The Cult Of The Bull

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As the 2013 season draws to a close, I have just received my copy of Olé! Capturing the Passion of Bullfighters and Aficionados in the 21st Century, which is filled with chapters and photos by some the foremost among the English-speaking faithful in the Spanish ‘Cult Of The Bull’, brought together and edited by Hal Marcovitz. (Available at Amazon in the US here, and the UK here.)

Among famous names such as Edward Lewine of the The New York Times, and John Hemingway, grandson of Ernest, there is an amazing chapter by the primus inter pares among runners of the bulls of Pamplona, the great Joe Distler, a veteran of over three hundred and sixty  encierros, ‘bull-runs’, who “took me under his wing” (as I say in the book), and augmented and altered my afición, which was born in the flamenco and duende laden south of Spain.

It was he who suggested I write my own chapter in the book, and alongside us our friends and running mates Larry Belcher, a Texan rodeo rider turned professor at the University of Valladolid, Jim Hollander, the greatest photographer of Pamplona and the war-zones and torn places of the Earth for EPA, and ‘Buffalo’ Bill Hillmann, so justly noted among the young American bull-runners.

There are also wonderful photographs, alongside those by Jim (who is responsible for the stunning cover), from my dear friend from Seville, Nicolás Haro, shortlisted contestant for the internationally presitigious Photo España prize.

(Nicolás also took the black and white photos in my own William Hill Sports Book of the Year shortlisted Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight.)

His work on horses is being exhibited in an exhibition in Seville on December 3rd (for which I have literally just filed the ‘foreword’ to the catalogue.)

Photo Espana Nicolas Haro

I should add a mention of my review of the complete letters of Hemingway, from the period 1923-1925, when his interest in bullfighting and Spain first developed, for The Spectator, online here.

However, it is not my own writing I should like to promote in this blog post, but that of the other writers in Olé!, some of whom I have not exactly seen eye-to-eye with over the years.

[Read more...]

The Dead Gods With Cold Eyes

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I submitted this article for my column in Taki’s Magazine. However, I was told by the editor that she’d had quite enough about bulls. Which is ironic, given what it says. Anyway, here it is, for what it’s worth.

Alexander Fiske-Harrison

Alexander Fiske-Harrison waiting for the bulls, Cuéllar 2013 (Photo: Enrique Madroño Arranz)

Alexander Fiske-Harrison waiting for the bulls, Cuéllar 2013 (Photo: Enrique Madroño Arranz)

Dead Gods With Cold Eyes

I nearly died the other day. Not, like the time before when John Hemingway, Ernest’s grandson, pulled me out from a stampede in Pamplona or the time before that when Eduardo Dávila Miura pulled me out of a bull-ring in Palma del Río. This time was for real.

Alexander Fiske-Harrison begins to run with the bulls, Cuéllar 2013 (Photo: Enrique Madroño Arranz)

Alexander Fiske-Harrison begins to run with the bulls, Cuéllar 2013 (Photo: Enrique Madroño Arranz)

I was running with the bulls of Cuéllar, which is a much like running with the bulls of Pamplona, only the town is smaller, the encierro – ‘bull-run’ – more ancient (the most ancient, in fact, as I wrote in the Financial Times) less crowded, and those that do turn up are mainly local, all Spanish, with not a drunk or first-timer among them.

Cuellar photo 3 blogDespite this I still managed to bump into someone as I passed a lone, stationary bull in a narrow stretch of street. Being lighter than me, he was knocked to safety, but I dropped where I was and the commotion drew the bull’s eyes – black, bovine, lifeless and colour-blind, following only movement – and it charged across the street, skittering to a halt on its hooves as I similarly fought for grip in my new, untested running shoes.

With my back against the wall, its horns either side of my chest – literally – and, unlike in Pamplona or an official plaza de toros, no surgeon within a forty-five minute drive, I saw my own death ahead of me. However, for some reason the bull decided today was not my day and moved on, most likely because I had the presence of mind to freeze, making myself invisible to the clockwork brain behind the horns. [Read more...]

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.

[Read more...]

The Prize of Cuéllar

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

Alexander Fiske-Harrison & Bill Hillmann with their awards in Cuéllar. Added Sep. 1st, 2013 (Photo © Jim Hollander 2013)

(from Burladero.com)

The Taurine Cultural Association of Cuéllar, Segovia, will present the award for la divulgación, ‘the revealing’ of the encierros, ‘bull-runs’ of Cuéllar, in its fourth edition, during the next fiestas of the encierros of Cuéllar, declared of national touristic interest for being the most ancient in all Spain.

The jury, composed of aficionados and bull-runners of the encierro came to the verdict of granting this prize in order to raise awareness of the encierros of Cuéllar to international standing to journalists and aficionados of the bull. (Click on titles to view articles.)

- Alexander Fiske-Harrison for his recent article in the Financial Times (31 May 2012).

The real, old stuff

- Bill Hillmann for the article published in the Chicago Tribune (26 September 2012)

The real running of the bulls

- Nicolás Haro for the photographic illustration of both reports.

Alexander Fiske-Harrison and Bill Hillmann plan their run with the bulls. Cuéllar 2012, photographed by Nicolás Haro

Alexander Fiske-Harrison and Bill Hillmann plan their run with the bulls. Cuéllar 2012, photographed by Nicolás Haro

They will deliver the award created by the taurine sculptor of Cuéllar, Dyango Velasco, charged with the design for the bust of this prize.

