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...]

Perhaps bullfighting is not a moral wrong: My talk at the Edinburgh International Book Festival

Yesterday evening I immensely enjoyed giving a talk to the sold out audience at the 500-seat Scottish Power Theatre at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on my award-winning book Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bulllfight. It was followed by a discussion with the chair, Al Senter, and the Q&A session with the audience that (along with brief personal chats with about half of those present who came to have their books signed by me in the London Review of Books tent afterwards.) The questions were all well-informed and interesting, not least because, as many of the audience members said to me in person, I’d answered most of the more controversial questions in my opening talk. Here is the transcript of what I said:

* * *

I was going to read from my book, but it seems that the most important topic in the United Kingdom in the 21st Century, indeed in the English-speaking world – when discussing bullfighting – are the ethical issues surrounding the injuring and killing of animals as part of a public spectacle. So I want to address these head on.

As a liberal – in the classical, John Suart Mill sense – it is not my intention, or my place, to tell people whether or not they should approve of or enjoy bullfighting anymore than it is whether they should approve of or enjoy opera. However, when people seek to ban an art form from existing, so that other people may not enjoy it, whatever claims have been made by other people who have never witnessed it, then certain questions have to be raised.

Whatever the motivations behind the ban on bullfighting on Catalonia – and there have been accusations of underhand dealings, thumbing of noses at Madrid to gain votes, which has some circumstantial evidence for it as the popular Catalan regional hobby of attaching burning tar balls and fireworks onto bulls’ horns and letting them into the streets is unaffected by the legislation – anyway, the stated reason is the ethics, or rather lack of ethics, of bullfighting. So, that is what I should like to discuss here.

However, before I can do that, I have to dispel some myths that have long surrounded the bullfight, pieces of propaganda that have been propagated by the anti-bullfight lobby such as CAS International, the League Against Cruel Sports and PETA.

The one I most often hear is the complaint that the matador faces a broken down and destroyed animal. Take a close look at this bull in these photos and tell me how broken down it looks.

Morante de la Puebla performs a ‘veronica’ (Photo: Author)

[Read more...]

The Barcelona Ban on Bullfighting: Two Years on…

Two years after the regional parliament in Barcelona voted to ban the corrida de toros, known in English as bullfighting – although not other forms of ‘playing with bulls’ – throughout Catalonia, it looks increasingly like this will piece of legislation will be overthrown by the federal government in Madrid when they, following France, make the corrida a matter of protected cultural interest.

It is interesting to review the arguments on both sides in this matter, and, despite asking me – who am avowedly anti-ban not least because I am politically a liberal – to write the foreword, the most balanced book produced on the subject remains the series of interviews with animal rights groups, bullfighters, politicians and journalists by Cat Tosko. Just take a look at the contents list below. I also enclose my foreword in full.

Alexander Fiske-Harrison
 
The book is available as a paperback or eBook for £5 at Amazon UK here, or Amazon US for $8 here.
 
 

The Bull and The Ban

Interviews from both sides of the debate on the controversy surrounding bullfighting, its recent ban in the autonomous community of Catalonia and its future in Spain, the rest of Europe and the Americas…

Contents:

Foreword by Alexander Fiske-Harrison – author of Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight.

Introduction by the interviewer, Catherine Tosko – documentary filmmaker and former Animal Rights activist.

The Interviews

Alfred Bosch: Catalan MP & Coalition Leader, Catalan Parliament

Antoni Strubell i Trueta: Catalan MP & Author

Rampova: Catalan artist

Marilén Barceló: Catalan Psychologist, Bullfighting aficionada

Bob Rule: British aficionado, member: Club Taurino of London

Miguel Perea: Spanish bullfighter (picador)

Emilio Bolaños Arrabal: Spanish bullfighter (banderillero)

Fernando Cámara Castro: Spanish bullfighting teacher (ex-matador)

Francisco Rivera Ordóñez: Spanish bullfighter (matador)

Frank Evans: British bullfighter (matador)

Alexander Fiske-Harrison: British author & bullfighter (aficionado practicó)

Gaspar Jiménez Fortes: Spanish bullring manager

Equanimal: Spanish Animal Rights lobby group

Graham Bell: British Animal Rights activist

Jason Webster: British writer: author of Duende: In Search of Flamenco and the novel Or The Bull Kills You…

Foreword

In this book you will find the entire range of views on bullfighting represented in a series of interviews – from those who are completely against it to those who are completely for it – backed by the strongest arguments they can give. And although in my own interview I give the views I have come to hold after two years in Spain researching my own book on the subject – namely against any form of ban, but with grave misgivings about the cruelty of the activity – I have actually inhabited each position given at different times along the way.

