Back to School

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A fortnight ago I accepted, alongside my old friend and bull-running-buddy Bill Hillmann, a prize from the most ancient encierros, ‘bull-runs’, in all of Spain, those of the town of Cuéllar in Old Castille.

Me & Bill Hillmann with our awards in Cuéllar, September 2013 (Photo: Jim Hollander)

Me – in my old school Athletics ‘colours’ jacket – & Bill Hillmann with our awards in Cuéllar (Photo © Jim Hollander 2013)

Earlier that same day I nearly died while running with those bulls. The bull in the photo-detail below was suelto – ‘loose’, alone – and had come to halt facing away from me. So I seized what I thought was a chance and tried to pass it in the narrow street.

At the exact same moment another runner tried the same thing, coming from the opposite direction. When we collided, both of us with eyes only for the bull, he was bounced clear to safety while I lost my footing on the slippery street at the very instant the bull caught sight of our movement in its peripheral vision and charged across the street. It ground to a halt on its hooves as I struggled to get upright, my back against the fence that protects the spectators on the pavement.

In this moment – which lasted as infinitely long as all the novelists, journalists and diarists of near-death say it does – I stood so still as to render myself invisible to the bull whose horn points were paused either side of my chest.

Literally either side that is, not metaphorically, or almost either side, or either side in the exaggerated sense an angler might say his catch was as large as a whale. I was within the goring arc of those horns, mounted with adamantine surety in their bone bracket on that dense bovine skull, the great extendable neck behind them, the vast goring muscles of the shoulders behind that – the morillo, the defining feature of the breed.

My back was fixed and framed by that steel fence, held in place for the horns to go in either side in the classic double punch of the toro bravo, and the hospital was an inevitably fatal 45 minutes away in Valladolid. There was no ‘move’ I could make: no tricks or quips in my taurine armoury to fall back on. Quite the reverse in fact, any movement would have invoked that death-strike: to even attempt to reach up and grab the horns for safety would have the end.

I looked into his black eyes and he, unseeing, looked out from behind them. Then he moved, and I moved, and he tried to catch me, but it was too late, Thank God.

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As I walked away, not one, but three local runners of great experience said to me the same thing: “get out”, “leave”, “your luck is done today.”

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After I accepted the award, a sculpture by Dyango Velasco of a bull’s head earily similar to the the one that had faced me an hour earlier, and sleepwalked through my interview for Castile y León TV, I took a siesta and had the disconcerting sensation when I woke up that I was actually dead, that I had been killed and that everything that had happened, and was happening, subsequent to that instant of horror was a fiction, a dying moment dream. It was the strangest feeling I have ever been in the grip of and took the rest of the day to shake off. (The sense of it even made it into the light-hearted interview for the newspaper ABC de Madrid I did over dinner that evening.)

I would say that the experience changed me, but nothing really does that. So, my frivolity has returned and I can smile to find myself invited back my old school, Eton College in Berkshire, to talk the Hispanic Society about “The World Of The Spanish Bullfight (the subtitle of my William Hill Sports Book of the Year 2011 shortlisted Into The Arena, most recently described by my former ‘bullfighting pupil’, Evgeny Lebedev in his newspaper The Independent as “the definitive guide on the state of modern-day bullfighting.”) The poster advertising my talk around the school is simply hilarious.

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Having come from a school which produced 37 winners of the highest decoration for gallantry, the Victoria Cross (three of them distant relations of mine), I think the epithet “most badass OE ever” might be overdoing more than a little. Indeed, having just been filming interviews and narration segments for ‘Ultimate Survivors’ which will be aired next year on the Discovery Channel and hosted by another ex-army OE, Bear Grylls, I can think of plenty of other candidates. The only superlative that truthfully applies to me in relation to that school is that I was sent to headmaster more times than anyone in its almost six century history – 68 times – and they still didn’t manage to expel me. I must admit to being quite proud of that.

As I sit down to write my speech I’ll leave you with English version of my thank you letter to Cuéllar, published last week in the regional newspaper, El Norte de Castilla. (The original Spanish is here.) This is the second time I’ve thanked that town in their press – the first time is in Spanish here.

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(Post-Script: since I decided in the end to do the entire talk off the cuff, I cannot reprint what I said here. All I can say is that it went down very well. I was also amused to see it commented on – and this blog quoted – in the Daily Mail the following day.)