In previous years this prize was awarded to the television channel Castilla y León (cyltv7) in 2010 by the live transmission of the encierros, to the correspondents of the regional newspapers, El Norte de Castilla, Adelanto de Segovia and Cadena Ser (Mónica Rico, Nuria Pascual and Ignacio Montalvillo) in 2011 for their work year after year reporting and informing about the encierro, and the national edition of the specialist magazine Bous al Carrer (José María Vivas y Alberto de Jesús) in 2012 for revealing the fiestas nationwide.

The prize will be given during the event held in the main room of Oremus during the taurine conferences of the fiestas of the encierros of Cuéllar that will be celebrated from the 24th to the 29th of August 2013, and they will participate in a tertulia-debate of bull-runners and aficionados of the encierro.

For more details on Cuéllar, bull-running, and Pamplona (which begins on July 6th, with the first of eight, daily, morning encierros at 8am the next day), where to stay, eat, how to run etc. visit The Pamplona Post

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Alexander Fiske-Harrison

Author of Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight, shortlisted for the William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award 2011.

An English farewell – ‘Una despedida Inglés’

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A portrait of me by Nicolás Haro

I wrote on this blog just before the April Fair that I first came to Seville on the back of a broken relationship ten years before. My dates were wrong: it was in June. This June, I found myself back again.

Seeing things through different eyes, a realisation came over me, which I have expressed in my column in today’s issue of Taki’s Magazine, centring as it does on the saddest story in cinema, Orson Welles. Even the title is a quotation from the great man: ‘The Second-Hand Men’. As I write there,

Welles either couldn’t admit to himself or couldn’t say out loud that the more pressing issue is not just becoming audience rather than artist, but in being fêted for just sitting in the stands and reveling in that. At this point one has slid from the morally and aesthetically questionable world of the voyeur to the far more reprehensible one of poseur.
(To read the column in full click here.)

Cf., the photo above…

At the same time, fate conspired me to spend a little time with all the people who helped me make, and themselves made up, my book on this beautiful and strange land, Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight.

As I describe in the column, I stood in front of the last lot of Saltillos ever to exit the gates of Félix and Enrique Moreno de la Cova’s ranch ‘Miravalles’, alongside my former Maestro, the ex-matador Eduardo Dávila Miura. And given what I used to be able to do…

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Me with a Saltillo bull in 2010 (Photo Nicolás Haro)

… what remained of my bullfighting technique was a rather poor thing…

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Me with a Saltillo becerra in 2013 (Photo: Miguel Santos)

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Me with a Saltillo becerra in 2013 (Photo: Miguel Santos)

However, it was still an emotional day with a large audience, many toritos and vaquillas, young bulls and cows, for the toreros practicós, ‘amateur bullfighters’, and a beautiful long lunch at the former Saltillo finca ‘La Vega’ afterwards, even if I was not in any condition to enjoy it as much as I should.

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The last capea of Saltillo at Miravalles (Photo: Miguel Santos)

Having realised that I was now just a torero on paper – a second-hand guy on the sand – I decided to quit while I was still ahead. (The bulls gave me a great deal, and I gave a great deal back, but they took something as well.)

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A portrait of me by Nicolás Haro

First, I paid a visit to my old friend and frequent collaborator, the photographer Nicolás Haro, who took these portrait shots while I could still fit into my traje corto. Hopefully, Nicolás and I will soon be collaborating once more on a book about the psychological link between horses and men, a centaur project to balance our minotaur one (Nicolás took the black and white photos for Into The Arena.) The initial collection of Nicolás’s photos for this project have already been nominated for one of the most prestigious international photographic contests held in Spain: PhotoEspaña.)

I will, once my excellent new agent Patrick Walsh of Conville & Walsh and I have published my new novel, complete the task of washing the blood from my hands with a book on what Teddy Roosevelt called “the beast of waste and desolation” and Man’s Best Friend: wolves and dogs.

That said, as you can see from the cover of this new book, Olé! Capturing the Passion of Bullfighters and Aficionados in the 21st Century, due to be published in the United States in the next few weeks, I have been writing on the bulls up to the very last minute (my chapter also contains great photos by Nicolás.)

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Before I left, I even got to say farewell to that one-eyed gladiator, my first teacher, Juan José Padilla, when he fought in the feria de manzanilla in his home town of Sanlúcar de Barrameda. (These photos are by me.)

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20130612-011107.jpgAnd then a last adíos to that matador de arte from the greatest of the taurine dynasties, my dear friend Cayetano Rivera Ordóñez, who was my chauffeur from Seville to Ronda so I could talk about Orson Welles, whose ashes are interred at his family home.

So, all that remains for me to do is say farewell to the streets of Pamplona in July with a couple of runs among their bulls, and those of that other, and more ancient, bull-running town Cuéllar in August (I wrote comparing and contrasting them in the Financial Times last weekend, linked to here.) I even have an invitation from Cayetano to join him in the ring (on a ranch in Ronda) one last time for “amusement” on the morning of the Feria Goyesca. We will see…

However, such amusements and formalities to one side, I’m done here. “There’s a world elsewhere.”

Alexander Fiske-Harrison

To read my Takimag column in full click here.

P.S. In a neat and final symmetry, having reached my highest point on talking about the bulls – the speech I gave to the Reform Club at the request of, and beside, the Spanish Ambassador – I have now gone full circle and been invited to talk about the bulls at my old school, Eton. I wonder if they know I’ll be running my last runs in my Eton College Athletic Club Colours blazer (400m). It’s the striped one on the right – I have my hand on the bull for balance – in this Reuters photo in 2011.

