Unpopular Truths: Bullfighting & Sufism, Beauty & Wisdom


Ignoring prejudice and observing the real. AFH at the final corrida of Juan José Padilla in Seville (Photo: Klarina Pichler)

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. 

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

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. It is also no coincidence that I was reading his writings just before I discovered Spain – 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, and 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. (Perhaps it is, I have no record of the date.)

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, with added material including my own return to the ring, more on running with bulls (which I also covered in The Bulls Of Pamplona, with its extraordinary photos by Jim Hollander and foreword from the Mayor of that city), and the return to the ring – minus one eye – of my original teacher in bullfighting, Juan José Padilla in 2012 and his retirement corridas this year for which I was present.

(I am publicising the reissue in physical form of Into The Arena everywhere from the most recent edition of the most popular magazine in bullfighting, 6Toros6 (right), to the forthcoming long feature in the most recent issue of the Boisdale Life – an unique glossy magazine at the Vanity Fair end of the spectrum, whose pages I share with articles from the likes of my friends Bruce Anderson and Tom Parker Bowles to Sir Jackie Stewart and the late great David Bowie, and whose 100,000 copies are available free from London’s airports – just before you board the plane – to inside the Houses of Parliament themselves. The book launch will be held in London at Boisdale of Belgravia in lieu of my fee.)

Anyway, once again, the interview is here.

Alexander Fiske-Harrison

 

 

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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

The Sun Also Rises


Today my first ever article came out in The Sunonline here. Before I have always written for ‘broadsheet’ British newspapers like its News International sister paper The Times. However, after reading endless false stories about the tragic death of the Spanish matador Victor Barrio, I could not turn down the offer of a voice in Britain’s biggest selling national newspaper. 

Inevitably there are ‘casualties of truth’ in a situation like this. I was commissioned to write at 3pm to complete the piece by 6pm. In Pamplona. Having run with the bulls that morning. And drunk all day. After four identical days. 

I am not a matador, which is a professional title, which was explained in my writing, if not in the printed ‘copy’, I was a torero, a ‘bullfighter’. However, it is a churlish complaint when describing the arcane and esoteric to expect the sub-editor doing the headline on the edited copy – which has lost these nuances – to know the differences.

What is more, at least I did not lie. 

The article attached to my article from the League Against Cruel Sports – for balance, which I respect – has no such compunctions nor attachments to research and truth. 

I’ve been on every major ranch and in every major bullring and fought myself. When was a bull’s eyes ever smeared with Vaseline? Where is their evidence for this claim? A half blind bull would charge a blur of man and cape, rather than the specific part of the cape the matador dictates, and many, many more would be dead. The same goes for starving – nonsense, I have photos of them eating in the corrals of the bullring itself… guys, the blood is in the ring, you don’t need to make it up. 

If anyone really wants to read about the morality of bullfighting, read my speech at the Edinburgh International Book Festival as a blog post here

Alexander Fiske-Harrison

Method Authors: A New Literary Movement – from The Independent

image

Note: For details on the classes, go to our website http://www.theactofwriting.co.uk

I’ve been meaning to write a post on author Thomas W. Hodgkinson’s mooting of the “new literary movement” (ahem) of ‘method writing’ since he first spoke about it on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme a week or so ago. (You can listen to it excerpted on the BBC here.)

However, ironically, I was too busy practising what he was preaching, as I was living in the Montparnasse apartment of one of the real-life protagonists of a short historical fiction I was writing to enter in the Prix d’Hemingway in France.

So it wasn’t until I returned to London late last night that I discovered he had launched the intended project in this morning’s The Independent (online here.)

author-photo-alexaner-fiske-harrison (2)

My Research

Thomas tells an abridged version of the story of why I am one of his three “method authors” in the piece.

Alexander Fiske-Harrison… trained as a matador in Spain as research for his book about bullfighting, Into the Arena. He is also an actor who, like Dustin Hoffman, has honed his technique at the Actors Studio. So for him, nothing was more natural, when he sat down to write, than to don the same black “country suit” and short jacket he’d worn in the arena. Between bursts of typing, he would move about the room, performing what is known as toreo de salon.

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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.

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