In Memoriam: Antonia Raissi, née Francis, 4 February 1976 – 14 September 2015

Antonia Programme I

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.

RedIn 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.

Antonia's 19th Birthday Party, L-R, George Pendle, Dave ? & gf, Steven France, Hugh Dancy, Dr. Genevieve Connors, ?, John Mühlemann, ?, David Collard, David Budds, Biranda Ford, Lucy, Antonia, Caroline Early, Cat Bagshawe, Joshua Steckel (Photo by Alexander Fiske-Harrison)

Antonia’s 19th Birthday Party, Gloucester Green pizza restaurant, clockwise from bottom left: George Pendle, Dave – & ?, Steven France, Hugh Dancy, Genevieve Connors, ?, John Mühlemann, ?, David Collard, David Budds, Biranda Ford, Lucy -, Antonia Francis, Caroline Early, Catherine Bagshaw, Joshua Steckel (Photo by Alexander Fiske-Harrison)

Detail from above (Photo: Alexander Fiske-Harrison)

Detail from above (Photo: Alexander Fiske-Harrison)

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…]

By The Sword: My Latest Column for Taki’s Magazine


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.

Alexander Fiske-Harrison

From Spain, the Centre of the World, to Africa, the Heart of Darkness

Estoy en mi chaqueta de rayas en la plaza de toros de Pamplona, 13 de julio de 2015. A mi derecha es Lore Monig, Presidenta del New York City Club Taurino, a mi derecha, el chef celebridad y torero práctico de México, Carlos Manríquez (Foto : Jim Hollander)

In my striped jacket in the plaza de toros of Pamplona, 13 of July 2015. To my right, Lore Monig, President of the New York City Club Taurino, to my left, the celebrity chef and amateur bullfighter from Mexico, Carlos Manríquez, beyond him Peter Remington, publisher of Modern Luxury Houston magazine and his brother (Photo: Jim Hollander)


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.


Following the pride in Hwange National Park (Photo: Alexander Fiske-Harrison)

Following the pride in the Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe in 1996 (Photo: Alexander Fiske-Harrison)


Sub-adult lion, Hwange National Park

Sub-adult lion, Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe in 1996 (Photo: Alexander Fiske-Harrison)


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?


The author and his first cat

Alexander Fiske-Harrison and Shantallah Millionaire, a name rather more fitting to the beast than Cecil (Photo: Barbara Gail Horne)


Alexander Fiske-Harrison


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.)


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 Spectator 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.”


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…


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…]


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