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


Talking with apes

Panbanisha, a bonobo, with her eldest son Nyota.

Panbanisha, a bonobo, with her eldest son Nyota (Photo: Alexander Fiske-Harrison)

After I finished my Master of Science at the University of London, on the cusp of beginning a PhD which was not to be (yet), I flew to Atlanta to the Language Research Centre of Georgia State University to meet with the bonobo – or pygmy chimpanzee – Kanzi and the biologist and psychologist Professor Sue Savage-Rumbaugh. Below is the piece I wrote on this which took the cover essay slot of the Financial Times Weekend in the winter of 2001. [Read more…]


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,643 other followers