THE LAST ARENA: An Essay On Bullfighting – 2019 update


the-last-arena-logo

TPP Editor’s Note: As this blog falls in disuse, I leave you with the result of my twenty years research into the world of the bulls on my other site – AFH

TLA Editor’s Note: This 10,000 word essay has been updated for republication since its original appearance in 2016. I have, however, kept the original data from Spain’s Ministry of Culture etc., as relevant changes have not really occurred: there were 1,521 bullfights in 2018, and 17,698 bull ‘festivities’ as defined below. And, as reported on the site here, the great matador Iván Fandiño was killed by a bull in a ring in France – AFH

José Tomás by Carlos Cazalis from his forthcoming book Sangre de Reyes, 'Blood Of

José Tomás by Carlos Cazalis from his book Sangre de Reyes, ‘Blood Of Kings’

When I first went to my first bullfight 20 years ago, I was 23 and was sure I would hate it. I was a passionate animal lover and had been a keen amateur naturalist since childhood, WWF & Greenpeace member and zoology undergraduate. It is obvious that ot an auspicious CV for a future aficionado a los toros.

As expected, what I saw contained many moments of brutality and blood but I was surprised also to find I could see beyond them to feel moments of breathless thrill as well. What genuinely shocked me, though, was that I could also perceive intermittently, and only with one of the bullfighters present, a kind of beauty that was entirely new to me.

In my moral confusion, I decided to research this alien thing, reading what I could in English – mainly Ernest Hemingway and Barnaby Conrad – and going when possible to see a corrida, a ‘bullfight’, on my irregular visits to Spain. Each time I went with a little more understanding and a little less aversion. Some would argue I became more sensitive to the aesthetics, others that I had become more inured to the ethics (or lack thereof.) I wouldn’t like to say either way.

into-the-arena-coverIn 2008 I was commissioned to write a book on the subject and I moved to Seville for two years and among other researches I trained as a bullfighter to the level of matador de novillos-toros – a novice level matador de toros bravos – ending by killing a single animal in the ring, a novillo, a three-year-old bull weighing around a third of a ton. (Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight was published by Profile Books in 2011 and shortlisted for the William Hill Sports Book Of The Year Award the same year.)

As part of the research, I also attended the encierros, ‘bull-runs’, of Pamplona and ran with fear and ignorance among the masses of drunken foreigners and adrenaline seekers. Unlike those visitors, I returned, and ended up running in towns across Spain, away from the tourist trail and among those born to this bloodless and less ritualised, more pagan practice.

I ran with the bulls from San Sebastián de los Reyes in the suburbs of Madrid, to Falces, where you hurtle pell-mell down a goat-path, bordered by a sheer drop, in the foothills of Navarran Pyrenees. From Tafalla, also in Navarre, which resembles Pamplona in the 1920s to Cuéllar in Old Castille, which hosts the most ancient encierros in Spain.

(The book I edited and co-authored with the Mayor of Pamplona, Ernest Hemingway’s grandson, Orson Welles’s daughter and the finest bull-runners including the late Julen Madina, Jokin Zuasti, Joe Distler and Reuters & EPA photographer Jim Hollander, The Bulls Of Pamplona, was published by Mephisto Press in 2018, purchasing details are online here.)

I may be something of an oddity in my afición in English-speaking countries – although there is a Club Taurino of London as there is of New York – but in Spain (or Portugal, France, Mexico, Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, Venezuela) the picture is very different.

Alexander Fiske-Harrison running with the Torrestrella bulls of Álvaro Domecq - striped jacket - in Pamplona (Photo: Joseba Etxaburu - Reuters)

Alexander Fiske-Harrison running with the Torrestrella bulls of Álvaro Domecq – striped jacket – in Pamplona (Photo: Joseba Etxaburu – Reuters)

According to the annual figures on asuntos taurinos, ‘taurine matters’, published by Spain’s Ministry of Culture, the bulls are on the way back for the first time since the world economy collapsed in 2008.

The number of full-fledged corridas in 2015 stabilised at 394, down only 1% since 2014 compared with that year’s drop of 7% on the year before and 10% before that.

There were even large increases in some regions – Andalusia, Aragon, Murcia, the two Castiles and the Basque Country – and it seems that Madrid was the real fall, perhaps a reflection of the strange political stirrings going on in the capital.

