It seems it is my season for tributes to dead friends: I lost a near-sister on September 14th, and a true friend one month later on October 14th. Noel Chandler, though, was a few weeks shy of his 80th birthday, where Antonia Francis died just before her 40th. There is quite a difference.
The Spanish newspapers have been suitably effusive – for example his Pamplona local Diario de Navarra headlined with ‘Welshman Noel Chandler dies, illustrious visitor to the feria of San Fermín’. However, they all seem to have propagated certain errors, starting with his age. Noel died at 79 not 76.
For that reason among others I am pleased not only to include my own memories of Noel, interspersed with a little journalistic research (about, for example, his service in the army), but also an interview he did with the secretary of the Club Taurino of London, David Penton, for their magazine La Divisa in 2013 which I suggested someone should do before it was all forgotten. However, nothing will ever capture the man in full. As even David noted when he forwarded the piece:
I promised to send you… the Lunch with Noel article which you prompted me to do. I hope you think it does him justice. Sadly he asked me to take a number of things out – mostly related to his generosity.
I’ll raise a glass to that.
Noel John Chandler
15 November 1935, Newport, Wales – 14 October 2015, Madrid Spain
B.A. (Hons.) Law, University of Bristol, 1958.
Lieutenant, Middlesex Regiment (Duke of Cambridge’s Own), 1961.
Managing Director, ICL Singapore Pte Ltd. 1994.
After the corrida on the final day of my first feria de San Fermín – July 14th, 2009 – a few hours before pobre de mí– when I was… (ahem)… tired and emotional having run with bulls that morning and drunk whatever was handed to me during the day until I had seen them killed very badly that evening, I bumped into a pretty young woman called Ivy Mix – a good name for such a famous bartender – who led me to a bar called Al Capone where in the doorway was standing Noel Chandler.
I had heard of Noel, of course, but in my research for my book Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight I had courteously avoided British and American aficionados as I did not want to inherit non-native prejudices or to see Spain second-hand. (The only reason I had gone to Pamplona was because my first teacher of toreo, Juan José Padilla said he would run with me and his bulls.)
Miss Mix introduced me to Noel saying I was writing a book on the world of the bulls. Noel looked into my eyes – which were a little blurry on the third day of my first Pamplona fiesta – through his own – which were… well, he was ten days into his forty-eighth fiesta – and said:
“What the fuck do you know about bulls?”
To which I responded,
“What the fuck do you know about writing?”
We did not exchange another word for two years, despite several times being in the same plaza or hotel, restaurant or bar.
Much later, when we were good friends, I came to understand quite how wrongly set up that meeting was. Tired, tight and introduced to a younger man by a pretty girl as someone English who thinks he knows about toros… I got off lightly.
After I published the book in Spring 2011 I went back to Pamplona, on the suggestion of Angus MacSwan, the London bureau chief of Reuters and a great sanferminero, who in turn introduced me to Deirdre Carney – Noel’s goddaughter and daughter of his late best friend – who in turn introduced me to him properly. Needless to say that on this occasion both Noel and I were much more polite and it was, to quote Casablanca, “the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
Deirdre’s father Matt was a former U.S. Marine, who had been wounded at Iwo Jima, and was the first foreign runner of encierros to be accepted by the pamplonicas. He himself had come to Spain in 1951 at the suggestion of another old soldier, David Black, who had come over the Pyrenees year before when the border reopened, alongside the famous Herald Tribune columnist Art Buchwald – also a veteran – and one other vet whose name I forget. [This was Hal Casteel, however, this entire sentence is in error. The correct order of arrival of the ‘Originals’ is contained in my short story, ‘The Unbroken’, published as ‘Les Invincibles’ in France, reprinted in the original English online here – AFH, Nov. 2016]
Noel first came to Spain in June 1959 and saw the great torero Miguelín in his first season as a full matador, in the old bullring in his home town of Algeciras. Noel fell in love with the bulls there and then, but at that time there was still compulsory national service in the Armed Forces in Britain, which Noel had deferred (see interview below), so he joined up in the spring of 1960, and his promotion from cadet to 2nd Lieutenant (464644), Middlesex Regiment, was gazetted on April 2nd, followed by his transfer to the West India Regiment in Jamaica the following month.
