My article ‘See you soon, Cuéllar’ in El Norte de Castilla

El Norte de Castilla 2014 header

Yesterday’s newspaper

Yesterday, the Spanish regional newspaper El Norte de Castilla – ‘The North of Castile’ – published my third annual ‘thankyou-note’ article about the town of Cuéllar (original Spanish here), in Castile and Leon for its generosity during its feria – my favourite – and its incredible bull-runs. I cannot recommend the town enough to visitors and tourists – especially during the feria, where the bull-runs are as spectacular to watch as they are to participate in (as I have written before for the Financial Times.) The best place to stay is the Hotel Mesón San Francisco (click here to book), and other details of the town are in the article below. It is an hour and a half’s drive from Madrid, or a twenty minute fast train to Segovia and forty minute taxi ride… AFH

El Norte de Castilla 2014

As it appeared in the paper…

See you soon, Cuéllar

Opinion

“I have run in many bull-runs, but my favourite is, without doubt, the one in Cuéllar»

Alexander Fiske-Harrison | Segovia

For three years now I have come to the heart of Old Castile for the Fair of Our Lady of the Rosary of Cuéllar, and each year before, like a polite but unfamiliar guest, I would write a thank you letter as is the custom of we English. (2012, 2013) Now that I feel know Cuéllar a little better, even if not each of its inhabitants personally, and I can address you less formally, as real friends are allowed to do. And yet there are still so many thanks to be given, and not just from myself in England but also from my other friends whom came from around the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ world this year: from Australia and from Scotland, from Canada and from Wales, even from Australia (you have had celts from Ireland in your Irish pub since before I first came.) And of course, my brother-in-arms in the encierros – ‘bull-runs’ –  of Spain, Bill Hillmann representing the United States, and who first suggested I come to this town at the invitation of your great sculptor of, historian of and runner of encierros, Dyango Velasco.

(From outside the Saxon world we also brought a crazy Viking from Sweden – who ran with your bulls despite an aneurysm in his leg – and an even crazier Mexican, who never normally runs, except he found himself lost in the forest with Bill and his walking stick among the bulls – the blind leading the lame among the lethal.)

We all of us wish to thank Mariano de Frutos, his daughter Elisa and her husband Ruben Salamanca at the Hotel Mesón San Francisco, which was our headquarters in much the same way Hotel Quintana in Pamplona was once that of Ernest Hemingway and his friends – it is also the hotel of the bullfighters, some of whom I still know – and gardens on calle San Francisco are like the outside tables of the Café Iruña, attended with divinely inspired patience by Enrique and Cristina. However, we also ventured beyond our querencia – ‘lair’ – there, to your peñas, beginning on the afternoon of the Pregón with Bill’s presenting his new novel – with me as translator – at El Pañuelo at the invitation of its president Valentin Quevedo on its fiftieth anniversary for CyLTV and various assembled journalists. There is also always Dyango’s peña el Orinal, and the even nameless poker club of Luis Quevedo and his wife Soco since their son Alberto’s Bodega La Carchena has closed. In the words of our poet Tennyson, “though much is taken, much abides.” So instead we went to the flamenco of the Café Theatre Oremus of Marcos Gómez and the taurine bar Paralex of Miguel Ángel Cobos who has more carteles than your town hall, but no bull’s head (yet.)

Alexander Fiske-Harrison, Larry Belcher, Dyango Veslaco and Bill Hillmann in Café Oremvs (Foto: Antonio Tanarro)

Alexander Fiske-Harrison, Larry Belcher, Dyango Veslaco and Bill Hillmann in Café Oremvs (Photo: Mónica Rico)

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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 (‘fought’ is not the word, this is not a sport, there is nothing fair here), run the bulls myself in Pamplona two dozen times, in Cuéllar a dozen and several other smaller towns besides. I’ve 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

‘Buffalo’ Bill Hillmann, Chicago Tribune writer gored in Pamplona

(Esta noticia en castellano el Diario de Navarra aquí.)

