My column in The Telegraph: Pamplona’s spectacular bull-runs are too often misunderstood

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Pamplona’s spectacular bull-runs are too often misunderstood


“I’d much rather be a Spanish fighting bull than a farm cow”

I left the site of my last Andalusian postcard with a heavy heart and burning ears: apparently some locals had taken offence to the “elitist” connotations of my comparison of their town to Notting Hill. People take things the wrong way with a vengeance nowadays: as with Montparnasse in Paris, the artists that first made Notting Hill famous were followed by richer creative-types and the resulting economic gear-change had both upsides and downsides.

Notably, though, these complaints were British ex-pats. The Spanish were delighted, with the Mayor of the town, a socialist, writing to say how much he looked forward to hosting Telegraph readers.

After Gaucín, for the first time in a decade I did not know where to go in Spain mid-July. Normally, I would head north to Pamplona for the Feria of San Fermín, known here simply as Fiesta.

Some people think running with bulls, a pastime for which that city is most famous, is dangerous and anachronistic, and the end place of that run, the bull-ring, is a place of torture and death. And indeed, all Spain’s bull rings are registered abattoirs – they have to be, because the carcass of every bull ends up in the food chain. The only difference, in terms of the bull’s welfare, is the manner and duration of their life and the manner and duration of their death, but perhaps not in the way readers think.

A Torrestrella bull is caped by the late matador Ivan Fandiño in Pamplona on July 11th, 2013. This photo also appears, among many others by the same award-winning photographer, in The Bulls Of Pamplona. Jim Hollander has run bulls and photographed them for over fifty years, between other assignments for Reuters and EPA around the world. (Photo © Jim Hollander / EPA)

A fighting bull presented for a corrida de toros, which the English horribly mistranslate as a ‘bullfight’ – erroneously co-opting our own old word for bull-baiting with dogs – must be between four and six years of age as opposed to the average age for a meat animal’s execution which is 18 months.

The quality of that more than triple lifespan is also wildly different, quite literally: in order to build the instinct and muscle which is required in the ring, they are reared wild, in the meadows and forests of over 1,300 fighting bull ranches, which comprise one fifth of Spain’s natural landscape.

I’ve visited two dozen of the largest and oldest of them, and having grown up among cattle in East Anglia – before training in zoology as an undergraduate – I can say without hesitation that the environmental difference in biodiversity is striking. And it is paid for by the tenfold premium on the meat the animals provide, supplied directly by the box-office of the plaza de toros.

As great is the difference in type and behaviour of these feral Iberian bovines compared to the black and white boxes of meat-and-milk on legs we rear and kill for our entertainment in Britain. And there is no denying what we outside the world of bullfighting do is for entertainment – meat is medically unnecessary and is consumed for flavour alone. Three and a half million of them die annually to entertain our palates, whether or not we want to admit it, and whether or not we have the honesty to watch it.

Alexander with his hand on the bull at a Pamplona festival CREDIT: JOSEBA ETXABURU/REUTERS

It is, I decided after two years researching for my book Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight, a rather subjective matter – as all ethical and political matters become when thought about deeply enough – whether or not queuing in the abattoir for hours for the humanity of the ‘humane’ killer is a better death than charging into the unknown world of the ring, horns raised and hide prickling to the challenge, only to die, inevitably, on the steel of a Spanish matador, who plays the role of priest in this strange sacrificial rite.

I know what I would chose for myself after studying both – Give me a shot: at my killer that he might join the ranks of the half thousand bullfighters who have died on the sand, and at winning over the audience that they might petition the president of the ring to allow me to join far higher number of bulls pardoned to become breeding animals for the rest of their natural days.

As entertainment, the Coliseum is only barbaric when compared to Butlins, not when compared to the death camps for cattle which supply everywhere from McDonalds to The Ivy.

Of course, these are the negative arguments, the positive ones can only come to an English-speaker later, after one has seen and studied what manner of performance this is.

Once one has realised that this is a ritual sacrifice of no greater, nor lesser, moral importance than the slaughterhouse, one asks: what good can come out of it? What is this intricate moving sculpture of man and beast conforming to a centuries old dance-book of ‘passes’ in which the human seeks to impose elegance upon ferocity, and risks his body to do so. Every matador is gored on average once a year, and only modern medicine has reduced the mortality rate that results, although I have written two obituaries for matadors I knew in the past four years.