These were the dying days of British colonialism and among other operations, Noel was involved in the capture of Reynold Henry who was tried for treason and hanged in March 1961. Noel used to relish telling the story of how he dined with Henry in the Officer’s Mess the night before his execution was carried out.
Three or so months later the now full Lt Noel Chandler arrived in Pamplona for the very first time.
The year Noel and I became friends was exactly fifty years after that, and I remember being at the apartado of those most famous and dangerous bulls – those of our friends the Miuras – and hearing the homenaje to “Don Noel.” (God he hated it when I called him that.)
Afterwards I went back to his infamous apartment on calle Estafeta and he showed me around that museum of toros, toreros, toreo, el encierro, San Fermín and Pamplona. It was there that I discovered that this man, whom I knew to be a great scholar of the corrida – he attended over 4,000, his library was the envy of other aficionados, and he had been friends with Maestros from Antonio Ordóñez on and was known by most ganaderos and toreros of today – had also been a great practitioner of the encierro. He was a Maestro in the streets with Matt from the early ’60s, alongside the great photographer Jim Hollander who arrived in ’62, and from ’67 the legendary American runner Joe Distler, as well as those local legends of the encierro, Miguel Ángel Eguiluz, Jokin Zuasti and Julen Madina – dear friends all (and contributors to Fiesta: How To Survive The Bulls Of Pamplona, which Noel not only helped with, but in whose apartment in Madrid its first words were written.)
That feria I ended with Noel at the apartment of Tom Gowen (another wounded veteran, this time of 101 Airborne and 5th Special Forces Group in Vietnam) and the three of us sat, drinking and quoting poetry through the midnight sorrows of pobre de mí.
From then on Noel was a pervasive presence in my aficion. I would join him each spring feria de abril and September feria de San Miguel in Seville on his pilgrimage – usually beginning at his abono in the tendidos of sombra to watch the toros, sometimes seeing “something important” in Noel’s phrase, sometimes not.
This would be followed by a vino tinto at the bar of the Restaurant Horacio on calle Antonia Díaz, then a manzanilla in Bodega Díaz-Salazar on calle García de Vinuesa, then opposite for a pringa in Hijos de E. Morales, before ending at Hostería del Laurel in barrio Santa Cruz Sometimes it would all begin again the next morning when I bumped into him opposite my apartment on calle Almansa at his favourite pre-midday bar El Picadero.
I would also join Noel in Ronda with our friends the Rivera Ordóñez brothers, sometimes in Olivenza, and always in Pamplona. However, away from the bulls there was also Madrid where I would stay with him and Paris where my parents and I joined him and his beloved Nancy Fortier and our friends Larry Belcher and Ana Cerón.
Noel’s increasing physical frailty was noted by many although I usually found him more spirited than I had been warned. Mind you, he was usually a couple of glasses in by the time I saw him, which was… well, necessary it seems. (He once remarked that although we were good friends, “and we are good friends aren’t we Xanda?“, it took him a couple of glasses to be able to tolerate how much I ‘put myself forward’. We were cut from different cloths, but the affection was real.)
He was still a force of nature when I went for lunch with he and Joe Distler at Modesto in April 2012, the two of them telling me stories about Noel smuggling wine over from Spain in his suitcase for Joe’s bar in New York , and caping yellow taxis in streets afterwards. (The next year I referred to them both as “two Princes of Pamplona” in the Q&A following my lecture at the University of Seville at which they were both present, from whence I get the title of this tribute.)
He was still a danger to shipping when we went out in 2014 and ended up, the two of us, being thrown out of a nightclub at 6a.m., and I walked him home and strolled back to my own digs whistling through the dawn streets of Seville, my mind alive with the old stories like when Manzanares padre fought his last bull in the Maestranza, but had not cut the three ears required to open the Gate of the Prince. So the young matadors watched furiously from the callejón as their Maestro had his coleta cut by his matador son. The toreros stormed the ring that day, Padilla taking him on his shoulders, and charged the gate, and the old Duchess of Alba turned and shouted with the authority of more than three dozen titles to the President to open the damned thing and he did. When he told the story you knew Noel could still see it, because he had been there and few people cared as much as he did.