I’ve just come back from the hospital visiting my friend – and co-author of Fiesta: How To Survive The Bulls Of Pamplona (along with the Mayor of Pamplona, John Hemingway etc.) – who was gored by a suelto – loose bull – this morning in the running of the bulls in Pamplona. He is in surgery now, but seemed okay, indeed happy given the amount of pain killers he was on. From what I could understand of what he was saying, and looking at the photo below, the bull’s horn went through his right thigh, but missed the artery and it seems the bone as well. I took his wife Enid in the taxi to see him immediately following the ambulance and she is with him now.

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Bill Hillmann being gored by a bull of Victoriano del Rio

The bulls, from Victoriano del Rio were swift as the wind, but spread out by the time they reached the top of calle Estafeta, known as Telefonos, and I ran in amongst several of them, constantly trying to see if another was coming through the crowd behind. The last one that did passed me, and then either fell or was turned, and came back at the runners. I went up against the barrier, only to find a dozen others had the same idea. As one brave – and very experienced – runner Miguel Angel tried to distract him by pulling his tail, and as his horns swept through the people in front of me, I saw a gap in the fence and dived headlong through and down into the gutter. Ignominious, bruising, but safe.

It was that same bull which found my brother-in-arms Bill a few metres further down the street. It was a bloody day out there today – another man in a far worse condition than Bill was gored in the chest. Updates in English will be here and at www.SanFermin.com. A photo below of us in happier days, awarded prizes from the town with the oldest bull-run in the world…

Alexander Fiske-Harrison & Bill Hillmann with their awards Cuéllar, August 2013 (Photo: Copyright Jim Hollander)

Alexander Fiske-Harrison & Bill Hillmann with their awards Cuéllar, August 2013 (Photo: Copyright Jim Hollander)

Alexander Fiske-Harrison

 

Back in Pamplona…

The Last Arena is on holiday…

If you’ve been looking at the news recently, you’ll realise that the running of the bulls in Pamplona’s feria of San Fermín has begun, with me and my new eBook guide to the event, Fiesta: How To Survive The Bulls Of Pamplona appearing on CNN today in Al Goodman’s article and Newsweek – in an article I wrote on the encierro – ‘bull-run’ – bullfighting and their history.

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I’m here with the other contributors to the book John Hemingway, grandson of Ernest; Joe Distler, the greatest ever American bull-runner; Bill Hillmann, the best young American runner on the streets today; and the senior EPA photographer, and half-century Pamplona veteran Jim Hollander. (Along with the great Basque and Spanish bull-runners Julen Madina, Miguel Ángel Eguiluz, Jokin Zuasti and Josechu Lopez, and the Mayor of Pamplona who gave us the foreword to the book. The only contributors who won’t be there are Beatrice Welles, daughter of Orson, and the great Spanish photographer Nicolás Haro.)

The book is on Amazon.com here, and Amazon UK here, and all the other Amazons in the world too, and, in the spirit of fiesta, it is now half price: £2.99 or $5.99.

Anyway, all of which means it is time to temporarily close ‘The Last Arena’ down and move over to ‘The Pamplona Post’. Click on the masthead below to go there and see what happens…

Alexander Fiske-Harrison

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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.

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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...]

The Pamplona Post goes to Cuéllar (again)

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The Streets of Almería by Night (Photo: Alexander Fiske-Harrison)

The Streets of Almería by Night (Photo: Alexander Fiske-Harrison)

Almería is a pretty little town of extreme heat at the eastern end of the Andalusian coastline. I first came here last year during their feria of the Virgin of the Sea, in order to meet with the greatest American bull-runner Joe Distler. ‘Buffalo’ Bill Hillmann and I, the young pretender to Joe’s throne – a Chicago Golden Gloves winning boxer and Chicago Tribune freelancing writer – came to ask for some advice about the encierros, ‘bull-runs’ of Cuéllar. Less famous, and less spoiled, less drunken and less glorious than Pamplona – all in all, less ‘Hemingway’ – I wrote it up for the Financial Times, as Bill did for the Tribune, both of us using photos by my old friend Nicolás Haro (who took the black and white photos for my book on my time as a torero, ‘bullfighter’, the William Hill Sports Book of the Year 2011 shortlisted Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight.)

