… has a new blog. http://www.thelandofwolves.com I intend to find out, and write about, everything you ever wanted to know about wolves and dogs and humans. Let’s see how far I get.
… has a new blog. http://www.thelandofwolves.com I intend to find out, and write about, everything you ever wanted to know about wolves and dogs and humans. Let’s see how far I get.
Note: For details on the classes, go to our website http://www.theactofwriting.co.uk
I’ve been meaning to write a post on author Thomas W. Hodgkinson’s mooting of the “new literary movement” (ahem) of ‘method writing’ since he first spoke about it on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme a week or so ago. (You can listen to it excerpted on the BBC here.)
However, ironically, I was too busy practising what he was preaching, as I was living in the Montparnasse apartment of one of the real-life protagonists of a short historical fiction I was writing to enter in the Prix d’Hemingway in France.
So it wasn’t until I returned to London late last night that I discovered he had launched the intended project in this morning’s The Independent (online here.)
Thomas tells an abridged version of the story of why I am one of his three “method authors” in the piece.
Alexander Fiske-Harrison… trained as a matador in Spain as research for his book about bullfighting, Into the Arena. He is also an actor who, like Dustin Hoffman, has honed his technique at the Actors Studio. So for him, nothing was more natural, when he sat down to write, than to don the same black “country suit” and short jacket he’d worn in the arena. Between bursts of typing, he would move about the room, performing what is known as toreo de salon.
From my bullfighting blog ‘The Last Arena’.
It seems it is my season for tributes to dead friends: I lost a near-sister on September 14th, and a true friend one month later on October 14th. Noel Chandler, though, was a few weeks shy of his 80th birthday, where Antonia Francis died just before her 40th. There is quite a difference.
The Spanish newspapers have been suitably effusive – for example his Pamplona local Diario de Navarra headlined with ‘Welshman Noel Chandler dies, illustrious visitor to the feria of San Fermín’. However, they all seem to have propagated certain errors, starting with his age. Noel died at 79 not 76.
For that reason among others I am pleased not only to include my own memories of Noel, interspersed with a little journalistic research (about, for example, his service in the army), but also an interview he did with the secretary of the Club Taurino of London, David Penton, for their magazine La Divisa in 2013 which I suggested someone should do before it was all forgotten. However, nothing will ever capture the man in full. As even David noted when he forwarded the piece:
I promised to send you… the Lunch with Noel article which you prompted me to do. I hope you think it does him justice. Sadly he asked me to take a number of things out – mostly related to his generosity.
I’ll raise a glass to that.
After the corrida on the final day of my first feria de San Fermín – July 14th, 2009 – a few hours before pobre de mí– when I was… (ahem)… tired and emotional having run with bulls that morning and drunk whatever was handed to me during the day until I had seen them killed very badly that evening, I bumped into a pretty young woman called Ivy Mix – a good name for such a famous bartender – who led me to a bar called Al Capone where in the doorway was standing Noel Chandler.
I had heard of Noel, of course, but in my research for my book Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight I had courteously avoided British and American aficionados as I did not want to inherit non-native prejudices or to see Spain second-hand. (The only reason I had gone to Pamplona was because my first teacher of toreo, Juan José Padilla said he would run with me and his bulls.)
Miss Mix introduced me to Noel saying I was writing a book on the world of the bulls. Noel looked into my eyes – which were a little blurry on the third day of my first Pamplona fiesta – through his own – which were… well, he was ten days into his forty-eighth fiesta – and said:
“What the fuck do you know about bulls?”
To read on, click the logo below…
I have come to hold the belief that one of the most powerful and definitively human compulsions is that of being remembered: that when the physical reality of self has perished, that echo of appearance, the memory of self in other minds, should be confirmed in defiance of death. Hence the funeral, the oration, the headstone, the monument, the memorial service, the obituary and this, the personal memoire. That, and an expiation.
So I am not writing claiming I knew Antonia better than others – her mother and stepfather, her husband and her sons, her other family and many of her other friends had that privilege – but we had our moments over twenty or so years. I want to write down those I remember, and those I can repeat, before my recollections of them change and mutate any more than they already have. To ‘re-member’ to, as the word suggests, is to piece back together the members, the parts, of a dismembered whole. At best this is a jerry-rigged fiction that just about passes muster and at worst an outright lie, fuelled by want, and perspective, and sorrow.
* * *
It was in her room in the top floor of Matthews Building I first met her, second on the right. A single bed, a desk, armchair and a basin in cupboard, divided by no more space than you could lie down in, loo and shower down the corridor. St. Peter’s College, Oxford, wasn’t exactly as glamorous as Brideshead Revisited, but Antonia was. Tall, lithe, exquisite faced which she fought against – admiring the strong more than the pretty – speaking with clipped St. Mary’s (Calne) tones and Eton-cropped black hair, which I would later cut to make her look more like Irène Jacob in Kieslowski’s Trois Couleurs : Rouge the film we all fell in love with that year. Just as we all fell in love with her.