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My Speech on the bulls before the Spanish Ambassador at the Reform Club

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A Celebration of

The Reform Club and Spain

Thursday 16th May 2013 at 7pm

The evening will commence with a Reception at 7pm., to take place on the Gallery, when members will be invited to enjoy acorn-fed Iberian ham and Gazpacho, served with Gonzalez Byass’s Palo Cortado Leonor sherry. Dinner will be served at 7.30 pm in the Smoking Room, prior to which Father Jorge Boronat will offer Bendecir la mesa

Musical entertainment will be provided between courses when Isabel Maria Martinez Garrido, guitarist, and Ricard Rovirosa, pianist, will perform some memorable Spanish pieces by, among others, the composers Manuel de Falla and Enrique Granados. The evening will be further enhanced with an address by Alexander Rupert Fiske-Harrison, renowned academic, writer, broadcaster, and actor, who will speak on ‘The British and the Bulls: A History of Love and Hate from Charles I to Churchill and beyond’ Alexander, pictured in the photo is a sought after speaker whose topic is guaranteed to provide much food for thought.

The Club is honoured that the Spanish Ambassador to London, His Excellency Frederico Trillo-Figueroa will be present. His Excellency will be accompanied by Mr. Fidel López Álvarez, Minister for Cultural and Scientific Affairs.

Government of Spain logo

Embajada de España en Londres

Oficina de Asuntos Culturales y Científicos

INTRODUCTION OF THE SPEAKER ALEXANDER FISKE-HARRISON

(Reform Club May 16th 2013)

Mr. Chairman

Ambassador

Ladies and gentlemen

As you all know it is nearly impossible to resist Audri’s enthusiasm when she is on the march; so, I have no option but to go along and, i must confess, happily become another victim of her charm. Thanks to her initiative and the support of some others we all are here tonight enjoying a delicious Spanish dinner and prepared to listen to our speaker.

When Audry invited me to look for a speaker I was thinking on someone knowledgeable of both Spanish and British cultures. The task seemed easy, since I had nearly a million Britons living in Spain to choose from, but I finally decide to get someone living in the UK; at least it was much cheaper.

Tonight speaker, Alexander Fiske Harrison, is, first of all, son of a former Reform club member and very appropriate for tonight speech, because he loves his country and Spain too He’s an Oxford graduate in biology, actor, writer and journalist, runner before Pamplona’s bulls and even torero!

In the summer of 2008 Alexander Fiske Harrison was acting in a play two streets from this club, in the Jermyn street theatre. That play went so “well” that he decided to give up the stage for the sand of the bullring and moved to Spain to write about the – for him – alien world of the Spanish fighting bulls.

By the spring of 2010, the London times was calling him “the bullfighter-philosopher”, even though he had never fought a bull (and he never made it beyond the second year of his doctorate in philosophy!)

In 2011 his book “into the arena” was published and was shortlisted for the William Hill sports book of the year award, even though he wrote in the book, and in the daily telegraph on the eve of the prize-giving, that bullfighting is definitely not a sport. No wonder he did not win.

Tonight we have the opportunity of listening to a real Oxbridge British on his personal experience in Spain. The title of his speech is “The British and the Bulls: a history of love and hate from Charles I to Churchill and beyond”.

With you Mr. Alexander Fiske Harrison.

Thank you.

Alexander Fiske-Harrison, Palma del Río, Spain, 2010 (Photo: Nicolás Haro)

Alexander Fiske-Harrison, Palma del Río, Spain, 2010 (Photo: Nicolás Haro)

Su Excelencia, my Lords, Ladies and Gentleman,

When I originally came up with this title, I thought I would be speaking for longer, so forgive me if this seems a little shorter and more anecdotal than you might have hoped.

So, for my first anecdote: the day after published my book Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight (http://www.intothearena.co.uk), I was in a taxi on my way to be interviewed on the BBC. The driver, hearing the address, asked what I was going there for. I said I was being interviewed about bullfighting.

“Oh, I can’t be having with that…”

“…I know,” I said, “it can seem terribly cruel…”

“…no, it’s not that.”

“What then?”

“My mother always told me never to play with my food.”

This anecdote is the frame to all our talk about bullfighting in Britain, but it is so often forgotten. The debate is not about “animals”, a word which we always associate with our pets, but what we do to things which we kill for food, before we do the killing. The toro bravo, the distinct breed that is the Spanish fighting bull, enters the food chain, although nowadays most of it is not for human consumption. It is too tough. The fighting bull is reared in natural forests and meadows until the age of five, running and combating with his herd mates, building hard muscle.

The 3 million or so cattle we kill in the UK die at eighteen months after largely corralled lives. Of the 35 million they kill in the US, 78% are factory farmed. And the fact is we don’t need to eat meat – vegetarians live longer –we eat it for the flavour, for the pleasure of our palates: these millions are killed for entertainment, just like the six thousand fighting bulls in the rings of Spain last year.

Here you have the first problem with after dinner speaking about bullfighting… it is hard to deal with it lightly. It is a serious thing. The Spanish poet Federico García Lorca went so far as to call it “the last serious thing left in the world today.”