[Read more...]

Oxford Mail: Bullfighting author’s talk called off

News

Bullfighting author’s talk called off

9:30am Thursday 9th February 2012

A TALK tonight by Oxford bullfighter Alexander Fiske-Harrison has been cancelled.

Mr Fiske-Harrison mounted a fierce attack on Blackwell’s for cancelling the event, rescheduled to today after the Broad Street bookshop postponed the original talk because of security fears.

Mr Fiske-Harrison, 35, angered animal rights extremists after training to become a bullfighter and killing a bull in a ring in Spain, later describing his experiences in a book. The writer said the original lunchtime meeting two weeks ago was postponed after Blackwell’s informed him that they had received “a credible threat.”

But he has now accused Blackwell’s of overstating the threat, scaring people away from tonight’s rearranged talk.

Tony Cooper, manager of Blackwell’s, said: “After several conversations with Alexander Fiske-Harrison we decided to cancel the event due to the small number of tickets taken up. Despite initial interest in the lunchtime talk this did not carry forward into a full evening talk by the author.

“We are obviously disappointed that this is the case as we never like to cancel an event unless absolutely necessary.”

Mr Fiske-Harrison, 35, spent two years in Spain’s heartland of bullfighting with matadors and breeders, talking with fans and training to fight bulls himself.


Alexander Fiske-Harrison with a 3-year-old Saltillo bull.

Photo: Paloma Gaytán de Ayala (Santa Coloma)

My talk on Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight at Blackwell’s of Oxford on Thursday at 7pm

On Thursday, February 9th, at 7pm I will be giving a talk on my book, Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight at Blackwell’s Bookshop on Broad Street, Oxford. Tickets are free and are available by calling 01865 333623.

Putting to one side the articles in the Oxford Times and Oxford Mail, which discuss an apparently needless postponement of the talk – Blackwell’s effectively caved into complaints and then misrepresented them to me as messages of a threatening nature so I would agree  – it is still worth clarifying one point of fundamental importance. Into The Arena is not a piece of pro-bullfighting propaganda. And it’s not just me saying that. Here’s what the press said:

Shortlisted for

*****

Fiske-Harrison’s argument that the interplay between man and bull, when done with the highest skill, merits the tragedy will not convince many readers. But his descriptions of the fights are compelling and lyrical, and his explanation of different uses of the matador’s capes is illuminating. One begins to understand what has captivated Spaniards for centuries. This complex and ambitious book examines not only life in the bullring but also Spain’s cultural identity and modern ideas of masculinity. 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 take.

Provides an engrossing introduction to Spain’s “great feast of art and danger”…brilliantly capturing a fascinating, intoxicating culture.

Uneasy ethical dilemmas abound, not least the recurring question of how much suffering the animals are put through. But this remains a compelling read, unusual for its genre, exalting the bullfight as pure theatre.

Fiske-Harrison did not expect to fall in love with bullfighting when he saw it for the first time in 2000. A philosophy student and member of the World Wildlife Fund and Greenpeace, he would argue with his brother about animal cruelty. But then he travelled to Seville and had his eyes opened by the beauty, dignity and art of the sport. Fiske-Harrison recounts his year spent studying the matadors, breeders, fans and the bulls themselves, set against the backdrop of the campaign to ban bullfighting in Catalonia.

Others have been there before, not least Ernest Hemingway, the 50th anniversary of whose death neatly coincides with this travelogue. Hemingway concluded that bullfighting was ‘moral’ as it gave him a ‘feeling of life, death and mortality’. Fiske-Harrison comes to much the same conclusion, albeit after considerable soul-searching… He develops a taste for the whole gruesome spectacle, but what makes the book work is that he never loses his disgust for it…

This is an informed piece of work on a subject about which we are all expected to have a view. But what I really enjoyed about Into The Arena is that after nearly 300 pages I still couldn’t quite decide whether bullfighting should be banned or allowed to flourish.”