However, this April he was listless and debilitated by a constant nausea, and we walked straight from Horacio to the Laurel and sat quietly at a table, sharing a meal and a bottle of wine and I could see there was no pleasure in this for him now. And the same in Pamplona when I walked him back to his apartment one night, him protesting that he didn’t need an escort – a strong independent man who could see he was being managed now, and hating it worse than death – and so I lied and said I had another appointment down the road. So he invited me up for a glass, and when I made a little food, he told me he didn’t need to eat, and I agreed with him and told him it was for me, so he ate it. Contrary and wilful to the end, but we could both see the end.
On my way to run with the bulls in San Sebastián de los Reyes and Cuéllar in August my parents and I joined him and Deirdre for drinks with Michael Wigram’s wife, Irene del Prado – Michael and he lived in the same building in Madrid for decades – and he perked up so much we returned the next night and took Noel for dinner at the Taberna Del Capitán Alatriste around the corner and he was on great form.
Then, on my way back through Madrid solo I spent an evening with him and the light which had flared was now guttering and low. I left him a little after midnight on September 4th in the bar beneath his apartment with a ‘friend’. We embraced and said something about making it to Ronda this year, but it was uncertain, I smiled and said we’d definitely have Pamplona and he smiled and said he didn’t think so. Not this time. Not again. We said goodbye. It was the last time I’d see him alive, and what I saw in Hospital San Isidro 6 weeks later to the day was only the physical shadow that he’d left behind.
I choose to remember the man in the photo, one of the few I’ll kneel before, and caught in that moment of genuflection by Bunny Centurion, Noel’s friend and worried nurse (and wife of the great surgeon-knight J.-J. Centurion) when they so kindly took over Noel’s champagne party on July 6th this year for one last hurrah (and a thank you to the ageing Prince), in their apartment one floor up from Noel’s own.
He’s one floor up from us all now.
* * *
Post Scriptum (for Edward Lewine)
At the Iglesia de San Pedro El Viejo, opposite Noel apartment and the bar at which I last him, six weeks and one day later, a service was held, with Nancy and Deirdre, and that brilliant Swede Tom Källene, pulling it all together at a moment’s notice.
(I once sat with Noel at the bar opposite watching the men train for the processions, and remember Noel chuckling as the Archicofradía de Jesús el Pobre were joined briefly by yours truly to lend a hand until they realised and booted me out. And Noel bought me a pendant and had it blessed with which I now run.)
I flew in from London the day before (gracias a Jesse Graham for the warning) and went straight from the airport to Viña P in Plaza de Santa Ana to join the tail end of a lunch with Deirdre and Tom Gowen and friends from the world of Noel’s other great love, rugby. I had my serious face on, a face I would see on others many times across the next 48 hours, and would see it evaporate just as quickly as it did from mine. Noel would have wanted it so. Soon red wine was flowing and sadness was gone.
Deidre and I moved to the square outside Noel’s apartment and met Lourdes Cosío, and we three went to the hospital to identify the aforementioned shadow, and then went for a drink to relieve that darkness. I drifted off somehow and found Gowen, the bottle and then bed.
The next day, refreshed and suited, a group of us met for lunch at Casa Salvador, a querencia of Noel’s, and sat at the favourite table of his and Luis Miguel Dominguín’s before him. There was Joe Distler in from Paris, Bunny Centurion fresh from Miami, the taurine encyclopaedia that is Michael Wigram, Tom K, Deirdre and her half-brother, the bull-runner Allen Carney hotfoot from Senegal, the Spanish journalist Mercedes Cerrolaza Garcia and the Russian photographer Anna Nelubova.
Allen, Merche, Deirdre and I drifted to a bar, and then drifted on to rejoin a larger group at Café del Nuncio – including Anya Bartels-Suermondt, Chris Williams and Tom Perry – before drifting on into the church – where all joined, including Larry and Ana, Tom Turley out of the Ukraine, the Spanish journalist Francisco ‘Chapu’ Apaolaza, David and Penny Penton, Helen Windrath and Nick Bowyers from the CTL, and many, many others.