I think it is statements like that which often rouse British scepticism. There is a certain Latin poetic temperament, an operatic temperament almost, which thrills to seriousness, to drama, to ritual. And this is found in spades in the world of the bulls. The man who taught me most about bullfighting, the former matador Eduardo Dávila Miura, whose uncles breed the so-called ‘Bulls of Death’, the Miuras, once said to me – “fighting with bulls is like talking to God.”

The British find this sort of talk hyperbole, melodrama. We like our courage discrete, our stiff upper lip to be discharged with a wry smile and a raised eyebrow.

In contrast, the opening sequence of the bullfight is a man, wearing silk and gold, standing erect and still in front of a half ton of charging bull, and bringing the bull past him with the capote, the large cape, in a move called the veronica, named after Saint Veronica, who wiped the face of Christ with a cloth on his way to Golgotha as the bullfighter wipes the face of the bull. No wonder the British and Spanish don’t always see eye to eye on this!

Which brings me to me neatly to my first little historical aside and a sentence I dared myself to say in this august company: following the unfortunate events of the Spanish Armada…

… and the often forgotten, equally disastrous, English Armada the following year our two kings, James the First and Philip the Third, agreed on a peace, and as part of that came to a deal by which James’s second son, Charles, would marry Philip’s second daughter, Maria Anna.

Plaza Mayor, Madrid

Plaza Mayor, Madrid

The short version of the story is that Charles’s brother died, he became Prince of Wales, and negotiations stalled. So Charles visited Spain incognito in 1623 with his friend the Duke of Buckingham, travelling under the names of Thomas and John Smith and arriving at the British Ambassador, Lord Bristol’s door in Madrid rather to his surprise.

The Spanish King was informed and so, in the way of Spain, immediately arranged a bullfight in the Plaza Mayor of Madrid. Here is a near-contemporary account which, for some reason, begins halfway through.

Therefore, after the three bulls had been killed, and the fourth a coming forth, there appeared four gentlemen in good equipage; not long after a brisk lady, in most gorgeous apparel, attended with persons of quality, and some three or four grooms, walked all along, the square a foot. Astonishment seized upon the beholders, that one of the female sex could assume the unheard boldness of exposing herself to the violence of the most furious beast yet seen, which had overcome, yea, almost killed, two men of great strength, courage, and dexterity. Incontinently the bull rushed towards the corner where the lady and her attendants stood; she, after all had fled, drew forth her dagger very unconcernedly, and thrust it most dexterously into the bull’s neck, having catched hold of his horn; by which stroke, without any more trouble, her design was brought to perfection; after which turning about towards the king’s balcony, she made her obeysance, and withdrew herself in suitable state and gravity.

Sir, did you ever see, or hear, any example to parallel this? Wonderful indeed! that a faintJiearted feeble woman, one would think, should stand in the fields undauntedly, after her attendants had quickly made their escape, yea, and have overcome such a furious creature as that bull was.

I will not conceal the mystery of the matter from you. This person was a man, though in the habit of a woman, of great experience, agility, and resolution, who had been well inured to this hard labour at several other occasions, whom they appointed to be disguised so much the rather, that the Prince of Wales might be the more taken with the thing.

(James Salgado, 1683)

Now, no record exists of Charles’s immediate reaction, but I think we can deduce from the fact that he not only returned to England and demanded we declare war on Spain, but also married a Frenchwoman, that perhaps this bloody show, the climax of which was the revelation that the woman was actually a man all along – a transvestite torero – hadn’t had the desired effect on the Royal guests…

It is hard to see when during the evolution of the bullfight this scene is set. There has been a transition in that history from a knightly jousting of bulls, after which the bull was finished off by a servant of the knight – a man known as the killer, the matador – to the servant’s metaphorical ascendance over his master, who became his picador.

This climax of this usually located in the 18th century, with Pedro Romero of Ronda, the first matador to bring art to the arena as well as risk.

What does one mean by art? Well, by this point, the corrida de toros had its present structure of three acts. Opening with the matador with the large cape, then the testing of the bulls fortitude and ferocity against the lancer on horseback, the picador, then the display of athleticism which is the placing of the barbed banderilla-sticks, and then finally the dance with the matador ending in the kill, the moment of truth, and the moment of greatest risk to the matador.

That there is risk is undeniable, although courtesy of antibiotics and surgery’s astonishing advances, no bullfighter has died in some years. That said 533 noted matadors, banderilleros, and picadors have died in the past three centuries – and that’s just the noted professionals.

It is during an early phase of the evolution in this deadly “art” – I always think of it as a tragic play with a ritual sacrifice at its heart – that my next character appears, George Gordon Noel, Lord Byron.

Lord Byron by Richard Westall (Wikipedia)

In the Childe Harold Pilgrimage, Byron describes a bullfight he’d seen in Cadiz during his Grand Tour in 1809 thus:

Thrice sounds the Clarion; lo! the signal falls,

The den expands, and Expectation mute

Gapes round the silent circle’s peopled walls.

Bounds with one lashing spring the mighty brute,

And, wildly staring, spurns, with sounding foot,

The sand, nor blindly rushes on his foe:

Here, there, he points his threatening front, to suit

His first attack, wide-waving to and fro

His angry tail; red rolls his eye’s dilated glow.

But by the end:

Foil’d, bleeding, breathless, furious to the last,

Full in the centre stands the bull at bay,

Mid wounds, and clinging darts, and lances brast,

And foes disabled in the brutal fray:

And now the Matadores around him play,

Shake the red cloak, and poise the ready brand:

Once more through all he bursts his thundering way –

Vain rage! the mantle quits the cunning hand,

Wraps his fierce eye — ’tis past — he sinks upon the sand!