In that tiny room we were all packed, a group, almost exclusively male at its core, and regarded as deeply, almost hilariously pretentious even by the standards of Oxford undergraduates. However, looking back one can see it was just curiosity and fascination and youthful gaucheness.
There was Hugh Dancy, George Pendle and Paul Curran, all studying English under Dr Francis Warner, Dominic Elliot studying Archaeology and Anthropology, and Steven France studying Philosophy under Dr John Kenyon. Antonia would within her first year abandon Geography for English, and I would only make it to the end of my second before switching from Biology to Philosophy under Kenyon.
One of her first stories to me, a story which would have perhaps annoyed the more sophisticated and subtle person she became, was of her summer holiday, just prior to coming up to Oxford, in Kenya. I remember still the image she conjured so well of her sitting, dressed in white, smoking Cartier cigarettes, the only non-male, and indeed only non-Masai sitting around a camp fire in The Mara. She would have been eighteen years old.
I wonder if she viewed us like Masai too. She certainly preferred the company of us men, and although she was not a tomboy in the sense of climbing trees, her way of speaking was… well, like anti-aircraft fire – not always deadly accurate, but incessant and intimidating to fly amongst, the dark crumping bursts of her conversational shells peppering the night sky. And it was usually night sky – we sat up late into the night talking and talking, me smoking Marlboro, her Lights, me Coke, her Diet. She wasn’t much of a drinker, disliking the silliness, the loss of control, or so she claimed. When I did see her tipsy for the first time I was surprised at how girly she became. I think that was what she feared most.
It was inevitable that I would fall head over heels for her – I mean I was only a few months out of an all boys boarding school, grew up without sisters and had never had a girlfriend. And here was this stunning and exotic creature, fitting no standard feminine norm that I knew of – never a skirt or dress, but black boots and jeans on those very long legs, and almost invariably a black polo neck, channelling Juliette Greco with a hint of Audrey Hepburn. Of course, now in retrospect I can see that Antonia wasn’t oblivious to the effect she had on us boys – and we were just boys – wrangling us to some extent with those quirks honed to charms, equalising the gender imbalance using that weapon among all the others at her disposal. [Read more…]
My latest contribution to my column, ‘By The Sword’, for Taki’s Magazine is out now. It concerns the current refugee crisis in Europe, but goes as far back as the Viking invasions of Britain, with reference to the epic Old English poem the Battle of Maldon, and beyond that to the Christianisation, decline and fall of the Roman Empire. It is also a paean to realpolitik and how to actually save lives, rather than make public displays of one own virtuous emotions while decrying the viciousness of others. To promote feeling above thought and then parade it in public is infantile narcissism, pure and simple.
My article on the extraordinary fatality rate in the encierros, ‘bull-runs’, and other ‘popular’ taurine events this year, and why we continue to participate in them, is in The Telegraph today (to read on click here.)
I was originally asked to write this piece by The Spectator, but apparently I was a bit too late filing my copy – zoology professors and professional hunters are hard to round up at short notice – so here it is, unexpurgated and unimproved.
I never cease to be surprised either by the posturing courage or the sheer inhumanity of the expressions of ‘moral’ outrage on social media, but this recent furore over the death of the ageing Zimbabwean lion everyone knows as Cecil really has been quite special.
The complicity of the press is particularly grotesque. CNN went as far as to run a photo of the big cat with the caption, “Cecil the lion probably never knew how beloved he was,” surely winning some sort of prize for most redundant use of the modifier ‘probably’ in journalism.
He also certainly didn’t know he was called Cecil, a hilarious piece of nominal colonialism by British conservationists working in the country bloodily carved out of the Dark Continent by Cecil Rhodes and for almost a century called Southern Rhodesia in his questionable honour. (Rhodes is a distant relation of mine.)
I myself fell under the aesthetic spell of lions aged nine –thirty years ago – in London and Colchester Zoos, joined and raised funds for the WWF from that point on, went up to Oxford to study Zoology under renowned Africa ecologist Dr. Malcolm Coe, and myself visited the Hwange Reserve almost twenty years ago where I followed the pride made up of the grandparents, and probably parents, of that lion, whom I photographed at the time.
