Welcome

This blog was begun in October ’08 to keep track of my research into the world of bullfighting following my essay for Prospect magazine on the topic. To read that essay, see the ‘Page’ tab on the right hand toolbar, alongside pages on the author, the structure of the bullfight, a more scientific piece on the nature of the Spanish fighting bull, pages on the ethics and the aesthetics of bullfighting, and my contact details. Two other posts I would mention here are this one on the popularity of bullfighting in Spain and the often quoted ‘Gallup’ polls, and also this one on the 533 famous professional bullfighters killed in the ring in the past three centuries.

Since then I have watched approaching 2,000 bulls toreado (‘fight’ is not the word, this is not a sport, there is nothing fair here), run the bulls myself in Pamplona and the less famous Cuéllar more than two dozen times, danced alongside Spain’s flamenco dancers, trained and toreado and killed alongside her matadors in the arena myself and wrote the first two years of those experiences as a national book award shortlisted memoir, Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight.

Into The Arena can be purchased from Amazon UK by clicking here. In the US, it can be purchased from Amazon in all these formats by clicking here. In Canada here. In Australia here. In India here. In Singapore and South East Asia here. It also available from iTunes, via its recommendation by Condé Nast’s GQ magazine here.

The book was shortlisted for the William Hill Sports Book of the Year 2011 and listed as essential reading for both the Summer and Christmas in the Sunday Times and Sunday Telegraph. As the reviewers said,

“Complex and ambitious, compelling and lyrical.” Mail on Sunday *****
“An engrossing introduction to Spain’s ‘great feast of art and danger’. Brilliantly capturing a fascinating, intoxicating culture” Sunday Times

“A compelling read, unusual for its genre, exalting the bullfight as pure theatre.”Sunday Telegraph

“He did not expect to fall in love with bullfighting, but then he had his eyes opened by the beauty, dignity and art of the sport.” The Times
“Thrilling. An engrossing introduction to bullfighting.” Financial Times

“An informed piece of work on a subject about which we are all expected to have a view.”Daily Mail
“Fantastic. A fascinating insight into a world we know little about but are quick to judge.” Metro
“An informative and breathtaking volume of gonzo journalism” The Herald (Scotland)

“Intoxicating. Pulses with the writer’s love of the world and the people he has found himself among.” The Australian (Australia)
“A thoughtful, well-researched and deeply felt investigation… vivid evocations of men who risk their lives in a beautiful, vulgar battle with the bulls.” The Prague Post (Czech Republic)
“An entertaining account which seeks a demonstration of the values which distinguish bullfighting from butchery.” The Spectator
“Particularly good. Transposes spectacle into words with great success, conveying the drama with eloquence and precision.” Literary Review

“Acknowledges the morally questionable nature of the bullfight. Interesting explorations of fear, bravery and drive.” League Against Cruel Sports
“A larger than life character. Hugely enjoyable and easy read. Moving and instructive.” Club Taurino of London
One of the most engaging books on the Bulls I have ever read. Feel every failure, every success, every thrill.” Taurine Bibliophiles of America

They also say,

“Although Fiske-Harrison develops a taste for the whole gruesome spectacle, what makes the book work is that he never loses his disgust for it.” (Daily Mail), “It’s to Fiske-Harrison’s credit that he never quite gets over his moral qualms about bullfighting.” (Financial Times), “Uneasy ethical dilemmas abound, not least the recurring question of how much suffering the animals are put through.” (Sunday Telegraph), “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 taken.” (Mail on Sunday) and “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.”(Literary Review)

The website of the book is here for full reviews.

What is on this blog is for those who have read the book and wish to go even further into the world of the bulls, which has now and forever become a part of my life…

Alexander Fiske-Harrison

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Comments

  1. Hi,

    I just wanted to say that I love your blog! I love the way that you weave together your own experiences, the culture/traditions of the corrida and a Philosophy.

    Your writing makes the corrida understandable, on an obvious and a more subtle level, and gives a glimpse to the history, values and tragedy that underpin it.

    So thank you!

    Jade

    ps. I have a question. I can’t get my head around why the bull doesn’t charge when the torero has his back turned? He just stands there waiting to be told what to do. Why doesn’t he go for it when the torero isn’t looking?

