THE LAST ARENA: The Great Bulls Of Pamplona




I am completing the conversion of my taurine blog ‘The Last Arena: In Search Of The Spanish Bullfight‘ into the reference site in the English language that it by now should already be.

My latest addition is this new post on the great breeds and bloodlines of fighting bull, in part at the behest of Pamplona’s largest tour operator, Running Of The Bulls, Inc., but also with a nod to the Fundación del Toro de Lidia, ‘Foundation of the Fighting Bull’, the Spanish industry body with whom I am working.

It is also nice to see the ancient University of Valladolid are referencing the book that that blog grew into, Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight, as one of three works on the subject written in English in the past three centuries that have become works of reference.

University of Valladolid (founded 1241 A.D.)

Faculty of Translation and Interpretation

Masters in Professional and Institutional Translation

Masters Final Thesis

The culture of Bullfighting in the European and American English-speaking world through the authors Richard Ford (1796–1858), Ernest Hemingway (1899–1961) and Alexander Fiske-Harrison (1976-)

Presented by José Manuel Toquero Martín

 (Click here to download the full thesis.)

Alexander Fiske-Harrison

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Unpopular Truths: Bullfighting & Sufism, Beauty & Wisdom


 

AFH with Juan José Padilla at his home in 2012 the day before his return to the ring. (Photo: Zed Nelson for GQ magazine)

I recently did an interview with fellow author – a specialist on Spanish and Moorish History and Art – Jason Webster for the Idries Shah Foundation (online here) on my interest in Sufism and my history in el mundo de los toros, ‘the world of the bulls’ in Spain.

Sufism is perhaps best described as a mystical form of Islam more closely related in its theology and philosophy to Buddhism than the other interpretations of Mohammed’s teachings, and as a result is the most internally persecuted variant of that religion both historically and during its current civil war.

Idries Shah was a noted author for many reasons but most of all introducing the ideas of Sufism to the West, as he did to me via his book The Caravan of Dreams.

Sufism’s link to the corrida de toros, a dance with the evident threat of – and executing with a sword the magnificent reality of – a Spanish fighting bull may seem distant, but they are there.

One link is purely circumstantial: I first read his writings immediately before I discovered Spain because, as I say in the interview, his was one of the few books I took with me when I went to live in the Sahara desert. When I returned to Europe, it was by ferry from Tangiers, so I landed in – and fell in love with – Spain. (Almost exactly twenty years ago to the day.)

I hope I brought out more than such minor personal and geographical links, though, in my rather digressive responses to Jason’s questions, ranging as they do from German philosophy to the Qur’an, Oscar Wilde to William Shakespeare.

Now I must return to work on the second edition of Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight, to take advantage of a resurgent publicity in its favour, such as in the most popular magazine in bullfighting, 6Toros6 (right), or in my long feature in the most recent issue of the Boisdale Life (see post above.)

Anyway, once again, the interview is here.

Alexander Fiske-Harrison

Seville in September

Alexander Fiske-Harrison in front of the Cathedral of Seville (Photo: Samantha Mullins)

Having spent the early part of the summer writing the second edition of the Wallpaper* City Guide: Madrid for Phaidon Press, I thought it worth reminding people that I did the same for their guidebook to Seville in 2014.

These guidebooks tend towards the modern – unsurprising given that Wallpapermagazine is design led – but I have always found a way to include establishments which aren’t defined by their youth, but by their quality.

Seville – where I have been coming for 20 years – has its finest month in September, especially this year with the 20th Biennial of Flamenco opening on September 7th in la Plaza de Toros de la Real Maestranza, the great bullring – the oldest of its kind in Spain – and running shows throughout the month – some for free – everywhere from the grand Teatro Lope de Vega and the Royal Gardens of the Alcázar Palace to the Church of San Luis de la Franceses to Café Alameda.

AFH and Padilla (Photo: Paloma Gaytán de Ayala y de Queralt)

Then, on the 29th, in that same ring, the most famous bullfighter in Spain, the one-eyed Juan José Padilla, is fighting his last ever bull as a professional. And this is no washed up matador making a last stand, he was ranked number one in Spain when he made the decision to retire last year, and has triumphed across the country on his final tour. (In Pamplona when I saw him he was extraordinary.)

I’ll write more about this further down this post – he is a personal friend and mentor after all – but to make it easier, I’ll say here that, tickets for that Saturday’s corrida are available to purchase and print online from the English-language version of the official site of the bullring by clicking here. (Tip: you want to sit as close to the centre of the ring, i.e. the sand, as possible, and preferably in the sombra, ‘shade’, or sol y sombra, ‘sun’ that becomes shade as the evening progresses.) The other matadors that day and the next are all extraordinarily talented – and ranked in the top ten for what that’s worth.
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On BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme today: me.

Back in London from updating the Wallpaper* City Guide Madrid, when the BBC sends me a message saying only “we’d like to talk to you about poshness”.

It turns out that one of the former members of the flagship ‘Today’ programme team on Radio 4, Steph McGovern, had said in an interview – in response to a question on the gender pay gap no less – that social class was an often ignored contributing factor to inequality in the work place.

So, their research team trawled the internet and came across a piece I’d written for The Spectator a couple of years ago headlined (by the editor) – “[James] Blunt Is Right. Being Posh In The Arts Is Career Suicide.” It is online here.

So it turns out that my debut on the Today programme is not for my travel writing, not for my forthcoming book The Bulls Of Pamplona (with chapters by John Hemingway, Ernest’s grandson, and Beatrice Welles, Orson’s daughter, and a forward by the Mayor), nor the book I am just prepping to research on wolf conservation, reintroduction and how they made us human just as we made them into dogs – provisionally titled The Land Of Wolves – but instead because I was sent to an expensive boarding school.

Oh well. The one thing I can say without reservation is that what Ms McGovern’s complaints are, with a six figure salary at 35, she is certainly being paid more than this Old Etonian freelancer at 41. For this interview, I don’t get a dime. (At least they’re sending a car.)

Anyway, in case anyone is interested, below is my most recent interview – and product placement – on the wolf project. Already been out to the last great virgin forest in Romania, and to revisit Paul Lister’s reintroduction site in the Scottish Highlands with the great biologist Prof. Doug Smith, next stop the site of Doug’s own reintroduction, Yellowstone Park…

Alexander Fiske-Harrison

@fiskeharrison

SPOKEsman // Alexander Fiske-Harrison: Always carry a blade…

 

Bull-Running In The Land Of Buffalos

I will be talking about the encierros – the ‘bull-runs’ – of Pamplona on Classic FM South Africa at 10a.m. local time, which is 8.a.m. GMT, which gives me about ten minutes to make a coffee. For more details on the subject, read the eBook guide I edited and co-authored with contributions from everyone from the Mayor of Pamplona to John Hemingway, grandson of the great author and bulls aficionado Ernest Hemingway, The Bulls of Pamplona – click here for more details.

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

 

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.

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