As a result of our writing and running… well… if I’m honest, as a result of their need for tourism, Bill, Nicolás and I have been awarded a prize by the town which, of course, we have to go an collect in person. So, I thought I’d recreate my pilgrimage, coming to sit at the feet of Don José Distler once again. Not least because he didn’t come to Pamplona this year, breaking a tradition of running all eight daily encierros there every year for 45 years straight! (My own adventures in Pamplona this year were of minor interest, the crowds being so thick that the only day I got truly close to the bulls I was so surprised and admiring of the pulse and surge of jet black toro bravo beside me that I failed to see the man in front of me trip and fall, bringing me down. So I was trampled by man an animal alike until I rolled clear to the side of the street and was yanked to my feet by none other than John Hemingway. I was also pulled up by our friend Graeme Galloway, who runs the Pamplona Posse, but that is not quite so serendipitous a namedrop as the man whose grandfather brought the crowds who trampled me in the first place.)

Joe is, like all truly wild men, also a creature of traditions and habits. Read on by clicking here.

The Pamplona Post: A Paean to Pamplona

This is the full version of what I submitted for my regular column ‘By The Sword’ in Taki’s Magazine. As you can see here, about half was cut, leaving only a narcissistic skeleton, rather than the other people, which is what Fiesta is all about. (I forget whether it was Stephen Ibarra or Rick Musica, those pillars of Pamplona, who said that if they took the bulls away from the feria, but kept the people, they’d still come, but if they took away the people, it wouldn’t be worth it for the bulls alone. Which is why so many of them are mentioned. Those that I could not fit even in this are mentioned in the post-script.)

Noel Chandler & Alexander Fiske-Harrison by David Penton

Noel Chandler & Alexander Fiske-Harrison, Pamplona 2012 (Photo: David Penton)

The great thing is to last and get your work done and see and hear and learn and understand; and write when there is something that you know; and not before; and not too damned much after.
Ernest Hemingway, Death In the Afternoon 1932

In 2009 I first came to Pamplona to run with the bulls to give a first-person perspective to that chapter of my book on the “world of the Spanish bullfight.” I was terrified in that complete and overwhelming way that total ignorance brings, standing on a street corner where a friend had stood for his first time the day before – that was the sum total of advice I had been given – and waiting for death to come.

I comported myself honourably but not brilliantly and did so again two days later before boarding a train to Barcelona and vowing never to come to the city again. The relentless loud, bad music, the all-day drinking by people who clearly hadn’t washed in some time, and the fact that the corridas, ‘the bullfights’ (as I’ve said in this column before, it’s neither a fight nor a sport) were made abysmal by even worse music played by multiple bands in the audience in apparent competition with one another, all combined to set me firmly against in this Navarran Fiesta. The place seemed crude, cruel and uncouth compared to the sun-blasted, deathless dignity of Andalusia where my aficion for the bulls was formed.

Then, two years later, after the book came out, a Reuters journalist called Angus MacSwan asked to interview me. By then I had been worn smooth and glib by endlessly justifying the ritual injuring and killing of animals in the ring and so was surprised when he told me outright that he liked the book but that I was wrong about one thing: Pamplona… Read on at The Pamplona Post by clicking here.

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Alexander Fiske-Harrison

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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Juan José Padilla: The Comeback of the Century for the NYCCT

This text is under the exclusive copyright of the author. This is for private distribution only, which is why it is secured behind a password.  AFH

The Comeback of the Century

By Alexander Fiske-Harrison

 Editor’s Note: Alexander has been contracted by GQ Magazine for an article about his experiences with Padilla, which is due to be published in August 2012. Material for the GQ article could not be included in this article, as the author notes below.

 (Right: Juan José Padilla leaving on shoulders of Adolfo Suárez after his triumphal return in Olivenza)

OF all the gorings I have ever seen on film (I have, gracias a Dios, never seen a bad one in the flesh), the most horrifying is that of the great matadorof corridas duras – the Cyclone of Jerez, Maestro of the Miuras, and adopted son of Pamplona – my first teacher, Juan José Padilla in Zaragoza on October 7th last year. His skull suffered multiple fractures, his left eye lost its sight, that side of his face lost its movement, and his body lost one third of its weight.

So, when I heard he was going to stage a comeback less than six months later in this year’s Feria de Olivenza, I knew I had to be there with him.

Last year I published a book on my two years in the world of the bulls – 2009 as spectator, 2010 as trainee torero ending in my killing a three year old toro de lidia  from old Saltillo in Spain – and the first few chapters of Into The Arena describe in detail my time with Juan.