The number of bullfights in the broader sense of the word – including novilladas for novices and rejoneo for horseback toreros etc., – 80% of which occur in Andalusia, Madrid and the two Castiles, had fallen by 7% to 1,736, but this after a slight increase the year before.

Far more importantly in a country where subsidies distort the market, the number of people actually attending bullfights in 2015 was up to 3.7 million, an increase of more than a third of a million since 2011 when my book came out. Back, in fact, to pre-financial crisis levels.

This is alongside some 6.4 million having watched bullfighting on the television to which it had only returned in 2015 (and half a million more on the internet.)

To keep reading please click here…

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THE LAST ARENA: The Thrill Has Gone…


El Norte de Castilla

‘The North Of Castile’

ENGLISH VERSION – IN SPANISH ORIGINAL HERE

The Joy Of The Thrill

Alexander Fiske-Harrison

Monday, September 9th, 2019

ENGLISH VERSION – IN SPANISH ORIGINAL HERE

Lungs burning, vision fuzzing, heart thumping and hands shaking, I stood watching and chatting with my companions in the street, Josechu Lopez and David Garcia, as the last bull moved up the street last Tuesday, in the antepenultimate encierro of the oldest feria of bull-running in the world, and the last time I expect to find myself sharing the asphalt with my favourite animal ever again.

It is not that I have lost my love for the bull or my affection for encierros, ‘bull-runs’: my admiration for this meeting place for man and beast is entirely undiminished. Nor is it the decrepitude of old age or excesses of an indulgent lifestyle that are pulling me out as I enter my mid-40s: I could still clock a three-and-three-quarter hour marathon in Mont Saint-Michel in France last year, and did my finest taurine runs ever the year before that in such rarified places as Funes and Falces.

Midnight Run – Alexander Fiske-Harrison, far right, running on the horns of a bull in a nocturnal encierro in Funes in Navarre in 2017

No, ten years after my first ever encierro – with Miuras, in San Fermin – I have had to admit that my personal experience of running alongside, and occasionally in front of, such animals has ceased to deliver a pleasure that outweighs the ultimate risk. It is not that, to quote the great B. B. King, “the thrill is gone”, but that the joy in that thrill has.

Click here to read on…

The Right Pin-Up


I found it odd when it was pointed out to me here in wilds of Andalusia, working on building up Polo Andalusia, that the papers had decided to name me pin-up boy for the parties of the Right in Spain, especially under the surname of one of my maternal ancestors, Cecil Rhodes. (The headline El otro Rhodes translates as ‘The Other Rhodes.’)

However, it was another Rhodes they referenced: a ‘celebrity’ musician who plays classical music – by which I mean a person whose public profile as a musician has piggy-backed on his public profile for revelations (his own) about his private life rather than his talent – who has also moved to Spain. Apparently he has decided to wax lyrical in the media about his views on the political failings of the country he has just moved to. A cultural, or rather touristic, imperialism I personally find abhorrent….

That said, although the intention of this article was flattering, I could not find myself flattered by it… you see, my politics, which are usually a private matter, do not match those of the role they are proposing me to fill

The article, online here, says:

We need another Englishman similarly Hispanophile to admire.

Alexander Fiske-Harrison (pictured) is my proposal. He is English… of good type … graduated in biology and philosophy at Oxford and London… If Rhodes is immersed in our customs, what Fiske-Harrison likes is The Custom: bullfighting. He is a great aficiondao and a few years ago he published a book about the Fiesta, Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight. Apparently, his mentor in bullfighting was Adolfo Suárez Illana [son of the first democratically elected Prime Minister of Spain after the death of Franco, and himself number two in the conservative Partido Popular, ‘Popular Party’, for Madrid.]

Fiske-Harrison is presented as “writer and bullfighter”, maintains a blog on bullfighting in English, www.TheLastArena.com, and is also a great aficionado of bull-running, and usually runs dressed in white and with an elegant red jacket looking like a character out of P. G. Wodehouse skidding into calle Estafeta in Pamplona.

Fiske is a patrician, a dandy, an enviable Englishman and also a lover of Spain. Fiske-Harrison is a taurine pro, perhaps the great English taurino of the moment.

