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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Fiesta: How To Survive The Bulls Of Pamplona by Fiske-Harrison, Hemingway, Welles… and the Mayor of Pamplona

Out now is the eBook, Fiesta: How To Survive The Bulls Of Pamplona (available on Amazon in all regions – details on website here. ) I edited and contributed to it, as has John Hemingway – Ernest’s grandson, Beatrice Welles – Orson’s daughter, Joe Distler – the greatest ever American bull-runner, Bill Hillmann – the best young American bull-runner, Jim Hollander – senior EPA photographer and Pamplona veteran of over 50 years, and four of the greatest Basque and Spanish runners, with over 2,000 bull-runs between them, Julen Madina, Miguel Ángel Eguiluz, Jokin Zuasti and Josechu Lopez (and photos by my old friend Nicolás Haro.)

Of course, you’ll notice the slight Anglo-Spanish imbalance above, so, luckily, Don Enrique Maya, the Mayor of Pamplona since 2011, has just sent me an official ‘Foreword’ to place in the book, making this Fiesta, not just the only guide book of its type, but simply the only guidebook in the English language. I enclose my translation of his Foreword below, for those who have already purchased the eBook (your devices should automatically update with it in the next 24 hours.)

As you can see, the publicity machine has already begun to turn, beginning with the Londoner’s Diary of the Evening Standard below, and SanFermin.com in Pamplona here. Now to finish my articles for The New York Times, Newsweek, hopefully The Toronto Star and, I believe, The Times.

¡Viva San Fermín!

Alexander Fiske-Harrison

evening standard

Alexander Fiske-Harrison’s feeling bullish about some bloody memoirs

Someone hide the red flags. The actor, writer and “bullfighter-philosopher” Alexander Fiske-Harrison has teamed up with John Hemingway — grandson of the novelist and blood-sports enthusiast Ernest — to put together a collection of essays and accounts of the infamous Spanish bull-running festival.

Fiesta: How to Survive the Bulls of Pamplona also includes a brief memoir by the daughter of another famous bullfighting enthusiast — the film director Orson Welles.

“We’re dividing the profits between the five major contributors,” Fiske-Harrison tells The Londoner, “but as photographer Jim Hollander pointed out, he gets the best deal — he’s the only one not running with the bulls in two weeks so may well be the only one around to collect! Although since I’m the editor, he’s going to have to get the money out of my bank account.”

 

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Foreword by the Mayor of Pamplona

Government of Pamplona

The Encierro – the ‘bull-run’ – is rooted deep in the history of Pamplona, where the bulls have, since medieval times, been driven for the evening bullfight from outside the city’s walls to its centre. Over the centuries, the Encierro has grown until it has become a legendary race, combining the weight of a tradition amassed over decades and the universal reach of an international event in the 21st century.

1776 gave us the introduction of fencing on the route of the Encierro; in 1856 the bulls ran for the first time on calle Estafeta; in 1922 the layout we have today was finally settled; in 1974 the start of the race was changed to 8 o’clock in the morning; in 1982 they began live television broadcasts, and this year the Encierro Ordinance has been approved, which regulates the conditions under which the run occurs and establishes appropriate mechanisms to punish (in ways which are minor, serious and very serious) behaviors that are not allowed.

During this time, the Encierro has been built on the work of thousands of people and with the scrupulous respect for a thing as attractive as it is dangerous. Because, as is well recognised in the title of this book, “How to Survive the bulls of Pamplona,” the story of the Encierro is also a hard story, alternating joys and victorious moments with black days in our old festival calendar. In fact, since the San Fermín festival last year, one of the fence posts located in the plaza Consistorial serves as a tribute to the 15 people who have lost their lives on the run, with a caption that reads “To the fallen of the Encierro.”

With all its sharp edges, its beauty, its danger and its difficulties, the Encierro is now a spectacular space, with close to 3,500 runners risking their lives every morning, backed up by first-class support along the entire route and with more than 440 journalists accredited to send their updates to countries in all continents.

However, beyond the importance of the Encierro, the appeal of the fiestas of San Fermín are not just in the legendary run. We have eight and a half days full of joy and fun, and with a festive array composed of more than 400 events, most notably the Chupinazo, Procession and dances of the Giants and Big Heads, that underpin the excellent environment that lives on the streets of Pamplona and serves to renew year after year, the greatness of an long-awaited and heartfelt holiday.

As Mayor of Pamplona it is a great joy to participate in a book like this, especially one aimed at the English-speaking community, because of its commitment to approaching the San Fermín liturgy with respect for the traditions of Pamplona as its roadmap, and valuable testimonies from people who have, over decades, learned how participate in the Encierro with aplomb.

In this sense, I want to take the opportunity afforded to me in this foreword to congratulate Alexander Fiske-Harrison for this story, and all those who took part in this project. I am sure that this work will become a great reference for all lovers of the Encierro beyond our borders, and serve as a source of information for people who want to find out the details that have defined, for centuries, the most famous bull-run in the world.

And finally, a tip. If you have the opportunity to visit, do not hesitate. Pamplona awaits you with open arms and with only two conditions: the desire to have a good time and respect for the city and its traditions.

¡Viva San Fermín!

Don Enrique Maya

Mayor of Pamplona – 2011 to present day

With thanks to Doña Yolanda Barcina, President of the Government of Navarre.
Govenment of Navarra
And to His Excellency, Federico Trillo-Figueroa Martínez-Conde, Ambassador from the Kingdom of Spain to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and El Señor Fidel López Álvarez, Minister-Counsellor for Cultural Affairs.

Government of Spain

 

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

Burladero

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.

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.

It is illegal to touch the bulls.

20130213-185006.jpg

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

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

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

Alexander Fiske-Harrison

“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.

[Read more...]

Vocento: “A Gentleman In The Ring”

(Versión original en español aquí.)

A couple of weeks ago the eleven newspapers of the Vocento Group in Spain – El Correo, El Diario Vasco, El Diario Montañés, La Verdad, Ideal, Hoy, Sur, La Rioja, El Norte de Castilla, El Comercio, La Voz de Cádiz, Las Provincias – ran the following interview with me. The only exception was ABC which ran this one a few weeks before.

Alexander Fiske-Harrison

A Gentleman In The Ring

by Francisco Apaolaza

Having crossed through a dimensional portal, suddenly he appears in the bull-run of Cuéllar (Segovia), in an out-and-out race with Spanish fighting bulls, a copy of the Financial Times rolled up in his hand. With each stride, Alexander Fiske-Harrison, English gentleman, writer, actor and reporter for the British press spans the huge distance between his world of the cultural and economic elite of London and the bull-run of Cuéllar with its dust, hooves, horns and shoe leather. This is the story of how one man crossed through the door of these parallel universes and then relayed it in the first person to the most anciest newspaper in the City.

Now, perhaps, the Financial Times will give a respite to the workhorse of Spanish debt and point instead to Spain’s oldest bull-run. Perhaps the best part of the story is the signature on the article. Fiske-Harrison is not the type of tourist who cannot distinguish a cart-ox from a fighting bull, but is an amateur bullfighter whose curious journey began many years ago while search of new cultures and strong sensations. What he found was very far from his life in a grand English family – a line of bankers – with its studies at Oxford, its games of rugby, horses, shooting and the exclusive red and white athletics blazer of Eton College, where Prince William and David Cameron also studied. [Read more...]

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