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...]

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 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 Ollie Locke, whom I know, and his amusing little book, Laid in Chelsea.

Alexander Fiske-Harrison

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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.

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. [Read more...]

Alexander Fiske-Harrison in ‘ABC': “Many foreigners would not spend a cent in Spain without the bulls.”

The Spanish national newspaper ABC ran the following interview with me last week (with photos by Nicolás Haro).

The online version is available here. The beginning translates in a way you would only find in Spain:

Alexander Fiske-Harrison at his book launch in Seville (ABC)

Alexander Fiske-Harrison: “Many foreigners would not spend a cent in Spain without the bulls.”

Interview by Anna Grau

A British Gentleman passionate about the Fiesta, he is an amateur matador (the “bullfighter-philosopher” they call him) and has published a book on the art of bullfighting.

To Alexander Fiske-Harrison in his own country, which is the UK, some call him the “bullfighter-philosopher.” While others send him death threats, since he has gone from being active supporter of animal rights and a student of philosophy and piology in London and Oxford to being a matador in Spain. He is the author of Into the Arena (Profile Books), treatise on Spanish bullfighting for non-believers and foreigners. Many of which, he notes, come to our country intensely attracted to the fiesta nacional… and would swiftly back from where they came if this disappeared.

How to ask this man what he thinks of bullfighting ban in Barcelona? “Since then, the only money I’ve spent there has been to take a taxi from the airport to the train station to go to run with the bulls in Pamplona, a city that invests 4 million Euros each year in the Feria de San Fermín, and gets in return 60 million Euros from tourism.” Clear cut. [Read more...]

Hemingway’s Fiesta, “condemned to being very good.”

Fiesta-eflyer

Today sees the final performances of the West End show, Hemingway’s Fiesta (The Sun Also Rises). If you have not been to see it, good luck on getting tickets now – I was told by the producer ten days ago that they only had ten tickets left for evenings performances, and a few more for matinées (there is one today.) There’s always a chance: details are here.

I very much like the cast and crew. I first met with them at the best tapas bar in London, Capote y Toros on the Old Brompton Road, to ‘assist’ the production as detailed in The Daily Telegraph.

7 February 2012

by Tim Walker

Curtain also rises

Ernest Hemingway’s granddaughter Mariel will attend the first night of Fiesta (The Sun Also Rises) at the Trafalgar Studios in Whitehall on Thursday night.

The cast of the show, which is based on his first novel, about bullfighting, were given tips on the Spanish “art” by Alexander Fiske-Harrison, an Old Etonian, who trained as a matador.

“I tried to convey the essence of what it is to be a bullfighter,” says Fiske-Harrison, who is courting Antalya Nall-Cain, the daughter of Lord Brocket.

I met them again at the First Night after-party at Boyd’s Bar in the old Grand Hotel and at the same place venue last Friday to listen to their excellent on-stage supporting jazz band Trio Farouche.

So I was, in some ways at least, happy when The Spectator told me they couldn’t fit my review in. The production has had largely excellent reviews, as well as selling out. However, I am most inclined to agree with Michael Billington’s review. It is worth saying that we saw the play the same night, and even discussed it before, during the interval and after. His award of three stars seems about fair, and not just because that was the same number my own last venture on stage got in Billington’s review.

Anyway, given that it is now far too late for any negativity in my piece to have an effect, I hope the producers, director, cast and crew take this in the spirit of honest appraisal it was intended. After all, being “condemned to being merely very good” is still very good, n’est-ce pas?

Alexander Fiske-Harrison

Hemingway & Ordonez padre

From left to right (foreground): Cayetano Ordóñez – ‘Niño de la Palma’, Ernest Hemingway & Cayetano’s son, Antonio Ordóñez

The Sun Is Now Set

I first read Fiesta, Ernest Hemingway’s debut novel published as The Sun Also Rises in the US, in 2008 while researching for a magazine article on bullfighting for Prospect magazine (online here). At the time I was also rehearsing to act in a play I had written in a theatre in London’s West End. Which was why I got talking to another cast of actors in a nearby pub who told me they were ‘workshopping’ a stage adaptation of Fiesta the Old Vic.

The vagaries of a life are strange, and as the scenery came down on my play, and I was once again unemployed, my literary agent suggested I turn my magazine article to a book on bullfighting and so I set of to Spain. During my two years, I went from spectator to participant, briefly becoming a torero myself.

