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.)
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?
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…]
The May 13th (2015) edition of ¡Hola! magazine Spanish parent of Hello! magazine (which runs through Latin America as well), opens with a long feature with the headline “Alexander Fiske-Harrison, the English ‘gentleman’ who one day became an expert on bullfighting” (pp.4-12.)
I enclose the text of my and my then girlfriend Sarah Pozner’s interview in the original English below. Interview, introductory preamble and captions are by Mamen Sánchez, director of ¡Hola!
With thanks to the Hotel Alfonso XIII in Seville and my family tailors, Gieves & Hawkes, No.1 Savile Row, for my suit and Ralph Lauren for providing Sarah and I with clothes in the Feria de Abril in Seville this year.
[Post updated August 1st, 2016]
Alexander Fiske-Harrison comes from one of the oldest and most illustrious families in England. The Fiske-Harrisons are the descendants of Margaret Plantagenet, daughter of the Duke of Clarence, brother of Edward IV and Richard III, Kings of England.
Educated at Eton, he holds Masters in Arts and Sciences thanks to his studies in Philosophy and Biology at the Universities of Oxford and London. Son of a prosperous investment banker in ‘The City’, Alexander can presume to be the genuine “gentleman”. Elegant, humanist, lover of nature and man of letters, he is the author of numerous books and essays, a playwright and a regular contributor to newspapers and magazines including The Times, Financial Times and The Spectator.
Following in the footsteps of Ernest Hemingway, there awakened in him an interest in bullfighting which brought him to Spain, first as a researcher and later as an authentic lover of the ‘fiesta de los toros’. From the hand of great Maestros such as Juan José Padilla, Eduardo Dávila Miura and Cayetano Rivera Ordóñez and through his friendship with Adolfo Suárez Illana [son of Spain’s first democratic president, the Duke of Suárez], who first introduced him to the world of bullfighting, Alexander has become a valiant bullfighter. He killed a bull of Saltillo and participated in various festivals, he has run for six years in the bull-runs of Pamplona and has written one of the most referenced books on the world of bullfighting: Into The Arena.
A complete discovery, Alexander, greets us with his fascinating girlfriend, Sarah – Senior Legal Advisor to BUPA Global and captain of the polo team “Legal Beagles” -, in Otley Hall, a historic Tudor Manor in the county of Suffolk. This building, dating from the 16th Century, connects the Fiske-Harrison family and the Kings of England, and a great-granddaughter of Margaret Plantagenet here contracted marriage with the then Lord of the Manor of Otley Hall, John Gosnold.
As I was on holiday in France this piece was filed too late for publication in The Spectator, so I’ve posted it here – AFH
Watching the reburial of King Richard III, this writer was struck by how the unearthing of his bones was being sold to those who would buy it as the unearthing of the ‘truth’ about a much maligned monarch. Conversely, Shakespeare’s play of the same name was being touted as the very zenith of propaganda and the Bard of Avon himself as a sort of Goebbels with the tongue of Goethe; history’s most gifted author prostituting his talents to defame the last and most discrete of its true kings, the Plantagenets, to justify the brash and barbaric usurpers who followed, the Tudors.
I myself, attempting to judge events in the context of the time, take the view that the Duke of Gloucester – the name by which he was most commonly known, having held the title from age 9 – was nothing more than a minor product of those crude times whose only notability lay in providing inspiration for one of our greatest artist’s first decent works and through that stabilising a nation that had suffered two generations of civil war. In death and dramatic ignominy Gloucester achieved more for his country than his rather prosaic savagery did in life.
The first point to be made is that there isn’t a historian worth the name who doesn’t hold Gloucester responsible for the death of his nephews – the 12-year-old King Edward V and his younger brother Richard, 4th Duke of York – the ‘Princes in the Tower’.
On the death of Gloucester’s eldest brother, King Edward IV, Gloucester became Lord Protector and had the princes sent to the Tower of London “for their own safety”. He then announced that young Edward V’s coronation would be delayed, and not long afterwards the children were proclaimed illegitimate due to their father’s alleged bigamy. Two weeks later – 6th July 1483 – Gloucester was crowned King of England and France (and Lord of Ireland.) The princes were neither seen nor heard from again. [Read more…]
The entire bullfighting content of this blog has now moved onto its own blog, which still goes under the old name of The Last Arena and can be found by clicking here…
Further to my post below, I just published this in The Spectator … http://blogs.spectator.co.uk/culturehousedaily/2015/01/blunt-is-right-being-posh-in-the-arts-is-career-suicide/ I wonder whether anyone cared about the background of Welles (family of money), Brando (poverty), Nicholson (poverty) or Ordóñez (family of bullfighters). AFH
I’m moving the bullfighting portion of this blog onto a new site, ‘The Last Arena’, because my work is returning to its pre-Into The Arena diversity, however, until then, it will be a rum mix. Now, Marlon Brando had nothing to do with bullfighting and his only remark on it was to Playboy magazine in an interview with Lawrence Groebel (reprinted in Conversations With Brando):
PLAYBOY: What else offends you?