So I knew this story was the epilogue the book was missing. There was also a debt to be paid. Toreros face death and injury in exchange for gold and glory, and Juan had risked himself several times – in a minor way – to save my skin during the research for my book. What success it has had is owed in part to him, although he received no royalties from it. Which is why I got British GQ magazine to commission me to cover his reaparición. My formal interview with Juan before that corrida is thus owned by Condé Nast. However, the rest of that story is all yours…

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I first met the madness, laughter and astonishing courage that is Juan through his good friend, Adolfo Suárez Illana. Adolfo is one of the finest aficionados prácticos practising today, having killed over one hundred full-size bulls puerta cerrada – behind closed doors – and a host more in festivals around Spain.

(The author,  Padilla and Suárez on a ranch 2010 by Nicolás Haro )

(It helps when your father is the founding Prime Minister of democratic Spain. It is little known, even in Spain, that Adolfo’s father, now the Duke of Suárez, also fought bulls, although only once in public in the 1959 Festival de los Noveles in the plaza antigua in Ávila – see photo at right – Suárez Family Collection.)

It was actually Adolfo who had pressed Juan to get back in front of animals before 2011 had ended – less than three months after his goring – on December 30th. Juan, unable to eat solid foods, was at the time a mere hundred pounds of sinew hanging on a five foot ten skeleton. The big worries, though, were psychological. Well, that and the loss of half his visual field and his capacity to gauge distances…

So the two of them went to the finca of Fuente Ymbro – the first place I ever caped a vaquilla under their instruction in ’09 – and Juan began with some two year old vaquillas. According to Adolfo everyone was stunned by the total mastery and confidence Juan showed with these snappy little cows which turn on a dime as no toro bravo can. So the breeder Ricardo Gallardo offered Juan a three year old animal to kill. At which Juan turned up his nose and demanded a proper cuatreño, a four year old. This Juan caped and dispatched with exactly the same he always had on a ranch in the past.

I should add here that to see Juan torear ‘on the ranch’ is a very different experience to seeing him do so in public. There is no tremendismo and, as a result, his action is wonderfully smooth, the linkage of his passes better, and the ‘running of the hand’ more controlled and longer. For a long time I couldn’t understand this until Adolfo explained to me that Juan is actually very shy. Not among old friends, not with bulls, and not after drinking rum.

(The author, Padilla  and flamenco dancer Antonio ‘El Pipa’ after much rum in Padilla’s house 2009 by Nicolás Haro)

However, as a result, in the plaza de toros under the watchful eyes of thousands, he has developed amask of bravado to hide behind – which explains some of the more exciting points of his style – but he still has too much adrenaline, which explains the constant movement, the shorter passes, the incessant cutting into the bull’s terrain and failure to let the animal – and in theatrical terms, ‘the moment’ – breathe.

Since the first time I ever saw Juan’s toreo – in 2009 – was from the burladero at Los Alburejos with Álvaro Domecq’s Torrestrellas, then from the sand next to him in Miravalles with Félix and Enrique Moreno de la Cova’s Saltillos, when I finally saw him in public, I was quite shocked at the difference.

(Left: The author and Padilla in Los Alburejos 2009 by Nicolás Haro)

(Right: Finito de Córdoba and Padilla teach AFH in Miravalles 2009 by Nicolás Haro)

Returning to 2011: after this breakthrough, Juan went on to killed a dozen or so bulls in the campo, including on the ranch of Ana Romero, the breeder whose bull almost took away his livelihood and life. Aficionados seldom want to admit this in public – but the honest ones do in private – but there is often a darkness in the heart of those who kill, and those who regularly kill bulls with swords are no exception. Which is why I will not comment on Juan’s need to not only wear the suit of lights in which he was gored that day, but to demand to kill a bull from the same mother and father as the one which nearly killed him.

It was a fortnight after Fuente Ymbro that Juan went public, announcing his reappearance at Olivenza. The Spanish press went to town, running story after story with the subtext that Juan was emblematic of the fiesta brava itself, his wounding in Zaragoza coming so soon after the ban on corridas in Catalonia came into de facto effect. His return with the opening feria of the temporada was perfectly designed to show the world that bullfighting was bloodied by Barcelona but unbowed. They even detailed the suit he was to wear, from Justo Algaba in Madrid: its green representing Spring and rebirth, and embroidered with the laurel leaves so associated with ancient Rome.

