Experienced bull-runner gored by bull: isn’t it ironic? I don’t think…

En castellano aquí.

An Op-Ed I wrote a fortnight ago, but Bill beat me to the punch – unsurprising from a much better boxer than I would ever have been – and got his in The Washington Post instead…

Alexander Fiske-Harrison & Bill Hillmann with their awards for writing bull Cuéllar, August 2013 (Photo: Jim Hollander; Awards sculpted by Dyango Velasco)

Alexander Fiske-Harrison & Bill Hillmann with their awards for writing bull from Cuéllar from the book Fiesta (Photo: Jim Hollander; Awards sculpted by Dyango Velasco)

 

 

This weekend I paid my last visit to my friend Bill Hillmann in the Hospital of the Virgin of the Camino in Pamplona. There we celebrated Bill finally being given the all clear to return home to his native Chicago, ten long days after his wife Enid and I chased his ambulance from that morning’s running of the bulls. That story appeared in almost every news network in the world.

(The first to break it were The Times and The New York Times.)

Part of the reason for this notoriety was the superficial irony of his injury: Bill and I, along with Joe Distler a veteran bull-runner from New York, Jim Hollander the EPA photographer from Jerusalem and John Hemingway, Ernest’s grandson from Montreal, had written an electronic guide book titled Fiesta: How To Survive The Bulls Of Pamplona (website here) – available at Amazon US here, UK here, Australia here, Canada here, Spain here, France here, Mexico here (all other regions available too.)

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As ‘man bites dog’ stories go, “bull-survival guide author gets injured by bull” is a shoe-in, and it seems churlish to point out that he did indeed survive. However, to claim, as many in the world’s press have done, that his advice is not worth taking as a result is a step too far.

For a decade Bill has run the annual eight days of encierros – bull-runs – of Pamplona’s feria of San Fermín unscathed, as he has in other less famous towns like San Sebastián de los Reyes, Alcalá de Henares and Cuéllar, which has the oldest encierro in Spain, dating back to at least 1215 A.D.

Would the same reporters have said that driving advice from three-time Formula 1 champion Ayrton Senna was rendered invalid by his fatal crash in the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix? Are Karl Wallenda’s views on high-wire walking to be dismissed since he fell to his death in Puerto Rico in 1978? No, dangerous activities will always be dangerous, the only thing experience, and its passing on as advice, can ever do is mitigate the risks, not eradicate them. [Read more...]

The Last Arena is back holiday…

After a few moments of seriousness following the goring of my brother-in-arms Bill Hillmann, I have returned to lighter former, including the trampling of another character from our book eBook, Fiesta: How To Survive The Bulls Of Pamplona,

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the Scottish Rocket, Angus Ritchie (now out of hospital, so I can make light of it), Charlie Sheen turning up at the running of the bulls, the last Ramone coming to Pamplona, what happened to the bull that gored Buffalo Bill…

All at ‘The Pamplona Post': click on the masthead below to go there…

Alexander Fiske-Harrison

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http://fiskeharrison.wordpress.com/2014/07/12/4695/

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 Times: Bullfight cancelled after three matadors badly gored

AFH The Times article logo

As Graham Keeley in The Times of London writes today, my 4,000-word post on the art of toreo below notwithstanding, it is the risk that makes the corrida de toros ‘terrifyingly real’ as Adolfo Suarez Illana used to say to me in the ring, ‘utterly authentic’ as one Andalusian government official put it to me in Seville last week, ‘the last serious thing left in the world today’ as the poet Federico Garcia Lorca wrote.

I saw David Mora do amazing work in the ring in Seville two weeks ago today, and the other two toreros last year. I wish them well and a quick and complete recovery. Unlike my rather grotesque and viciously moralising compatriots writing in the comments section of The Times, who are like another Taliban in their own petit way, and who seem too dim or venomous to realise that the beef they all eat comes from cattle killed in terror – not the adrenaline of combat – at one third the age of the fighting bull, after a life massively inferior to that of the wild-roaming nature reserves that the box-office of the bull-ring pays for, and that they don’t need to eat meat at all, that all those animals die for the entertainment of their palates.