Having come out of the delights and dangers of Pamplona’s feria de San Fermín running with bulls – already described in the abstract on ‘The Pamplona Post‘, also detailed with a more purist slant on the blog, ‘The Last Arena‘ – I was particularly pleased to see my more cerebral, less visceral side represented in my review of Dr Robert Goodwin’s magnum opus, Spain: The Centre Of The World, 1519-1682 (Bloomsbury Press) in The Spectator. In summary, my view of the book is:
What distinguishes Goodwin from other historians of the period is the sheer multiplicity of his perspectives. He is erudite and concise in covering familiar ground, while full of original insight when it comes to the motives and actions of the key players…
…it is [his] passion that removes Goodwin’s learned book from the shelves of academia, giving it breadth and breath. The most notable effect on this reader was an urge to return to Spain, especially to Goodwin’s beloved Seville, that ‘deeply religious and very beautiful provincial backwater’, with ‘its quiet lanes and courtyards’, its ‘grand monuments’ and its ‘ghosts’. After all, it is not enough to bring truth to history. One must also bring life — and this book has it in golden abundance.
(The review is available in full online here.)
Now I must turn myself to the contentious issue of Big Game hunting for the same magazine in the light of the death of the aged male lion some Oxford biologists rather tastelessly and unprofessionally anthropomorphised with the name Cecil. (Cecil Rhodes was the colonial overlord of Zimbabwe, hence its colonial name of Rhodesia.)
This is an event my own former zoology tutor at Oxford – who has worked hand-in-glove with both the Kenyan and Tanzanian governments on conservation over the decades – referred to in his email as “murder”. He also ended the email, “suffice it to say that I am on the side of the large mammals of Africa excluding the destructive Homo sapiens.”
I do find his response a little ironic, as I remember in my interview with him in ’93 he asked me which of the Pleistocene megafauna had most caught my interest. (It was my time in the Kruger Park in South Africa that inspired me to go and study under him.) I answered unequivocally “lion”, to which his response was how boring they were to study as they spend most of their time asleep. Later I would end up in the Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe, from where Cecil came, following what would have been his grandparents and great uncles and aunts.
Anyway, given that I can count among my friends both professional hunters and conservation biologists, and have myself no immensely strong views about the death of animals lower on the cognitive ‘chain of being’ than elephants – a notion of moral status outlined for Prospect magazine, and derivative from my time with Great Apes described in the Financial Times – I hope I’m in a good position to write the piece in a way that lives up to my description in today’s Daily Telegraph magazine: “he is a stone-cold pragmatist with a poet’s soul.”
However, as a child, my best friend was this cat, so in the end, I’ll be on the side of the predators. The question is: which ones?
Fiesta: How To Survive The Bulls Of Pamplona 2015 is the only official guide in the English language (see the Mayor’s foreword in post below.) The 1/3 price offer on this eBook guide to running the bulls expires in less than 48 hours, on Monday morning. After the first encierro, ‘bull-run’ on Tuesday it goes up a further 50%, back to its original price. Immediately below is my Preface to this new 2015 edition.
For Amazon (US), $4.99, click here. For Amazon UK, £3, click here. For Amazon Australia – $6.50 – click here. For Amazon Canada – $6 – click here. And similarly for Spain, France, Germany, Netherlands, Mexico, Brazil, Italy, China, Japan, India…
The great Fiesta of last year, the feria de San Fermín of 2014 was an astonishing thing, but when is it not? However, as a direct result of it, there was a not a corner of the Earth, nor a language spoken by man, where this eBook was not talked about. It started quietly: I wrote an article for Newsweek in early July giving an update on the world of bullfighting and Pamplona’s place in it, ending with a mention of the book. Our photographer, Jim Hollander, had some of his photos from the book up on CNN and John Hemingway did a piece for them as well. Maybe we took it too far, maybe there was an element of hubris when I said to the ‘Diary’ section of London’s main newspaper, the Evening Standard, that we were taking bets on which of the authors might get gored.
Alexander Fiske-Harrison’s feeling bullish about some bloody memoirs Someone hide the red flags. The author and “bullfighter-philosopher” Alexander Fiske-Harrison has teamed up with John Hemingway — grandson of the novelist and bloodsports 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 – as well as instructions how to run from the best Spanish and American bull-runners. “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.”
Well, the rest is history: one of our main co-authors Bill Hillmann had a horn punched straight through his leg by an angry half ton bull and it missed his femoral artery by an inch. This then went around the world as the ironic story of the year. To read on click here.
Since the rest of the journalistic world has not said a balanced word on this, I thought I would before I set off for Pamplona and my annual “running of the bulls” (henceforth you’ll find me over at The Pamplona Post.)
‘Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were,” said Marcel Proust in 1913. “Many people believe that memory works like a recording device, but decades of research has shown that’s not the case. Memory is constructed and reconstructed. It’s more like a Wikipedia page — you can go change it, but so can other people,” said Professor Elizabeth Loftus of UCI in 2013, with notably less elegance but quite a lot more research.