(It was Adolfo who pointed out to me after Olivenza that the press had got the symbolism on this one wrong: Juan was not claiming a Roman Emperor’s laurel wreath here, nor even that of a triumphant gladiator. The original laurel wreath was given to surviving gladiators as a restorative, to be taken as an infusion to heal wounds. Juan later confirmed this, although he has said other things since. The symbolism was that of injured warrior, not conquering hero. Justo Algaba’s brother Pedro in Seville, who has also made trajes for Juan and I have never heard Pedro speak so highly – in personal terms – of a torero as he does of Juan, which explains why he was to be seen in Olivenza as well.)

*            *           *

Juan invited me to his house just before the corrida, so with a day to kill I called up Álvaro Núñez Benjumea – who runs his father Joaquin Núñez del Cuvillo’s ranch – and asked if I could see the bulls for Olivenza. Although I had not met Álvaro before, I knew his sister Tilda well and had faced his brother Curro’s cattle in Portugal in 2010 under the tutelage of my Maestro Eduardo Dávila Miura. (They were infinitely preferable to the ‘minotaurs’ Eduardo used to drag me to face at his family ranch Zahariche with alarming regularity, much to the amusement of his uncles, Eduardo and Antonio Miura.)

After taking me round the paddock to see the bulls – they looked fine – Álvaro suggested I stick around to watch the tienta he had on that day. I asked who the Maestro was, and he answered José Marí Manzanares. Which, given his historic indulto in Seville last year, was not an opportunity I was going to pass up.

There are many things that stuck in my mind from that tentadero. One was quite how personable and gracious Manzanares hijo is. I mean real, come-up-and-shake-your-hand before and after the event polite. (Which made me regret short-changing him in my book, although in my defence, I do think his style has developed considerably since then. Something proved to me in this year’s April Fair in Seville when he took four ears and the Gate of the Prince again, a thing of beauty which I witnessed a few rows in front of that Prince of Pamplona, Joe Distler, who introduced me to your President, who invited me to write this piece for you.)

(The author and his father – circled left-  watching José Marí Manzanares, padre y hijo, in La Maestranza, Seville, 2012 by Guy Walters)

 The second abiding memory was a side-effect of that graciousness. Manzanares spent over half his time at El Grullo giving tuition to a class from a nearby taurine school who took on the vacas after he had tested them for Álvaro.

At the top of his game, Manzanares had apparently decided that burladeros are only needed by mere mortals and simply stood in the ring chain-smoking and chatting about the animals to Álvaro through the breeders viewing-slot onto the plaza de tienta. One young man, determined to show his hero that he too could ‘run the hand’, overextended the pass before turning his wrist so the vaca kept going, and it ended up cantering, horns lowered, at Manzanares.

The Maestro, with neither capote nor muleta to hand, gave his cigarette to Álvaro, rubbed his hands together while gauging the charge and then did a standing two-footed jump, recortador-style, clean over the animal. Then he calmly picked up where he left off – both cigarette and conversation – as his banderillero Curro Javier took the vaca away with a capote. Now, I’ve seen a fair few top level toreros in the plaza de tienta, but not only have I never seen one do anything like that, I cannot even image them doing that. And it’s not like Manzanares has a recortador background.

The next day I went to Juan’s house in Sanlúcar de Barrameda. For fear of breaching my contract with GQ magazine, there isn’t much I can say other than his home is suitably called Puerta Gayola, and you can read about my first visit there in Into The Arena.

 (The author and Padilla at Padilla’s home, 2012, by Zed Nelson)

One thing I can say is that he was worryingly thin, reassuringly confident, and as devoutly religious and unnervingly fidgety as I remember him – no man needs to alter sofa cushions and light switches that often. His young children, Paloma and Martín, had grown large enough to make me feel old – Paloma made a good stab at translating a passage from my book on her father into Spanish – while his beautiful wife Lydia looked a little more careworn than her years alone explain.