Since publishing that book, Into The Arena, I have returned to Spain many times, sometimes to run with the bulls in Pamplona (as described in The Spectator last July) – often alongside Ernest’s grandson, John Hemingway – sometimes to get back in the training ring (no animals harmed) alongside matadors like the great Cayetano Rivera Ordóñez – great grandson of Cayetano Ordóñez, on whom the matador in Fiesta, Pedro Romero is based. (In fact, the book was originally drafted as a non-fiction short-story under the title ‘Cayetano Ordóñez’.) [Read more...]

From Bond to Bullfighting

Stevan Riley is the award-winning director of a feature-length cinema documentary on the explosively gifted West Indies cricket team of the 1970s & 1980s Fire In Babylon. Since then, he has been working with me on an unnamed, unnanounced bullfighting project before he was taken away from it by Barbara Broccoli to direct her big budget documentary celebrating 50 years of James Bond, Everything Or Nothing – The Untold Story of 007, which premieres tonight in Leicester Square.

Director Stevan Riley

Since I am writer and co-producer, through Mephisto Productions, on the bullfight doc, I was very happy to see this officially confirmed in the trade journal, Screen International by Stevan, for the first time naming our main producer, Passion Pictures, under the Oscar-winning producer John Battsek (Best DocumentaryOne Day In September).

The documentary centres on a Spanish fighting bull from the greatest ranch of toros bravos today, that of Núñez del Cuvillo, and a Spanish torero from the greatest family of in the bullfighting world, Cayetano Rivera Ordóñez.

Matador Cayetano Rivera Ordóñez (Photo: Nicolás Haro)

(Cayetano is a fourth generation matador de toros. His great-grandfather, El Niño de la Palma, was the model for the matador in Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, his grandfather, Antonio Ordóñez, was the star of Hemingway’s The Dangerous Summer (Orson Welles’ ashes are also interred at his house), and his father, Paquirri, was famously killed by a bull in 1984.)

With much of the film in the can already, filmed on the visually astonishing Red Epic cameras, I am looking forward to starting work on it again in the coming months.

Alexander Fiske-Harrison by Nicolás Haro

Both Cayetano and the bulls of Núñez del Cuvillo get a mention in my feature about another matador and mentor of mine, Juan José Padilla, in last month’s issue of GQ magazine now available online here. The whole story of all of these characters, and myself, is available in my GQ recommended, William Hill Sports Book Of The Year shortlisted, Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight. It is available from all the usual outlets, including iTunes via GQ itself at a discount here.

P.S. Stevan’s film has been reviewed by GQ here.

Alexander Fiske-Harrison

Capote y Toros, 157 Old Brompton Road, London, SW5

Back when my book, Into The Arena, was published last year the Reuter’s editor Angus MacSwan decided to interview me at a new, bullfighting-themed tapas bar in South Kensington called Capote y Toros (‘cape and bulls’).

All the food was excellent, especially the gambas al ajillo – sizzling prawns in garlic. It also has the largest selection of sherries in London: not only the standard finos, olorosos and amontillados of Jerez de la Frontera and Puerto de Santa María, but also the manzanillas of Sanlucar de Barrameda. CyT is also the only place I have found in London with proper jamón ibérico de bellota – the pata negra name you sometimes hear refers to the distinctive black hooves of the ibérico breed. They import the 5J from the town synonymous with jamón: Jabugo.

So when a production company asked for a good venue in which to talk about bulls, this is where we ended up, under the photos of all the great matadors alive today from Curro Romero to Morante de la Puebla (its name is capote after all.)

While I was there, the restauranteur-aficionado Abel Lusa came along to say hello. He recently opened CyT and also owns the more formal tapas restaurant Tendido Cero across the road, and the justly famed Cambio de Tercio a few doors down, a favourite of the likes of Rafa Nadal when he’s in town and most recently graced by the Duchess of Cambridge.

Abel Lusa

(I was meant to eat there with Giles Coren so he could review it along with my book as as follow up to his piece on my training as a bullfighter, but they don’t do lunch, so we went to 34 instead.)

Alexander Fiske-Harrison

The Times: Toreros Through Time, captioned by Alexander Fiske-Harrison

[Read more...]

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