These statements ring particularly true to me since one of my earliest memories is of having another, even older, memory proved false by my brother Jules. The memory he challenged was that I had been able to fly but had subsequently lost the ability. He managed to convince me that what I had actually done was miscategorise the memory of a dream of flying as a memory of the reality of doing it. The very verb itself, ‘to re-member’, to put back together, is the strongest clue of all to its fallibility.
We live, at this moment in time, in the midst of a deluge of dark memories erupting on to the pages of our newspapers, with accusations of sexual abuse coming thick and fast against public figures, and inevitably, some of them are true and some of them are false, and the ratio of true to false is perhaps the greatest battle ground of all.
This, of course, is a cyclical thing. The last time the wheel turned to this point, the scandal was concerning ‘repressed’ memories, a witch-hunt which surpassed Salem with claims of satanic abuse circles in the 1980s. I was a philosophy of science postgraduate when that one finally died the death and remember studying that piece of pseudoscience being brilliantly taken apart by Professor Richard McNally of Harvard in his seminal 2003 book Remembering Trauma. As he pointed out, how many Auschwitz survivors forgot about the Holocaust, even when it wasn’t being discussed (as it wasn’t, for some time after)? And with that rather obvious realisation the whole structural underpinning of things like Dissociative Identity Disorder (commonly called Multiple Personality Disorder) comes into question.
My own childhood was thankfully free from such darknesses, or so my memory had me believe. Until, that is, I came across an article in The Times in May with the headline ‘James Rhodes thanks Cumberbatch and Fry for support over abuse memoir’. Something stirred in my recollective recesses at that, and so I read on.
Apparently Rhodes, something of a Nigel Kennedy-figure in the world of classical piano, had just won a court case against his ex-wife, and was as a result free to publish his memoirs containing detailed memories of his serious sexual abuse as a child. There was something terribly familiar about the name, although I didn’t know him as a pianist.
Then I read that the “memoirs detail how Peter Lee, his boxing coach at Arnold House preparatory school in north London, began raping him when he was six.”
And it suddenly came to me: I knew James Rhodes because I was at Arnold House school with him in those boxing classes with Peter Lee. The of us are in the photo above taken in the summer of 1982 when I was almost six and he had just turned seven. In the detail below you can see us both, while standing in line above me is my brother Jules and somewhere in the photo is Rhodes’s own older brother Matthew.
I first met Peter Lee at about that time and trained with him consistently for years, as the medals in the other photo attest, and my memories of him are jarringly different to those of Rhodes. My brother Jules was one of his pupils, but he is now sadly dead so I could not ask him, but our oldest brother Byron had been one of Lee’s star boxers in the 1970s. So I asked him what he thought about these ‘revelations’, and his reply was frankly, unprintable. Let’s just say that his memories of “Mr Lee” are more like mine. As are our parents, who employed the man on an out of school basis for a decade and a half.
However, as I’ve noted, memory is a false friend and the darkness and inscrutability of the human soul is something of which I am all too aware. Is it possible he was a predatory paedophile, I asked myself, and the answer came back: yes, humans are animal, and in some the bestial comes out only intermittently, only when the environment allows it. So then I asked myself about that environment: how, logistically, could this have happened?
By which I mean, how could someone rape a six year old child and get away with it? After all, Arnold House was and is a preparatory day school, not a care home, nor some great sprawling country boarding school where boys seldom see their parents and there are plenty of dark corners for dark things to occur in. Arnold House is made up of three small buildings on just over half acre of north-west London, containing fourteen classrooms in constant use, a gym, a dining room and a small, tarmac playground. In that tiny space dwell two hundred pupils under the scrutiny of twenty teachers, not including catering, cleaning, maintenance and secretarial staff. It was a hothouse, in both the disciplinary and academic senses, being a feeder school for Westminster.
I can best illustrate how ‘clean’ that atmosphere was with an anecdote: I was a rebel as a child, constantly in trouble, but when I arrived at Eton aged thirteen, I had never smoked a cigarette. So when, in my first week, a friend from the 70-acre boarding school Summer Fields took me for my first cigarette somewhere in Eton’s 400 acre grounds, I was taken aback at the sheer quantity of ungoverned space available for misbehaviour. (I went on to hold the record for misbehaviour at that school.)
What was more, this was, as mentioned, a day school, and the Rhodes family lived on the same street as the school, about 50 doors, or 500 yards, further down. He was dropped at the school in the morning, and collected in the afternoon by his mother. To put it bluntly, brutally even, how did no one notice the injuries caused by an adult male raping a three foot tall, forty pound child? Was he allowed to bathe entirely autonomously aged six? I am not denying it happened, certainly not – I was there and I don’t know – but how did it happen? [Read more…]