The dinner was held in the downstairs room of Viña P for sixty or so people. Speeches were given – the rough and smooth poetry of Tom G, the elegiac tribute of Tom K. The most moving of all was a condemnation, tight with constrained rage, of an alcoholically wasted end of life from a desolated friend: Michael Wigram. It could not be answered, although Ana Cerón tried, and I passed on my opportunity to speak in the face of it (instead I’ve said my words here.)
After that we moved to a bar and humour and hilarity returned – I drifted home at some point. Three, four?
The next day we were straight back to Casa Salvador – with the previous cast, as well as Nancy and Irene, and Larry and Ana – and then the Carneys and I headed on to Noel’s favourite Irish pub, the James Joyce, to watch Wales lose at rugby. Then there were drinks at the Torre del Oro in the Plaza Mayor with that great American aficionado, and my sometime bête noire, Bill Lyon, followed by some form of dinner, some form of drinks, and then…
I woke up in the Hostal San Antonio on calle del León two days late for my flight, and haven’t touched a drop of alcohol since. That is how you send off a man like Noel Chandler.
P.P.S. Noel would particularly like that I received this email a few days later. (Ramiro is Cayetano’s Argentinian mozo de espadas.)
Date: Tue, 20 Oct 2015 22:04:33 +0000
Subject: RE: Traje de Antonio
From: Cayetano Rivera Ordóñez
To: Alexander Fiske-Harrison
LUNCH WITH NOEL CHANDLER
When I told my wife Penny that I was planning one of these articles on Noel she was delighted. She told me that if she was sent to a desert island and was allowed a visit by just one person she would choose Noel as he was one of the most interesting and delightful people she had met. I first met him in the Bar de la Reina during Las Fallas in 2006. We were the last men standing after M A Perera was surprised to find he had fought the fuenteymbro Harinero to an indulto. What a change from now when the matador is frequently asking the crowd to seek the pardon. This was only the second time it had happened in Valencia. The previous one was Gitanito, a torrestrella fought by Dámaso González in July 1993. Noel told me Perera was a young man to watch – how right he was. When we introduced ourselves, I said I recognised his name as someone well-known but could not recall why. He was characteristically self-deprecating and I think my fuddled brain must have confused him with Raymond Chandler. Anyway we discussed much and found that we had several things in common, apart from the CTL and being much the same age. We had both played rugby, enjoyed Shostokovich string quartets and had worked for George Wimpey at the same time many years before, but in different places. Although a proud Welshman, he had helped Scotland into the modern era by working on the Loch Shin hydro-electric scheme for high pay with danger money, working 12 hours on and 12 hours off, while I was a commercial trainee, with more leisurely hours and less pay, learning the basics of timekeeping and storekeeping on various construction sites in southern England.
My lunch with Noel is really two – one in Madrid and the other in Pamplona. He has residence in each. I count myself pretty lucky to have had lunch with him even once, as usually he doesn’t eat, preferring to stick to beer. Our first is in Madrid where he has had a flat not far from the Plaza Mayor since 1986. He welcomes me there for a pre-lunch copa of verdejo, the refreshing white wine from Rueda, because, as a bookbinder, I am interested to see his extensive library and, in particular, the collection of leather bound volumes of 6Toros6 since it came out in April 1991, Applausos since 1979 and El Ruedo from 1968 until 1976 when it went bust. He uses these as reference sources when asked to help people with documentaries they are making, or books they are writing. These include Ed Lewine’s Death in The Sun which follows Francisco Rivera Ordoñez for a year, the three part UK Channel 4 documentary “the best ever made on the fiesta” and two with Bob Simon for the US channel ABC. During the filming of one of these 60 Minutes ABC programmes Noel had a bad accident in Ronda: “After we finally wrapped the filming of one segment, I suffered a bad fall in my hotel with a suspect fractured skull on the left side, fractured left hip and multiple fractures of the left elbow with all the bones sticking out. It was thanks to the skill of Dr Palmer the head of trauma at the hospital in Ronda and his team that, after months of rehab back in Madrid, I made more or less a complete recovery. The accident was not due to drink – though it usually is,” he says with a grin and a chuckle. Now slightly built – he lost 20% of his body weight after the Ronda accident – and of medium height, Noel is balding with dark hair, bushy eyebrows and sideburns. He has a scar on his right cheek from a skirmish while with the army in the West Indies. Brown eyed, he wears he wears a black polo with thin purple and white vertical stripes, blue jeans and slip-on shoes.