And Byron’s conclusion ?

Such the ungentle sport that oft invites

The Spanish maid, and cheers the Spanish swain.

Nurtured in blood betimes, his heart delights

In vengeance, gloating on another’s pain.

(1812)

Now, there is no denying that the bullfight was much bloodier then than now, not least with the injury and death of the horses, which has not occurred since the introduction of the peto armoured covering in the 1920s.

However, the heart of the matter is that Lord Byron, was that most British of things – and I include myself as one too – an animal lover. He famously wrote a four verse epitaph to his late dog, Boatswain.

So, having called myself an animal lover, what was my first response to a bullfight? Similar it seems to a member of your club, the novelist Henry James, who wrote:

I ashamed to say I took more kindly to the bullfight than virtue, or even decency, allows. It is beastly, of course, but it is redeemed by an extreme picturesqueness and by a good deal of gallantry and grace on the part of the espada [matador].

(1876)

I was very lucky in the first bullfight I saw – in 2000 in Seville – as the first matador, in fact a novice, a novillero, called El Fandi, was very good.

This nineteen year old walked across the ring before the bull had entered, right up to the toril, known as ‘the gates of fear’, and knelt down before them, laying his cape delicately out over his knees. When the gates opened, this was how I described it in my book:

From within the darkness, came a rearing, jolting black head, eyes focused, nostrils flaring, ears forward, a foot and a half of horns tapering to fine points above it. And behind it came a half-ton of pulsing muscle propelling it at a steady twenty-five miles an hour.

Fandi pulled the cape up in a single long smooth movement so it swung out in front of the speeding animal’s eyes, catching their attention, and then spun out to the side of his head, the bull following, finding only empty air with its questing horns.

Fandi smiled. Then he stood up.

Into The Arena portada

Of course, this is a dramatic description of a bravura move and is more about thrill than art, but it had its effect.

Fandi, although popular to this day, has little art. The real artist on the sand is called José Tomás. This is man who once commanded a million Euros for a single afternoon in Barcelona in 2009, the year before bullfighting was banned there, where he faced six bulls solo. However, it was not the contest that was interesting. It was what he did with them: it was his style.

Within the three acts of this drama, the one the modern Spanish audience reveres most is the last (as, by the way, do the French, and Mexican and South American audiences.) Vivemos en la epocha de la muleta. We live in the epoch of the muleta: the smaller red cape – more a cloth than a cape – which is draped over a wooden stick, and offered to the bull as a lure.

It is by the slow solemn execution of the centuries old dance-book of passes with this cloth that the matador performs his art. By his unmoving rigidity, his tranquillity and the elegance of his gesture, contrasted with the surging, pulsing darkness of horn and muscle that brushes against the fabric of his ‘suit of lights’, he transmits emotion to the audience.

José Tomás in Nîmes, France in 2011 (Photo: Alexander Fiske-Harrison)

José Tomás in Nîmes, France in 2011 (Photo: Alexander Fiske-Harrison)

Transmission and emotion are the key concepts here, and you will find them endlessly bandied about by the critics in the toros section of the Spanish newspapers among the theatre and opera reviews.

Ernest Hemingway was the probably the first to really come to grips with these ideas, partly because they only came into being the year before he first went to Spain in 1923. They were the invention of the Golden Age of bullfighting, the age of Belmonte and Joselito, until the latter was killed in the ring in 1920.

However, I promised myself that I wouldn’t talk about Hemingway, or that other great American aficionado Orson Welles whose ashes lie interred at a matador’s house near Ronda.

Which is fine as my early period of learning about bullfighting was as much influenced by Kenneth Tynan as Hemingway. Tynan, our greatest theatre critic, and co-founder of the National Theatre with Laurence Olivier, was the first to really make me see what he called “the slow, sad fury of the perfect bullfight.”

It was he who put it so neatly in his book Bull Fever when he said,

By profession, I am a drama critic; by conviction, a believer in the abolition of capital punishment; by birth, English. The reader may find it odd that a lover of the mimic deaths of stage tragedy, an enemy of judicial killing, and a native of a country which has immemorially detested those blood sports which involve personal hazard should have succumbed to bull fever, joined the afición, become a friend and apologist of the Spanish bullfight. And indeed it is odd. Or so I thought for many weeks after I saw my first corrida in 1950. But now the bullfight seems to me a logical extension of all the impulses my temperament holds – love of grace and valor, of poise and pride; and, beyond these, the capacity to be exhilarated by mastery of technique. No public spectacle in the world is more technical, offers less to the untaught observer, than a bullfight.

(1955)

So, after these brief glances at this quintessentially Spanish thing, through different sets of British eyes over the centuries, I thought I’d better end with a man voted Greatest Briton of all time, although how he is viewed in this club, where he was once a member, before resigning exactly a hundred years ago, I do not know.

The story goes like this: a stuffed bull’s head, solid black but with a white v on its forehead, arrived at No. 10 Downing Street in July 1945 with the following inscription.

This bull ‘Perdigon’, which came from my stud, was fought at Valencia by Manolete on the day of Victory. It was most noble in its ferocity and was born with the sign of victory on its brow. I present it to the great Mr. Winston Churchill, who with exemplary valour, nobility and humanity, wrought the victory which will save the world.