I would also later learn that Juan could still not eat solid food, that he had permanent tinnitus depriving him of sleep, and that he had made the mistake of foregoing his montera in training, an omission which caused him agony in the ring in Olivenza as it rested directly one of the dozen tiny titanium plates that now held his skull together. (When I heard Juan had an operation to have that plate removed after Olivenza, I wondered if he wasn’t having surgery just so he could still fit his remarkable collection of hats.)

*            *           *

The next day up in Olivenza the atmosphere was unnerving. I’d arrived at the Hotel Heredero the night before the corrida and met up that other Prince of Pamplona, Noel Chandler, along with various members of the Club Taurino of London. The concern for Juan’s wellbeing was tangible, and not just among aficionados. That night I also met up with Cayetano – who I am working on a documentary with – and he seemed more worried about and interested in Juan than his own corridaof Zalduendos alongside Ponce and Ferrera the next morning.

Cayetano’s corrida having passed without incident – good or bad – I saw Juan briefly on arrival and left him to dress with Adolfo and Ponce in attendance.

*            *           *

At the plaza, the sense of excitement and fear in the tendidos was like nothing I had ever felt. It was a cold night, but we were so packed together in the sold-out stadium that I was sweating. Juan’s arrival in the ring was greeted by a standing ovation, followed by chants of “tor-er-o”, and that was just for turning up. This was something Juan judiciously downplayed, not least with the man-of-the-moment Manzanares and the artistic genius that is Morante de la Puebla to his left.

(It is notable that Manzanares has signed to fight so many of this year’s corridas alongside Juan. Morante, a family friend of Juan’s, has fought alongside him many times, including both in the plaza with muletas on the same bull.)

 (The author and Padilla, by Paloma de Santa Coloma)

The bull, Trapajoso No.53, a negro of 480kg, came in hesitantly. The peones got him to criss-cross the ring with capote flicks from behind the planks until he started chopping up a burladero in earnest.

Juan stepped out and began with a couple of preliminary passes with one knee bent like a lunging fencer, keeping the bull at a distance, and you could tell he was studying the bull in exactly the same way the audience was studying him – for capacity and disposition, strength and weakness.

Decisions made, Juan took his stand and gave three sound verónicas. With each pass the crowd shouted olé, and he followed with the media and the walk away. His second tanda was similarly technically proficient. However, the effect was electric.

At this point I realised that it was going to be all but impossible to objectively judge how good this performance was, personal relationships aside: everyone was simply amazed he could do it all.

Then picador did his job, neither notably well nor badly, and the crowd asked themselves one of the biggest questions of the evening: would the lidiador Juan place his own banderillas? Since it involves calculating intersecting geometries on the run, how is it possible with only one eye, especially given that he had nearly died doing it with two?

However, do them he did – two al cuarteo and the last al violín – and all to the music of the brass band and a crescendo of applause for each pair placed, their blue and white papers fluttering in his the colours of Jerez de la Frontera. (I did note one change, which was the careful choreography so he always ended his run with two of his cuadrilla cutting between him and the bull with capotes after the sticks were in. Before, Padilla wouldn’t have let them into the ring.)

Entering for the tercio de la muerte, Juan summoned two men over from the callejón whom I recognised from one of his interviews. They were the two surgeons who had put back together the organs and bones of his life. He dedicated the bull to them, embraced them both, and then walked out onto the sand.

His derechazos were again good and pure. Not as long as one might like, but still excellent, midway between Fandi and Tomás. However, the image that stayed with you was of a man with an eye patch standing implacably upright besieged by a plunging and furious toro bravo.  (As he said to me with a bizarre pride, “I may not be the first torero with one eye, but I am the first with an eye patch.”)

The bull, which had nobility but no stamina, rapidly came to the end of its wind and Juan accepted this with a resignation and grace many other toreros could learn from and killed well and cleanly with a well-placed media estocada..

The crowd were on their feet before the bull had hit the dust, white handkerchiefs out, petitioning the president of the plaza for a trophy for their hero, who had not so much earned an ear as gallantly failed to lose it.

The next two bulls were fought by Manzanares and Morante, and fought well, although like Juan’s bull they seemed to lack a little something in aggression and stamina. In a nice adorno de afición, each matador dedicated his bull to Juan.