His flat is elegance itself, as one would expect from such a cultured man. Not at all the usual bachelor pad, it is immaculately clean and tidy and furnished with some exquisite pieces collected from his various postings round the world while working with the British pioneer computer company ICL. Notable is a beautiful table made from the renowned Chinese hardwood huanghuali. The flat has a great view over the rooftops and of the Iglesia San Pedro el Viejo immediately opposite. Passing below is the start of the annual romería to El Rocio with bands and followers in costume. After several copas we cross the road to L’Ulivo d’Oro, a small, cosy, Italian restaurant where Noel is a regular and clearly knows Carmelo, the Sicilian chef/patron, well. We are the only customers. Frank Sinatra sings from the album Songs For Swinging Lovers which revived his career from the doldrums in the late fifties. We have buffalo mozzarella with Sicilian black truffles for starters. Noel orders spaghetti pomodoro for a main course and I follow his recommendation to eat the venison lasagna. To drink we have the strong dark Sicilian house red and a jug of tap water.
Noel tells me he saw his first corrida in 1959 when he was 24 after studying law at Bristol University and before he went into the army. “I had been in Tangier with a friend. When we went to Algeciras, it was feria time and he suggested we go to a corrida. We sat in the very hot sun and saw Miguelín. He performed his famous espaldinas and I was hooked. Whenever I could, I returned to Spain. I also started reading everything I could find written in English about the bulls but soon realised it was mostly rubbish and I had to learn Spanish.” If you spend any time with Noel you quickly become aware that, along with his modesty, charm and generosity, he is a great raconteur. As we start our mozzarella he tells me several stories about Antonio Ordoñez, his all-time favourite. “I first met him in 1964 in Ronda through a French friend. He chose the goyesca for his comeback; there were people on the roof and entradas were at a huge premium – I knew an American woman who sold her car to buy one. During the corrida Antonio got the main gate opened to let the people outside pour in. It was a fantastic day.” Noel travelled often in South America to see Ordoñez and recalls one time in Venezuela when Antonio was on the opening cartel for the inauguration of the new 25,000 seat plaza de toros at Valencia. “I flew into Caracas from Jamaica and found a taxi driver at the airport prepared to drive me there. Twenty minutes or so into the 2-3 hour drive I noticed the cabbie was nodding off. I prodded him a few times and then he stopped the car, got out and said you drive it. So I got in the driver’s seat while he got in the back and went straight to sleep. The drive was a nightmare. The roads were atrocious and the cab had loose steering and terrible brakes. I reached Valencia at about three in the morning. Everything was closed with no café or hotel in sight. I finally got out of the car near a park and slept on a bench until daylight. I found a hotel of sorts and, later, the Spanish embassy where I picked up my entradas.”
I wonder what it was about Ordoñez that made him Noel’s numero uno. “First, he had the most divine capote I ever saw and then he had a wonderful way of crossing. He would move over, reach the muleta far out in front of him and then bring the bull right round and back. True, he was better on his right hand than the left: but I have a marvellous photograph of him in my flat in Pamplona performing a superb natural. Quite simply he was a great all-round torero. Yes, he could have his fracasos but invariably these were deliberate and with his next bull he would have the public in the palm of his hand. Ultimately it was his ability to fill a plaza – not in terms of bums on seats but with his personality. He was a large, tall, well-built man and he had a phenomenal presence which was felt right through the tendidos and up into the gradas.