As Lord Macaulay once said, “We know no spectacle so ridiculous as the British public in one of its periodical fits of morality.” I’d happily replace ‘ridiculous’ with ‘worrying’ in this particular case.

Alexander Fiske-Harrison 

Writer and Actor, author of Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight, shortlisted for the William Hill Sports Book Of The Year 2011.

P.S. I stated my views on this event on LBC Radio soon after, and you can hear my interview here.

The author in the ring

The author in the ring

 

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A major bullfight has been cancelled for the first time in Spain for 35 years after three matadors were badly gored.

David Mora suffered serious injuries and had to have a blood transfusion after he was thrown over the horns of a bull called Deslio.

Horrified spectators watched as Mora was dragged like a rag doll by the half-tonne bull until assistants managed to separate the animal from the injured matador.

Mora suffered two serious 30cm cuts to his left thigh and a 10cm cut to his right arm and was treated in hospital in Madrid.

Antonio Nazaré, the second matador to take to the ring, was gored in the right knee by a different bull which caused ligament damage. He had to be carried from the ring.

To try to save the event from disaster, a younger bullfighter, Saul Jiménez Fortés, attempted to tackle the same bull armed only with his sword.

However, he was also gored, sustaining two serious injuries to the hip and a thigh.

All three toreros were fighting last night in Las Ventas, the most famous bullring in Spain during the annual San Isidro festival.

It is the first time since 1979 that an entire bullfight has had to be cancelled in Spain.

Bullfights are usually one-sided affairs in which the animal is killed after being stabbed by picadors then tired out before the matador finally finishes off the animal with the estocada in which a sword pierces the shoulder blades of the animal.

However, the popularity of what Spaniards call la fiesta nacional (the national fiesta) is waning.

A Mori poll last year found that 76 per cent of Spaniards opposed the use of public funds to support bullfighting.

“We are seeing the ‘animalisation’ of Spain,” Antonio Lorca, who has written books about bullfighting, said. “Where once the bull was seen as a fearsome creature, increasingly it is seen as one to be pitied.”

Mr Lorca said his 25-year-old daughter, who opposes bullfighting, was typical of her generation.

Back to School

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A fortnight ago I accepted, alongside my old friend and bull-running-buddy Bill Hillmann, a prize from the most ancient encierros, ‘bull-runs’, in all of Spain, those of the town of Cuéllar in Old Castille.

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

Me – in my old school Athletics ‘colours’ jacket – & Bill Hillmann with our awards in Cuéllar (Photo © Jim Hollander 2013)

Earlier that same day I nearly died while running with those bulls. The bull in the photo-detail below was suelto – ‘loose’, alone – and had come to halt facing away from me. So I seized what I thought was a chance and tried to pass it in the narrow street.

At the exact same moment another runner tried the same thing, coming from the opposite direction. When we collided, both of us with eyes only for the bull, he was bounced clear to safety while I lost my footing on the slippery street at the very instant the bull caught sight of our movement in its peripheral vision and charged across the street. It ground to a halt on its hooves as I struggled to get upright, my back against the fence that protects the spectators on the pavement.

In this moment – which lasted as infinitely long as all the novelists, journalists and diarists of near-death say it does – I stood so still as to render myself invisible to the bull whose horn points were paused either side of my chest.

[Read more...]

The Prize of Cuéllar

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

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

(from Burladero.com)

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

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

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

The real, old stuff

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

The real running of the bulls

- Nicolás Haro for the photographic illustration of both reports.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Alexander Fiske-Harrison

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

An English farewell – ‘Una despedida Inglés’

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A portrait of me by Nicolás Haro

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

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

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

Cf., the photo above…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A portrait of me by Nicolás Haro

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alexander Fiske-Harrison

To read my Takimag column in full click here.

