his first bullfight in Seville. El Fandi was fighting one of his last bullfights as a novice matador. “He was athletic and melodramatic in his style.” Fandi knelt at the toril gate, Alexander recalls, and the bull came out like an explosion. “It was an incredible moment in my life. However, the rest could not even kill the bulls. I saw there were two sides to this spectacle, with a conflict between them: a very good bullfight was ethically justifiable. The other side, when they cannot even not kill the bull, this was a horror. Bullfighting has a soul, has courage and the great drama of life and death. Also, for the audience, there is a conflict between the ethical and the unethical.”

With all its contradictions and these two sides of the murder and the beauty, the bullfighting bug bit him and bit deep. Thereafter, he began to follow the bulls as an aficionado by plane and car. He also met the bullfighters and went deep inside the curious world of the bulls, thanks in part to his family friendship with Adolfo Suárez Illana, son of Duke of Suárez, the ex-Prime Minister of Spain. From arena to airport, from feria to fiesta, always elegant – a blazer adorned with gold buttons and a carnation in his lapel – he was to be found in every corner of Spain as a bullfighter, as a’connoisseur’ and as a gourmand of a tradition that is not easy to taste.

After studying philosophy at the London School of Economics, he published an article about the bulls and animal abuse in the prestigious journal Prospect that caused a huge controversy. “In England there is a lot of hypocrisy toward animals. We killed three or four million cows a year. That is fine, apparently. I just wondered out loud why it is wrong to kill a bull in the plaza and not a cow at the slaughterhouse.” In his view, the key issue is to give “importance to the death of the animals. In my country they do not really care about the animal’s welfare. They just don’t want to see his death, they want someone else to do it, hidden. These ‘animal lovers’ do not care about the bull, but it bothers them that people want to see its death. They only care about the ‘sin’ of the audience.” With these arguments, Fiske-Harrison has become a kind of white knight for the ‘lost cause’ of bullfighting, either on his blog, in the press or on the sets of CNN, the BBC and Al Jazeera.

His book Into The Arena was poured like petrol on the the fire of this conflict, and it continues to burn. When he presented it in Oxford, the event was suspended by death threats and the matter came to the attention of the BBC. “It was absurd. An event that would have been seen by a hundred people ended up being heard on the radio by tens of thousands. ” By then, Fiske-Harrison, the last of a family Vikings settled in England since the ninth century, had decided that to know bullfighting, he had to get under the skin of a killer. Like a present day Hemingway, like a romantic traveler, a Gerald Brenan or Washington Irving of the 21st century, he slipped to the very heart of the fiesta de  los toros.

In the sacred behind-the-scenes, the testing bullrings, in such mythological places as ‘Zahariche’, the ranch of Miura, he became a novice matador. His mentors were people like Juan José Padilla, Eduardo Dávila Miura and Cayetano Rivera Ordóñez, with whom he is currently preparing a documentary filmed on the latest generation cameras. In Fuente Ymbro he passed his first bull. “I held the cape in my hand with a strong sense of fear and concentration. Adolfo (Suárez Illana) says I gave him fifteen passes. I can not remember, I guess because of the adrenaline that coursed within me. “

In September 2009, The Times sent a reporter to follow him. Giles Coren defined him as: “Very brave. Very British. Very Charge of the Light Brigade.” Fiske-Harrison continued to train and, dressed in traje corto he killed a three-year-old fighting bull of Saltillo (Moreno de la Cova). “When you get a good bull and you can ‘run the hand’ … There is nothing like it in the world. I have great attraction to bullfighting. It has something I love: the defiance of death. It is a snub to death. “

This ‘gentlemen’ was not finished, though. During an interview about his book – in which he claimed he would not return to Pamplona-, the Reuters journalist and bull-runner Angus MacSwan told him that he was wrong about San Fermín, the feria of Pamplona. He had to go back and try “this other form of bullfighting” about which he is going to film another documentary. It was that which led him to get onto the ‘horns’ of Cuéllar a couple of weeks ago with his Financial Times rolled up in his hand instead of a cape. Nor does he miss a single San Fermín. If you look in Pamplona, you will recognize him for his red-white-striped jacket, the insignia of Eton College, flying at full sprint down the middle of the main street, Estafeta.

(Translated by Simon García)

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