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(P.P.S. It has been suggested to me that I am committing some sort of heresy by allowing the word ‘matador’ to be associated with my name. The quick answer to that is that I am not. As I commented only last week about wearing the matador’s ‘suit of lights’ to the Daily Telegraph, “I don’t have the right to wear one and I am a torero, a bullfighter, and an espada, which means that I have killed with un espada, or a sword, but I am not a matador de toros, which is a professional qualification.” However, to preface every puff-piece I cite, quote or link to with scholarly caveats is to take them, and myself, far too seriously – a joke is a joke, and someone who hedges it with footnotes will fail even to raise a wry smile. And as for the claim of blasphemy: I point to the message I received about the article scanned above from not only a great matador de toros, but scion of an entire dynasty of them who knows all to well the price paid to earn that title, Cayetano Rivera Ordóñez.)

I should also add that, having missed the Feria Goyesca de Pedro Romero de Ronda this year, I’ve decided to head with family and friends to Seville for the Feria de San Miguel once again this year. It is the final weekend in September, and the bullfighting cartels are excellent, particularly with El Juli and Morante de la Puebla both performing on the Sunday with the bulls of Juan Pedro Domecq.

If anyone else wants to come, there are still some of the beautiful apartments available from Joaquín de Haro y de Fernandez de Córdoba at his elegant building, No. 11, calle Almansa in El Arenal. It is 150 yards from the plaza de toros in one direction and about 300 yards from the supermarket of the Corte Inglés in the other. At €90 a night, it is astonishingly good value for the only apartments recommended by the Wallpaper* magazine City Guide book to Seville, and in feria too. His staff will even arrange your bullfight tickets at cost price directly from the bullring itself. (His website is here. A good ticket for anyone to request is tendido sombra, at €89.)

Alexander Fiske-Harrison

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And once again, thank you Cuéllar, from London

“If this could have been enough of a book it would have had everything in it.” This is how Ernest Hemingway, my maestro and mentor influence in the mundo taurino – ‘taurine world’ – began his final chapter in his often masterful introduction to los toros, Death In The Afternoon. In it, he goes onto to describe – in phrases as short in temporal duration but long in emotional after-effect as a trincherazo of Morante – the things he had seen in Spain during the 1920s.

It was the things which I saw in Cuéllar that made me write a ‘thank-you letter’ to the town from London last year, which was printed in this newspaper (‘Gracias, Cuéllar, desde Londres‘) It was written as though from a guest to a house to which he had been invited, which is what it felt like, even though I had been sent there by the Financial Times (‘The real, old stuff‘). This year, writing again, I only wish this could be enough of a letter. But I know it will not.

Last year I arrived with a brother-in-arms, the only description for him, because he is like a warrior. ‘Buffalo’ Bill Hillmann is a former champion boxer from Chicago – the city of Don Ernesto himself – who went on to become a runner I admire and a writer I respect (he also wrote about Cuéllar for the Chicago Tribune) And in Cuéllar we met Dyango Velasco, proud citizen and great sculptor of that town, who literally gave us the keys to the city.

This year we came back with a dozen friends and every door was opened to us again – this time even wider. The staff at the hotel we stayed at, once again, but this time filled to overflowing. We jostled for space with toreros and forcadores at Ruben Salamanca’s Mesón San Francisco, and it still serves the best suckling lamb in town. It was our refuge, and the tree-shaded pale stone benches of its gardens were our haven.

And once again old Luis Quevedo and his beautiful wife Soco and their son Alberto looked after us with solomillo and toro bravo, while the local wine, Ribera del Duero, flowed a rich chill into us as we stood in the cool stone rooms of La Carchena where we ended every day and talked late into the night in Cuéllar’s medieval Castilian heart.

And once again José María Yuste and his wife Aurora and their charming friends gave us lunch in their house where the famous exiled poet José de Espronceda lived and wrote.

And once again my taurine Godfather in Cuéllar, Dr Larry Belcher, the only man who ever moved from riding the rodeo bulls in Texas to being a professor at a university in Spain – your neighbour Valladolid – brought wisdom to the streets as did his lovely wife Dr Ana Cerón from the hospital of that city also.

However, this is not just a letter of repeat. I must thank the Godfather of all us foreign runners, Joe Distler, who watched over us from the comfort of the back row of the andanada sol in Almería, where only a toro as wise as he would know there is a querencia – a lair – of both shade and cool breezes, a wisdom born of almost half a century running every single encierro of San Fermín.