  2. Jade, Sorry for the delay in replying. Thank you for the kind words. In answer to your question, at the end of the series of passes the bull is made to turn very hard in the remate’ and throws away all its momentum. So, tired and stationary, it will not begin to charge again very easily. The matador moves carefully and in a direction away from it – or at least getting no closer – and thus the bull does not feel the need to make the energetic investment in a charge. Best. Xander

  3. I’m reading and enjoying your book very much. I recently attended my first corrida in Mexico at the Plaza de Toros and found myself wanting to see some more whenever I get to Spain.

    I’d like to know if you know what the rules are about photography at the various arenas in Spain (particularly the famous ones in Madrid and Seville). I’m a very keen photographer and I was frustrated in Mexico (or almost frustrated) because they didn’t want to let me in with a camera. I eventually got in when the press of the crowd got so great they couldn’t search my bags.

    I thought I got some good photos but I was not thrilled with the seat (too far up), and I figure if I do go to Spain next year, I’d want to go all out and get as best a seat as I can, but if they don’t allow cameras there, there’s no real point.

    -Nick

    ps. here’s the link to the bullfighting pictures I took (not nearly as good as the ones in your book but I was handicapped by being too far up in the arena).

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/maskirovka77/collections/72157628018493209/

  4. Thank you very much. I don’t think I have ever been to a plaza in Spain without a camera – the Canon EOS with a 70-300mm zoom with which I took most of the colour photos in the book. Anything bigger will annoy fellow audience members. Enjoy, AFH

  5. Hello,

    I have read your book and I enjoyed it very much. I am currently researching bullfighting and the morality of it and having also read a certain book, I am undecided over whether bullfighting is a right cause. I agree that the bulls’ lives will be longer and more enjoyable than those of bulls which have been killed, and yet I find that some of the details described in a bullfight could be seen as trying to needless inflict pain and suffering on the animal, possibly as a form of torture.

    I was wondering how you feel bullfighters deal with such feelings, for they are the ones who bring this pain to countless bulls, especially considering how you personally felt ‘empty’ and had a sorrow for the bull after you performed you first kill of a bull.

    Moreover, you wrote about how when the bull was isolated, it suddenly transformed into the angry, raging animal that is seen in a bullfight, and yet surely it could be that the bull only acts in this way because it has identified the matador as a threat and also due to the numerous injuries inflicted on it?

    In fact, I recently saw a clip of the bullfight where in 1968, a spectator ran up to the bull and started tickling its ears, without provoking any anger from the bull. I know this could be a mere ‘anomaly’ if you like, an unusual event, but the presence of a round ring with nowhere to hide and being enraged by someone driving pics/banderileros at you must have some if not most of the cause for the bull’s enraged appearance.

    Finally, from your experience in and around the bullfight, I would like to ask if you have experienced practices such as horn shaving and other ways of inhibiting the bull, as have been described by several authors. For it has been said that such practices exist, thus adding to the possibility of the view that the bullfight is unfair, due to practice of the matador and the deception he uses to bring this great beast to his knees.

    Thanks,

    Chris

  6. Forgive my scepticism about your motives, but if your ultimate goal in life is animal welfare, then bullfighting cannot be a “right cause” for you. If that is your sole raison d’être, then the injuries to the animal are just as needless as those to meat cattle, or indeed the tiny animals that die beneath the soles of your feet or in the acid of your gut. If that is your ultimate goal, your sole raison d’être… But then, perhaps, you do not belong in the world, with the lion as well as the lamb, the leopard and the fattling calf.

    In answer to your other questions: I have described in detail how I felt killing a bull in my book. Other bullfighters feel the same but less so. These feelings lessen across time in well-studied ways. Is that why you asked this question?

    Equally, I have written on why the bull charges at length. So why ask? The bull charges most at the beginning of the fight, uninjured. As for tickling a bull behind the ears, you are welcome to try. However, I fear you will only get to try the once. I should like to see this footage. Where is it?

    Horn-shaving is illegal and looked for by the authorities, fining even the President of the Union of Breeders when it was found on one of his bulls. Like doping in horse-racing, I fear it still happens, but not very often. Islero, the bull that killed Manolete, had shaved horns, which makes me think that it makes little difference to the safety of the matador. However, anti-taurino and torero alike continue to think it important… I see it as a distraction that should be stopped for reasons of integrity. 