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

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

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A Celebration of

The Reform Club and Spain

Thursday 16th May 2013 at 7pm

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

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

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

Government of Spain logo

Embajada de España en Londres

Oficina de Asuntos Culturales y Científicos

INTRODUCTION OF THE SPEAKER ALEXANDER FISKE-HARRISON

(Reform Club May 16th 2013)

Mr. Chairman

Ambassador

Ladies and gentlemen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With you Mr. Alexander Fiske Harrison.

Thank you.

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

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

Su Excelencia, my Lords, Ladies and Gentleman,

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

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

“Oh, I can’t be having with that…”

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

“…no, it’s not that.”

“What then?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Plaza Mayor, Madrid

Plaza Mayor, Madrid

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

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

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

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

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

(James Salgado, 1683)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lord Byron by Richard Westall (Wikipedia)

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

Thrice sounds the Clarion; lo! the signal falls,

The den expands, and Expectation mute

Gapes round the silent circle’s peopled walls.

Bounds with one lashing spring the mighty brute,

And, wildly staring, spurns, with sounding foot,

The sand, nor blindly rushes on his foe:

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

His first attack, wide-waving to and fro

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

But by the end:

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

Full in the centre stands the bull at bay,

Mid wounds, and clinging darts, and lances brast,

And foes disabled in the brutal fray:

And now the Matadores around him play,

Shake the red cloak, and poise the ready brand:

Once more through all he bursts his thundering way –

Vain rage! the mantle quits the cunning hand,

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

And Byron’s conclusion ?

Such the ungentle sport that oft invites

The Spanish maid, and cheers the Spanish swain.

Nurtured in blood betimes, his heart delights

In vengeance, gloating on another’s pain.

(1812)

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

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

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

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

(1876)

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

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

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

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

Fandi smiled. Then he stood up.

Into The Arena portada

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(1955)

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

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

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

José Escobar

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

My Dear Sir Manolete:

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

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

Winston Churchill

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

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

[To The Ambassador]

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

Thank you.

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

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

Last night I filed my copy – and I fear as a result missed the birthday party of Don Tristán Ybarra n the feria – about bullfighting and reality television, the corrida and Made In Chelsea for my column in Taki’s magazine. It has been edited, as is always the case. However, this time I prefer the long version, not least as is is not quite so savage to Ollie Locke, whom I know, and his amusing little book, Laid in Chelsea.

Alexander Fiske-Harrison

image

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He came to Seville, and he is called Manzanares”

Matador José Mari Manzanares dances a ‘chicuelina’ with the 510kg, 4-year, 10-month-old J P Domecq bull ‘Rasguero’ (Photo: Alexander Fiske-Harrison)

Gregorio Corrochano, the bullfighter critic of the influential newspaper, A. B. C., in Madrid, said of him, “Es de Ronda y se llama Cayetano.” He is from Ronda, the cradle of bullfighting, and they call him Cayetano, a great bullfighter’s name; the first name of Cayetano Sanz, the greatest old-time stylist. The phrase went all over Spain.

from Ernest Hemingway’s Death In The Afternoon (1932)

In this year’s Feria de San Miguel in Seville I watched the new hero of that city return to the sand to confirm yet again his supremacy in a mano a mano with another very skilled young matador named Alejandro Talavante.

* * *
Note

From here on in, I shall refer to what we English call a ‘bullfight’ as a corrida de toros (literally ‘run of bulls’) or just a corrida, and bullfighters as toreros (lit. ‘those who play with bulls’). All activities involving bulls in Spain come under the blanket term fiesta de los toros, aka the fiesta brava or fiesta nacional or just the Fiesta, the activity of bullfighting is called tauromaquia – we have the old word tauromachy in English – and the art, technique and style of bullfighthing is called toreo.

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