[Read more…]

THE LAST ARENA: The Great Bulls Of Pamplona




I am completing the conversion of my taurine blog ‘The Last Arena: In Search Of The Spanish Bullfight‘ into the reference site in the English language that it by now should already be.

My latest addition is this new post on the great breeds and bloodlines of fighting bull, in part at the behest of Pamplona’s largest tour operator, Running Of The Bulls, Inc., but also with a nod to the Fundación del Toro de Lidia, ‘Foundation of the Fighting Bull’, the Spanish industry body with whom I am working.

It is also nice to see the ancient University of Valladolid are referencing the book that that blog grew into, Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight, as one of three works on the subject written in English in the past three centuries that have become works of reference.

University of Valladolid (founded 1241 A.D.)

Faculty of Translation and Interpretation

Masters in Professional and Institutional Translation

Masters Final Thesis

The culture of Bullfighting in the European and American English-speaking world through the authors Richard Ford (1796–1858), Ernest Hemingway (1899–1961) and Alexander Fiske-Harrison (1976-)

Presented by José Manuel Toquero Martín

 (Click here to download the full thesis.)

Alexander Fiske-Harrison

My article in the Daily Mail on Seville

 

My article in today’s Daily Mail (original as image below).

THE THRILLS OF SEVILLE

By Alexander Fiske-Harrison

Flamenco is just one way to enjoy the wild spirit of this elegant Spanish city

SEVILLE’S motto is “she has not deserted me”. In the 13th century the city rose in favour of King Alfonso the Wise against a rebellious son.

Nowadays, it’s the tourists who do not desert her. From the Gothic splendours of the cathedral to the alleys of the old Jewish Quarter, it is a place to wander and wonder.

HISTORIC LESSON

AS THE birthplace of Roman Emperors, Trajan and his wall-building successor Hadrian, Seville’s classical origins are apparent. There are magnificent ruins, including at 25,000-seat amphitheatre, at nearby Italica.

By the 16th century Seville was at the heart of Spain’s Golden Age, due to its exclusive Royal license for all trade with the newly discovered Americas.

Notorious fictional knight, Don Quixote de la Mancha, was born here in 1597 while his creator was in prison in the Royal Jail of Seville. The country’s greatest painter Diego Velázquez was born here two years later. [Read more…]

THE LAND OF WOLVES: The Return Of The Wolf

My latest post on my project researching wolf conservation and reintroduction for a proposed book on my blog, ‘The Land Of Wolves’, online here.

Alexander Fiske-Harrison

THE LAST ARENA: For The Love Of ‘Toreo’ – article in ‘Boisdale Life’ on bullfighting

FOR THE LOVE OF TOREO

When Englishman, Old Etonian and Boisdale regular Alexander Fiske-Harrison travelled to Spain to write a book on bullfighting, he never imagined that he’d be stepping into the ring himself. But after he picked up the red muleta for the first time, everything changed

Anyone who speaks of their first time in the ring in terms of the sweat or the heat, the overwhelming fatigue or the numbing fear, the grittiness of the sand under foot, or the particular odour the Spanish fighting bull brings with it from the corrals, is either lying, misremembering or deranged. For such detailed cognition is not how such massive levels of acute stress work in the normal human mind.

When you are first faced with a bull your world consists of two things: the animal’s eyes and where they are looking, and the animal’s horns and where they are going. As the saying goes of war: there are far too many things to be afraid of to have time to be scared.

By the time I was facing a big animal – three years old and weighing a third of a ton – I had learned how to control that adrenal flow so that I could devote time to reading the animal. For example, seeing which horn he preferred to lead with (like boxers, bulls are either southpaw or orthodox), and noticing whether he wanted to break into a canter in a close-range charge or preferred merely to extend his trot. Then there was the choice of pass I’d make with the muleta – the red cloth with a wooden stick for a spine – extended wider with the sword in its folds when used for a derechazo on the right, or on its own on the more risky, but more elegant, left for a pase natural.

To read on click here.

Unpopular Truths: Bullfighting & Sufism, Beauty & Wisdom


 

AFH with Juan José Padilla at his home in 2012 the day before his return to the ring. (Photo: Zed Nelson for GQ magazine)

I recently did an interview with fellow author – a specialist on Spanish and Moorish History and Art – Jason Webster for the Idries Shah Foundation (online here) on my interest in Sufism and my history in el mundo de los toros, ‘the world of the bulls’ in Spain.