José Escobar

And this letter that was sent to Manolete in response that December:

My Dear Sir Manolete:

I have received some time ago the head of a magnificent toro, that was sent to me by the breeder Don José María Escobar. The toro had a distinct letter V in it’s forehead. They say that you killed this bull in Valencia on Victory Day.

I would like to thank you and for the generous act & expression of the friendship from Spain. I beg you to accept my best wishes for the happy ending for what must have been a difficult struggle.

Winston Churchill

One could pass it off as an amusing courtesy, were it not for the fact that when Manolete was killed by a Miura bull two years later, Churchill wrote a letter of condolence to his mother, containing the sentence:

I was moved when I received the noble trophy of your son’s superb skill in the bullring.

[To The Ambassador]

One wonders where, and if His Excellency could find out where, that bull head is today?

Thank you.

P.S. After His Excellency delivered his thanks as a response, The Right Honourable Nick Herbert, M.P., suggested to me the bull’s head and letter were both at Chartwell, Churchill’s home.

My column for Taki’s Magazine: ‘Among the Gold and the Gore’

Last night I filed my copy – and I fear as a result missed the birthday party of Don Tristán Ybarra n the feria – about bullfighting and reality television, the corrida and Made In Chelsea for my column in Taki’s magazine. It has been edited, as is always the case. However, this time I prefer the long version, not least as is is not quite so savage to dear Ollie Locke – a former flat mate of my girlfriend – and his amusing little book, Laid in Chelsea. After all, it was she who introduced him to reality television in the first place, while turning it down herself.

P.S. The photo in the blog post below is of us at the very corrida discussed from the Spanish newspapers.

Alexander Fiske-Harrison

image

Last night, while seated in the La Maestranza bullring of Seville to watch the great matador José Marí Manzanares dance with and dispatch six bulls, I was reminded once again why I became so fascinated by the spectacle we ‘Anglo-Saxons’ incorrectly call bullfighting. (It is not a fight, but a highly structured drama centring on a ritual sacrifice. Nor is it a sport, but is conceived of as an art-form, unique in having a risk of death for the practitioner, but reviewed between the ballet and theatre in the newspapers and spoken of in terms of its aesthetics rather than its athletics.)

My girlfriend, a recent convert but still possessed of strong and valid doubts about the activity, asked what it was amongst the gold and the gore that draws me back to the plaza de toros time and time again. The answer I gave was the absolute reality of the corrida. As an art-form, it represents man’s struggle with death, and how it should be best faced, which is with a striking and elegant defiance. However, it is the only art-form that also is what it represents, which is a man standing alone on the sand with an animal intent on killing him. And kill they do: 533 noted professional toreros have died in the past three centuries, and a far greater number number of less famous ones and amateurs. My first instructor in how to torear, the matador Juan José Padilla, almost joined their ranks two years ago when a bull removed his eye and a chunk of his skull. Needless to say he was back in the ring five months later, sans depth perception, a triumphant return which I covered for GQ magazine here.

I come to Seville whenever I can to see these exceptionally brave men stand in front of these beautiful bulls, the best time of year being now as the town prepares for its annual celebration of the death of winter, the feria de abril, ‘April Fair’. This year I am not here on holiday, but have come to meet with another matador, Cayetano Rivera Ordóñez, about whom I am co-producing and writing a documentary. Cayetano has risen to fame and riches through risking his life in this way, a risk he knows all too well. His father, the matador Paquirri, was killed by a bull when Cayetano was just seven years old.

Whatever one thinks of the ethics of injuring and killing an animal as part of a public spectacle – personally I find it no less reprehensible than killing one at a third the age and after a far worse life for meat I do not medically need to eat – there is an undeniable honour and glamour in earning your status and fortune by dancing with death.

Which is why it stands in such stark contrast to what passes for honour and glamour in my home country of Great Britain. I say this having just attended the book launch of an acquaintance who had brought out his memoirs at the ripe old age of 26. I say memoirs, it is more accurately described as a travelogue of his sexual adventures, something made clear by its title Laid In Chelsea. It is currently at number three in the Sunday Times bestseller list. The reason for this literary success is because the author, Ollie Locke, is famous for being in a reality television show called Made In Chelsea.

Now, I must admit up front my envy at his book sales. My own travelogue Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight didn’t make it onto the bestseller lists, even after it was erroneously but flatteringly shortlisted for the William Hill Sports Book Of The Year Award. (See earlier comments about the corrida not being a sport.)

The fact that having your life filmed and broadcast, and then writing about your carnal exploits, can bring wealth and glory neatly sums up so much that is wrong with modern Britain, a generalisation that extends to our Saxon cousins in the US. Spain may be financially bankrupt, but at least it isn’t morally so.

I should add here that the book is actually quite readable, although that is helped by the fact that I know some of the people in it. Indeed, I’m even related to one of them. The author himself, Ollie Locke, is a witty and charming young man, with the bizarrely marketable talent of being good at being himself. However, he is also the sort of person – I’m sure he won’t mind me remarking on this – that had to have explained to him for an hour why the girl to whom he lost his virginity might not like that event written up and published.

Having the sexual ethics of an alley cat to one side, the reason I cannot watch Made In Chelsea, despite having grown up there and knowing some of the cast, is that no one on it ever does, or has ever done, anything worthy of note. It is a parade of moderately good looking people having rather stilted conversations about one another’s utterly irrelevant and pedestrian personal lives. I know these people and find it unspeakably dull; God knows what anyone else sees in it. Fiction was invented to get away from exactly this sort of tedium.