It’s to Fiske-Harrison’s credit that he never quite gets over his moral qualms about bullfighting; the book is at its strongest when he uses his degree in biology to investigate the cruelty question… Into the Arena is full of intriguing detail… an engrossing introduction to bullfighting. [Read more...]

Mad Bulls and Englishmen by Giles Coren in The Times

This article of Giles Coren’s was originally published in The Times magazine on Boxing Day ’09 where it is still available along with Dominic Elliot’s film of our day bullfighting here. All photos are by Nicolás Haro.

Alexander Fiske-Harrison, the English bullfighter, takes on a ‘vaquilla’ of the Saltillo breed. Inset: with Giles Coren, attending a bullfight in Seville.

Writers and travellers have long been drawn to the drama and romance of the bullfight. Giles Coren is no exception, so when he was contacted out of the blue by the younger brother of his dead best friend, now training to be a bullfighter in Spain, Giles was intrigued. Here he describes his journey into a unique culture of noblemen, peasants and swindlers, all driven by deadly serious dreams of death and glory

I am in a bullring. Not in the seats, in the ring. On the sand. From the relative safety of a wooden barrier with a small room behind it, built into the stone wall, I have seen four vaquillas, young cows, “caped” by one of Spain’s most famous matadors, the son of the first post-Franco prime minister of Spain, Adolfo Suárez Illana, and by Alexander Fiske-Harrison, the younger brother of my best friend at school, who died in an accident the year we left, three months before his 19th birthday. [Read more...]

The Uses of Cruelty and the “Gentling Effect”

“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, August 1st, 2011

“It’s to Fiske-Harrison’s credit that he never quite gets over his moral qualms about bullfighting.”
Financial Times, June 4th, 2011

“He develops a taste for the whole gruesome spectacle, but what makes the book work is that he never loses his disgust for it.”
Daily Mail, May 26th, 2011

As I got on the plane to the Roman coliseum at Nîmes in France to see the greatest living bullfighter, José Tomás, on Sunday, September 18th, the idea of cruelty was foremost on my mind for obvious reasons. The gladiatorial arena is the birth place of the bullfight, whatever other historical traditions may have partly inspired it or later imposed themselves and moulded it – Minoan bull-dancers, Carthaginian marriage rituals, Mithraic initiation rites, the knightly joust, the circus, flamenco, ballet and the theatre. The gladiator is he who wields the gladius, the ‘sword’. The old name for a matador, ‘killer’, is espada or sword.

(All photos are mine from that day unless otherwise marked.)

[Read more...]

The Bullfight and the Ban (and the Spanish Economy)

El Cid in Seville on Saturday evening
(Photo: Alexander Fiske-Harrison)

The ban on formal Spanish-style bullfights, corridas de toros, in the autonomous region of Catalonia came into de facto effect last night with the final corrida in Barcelona’s great bullring, La Monumental. (The ban, voted for in the regional parliament in July 2010 actually begins in 2012, but the “season” is now over”.) At the time, I was in transit back from another, very different Spanish city, Seville. (Apologies to Fiona Govan at the Daily Telegraph for not available for comment as a result.)

I had flown out to Seville to fight – non-fatally – on a ranch nearby for the cameras of NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams in the US, before going to watch a corrida in the true heartland of bullfighting in Spain, it’s oldest major bullring, La Plaza de Toros de la Real Maestranza de Caballería de Sevilla (1749), then NBC was going to fly on to see 20,000 people pack into the century old Barcelona ring to watch Spain’s greatest matador, José Tomás, perform as the curtain fell on that part of the mundo taurino.

After NBC pulled out due to production problems, I took my girlfriend to the city I now regard as my second home after London and remained safely in the stands.

On Friday night, we saw a mediocre set of bulls of the second rank, fought with courage, determination and a lack of flair and technique by equally second-rank matadores. Given that we were sitting front row in seats generously donated by the bull-breeder Enrique Moreno de la Cova, it left a bad taste in my mouth. If the faena, the final part of each bull’s fight with the muleta or small red cape, has no art, then watching the picador drill his lance twice into each bull less than six feet in front of you can become the dominant visual memory. An evening out with that most garrulous of British aficionados, and the British Prince of Pamplona, Noel Chandler, did much to alleviate this.