Sufism is perhaps best described as a mystical form of Islam more closely related in its theology and philosophy to Buddhism than the other interpretations of Mohammed’s teachings, and as a result is the most internally persecuted variant of that religion both historically and during its current civil war.

Idries Shah was a noted author for many reasons but most of all introducing the ideas of Sufism to the West, as he did to me via his book The Caravan of Dreams.

Sufism’s link to the corrida de toros, a dance with the evident threat of – and executing with a sword the magnificent reality of – a Spanish fighting bull may seem distant, but they are there.

One link is purely circumstantial: I first read his writings immediately before I discovered Spain because, as I say in the interview, his was one of the few books I took with me when I went to live in the Sahara desert. When I returned to Europe, it was by ferry from Tangiers, so I landed in – and fell in love with – Spain. (Almost exactly twenty years ago to the day.)

I hope I brought out more than such minor personal and geographical links, though, in my rather digressive responses to Jason’s questions, ranging as they do from German philosophy to the Qur’an, Oscar Wilde to William Shakespeare.

Now I must return to work on the second edition of Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight, to take advantage of a resurgent publicity in its favour, such as in the most popular magazine in bullfighting, 6Toros6 (right), or in my long feature in the most recent issue of the Boisdale Life (see post above.)

Anyway, once again, the interview is here.

Alexander Fiske-Harrison

Seville in September

Alexander Fiske-Harrison in front of the Cathedral of Seville (Photo: Samantha Mullins)

Having spent the early part of the summer writing the second edition of the Wallpaper* City Guide: Madrid for Phaidon Press, I thought it worth reminding people that I did the same for their guidebook to Seville in 2014.

These guidebooks tend towards the modern – unsurprising given that Wallpapermagazine is design led – but I have always found a way to include establishments which aren’t defined by their youth, but by their quality.

Seville – where I have been coming for 20 years – has its finest month in September, especially this year with the 20th Biennial of Flamenco opening on September 7th in la Plaza de Toros de la Real Maestranza, the great bullring – the oldest of its kind in Spain – and running shows throughout the month – some for free – everywhere from the grand Teatro Lope de Vega and the Royal Gardens of the Alcázar Palace to the Church of San Luis de la Franceses to Café Alameda.

AFH and Padilla (Photo: Paloma Gaytán de Ayala y de Queralt)

Then, on the 29th, in that same ring, the most famous bullfighter in Spain, the one-eyed Juan José Padilla, is fighting his last ever bull as a professional. And this is no washed up matador making a last stand, he was ranked number one in Spain when he made the decision to retire last year, and has triumphed across the country on his final tour. (In Pamplona when I saw him he was extraordinary.)

I’ll write more about this further down this post – he is a personal friend and mentor after all – but to make it easier, I’ll say here that, tickets for that Saturday’s corrida are available to purchase and print online from the English-language version of the official site of the bullring by clicking here. (Tip: you want to sit as close to the centre of the ring, i.e. the sand, as possible, and preferably in the sombra, ‘shade’, or sol y sombra, ‘sun’ that becomes shade as the evening progresses.) The other matadors that day and the next are all extraordinarily talented – and ranked in the top ten for what that’s worth.
[Read more…]

Open Letter to the Mayor of Pamplona from the FTL


Below is a link to my translation of Chapu Apaolaza’s excellent open letter to the (current) Mayor of Pamplona about bullfighting. This is written in Chapu’s guise as spokesman for the Fundación del Toro de Lidia, ‘Foundation of the Fighting Bull’, with whom I have also been working. I should add that in his guise as author, he will be signing copies of his seminal book on Pamplona, 7 del Julio, in a new translation by Larry Belcher, who will also be reading from it – as will I and Joe Distler and others – at the iconic Pamplona Café Iruña at midday on July 9th.

Two days before that, Larry, Joe, Dennis Clancey and John Hemingway’s and my new book, The Bulls Of Pamplona, will be being sold and signed in front of Maceliano’s at 1pm (July 7th.)

https://thelastarena.wordpress.com/2018/07/04/an-open-letter-to-the-new-mayor-of-pamplona/