BRANDO: Bullfighting. I’d like to be the bull but have my brain. First, I’d get the picador. Then I’d chase the matador. No, I’d walk at him until he was shitting in his pants. Then I’d get a horn right up his ass and parade him around the ring. The Spaniards don’t think anything more of picking an animal to pieces than the Tahitians do of cutting up a fish.
That said, he does look remarkably like the matador José Maria Manzanares…
Anyway, when I trained as an actor, it was at the Method acting school The Stella Adler Conservatory in New York, which not only boasted had Marlon Brando as a alumnus, but, while I was there, he was its chairman.
The only word to apply to Brando in terms of his art, which was performance on film, was genius. At the time I was obsessed with acting and so I was fascinated by him. I am not alone in this, amongst actors, no one is rated more highly, as Jack Nicholson -who provides the title quote to this post – put it in an article on his friend and neighbour in Rolling Stone magazine,
So I mean it when I say that if you can’t appreciate Brando, I wouldn’t know how to talk to you. If there’s anything obvious in life, this is it. Other actors don’t go around discussing who is the best actor in the world, because it’s obvious – Marlon Brando is.
As I ease this blog onto another site, ‘The Last Arena‘, so that I have a personal, more general blog here, I saw in the news today that Francis Crawford of Lymond was voted the greatest fictional character in Scottish literature, beating the likes of Sherlock Holmes, Harry Potter and Ivanhoe. I read the ‘Lymond’ books – six novels of historical fiction beginning with The Game Of Kings in 1961 – at the insistence of my brother Byron, who himself had been given them to read by a fellow Army Officer, and continued with them as an undergraduate historian at St. Andrews. I went on to read the eight Niccolò novels which prequelled them for myself. They are astonishing and addictive books without compare in genre or literary fiction. By coincidence, I was writing at the time for the rather serious The Times Literary Supplement – where Virginia Woolf first reviewed James Joyce’s Ulysses and Henry James and T. S. Eliot contributed – when her final novel, Gemini, came out. Her first book had been reviewed in The TLS (or Lit. Supp. as older readers know it), so I reviewed her last, and through it her life’s work. A little while later I received a letter to thank me – which is a rare occurrence in itself (General Lord Richards is the only other example that springs to mind) – but I went on to receive a telephone call, out of the blue, the following August inviting me to dinner at the Caledonian Club in London. We were the sole diners in the room (pictured below), as she liked to dine early, but we stayed late enough drinking her favourite whisky. I had turned 25, the month before, she had turned 78 the week before. It was one of the great encounters of my journalistic career. When I read her obituary less than three months after, I realised that she must have known she was terminally ill when she called me – the young unknown writer destined to be her last reviewer – and gave to me one of the few evenings she had left alive. Below is the review: naïve, portentous, but sincere and of some value. I hope it explains in part why her character has been chosen as the best Scotland has ever produced. Alexander Fiske-Harrison
Dorothy Dunnett is a notable figure in the world of Scottish letters. Seventy-seven this month, she has completed the final novel in her eight volume The House of Niccolo series, the “prequel” to her six-volume The Lymond Chronicles (1961-75). Lady Dunnett has published twenty-three books (including a detective series, a novel about Macbeth and a guide to the Scottish Highlands) as well as serving as a trustee for the National Library of Scotland, on the board of the Edinburgh Book Festival, and as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts; in 1992, she received an OBE for services to literature. According to her own account, she was a professional portrait painter, first exhibiting in the Royal Scottish Academy in 1950, who ran out of novels by her favourite authors – the likes of Alexandre Dumas, Rafael Sabatini and Baroness Orczy. So her husband, the late Sir Alistair Dunnett – knighted for services to journalism and Scottish life in 1995 after sixteen years as Editor of The Scotsman – suggested she wrote her own. Her first book, The Game of Kings, was published in 1961.
The House of Niccolo series begins in 1459, with Niccolo, an eighteen-year-old dye-yard apprentice in Bruges. The period covered by the novel saw the beginning of a north-westerly migration of wealth from the Mediterranean basin, first to Bruges and Antwerp, and after, under the oppression of the Habsburgs, on to Amsterdam and London. An unprecedented explosion of wealth from trade led to a unique, and short-lived, social mobility between the mercantile classes and the landed aristocracy, giving rise to the merchant princes. The Renaissance was gaining momentum, much accelerated by an exodus of scholars to the West, following the fall of Constantinople six years earlier. Seven novels later, we find Niccolo a formidable figure, a master of trade and politics, who – among other adventures – has been present at the fall of Trebizond, visited the great schools of Timbuktu before its destruction in 1468, dabbled in the Cypriot succession and, most recently, fought with Charles the Bold at the Battle of Nancy.
Against this vast historical and geographical backdrop, a fictional family history unfolds. Niccolo was rejected as illegitimate by his mother’s husband, the beautiful and vicious Simon de St Pol, and when he tries to prove his legitimacy, he is met with force, both physical and financial, from Simon and Simon’s father, the formidable Jordan de Riberac. Niccolo works his way up from the lowly position they have forced on him, using a range of talents deriving from his almost superhuman abilities with mathematics, thus fulfilling the ideal of the Renaissance man.