When Juan entered the ring for the second time – again, as he told me afterwards –  he knew he had won back the trust, and had lost the pity, of the audience. So, now he had to show them what he could really do. His second bull, Reposado No, 118 a colorao y chorreado, was faster and lighter – in weight and colour – and Juan walked into the middle of its charge with the capote and dropped to his knees for a signature larga cambiada de rodillas. In a single, simple and incontrovertible taurine gesture Juan had said, “I’m back!”

Then, as the bull turned to find him, he rose to his feet and began a series of four perfect veronicas, followed by three walking chicuelinas, before finishing with media verónica and then a spinning and apparently spontaneously created remate which, if it has a name, I do not know it. This was, quite frankly, better than anything I had ever seen Juan do before. The audiences fear and sympathy was now replaced with pride and exultation.

After the picador Juan took his first set of banderillas and invited the other two matadors to join him so they could each place a pair alongside him. Morante de la Puebla does this very rarely and Manzanares almost never. You could see Juan ask him if he was okay with it and Manzanares smiling say he had no idea (Adolfo, who was in the callejón, later told me Manzanares actually said he hadn’t done it “since school”.) And yet each one of them placed their pair brilliantly, with Juan inevitably the best, the closest to the horns.

He then invited his elderly father into the ring. Padilla padre, a baker to whom his son was apprenticed when young, once told me of his own foray into the ring: “I heard the breath of the bull in the ring, just the breath, and I said f*** this for a job and went back to baking.”

Juan dedicated the bull to him. They embraced, clearly emotional, Juan’s forehead against his father’s tearful face as he spoke rapidly and quietly. His words to his nine-year-old daughter Paloma, though, were clear enough as she sat barrera with Adolfo’s wife Isabel in the front row of the audience: “I love you.” (Juan’s wife Lydia was back at the hotel, unable to face watching, sat dreading a phone call like the last time he had gone “to work”. Their son, Martín, too young to understand was at home in Sanlúcar.)

Juan then walked into the ring and gave people an exhibition of the matador he had become. Although it included much of his trademark toreo de desplante, he seemed to have developed a more understated style which better suited these smoother animals. He took the bull through a catalogue of passes – including a tanda which began with a molinete and then danced the compass with derechazos en redondo with the band in blazing accompaniment. His mastery, though, was finally shown on a mistimed pase de pecho which ended with the bull taking the muleta from his hands. Despite a nervous cuadrilla – and audience – Juan merely stood unarmed before the bull, front leg bent towards it, jacket held open to bare his chest to the horns.

(Right: Padilla in Pamplona 2011 by the author)

This time he killed on the second attempt, losing the second ear to a pinchazo caused by the error of trying to time his entry to the cante jondo of an audience member who had come all the way from Jerez to sing flamencofor his friend (as, notably, had the finest bull-runners from his other taurine home, Pamplona.)

We watched the other two matadors fight and they did beautiful things: Morante with his exquisitely nonchalant trincherazos discarding the bull at his feet, Manazanares killing recibiendo with a confidence no one has outside of Ernest Hemingway’s fictions.

However, it was Juan alone who was swept up on to the shoulders of the crowd and toured the ring. At least, at first I thought it was the crowd, and then I saw it was actually Adolfo, then El Juli, then Serafín Marín and all the other toreros like Perera, Tato and Javier Solís who had been watching hidden from view in the callejón.

That night, an entire profession seemed to be holding Padilla up in the air so an entire nation could applaud him.

As Noel Chandler, usually so immovable in his wise and well-travelled afición, said afterwards in the bar: “Alexander, I had tears in my eyes.” And so did I.

(Padilla went onto to great triumphs – 4 ears and shoulders – in the plazas of Arles and Jerez, among others, but sadly took no trophies in the Feria de Abril, and did not appear in San Isidro, at least not in the ring. He will, however, being appearing in Pamplonain the final corrida on July 14th with El Juli y Daniel Luque and bulls of Torrehandilla y Torreherberos.)

(Left:Suárez and Padilla in Las Ventas 2012)

*********************************************************

Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight is published in the UK by Profile Books and is available from all major British bookshops and online from Amazon or Amazon UK, also as an eBook.

©Alexander Fiske-Harrison 11 June 2012

(Above: Padilla with 700 kg Miura in Pamplona 2011 by the author)

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