And this time the veteran EPA photographer Jim Hollander came to Cuéllar for the first time after more than fifty years of Pamplona, as well as the torn places and war zones of the world. In your forest, he stood among the pine trees as the bulls thundered past, involuntarily returning to the encierros he gave up running long ago, having begun before even Joe. (He publishing the fruits of those moments in The Wall Street Journal – and Los Angeles Times.)

Also we had Anthony Fane, Earl of Westmorland, who as a young man was chauffeur for the great Ordóñez who christened him Antonio II, and whose profound love of bulls, horses and the wild places of the world were combined into a fierce joy at seeing the hundreds of horsemen who draw into their command the bulls when they explode from the corrals in the woods in a moment of dust, madness and glory which defines your encierro.

Me & 'Burghie' Westmorland at the plaza de toros (Photo courtesy of Hostal Mesón San Francisco)

Me & ‘Burghie’ Westmorland at the plaza de toros (Photo courtesy of Hostal Mesón San Francisco)

No longer on his horse, we had the light-footed jockey, Richard Dunwoody, champion of all of the most important horse races my country has, even the legendary Grand National so often competed in by your own former Duke of Alberquerque, with the difference that Richard won. Twice. In your race he ran with neither fear nor dishonour and ended smiling. And I must not forget ‘The Scottish Rocket’ Angus Ritchie in his yellow ‘Partick Thistle’ football shirt.

More important than the host of foreigners are the people of Cuellár, from your pastores, like Enrique Tantano whose sideburns remind me of my old friend Juan José Padilla, and who rules the sueltos with a deft hand, to those maestros of running with bulls, like the local Josechu Lopéz, or those from further away like Jokin Zuasti. Running with the bulls, especially in Cuéllar, is not just about personal glory when “on the horns”, but also about brotherhood and sacrifice, respect and risking your life for others when it is required.

However, when my own ignorance led me into my own confrontation with Death, the horns of a bull of El Canario either side of my chest, my back on the fence, and the hospital far, far away, it was the bull himself who spared me. So I thank the bulls themselves as well, without whom there would be nothing. And the Virgin of the Rosary whose feria it is and who held the bull’s left horn as Saint Fermín, who was embroidered on my pañuelo – neckerchief -, held back his right. (I had given my Cuéllar pañuelo to Nicolás Osorio – eldest son of the present Duke of Alburquereque whose famous magnificent castle dominates your town.)

Nicolás Osorio & I in the streets after the encierro (Photo: Graeme Galloway / Pamplona Posse)

Nicolás Osorio & I in the streets after the encierro (Photo: Graeme Galloway / Pamplona Posse)

I must also thank your mayor for his generosity and helpfulness, Jesús García Pastor – a good surname for such a man – and the finally the actual masters of the Fiesta, who give it bravura, the matadors. The austere and elegant El Cid whose awe-inspiring templar cut two ears from an impossible encaste Núñez. He began my aficion in Seville in 2007 and not for nothing did he start his career with those Victorinos before moving to smoother taurine canvases on which he could paint with more art. Meanwhile Javier Herrero displayed the courage and honour and generosity of the town with three ears and a Puerta Grande in the place of his birth.

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The streets of Cuéllar (Photo courtesy of Hostal Mesón San Francisco)

In the end, though, it is the intangible things that move you most in memory, a mood, a colour of light in the morning as the sweat cools after the run and the heart slows among dear friends joking with a shaking hand gripping a cool beer, while passers by shout out “chaqueta” at my blazer, or “Chicago” on recognising Bill. Or the sight of the young novilleros unable to answer ‘suerte’ with ‘gracias’, their mouths are so dry as you share the lift down to the lobby, something I remember from my time dancing with and then dealing death to a three year old Saltillo. Or the little dog with his own pañuelo, and all the peñas with theirs handed to us along with drinks. This is what will bring people to Cuéllar, will change them, and bring them back with more.

Hemingway, with whom I began my aficion as I did this article, brought too many people to Pamplona, and many are the wrong ones. So it is ironic that I was pulled by his grandson John from a small pile-up of them in calle Estafeta on July 10th this year. I can only hope that we will bring to Cuéllar the right ones. And even if we don’t, we tried.

Thank you Cuéllar.

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  1. […] In this moment – which lasted as infinitely long as all the novelists, journalists and talking heads of the near-death say it does – I stood so still as to render myself invisible to the bull whose horn points were paused either side of my chest. Read on by clicking here… […]

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