However, when people use that oxymoronic and false phrase ‘Reality Television’, it is not Made In Chelsea, or Big Brother, or any of those other monstrosities that spring to mind. It is the television footage of Cayetano’s father, being tossed by that bull in 1984, and then the footage afterwards of him in the hospital, fully conscious, reassuring and calming the panicking surgeons as they struggle in vain to stop his life from haemorrhaging out onto the bed sheets where he lay. That was how Paquirri justified his salary and his celebrity, by paying the ultimate price, and facing it with a courage and grace at the end that beggers belief.

That his son – both sons in fact – should follow in his shoes, makes him truly deserving of having his life told as a story, on film and in print. Something Ernest Hemingway felt similarly about when he wrote the articles about Cayetano’s grandfather Antonio Ordóñez that were posthumously published as the book The Dangerous Summer. And when he fictionalised his 1924 encounter with Cayetano’s great grandfather, also called Cayetano, in Pamplona as The Sun Also Rises. Some people are deserving of recognition and others not. The British and American inability to distinguish between them is at the heart of our ethical, and aesthetic decline.

A Dedication to Seville

Ten years ago, I arrived in Seville with a broken engagement behind me and a career as investment banker in front of me. I had come to Andalusia to recover from the horrors of the one and prepare myself for the horrors of the other. I had been to the city a few times – I discovered it on the way back from an early attempt to ‘be an author’ in the Sahara desert – and seen a few corridas de toros, that we English wrongly call bullfights, as though it were a sporting contest rather than what it is, a scripted drama culminating in a ritual sacrifice. The Spanish word for the activity, toreo is as well translated by the word ‘bullfighting’ as flamenco would be by ‘heel-dancing’.

(We had the word bullfight and its cognates sitting idle in our vocabulary since we banned our own grim ‘sport’ of bull-baiting with dogs, which gave us our national symbol, the bull-dog, as Spain was given its, the toro bravo by the corrida, hence it is also called the fiesta nacional. For discussion of its current popularity and the oft-quoted ‘Gallup’ polls, see this post. On the ethics of the corrida, see this one.)

The corridas confused and fascinated me – when done well, they were beautiful, when badly a sin: they appeared to exist on a moral precipice – while the atmosphere of Seville – the buildings and people so clearly European when seen on my way back from Africa, yet somehow alien when arrived at from London – had a similar effect. And underneath both was the soul-twisting lament of the flamenco voice with its dark rhythms that pulse like the inevitable approach of death.

Author, Algerian border, 1998 (Photo: Camille Natta)

Author, Algerian border, 1998

Lorca dedicaciónHemingway dedicaciónSo I came back to Seville in 2003, staying at the Hotel Alfonso XII according to my copy of that poet of flamenco, toreo and Andalusia, Federico García Lorca. My copy of the aficionado’s bible, Ernest Hemingway’s Death In The Afternoon, charts my progress through the town to what was the bullfighter’s hotel in those days, the Colón, and on east to Cordoba.

Now, ten years later, I am coming back to a different Seville as a different person. Spain’s economy, like a bull stumbling after a bad wound from the picador’s lance, is being watched by the world to see if it will get up to charge again – something even the bull does not know – or will have to be replaced with something different. I, however, have moved from my seat in the audience to the callejón, the alleyway around the ring where the toreros stand.

After that first visit in 2003, I came back a few times, most notably for the feria de abril, the ‘April Fair’, of ’07, when I saw the matador El Cid torear a bull of Victorino Martín so well that I based an entire essay for Prospect magazine on it. As a result of that, I was sent back to Seville to write a book on toreo, and it was then that first met a series of people who would both populate my book and change my life.

This history of a taurine tribe

This history of a taurine tribe

The Dedication of a Friend

The Dedication of a Friend

Among the most important of these are the family that bred the only bull I have ever killed with a sword.

I first met Enrique Moreno de la Cova in the Spring of 2009, as I described in chapter five of my book Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight, and he invited me to come and face his cattle along with the now one-eyed – and world famous – matador Juan José Padilla. Enrique and his elder brother Félix had inherited the ‘mark’ (literally a ‘brand’) of cattle called Saltillo, now more famous as an encaste, a ‘strain’ of the breed that is the toro bravo. The original Saltillos still exist, though. (They are named after their first owner, the Marquess of Saltillo, from whom Enrique’s grandfather, Félix Moreno Ardanuy purchased them in 1918.) However, their decline was noted as long ago as 1937, when the matador and father of modern toreo, Juan Belmonte remarked in his memoirs, “What has happened to the breeds of Parladé, Saltillo and so many others?”

When I faced the Saltillos, I had only been in the ring once before – with the far simpler and smoother cattle of Fuente Ymbro with Padilla and our friend Adolfo Suárez Illana, son of the founding Prime Minister of Spanish Democracy – and the account of my injuries on their horns is fully recorded in chapter six of the book.

Finito de Córdoba, Juan José Padilla, author & vaquilla (Photo: Nicolás Haro)

Matadors Finito de Córdoba & Juan José Padilla give a lesson(Photo: Nicolas Haro)

For me the Saltillos are Seville, and so I was sad to hear from Enrique that he and his brother no longer had them. However, they remain within the family, having moved to a cousin, José Joaquín Moreno Silva. One of my greatest memories of my two years living in Spain is an afternoon spent with the Saltillos at their ranch Miravalles under the tutelage of my friend, the former matador Eduardo Dávila Miura (whose grandfather bred the most famous bulls of all, including the one that killed Manolete). We then returned to the former ranch of the Saltillos, La Vega, with all three grandsons of Don Félix, who, along with Maestro Dávila Miura, inscribed a copy of their forebear’s philosophical musings on the bulls.