Niccolo is soon in a position to exact revenge on Simon, and it is this which earns him the mistrust of his friends, especially when he attacks his paternal family by bankrupting their country, Scotland. This is symptomatic of his one great flaw; Niccolo lacks malice, but he has no conscience when lost in the workings of his own plans. “I’d begun to notice I’d gone too far . . . it was beautiful. Wheels are beautiful.” Scotland is also the winning stroke in his conflict of eight years with his wife, Gelis. She tries to prove herself his equal but ends by accepting that no one could be. By the beginning of Gemini, they are reunited, and Niccolo returns to Scotland for reparation and to neutralize the threat from his paternal family. An added difficulty is that Simon is blindly bringing up Niccolo’s son, Henry, as his own. The striking physical resemblance between Simon and Niccolo’s son could prove Niccolo’s origins, but he reckons the damage caused by such a revelation would be too great. The author has no such qualms, and in Gemini, Dunnett mercilessly ties up all loose ends. No more can be said without giving away the plot, for this is well and truly the last volume of a series. It can be read on its own, but should be taken as the conclusion of a great work.
Fiction is always constrained by fact, and nowhere more so than historical fiction, where the author must fit the story in the spaces between recorded history. This is why Sir Walter Scott held that historical figures should feature as secondary characters only. Dunnett gets around this difficulty by thorough research. There are something like 600 names in the character list for Gemini, of whom fewer than fifty are not “recorded in history”. This is perhaps too many, and is more than she has previously used.
In two areas, however, Dunnett seems to lose her attachment to a realistic historical narrative. The first is the weight given to astrology (hence the titles of the books) and divining, which increases as time passes. It is hard not to link this with her philosophy of history, which views the course of events as a directed stream, in an almost Hegelian sense, the avatars of which are the great men, fictional and real, who are central to her narrative. Dunnett may hold neither view personally, but both traits in the fiction suggest an underlying mysticism. Fortunately, the reader is not expected to swallow this completely.
Dunnett’s style is not the neutral prose of genre fiction and can be opaque and hard to read, especially in the early works. The rhythm of her writing is often awkward in descriptive passages containing unwieldy lists of information, and this is combined with an archaic manner, something of which historical novelists are often guilty. At times, this works with the melodramatic content to produce a powerful, almost operatic mixture. As Dunnett has progressed, her style has become less mannered, and has developed, exhibiting more modern techniques such as short, tight sentences and the use of repetition. Her strongest writing is in the dialogue (and internal monologues), where she displays her characters’ intelligence while masking their intentions. Her characters’ speech is filled with apt quotation, sometimes a little too much so. One would expect men of learning to know their Greeks, Romans and the Bible; obscure allusions to authors such as William Dunbar, the Pleiade poet de Baif, and the playwright John Heywood are used lightly – often just a phrase – and usually left unidentified and untranslated.
However, it is neither as a literary novelist nor as a historian, but as a writer of historical fiction that Dorothy Dunnett deserves recognition. She has taken two men, Lymond and Niccolo, who, like all heroes of romantic fiction, are described almost exclusively in superlatives, and thought about how such “megalopsychic” creatures would affect and be affected by those around them.
This psychological realism within the fantasy is matched by the convolutions of plot. A mere fifty pages before the end of Gemini, we discover that one of Niccolo’s oldest friends, familiar to the reader over 4,000 pages and twenty-five years, is one of his most implacable enemies. We then discover that Niccolo has always known this, and resisted taking action for reasons of consanguinity. The revelation is rendered credible by a lightly drawn but consistent trail of evidence and by the technique of never revealing a character’s whole thoughts, even when the narrative perspective is within the character’s mind. The author’s patience and complexity run through both series of novels, which are themselves linked, a fact made obvious by the first physical description of Simon. The publication of Gemini completes an ambitious literary circle.
P.S. When I say the writing of Dorothy Dunnett is an inspiration to me – as much as Dostoevsky or Hemingway, Wittgenstein or Camus – I mean it. Take for example this passage from my book on bullfighting Into The Arena, where I muse on the different types of courage whilst visiting the British Army on Salisbury Plain before taking a plane to run the bulls of Pamplona.
…[whereas the matador] must not only stand fast and use his training with the bull, but he must dance with it, linking a series of passes with the cape into a deliberately chosen faena, which contains within its graces and exquisite and esoteric death.
Which owes a rather obvious debt to the passage in The Game of Kings when Francis Crawford of Lymond enters into trial by combat with his own brother.
…[both siblings] were natural swordsmen. The slipping and tapping of the fine blades, the unfurling movements growing smokelike one within the other, showed no traces of the grim and gritty striving of a moment before. It was classic swordplay, precious as a jewel, beyond any sort of price to the men watching, and concealing within its graces an exquisite and esoteric death.