    And when you mention the “possibility that the bullfight is unfair” you begin reveal your true motives somewhat. Whoever said it was fair? Certainly not me in my book. It is not a game, not ‘sporting’. It is a ritual sacrifice wrapped in a scripted three-act drama. The danger to the matador is real, but tiny compared to the animal, as is right. We eat their dead, for God’s sake, the arena is a far lesser insult – physically, morally – than that…

    AFH

  7. I would firstly like to say that my sole ‘raison d’être’ as you said, isn’t that of animal welfare, for I acknowledge that many animals are treated poorly in the world and the food industry. However, I was merely suggesting that regardless of the length of time a bull has lived, if one were to look at the death of a bull in the arena and compare it to that of one in a slaughterhouse, it could be said that in a slaughterhouse death is ‘less painful’.

    Yes, this is a rather ambiguous term but it refers to how when the bull in the abattoir is indeed killed by exsanguination, it has been rendered unconscious, whilst the bull in the arena is stabbed with the pics, the banderilleros whilst being full conscious and also being angered by several men. Despite the claim that the bull doesn’t feel pain when it is in the state it is (which could indeed be true), then surely in theory, one is inflicting more pain on the animal than would be inflicted if it was in a slaughterhouse.

    To be clear, I am fully aware that the much larger length of a bullfighting bull’s life perhaps already justify bullfighting over killing for food, yet I am only trying to understand and fully justify the killing of a bull in the arena over one in the slaughterhouse. In response to your request as to the footage of the person who ran up to and tickled a bull, you should find the video at this URL:-

    How credible that footage is I do not know, I was just trying to highlight that not all bulls are raging and angry, some are calmer, as you yourself mentioned, and as a result of this there is a greater risk imposed on the bullfighter (when the bull remains in ‘his territory’).

    As for the question of how fair the bullfight is, I am aware that you do not think of bullfighting as a sport, but instead as an ‘art’. I would like to know exactly why you think it is an art, for I have heard it been described at this numerous times and yet I am still unable to fully understand the basis behind this title.

    I’m not an opposer of the bullfight, in fact, I have been persuaded somewhat to be for the bullfight, yet I still need to understand some of the issues against bullfighting so that I can fully justify it as a practice.

    Chris

  8. Forgive my scepticisim – if you look at some of the other comments on the blog, you will understand its source.

    The video is fascinating. This is at the very end of the fight, when the bull is exhausted. It is quite clear that the animal does try to attack the man. However, the man is no ordinary audience-member, but Miguelin, a matador of note, whose knowledge of the animal – and the fact that since he has been in the audience he is completely fresh – is what allows him to survive. At the beginning of a corrida, this would be a suicidal move even for a torero. Miguelin is actually trying to shame the matador who is supposed to be fighting the bull, El Cordobes, and I wonder if he is not even trying to make the suggestion that the bull has been drugged, this being in Mexico in 1968. As I said, fascinating, but nothing to do with the bull as it enters the ring, nor what an ordinary man can do, nor the bullfight as it is now.

    As I failed to make clear in Into The Arena, but developed further in my exchange with the philosopher Mark Rowlands in the letters page of the TLS (see the ‘Controversy in the TLS’ page at http://www.intothearena.co.uk), the comparative suffering line of thought can be a red herring. We kill animals to entertain our palates, we kill them to make pretty shoes, and for the corrida, we kill them to make another entertainment. Just as we watch their real deaths in nature documentaries to educate and amuse us. Those are the key points to me. (There is also a post on this blog which goes into more detail taken from my speech at the Edinburgh Festival this year.)

    I wrote a long post on this blog sometime ago about the status of bullfighting as an art form. Since it is not on the sidebar, here is the link: http://fiskeharrison.wordpress.com/2011/05/31/is-bullfighting-an-art/ In brief, if hundreds of millions of people have called something an art form for over a century – in France, Portugal, Spain and Latin America – and if it is premised on using the creation of beauty to emotionally move an audience (along with the danger), then I simply can see no reason not to call it an art. Call it barbaric, call it immoral, but don’t go around trying to ad hoc redefine non-moral terms on moral grounds to suit your own purposes: that is intellectual imperialism of the worst sort.

    Thanks again for the video.

    AFH

  9. I have indeed read some of the comments on this blog from several narrow-minded people and I think they should at least open their mind to opposing sides of the argument; I also thought some peoples’ deriding comments on your friend Padilla’s injury was shocking and shameful and it just shows how much of an idiot they are.