Filosofía taurina portadaFilosofía taurina dedicaciónNow, I must pack for my return to Seville, where I shall be watching corridas with Enrique, drinking at La Fresquita with him, his wife the artist Cristina Ybarra (who has an excellent blog here) her brother Tristán and his aficionada pura wife Maria O’Neill, joking with Adolfo and Padilla as he dresses before going to torear in the Maestranza, and returning to the ring myself with Eduardo.

 

Spring is here, and Seville, she has not abandoned me .

(The heraldic motto ‘NO8DO’ is to be found all over Seville, from the drain covers to the police cars. The skein of wool in its centre represented by an ’8′ is called a madeja in Spanish, so it reads, “no madeja do”, a play on the words no me ha dejado, ‘she has not abandoned me.” These were reputedly said by King Alfonso X when the city remained loyal to him against his son, Sancho IV of Castile.)

Alexander Fiske-Harrison

P.S. Obviously, I never became an investment banker, although in a strange twist of fate and friendship Enrique and Cristina’s eldest son did come and work for a summer with my father in the City doing exactly that, exchanging Saltillo for Fiske & Co PLC.

Enrique Moreno de la Cova and the author en route to the bullring of his Saltillos (Photo: Nicolás Haro)

Where Hemingway feared to tread…

This originally appeared over at The Pamplona Post, but I thought it should be up here as well.

The headline is both true and false (and the headline of the latest review of my book, Into The Arena, enclosed below.)

It is true of the great ‘Papa’ himself, for Ernest Hemingway never ran in Pamplona despite making it so famous (and writing an article for The Toronto Star on how he had been gored there.) However, last weekend, on the day the review below came out, and 50 years and 7 days after Papa’s suicide, I was busy treading where he did not alongside John Hemingway, Ernest’s grandson and no mean author himself (see Strange Tribe: A Family Memoir). The fact that he chose that day for his run this year – his second ever – is even more impressive. First, because it was on the anniversay of his first run in ’09, when 27-year-old Daniel Jimeno Romero, an experienced second generation bull-runner was killed. Second, because it was with los toros de la muerte, ‘the Bulls of Death’, bred by the sons of Don Eduardo Miura (my first run was with them in ’09 as well.)

It was a pleasure to take a beer with you the night before John, and an honour to tread a few paces alongside. Here we both are discussing strategy. (Run!)

L-R: Gary Masi, Me, John Hemingway, Graeme Galloway (orange), Bill Hillman (blue) Photo: Antalya Nall-Cain

That was just one of my highlights. Another was meeting up with one of the sons of Don Eduardo, Antonio, and his wife Cristina, who told my girlfriend Antalya the most flattering lies about my bullfighting skills. ¡Gracias Cristina! Pero ningún inglés es tan bueno a torear…

That said, I did have some good runs, as shown by the photo below with a Torrestrela bull from the finca Los Alburejos of my friend Don Alvaro Domecq. I am in the red and white striped blazer. These happen to be the colours of Pamplona during San Fermín. They also happen to be colours of the my school, Eton’s, Athletics Club, awarded to me in ’94 for the 400m.

(This photo appeared in the Diario de Navarra, Daily Telegraph [UK,] Die Welt [Germany] and around the US. Copyright REUTERS/Joseba Etxaburu)

It is severly frowned upon to touch the bulls, but I have just seen his brother coming up behind me, so I needed to stabilise myself at a flat sprint while looking over my shoulder, until I could judge the moment right to slip between the two bulls, as shown in the photo here. This meant I could “run on the horns” of a bull, while neatly reducing the risk of being knocked into by other runners with a half-ton “people-plough” clearing the path in front of me. A tricky balancing act, indeed.

10 July 2011

Where Hemingway feared to tread

Into The Arena by Alexander Fiske-Harrison

James Owen

* * * * *

Whatever you think of Alexander Fiske-Harrison’s account of his quest to become a bullfighter, you have to admire his guts. Not literally, happily, but there are times in his year as an amateur matador in Spain in which he seems likely to learn first-hand how cruel the arena can be.

Which perhaps is as it should be. For all his writing about it, Ernest Hemingway never went into the bullring. For Fiske-Harrison, the only way to justify bullfighting is by fully understanding the risks involved.

[Read more...]

It is illegal to touch the bulls.

20130213-185006.jpg

El Juli, José Marí Manzanares, Curro Vázquez and, behind, the empresario Simon Casas, yesterday in the Congress. (Photo: Luis Sevillano/El País)

Yesterday, the lower chamber of the Spanish parliament voted on the matter brought before them by 590,000 signatures on a petition to make Los Toros Bien de Interés Cultural, protected cultural interest. Given that the vote was a landslide, 180 votes against 40, with the 107 socialist congressmen abstaining, it seems a given that the senate will nod it through, passing it into law, and, among other things, federally overturning the vastly, and distortingly, over-reported regional ban on corridas de toros, novilladas and rejoneo in the autonomous community of Catalonia which came into effect in 2011.

All I can say in this brief post, is that this is yet another step forward for animal welfare in Europe. And if you want to know why, read the post on this blog – you can find it on the list of posts on the right – about how bullfighting is not a moral wrong.

Alexander Fiske-Harrison

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