Back to the bulls – from St-Jean-de-Luz to Pamplona

Hôtel La Réserve, Saint-Jean-de-Luz, France (Photo: Alexander Fiske-Harrison)

Hôtel La Réserve, Saint-Jean-de-Luz, France (Photo: Alexander Fiske-Harrison)

St-Jean-de-Luz has provided the most amazing break away from Pamplona for my fiancée and I, but now I must return to Pamplona. Our hotel, Résidence La Réserve, in the hills just outside has been perfect as an escape, the heat of the sun nicely cut through with the cool winds from the Atlantic, the waves crashing on the rocks far below as background music to the idyll. (The surfing up the road in Biarritz was excellent as well.) And lunch in the Michelin-starred Zoko Moko in town was definitely our meal of the year (and their €26 lunch deal was not the usual off-cuts from the chef’s main table, as the man himself came out and explained.) More than worth a visit. And a revisit.

However, now I am off back to the bulls and the feria de San Fermín, with an interview already booked in post-encierro,’bull-run’, tomorrow for Esquire TV at 8.10a.m. Madrid-time. See you then. Meanwhile, you can read my musings on all matters taurine at The Last Arena, and on Pamplona in particular at The Pamplona Post. And if you are headed there, remember that the only official guide to the running of the bulls in the English language is Fiesta: How To Survive The Bulls Of Pamplona.

Alexander Fiske-Harrison

Meanwhile outside Pamplona…

Hotel La Réserve in Saint-Jean-de-Luz, France (Photo: Alexander Fiske-Harrison)

Hotel La Réserve in Saint-Jean-de-Luz, France (Photo: Alexander Fiske-Harrison)

I am currently taking a break from the madness of the Feria de San Fermín in Pamplona with my fiancée for a long weekend in St-Jean-de-Luz. The views are very different here as you can see from my ‘desk shot’ above. Anyway, I see my latest contribution to Taki’s Magazine has come out today so here it is. A controversial stance on gun control, and a reversal of my previous position. When I’m wrong, I publish the fact… However, Pamplona carries on in my absence and updates will continue at The Pamplona Post. A lovely photo one of Ernest Hemingway’s great-grandchildren talking with me by another reminds me I head back to the beauty and the madness on Sunday evening!

John Hemingway, author and grandson of Ernest, in conversation with Alexander Fiske-Harrison, British author and bullfighter, at Bar Windsor, Pamplona, July 7th 2015, photographed by Cristen Hemingway Jaynes, another of the Nobel Prize-winners grandchildren

John Hemingway, author and grandson of Ernest, in conversation with Alexander Fiske-Harrison, British author and bullfighter, at Bar Windsor, Pamplona, July 7th 2015, photographed by Cristen Hemingway Jaynes, one of the Nobel Prize-winners great-grandchildren

Alexander Fiske-Harrison

James Rhodes and Arnold House School: A question of journalistic ethics

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.)

Xander

Arnold House School Photo 1982

Arnold House School Photo 1982 – as blurred as the author’of this post’s memories of the time

James Rhodes and Arnold House School

‘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.

Detail of 1982 photo - author bottom left

Detail of 1982 photo – author of this post bottom left

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…]

King Richard III: A savage blank canvas…

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

King Richard III, Duke of Gloucester, in portrait and remains...

King Richard III, Duke of Gloucester, in portrait and remains…

The only remarkable thing about Richard III is how unremarkable he was…

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.

Frontispage from the First Quarto

Frontispage from the First Quarto

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 Last Arena has moved…

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

P.S. Blunt, Bryant and Brando

Further to my post below, I just published this in The Spectatorhttp://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

Marlon Brando: “When he’s gone, the rest move up a notch.”

Brando

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…

Manzanares

Xander acting

Alexander Fiske-Harrison, left, acting in ‘The Pendulum’ in London’s West End in 2008

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.

[Read more…]

My Times Literary Supplement review of Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond

tls_logo 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. Game of KingsI 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. GeminiI 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. the_caledonian_club01 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

The Times Literary Supplement

August 11, 2000

Connected by blood

Alexander Fiske-Harrison

GEMINI. By Dorothy Dunnett. 728pp. Michael Joseph. Pounds 18.99. TLS Pounds 15.99. 0 718 14083 4
Lady Dorothy Dunnett, O.B.E., in a publicity photograph taken by her daughter-in-law

Lady Dorothy Dunnett, O.B.E., in a publicity photograph taken by her daughter-in-law

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.

Alexander Fiske-Harrison

The Author

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