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…

 

¡HOLA! Spain

Hola cover The May 13th (2015) edition of ¡Hola! magazine Spanish parent of Hello! magazine (which runs through Latin America as well), opens with a long feature with the headline “Alexander Fiske-Harrison, the English ‘gentleman’ who one day became an expert on bullfighting” (pp.4-12.)

I enclose the text of my and my then girlfriend Sarah Pozner’s interview in the original English below. Interview, introductory preamble and captions are by Mamen Sánchez, director of ¡Hola!

With thanks to the Hotel Alfonso XIII in Seville and my family tailors, Gieves & Hawkes, No.1 Savile Row, for my suit and Ralph Lauren for providing Sarah and I with clothes in the Feria de Abril in Seville this year.

Alexander Fiske-Harrison

[Post updated August 1st, 2016]

Cover

Descended from one of the most ancient and aristocratic families of the United Kingdom, ancestored by King Edward III

ALEXANDER FISKE-HARRISON

The English Gentleman who one day became an expert of bullfighting

We open the gates of his historic ancestral home Otley Hall, built in the 16th Century, alongside his girlfriend, the beautiful lawyer Sarah Pozner
Hola page 5 detail(Photo: Alexander Fiske-Harrison. We open the gates of the familial home, a historic building of the 16th Century, the manorial estate of Otley Hall, in the county of Suffolk. The Fiske-Harrisons are descended from Margaret Plantagenet, daughter of the Duke of Clarence. On the right he receives us together with the girlfriend, the beautiful Sarah Pozner)

INTERVIEW:

Alexander Fiske-Harrison comes from one of the oldest and most illustrious families in England. The Fiske-Harrisons are the descendants of Margaret Plantagenet, daughter of the Duke of Clarence, brother of Edward IV and Richard III, Kings of England.

Me at Otley Hall, in front of a painting of my ancestor Robert Gosnold III, by Andrea Savini, suit by Gieves & Hawkes of Savile Row

Alexander Fiske-Harrison (photo by Andrea Savini, suit by Gieves & Hawkes)

Educated at Eton, he holds Masters in Arts and Sciences thanks to his studies in Philosophy and Biology at the Universities of Oxford and London. Son of a prosperous investment banker in ‘The City’, Alexander can presume to be the genuine “gentleman”. Elegant, humanist, lover of nature and man of letters, he is the author of numerous books and essays, a playwright and a regular contributor to newspapers and magazines including The Times, Financial Times and The Spectator.

Following in the footsteps of Ernest Hemingway, there awakened in him an interest in bullfighting which brought him to Spain, first as a researcher and later as an authentic lover of the ‘fiesta de los toros’. From the hand of great Maestros such as Juan José Padilla, Eduardo Dávila Miura and Cayetano Rivera Ordóñez and through his friendship with Adolfo Suárez Illana [son of Spain’s first democratic president, the Duke of Suárez], who first introduced him to the world of bullfighting, Alexander has become a valiant bullfighter. He killed a bull of Saltillo and participated in various festivals, he has run for six years in the bull-runs of Pamplona and has written one of the most referenced books on the world of bullfighting: Into The Arena.

Hola page 6-7 detail

“The Fiskes arrived to this part of England as Vikings, at the Battle of Maldon, in 991A.D.”

A complete discovery, Alexander, greets us with his fascinating girlfriend, Sarah – Senior Legal Advisor to BUPA Global and captain of the polo team “Legal Beagles” -, in Otley Hall, a historic Tudor Manor in the county of Suffolk. This building, dating from the 16th Century, connects the Fiske-Harrison family and the Kings of England, and a great-granddaughter of Margaret Plantagenet here contracted marriage with the then Lord of the Manor of Otley Hall, John Gosnold.

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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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