    Anyway, I think you have answered most of my initial queries and for that I thank you, though if any other ones appear, I look forward to putting them forward to you in order to deepen my understanding of Bullfighting.

    Thanks again,

    Chris

  10. Walter H. Foster IV says:

    Great photo of you at the running in 2011. I am try to get my hands on your book here in the States. I plan on running for the first time next year. Any advice on the run itself and where to stay.

    Cheers!

  11. Thanks. Amazon.com can do it, just a bit slow. For budget Pamplona, look up “The Pamplona Posse”, say I sent you. They have a great run advisor, my friend Bill Hillman. I’ll see you there. If you’re feelin richer, the Maisonnave Hotel is perfect in terms of location and comfort – say I sent you there too. Rgds, AFH

  12. Walter H Foster IV says:

    Alexander,
    I managed to find your book on-line and read it in the evening while attending a military course here at Ft. Knox this week. I must say, I thoroughly enjoyed it. As a Soldier and LawyerI found your description of the individual matadors who face these animals fascinating and the discussion of the ethical issues compelling. The book brought back some of my personal experiences seeing the spectacle at the venerable ring in Ronda in the late 90′s. I have purchased some additional copies for my military colleagues who will be accompanying me to Pamplona in July for the Festival. I especially enjoyed your comparison of the “bullfighter preparing for the ring” as compared to the the modern day Soldier “preparing for departure on a mission.” I have that personal experience of the thoughts and emotions that run through ones mind before heading down “IED Alley” one more time. While outstanding training does help one to cope, it does wear on a person after time. I can only imagine the torrero feels much the same. Thanks for the tips regarding accommodation in Pamplona. I look forward to buying you a drink and exchanging “war stories.”
    Kindest Regards,

    MAJ Walter H. Foster IV

  13. Major, thanks for that. It’ll be an honour to buy you a drink back. Best, Xander

  14. Sarah Sá Couto says:

    Hi there – I have a few posts on bullfighting on my blog: http://www.sumofthousands.com

  15. Hello Alexander, I’m half way through your book which is a fascinating piece of work. I’m writing something myself (in no way on your scale or approach) and would be grateful for any help. Are you happy to do this ? Well done and best wishes, Robert

  16. Sure. Will email you. AFH

  17. I was admiring your website and your work until I saw one detail – you actually killed a bull yourself. That really made me angry.
    [I imagine I have killed several, extrapolating from my preferred, but entirely unnecessary, dietary and clothing habits. AFH]

  18. I am thoroughly enjoying your book in Kindle format and am currently at the stage where you describe the Ronda feria. However, I’d like to take issue on a very minor point, which I admit is a little mean-spirited, but since you have obviously researched the topic so thoroughly I thought it worth mentioning.
    I notice that in the book you refer to one of the ways of killing the bull as “en recibiendo” which I believe to be incorrect – shouldn’t it be “matar recibiendo”, or simply “recibiendo”? I’ve never seen it referred to as “en recibiendo” before.
    Congratulations on the otherwise excellent work.

  19. Not at all – and thank you for the kind words. In the second edition, I’ll be removing all those silly little errors which came from the nature of the project, i.e. beginning in semi-ignorance and learning as I go.(I also got various dates and name places slightly out.) I’ll also add a chapter on the come back of Padilla with one eye earlier this year. I was with him and did a ‘version’ of a write up for the current issue of British GQ magazine. Best wishes, Alexander

  20. Great book. I am really enjoying it.
    What are your future plans for writing? Are you going to focus on bullfighting in

  21. I think your comment has been cut short, but to answer what there is: I have become intimately involved in the world of the bulls in a way which I doubt will diminish. I am working on several documentaries, just filmed something for Channel 5 in the UK and Discovery in the US, am working on a short story for the Prix d’Hemingway, just finished updating the Wallpaper* magazine City Guide book to Seville, am working on another for Pamplona etc.

    However, this is all just part of an ongoing involvement, and, appearances notwithstanding, the main thrust of my work is now elsewhere…

    Thanks for the compliment on Into The Arena. I hope to produce a second edition one day with errors corrected – Las Ventas was completed in 1929, but not opened ’til ’31, La Maestranza begun in 1761 not ’59 etc. etc. – and to include my GQ piece on Padilla’s return to the ring with one eye as a post script (and my killing a four-year-old toro bravo as a P.P.S.), include more on my subsequent bull-running in Pamplona and Cuéllar etc. etc.

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