The corrida is a drama, which ends with a dead animal whose meat has been pre-sold, but during which it moves the soul of thousands with its elegance in the face of ferocity and its dignity and its honesty about the death that confronts all of us, man and animal alike.

Of course, each person takes their own stance on the matter, and many of my friends from the north of Spain who believe only in the encierro, the ‘bull-run’, in matching their foot to hoof among their comrades and joining the pagan wild hunt pell-mell down the streets dislike the stratified and gold-laced Catholic ceremony of the corrida. (For a fuller explanation of bullfighting, read my essay online here.)

A Jandilla bull enters the ring in Pamplona on July 10th, 2009. This photo also appears on the cover, among many others by the same award-winning photographer, of The Bulls Of Pamplona. Jim Hollander has run bulls and photographed them for over fifty years, between other assignments for Reuters and EPA around the world. (Photo © Jim Hollander / EPA)

While in the south they feel the same about such anarchy without artistry taking place en mass in the street. I happen to enjoy the two, both as spectator and practitioner. I even wrote a second book, The Bulls Of Pamplona, with a foreword by the mayor of that city, and chapters by other aficionados like John Hemingway, grandson of Ernest, Beatrice Welles, daughter of Orson.

However, there is more to Pamplona, the capital city of Spanish Navarre, than los toros. Its original fame and wealth came from its position on Europe’s most important surviving pilgrimage, El Camino de Santiago, ‘The Way Of Saint James’.

I walked it in the cold of January this year – before a virus made being a hermit rather than a pilgrim the only true virtue – from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in the French Pyrénées and crossing the Roncevaux pass where Roland was slain rear-guarding Charlemagne’s retreating army, as recorded in the oldest work of French literature, The Song of Roland. The views along the walk are extraordinary at any time of year, and the welcome in Pamplona just as grand.

The great pearl of the city – literally, Gran Hotel La Perla – is Hemingway’s old hotel redressed in five-star clothing on the grand Plaza del Castillo, at the other end of which is the Hotel Europa, which has a Michelin-starred restaurant. (For a more reasonably priced and modern hotel, there is La Maisonnave on Calle Nueva, ‘New Street’, nearby.)

For tapas, calle San Nicolás is well worth a walk along, my favourite being La Mandarra de la Ramos, and the famous Café Iruña on the grand Plaza del Castillo, along with the Anglo-Bullrunners’ Bar Txoko at the other end of the same plaza .

For the best burgers in Spain – perhaps in Europe – head towards the Burger King on calle Mercaderes and take a sharp left just before you reach it into Iruñazarra and eat a bovine that still tastes like the animal from which it came on the bull-run itself. For more formal fare, El Búho, ‘The Owl’, has the best views over the plains from this medieval walled city-upon-a-hill, while the traditional choices of the Otano and the Olaverri (again, meat like meat should be), still remain when so many others have tragically closed their doors and extinguished their fires.

And with this final postcard, I leave Spain back to return to England and see how my homeland has fared in these troubled times.

As the bull-runners’ poem has it:


Farewell to fiesta, farewell to the sun,

The candles are burned down and the bulls are all done.


Though the shrine’s empty and the altars are bare,

We know the way back now and will return there.


As we grow older and some of us fall,

We’ll still lift our glasses and toast to us all.


For fiesta is in us, and those who we love,

Those still among us, and those up above.


(P.S. Composed on an aeroplane I nearly missed after a night in Madrid with the great Welsh aficionado Noel Chandler, in whose honour it now stands epitaph. As it does our friends Keith ‘Bomber’ Baumchen, and the legendary bull-runner Julen Madina, as well as the matadors Victor Barrío and Ivan Fandiño. And it must also stand for the young man who brought Spain, and so much else, into my house and my childhood, my brother Jules William Fiske Harrison. As a better poet than I wrote, and our mother had inscribed upon his stone, “Death has made; His darkness beautiful with thee.“)

(P.P.S. As the links show, I have written an obituary for each and every one in different forms and places. And the better poet is Tennyson.)


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