Luckily, on Saturday night, we watched the Seville professional- as I think of him – El Cid fight his first bull with a blithe confidence which built up to a complicated brilliance using a sense of timing and grace of movement which I thought he had lost.

El Cid in Seville on Saturday evening
(Photo: Alexander Fiske-Harrison)

[Read more...]

Bullfighting is an Art: My Talk at the Oxford & Cambridge Club

I delivered the following talk on the bulls to a packed dining room at the Oxford and Cambridge Club on Pall Mall, London yesterday. I wish I could remember the fascinating questions put afterwards, particularly the one by the philosopher Brendan McLaughlin bringing in schadenfreude and Nietzsche rather neatly. I sold copies of my book Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight afterwards. It can be found at most British bookshops, or purchased at a 50% discount at Amazon by clicking here, or purchased and downloaded even more cheaply as an eBook by clicking here (it includes both the black & white and the colour photos).

Alexander Fiske-Harrison

Like the undergraduate I would like to being this talk with a definition, this is from the Oxford English Dictionary:

Cruel, adjective

From the Middle English, Cruel. Also in French, Cruel, Spanish Cruel, Italian, Crudele, All from the Latin crūdēl-em – morally rough, cruel, from same root as crude.

Primary definition: Of persons: Disposed to inflict suffering; indifferent to or taking pleasure in another’s pain or distress; destitute of kindness or compassion; merciless, pitiless, hard-hearted.

First given use: 1297

Now let me move onto bullfighting.

Now, I can – and have given – various relative defences of bullfighting to Anglo-Saxon audiences (in which loose tribe I count myself), which can be found in detail in Chapter 7 of the book [and with vivid pictures in the transcript of my talk at the Edinburgh Festival - AFH]. I won’t repeat here the horrors of the abattoir, the utterly unnecessary and environmentally damaging habit of eating meat for adult humans, the fact that one fifth of Spain’s wilderness, the dehesa, is owned and maintained by the breeders of the fighting bulls which would surely become more standard farmland were the activity banned, nor the fact that the British don’t seem quite so squeamish about the brutal and real death of animals contained in the output of the BBC Natural History Unit.

[Read more...]

José Tomás: And The Myth Was Made Flesh Once More

When perhaps the greatest matador in history, José Tomás, returned to the ring from his inexplicable five-year retirement in 2007, the Spanish press ran with the headline, “And The Myth Was Made Flesh.” At that time, I had never seen him bullfight, and thought it pure journalistic hyperbole. Since then I have and have chosen this headline myself as a result. The Agence-France Presse released this report on his astonishing re-emergence from near-death and appalling injury:

Jose Tomas makes triumphant comeback to bullring in Spain

VALENCIA, Spain — Acclaimed Spanish bullfighter Jose Tomas made a triumphant comeback to the bullring Saturday, receiving a standing ovation more than a year after a bloody goring in Mexico that almost killed him. The 35-year-old, wearing a purple and gold outfit, offered his first bull of the night, a 502-kilogramme beast, to the doctors who had helped him recover. He was less successful with his second bull, a 556-kilo four-and-a-half-year-old, but delighted the sell-out crowd of 11,000, many of whom had traveled from overseas to see the spectacle in the eastern city of Valencia. Tomas was seriously gored and almost died in a bullfight April 24 last year in Aguasclientes, Mexico. A 470-kilo (1,000-pound) bull named Navegante, his second bull of the evening, thrust its horn into the muscle of Tomas’s left thigh, puncturing the artery and causing the bullfighter to lose about half of his blood. In September he will be able to fight at Barcelona’s Monumental ring in what may be the last La Merced festival before a bullfighting ban in the Catalonia region comes into force next year. Copyright © 2011 AFP. All rights reserved

In celebration of this return, I have put below my description of what I believe to Tomás’s greatest corrida de toros, in Jerez de la Frontera in 2009, where he fought alongside the matadors El Cid, who featured in my Prospect magazine article that led to my becoming a bullfighter (available here), and my great friend Juan José Padilla (whom you can read more about in my The Pamplona Post article here).
[Read more...]

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