When our main courses arrive Noel picks at his spaghetti while I devour my delicious lasagna which was definitely a good recommendation. The wine goes well with it, too. I ask who were the toreros he admired most in his early days besides Ordoñez and Miguelín. “Paco Camino, Diego Puerta and Antonio were my gods. But I also liked Julio Aparicio and Litri as well as Antonio Bienvenida. My greatest regret is not seeing Rafael Ortega enough. I was too late and only saw him once. Antonio used to say he was the best lidiador ever. El Cordobés had a great wrist and could turn a bull more effectively than any of his contemporaries. He was also very brave.” Noel then tells another story involving his hero. “John Fulton, the American matador, used to claim that if he had been Spanish he would have been regarded as great. To show there may be some substance to this, I remember being in the car with Fran (Ordonez’s matador grandson) when Antonio, who knew and respected Fulton, especially called to say that he had died.”
By this time Noel was well established in his career with ICL where he rose to be Vice President of various overseas operations – Canada, South America, the Caribbean and finally Singapore. “When I was in London I kept in touch with the mundillo by going to buy El Ruedo, in common with other London aficionados, from Hachette in Old Compton Street in Soho. Later, when I was posted to overseas, I had it mailed to me. I also had these issues bound in leather.” Sometime during this period he was introduced to the CTL by Michael Wigram who lives in the flat above him. “Although I rarely attend the club’s meetings I enjoy reading La Divisa, especially the serious articles by Jock Richardson, Ivan Moseley and others on complex taurine matters. Since he retired Noel has led a peripatetic life in Spain following the bulls through the temporada starting in Olivenza, often taking his friend Ignacio Alvarez Vara, the noted taurine critic Barquerito, an Honorary Member of the club, with him in his car. Noel’s favourite ferias are Pamplona, of which more later, Sevilla, El Puerto de Santa Maria and Bilbao. Ronda is also a special place for him, as is Azpeitia. All this is done without a mobile phone, let alone a smart one. And, despite a career with one of the pioneering computer companies, he does not use the internet and does not do email.
Although Noel has not finished his spaghetti our plates have been cleared. We decline the offer of dolci but order cortados. When we have finished there are still several topics I wish to cover: but we both have appointments to keep. We walk through the centre of Madrid, me to the wonderful Feria del Libro held each year in the Retiro park and Noel to watch his beloved Welsh rugby team in the Irish bar, James Joyce, on Alcalá.
I was lucky that our next lunch took place. When I called Noel to confirm it, he had just come out of A & E in Madrid. He explained : “I had just been to a service at the church of La Paloma, which I do frequently, and, when I came out, there was such a crowd that I went into a bar nearby for a couple of beers and next thing I knew, I was staring up into the eyes of a beautiful nurse.” Noel is prone to such experiences – the falls, as much as looking into the eyes of beautiful women, which seem to occur with increasing frequency, much to the concern of his friends. My wife Penny asked me to tell him to make sure that he did not run out of his nine lives before she has had a chance to share one. I am in Tafalla for the feria and drive in to Pamplona to meet him at his flat in Calle Estafeta which he bought in 1982. One balcony overlooks the route of the encierro at roughly halfway stage; and the one at the back looks over the rooftops to the cathedral.
Noel is something of a legend in Pamplona. As Ray Mouton states in his book on Pamplona: “Of the legions of foreigners who have made the journey to Pamplona, few have been as remarkable as Noel Chandler.” He first came here in 1961 and has been here every year since, becoming one of the great runners and doing so every year until he was age 60. In 2011 there was a special profile in the Diario de Navarra celebrating his 50 years of San Fermines, recounting many of his exploits, the thousands of miles he had travelled in pursuit of the bulls seeing over 4,000 corridas and reporting on the special celebrations arranged both by his navarrese friends and the foreign afición. A photo taken in 1975 of a montón – a huge pile of bodies and bulls – at the entrance to the plaza has pride of place in his flat. One man died and many were injured and the photo shows Noel with his great friend and running mate, Matt Carney, in the thick of it leaping over fallen bodies. In discussing the encierros he explains “Running with the bulls and being an aficionado are two completely separate things. This seems to be lost on many people. There is an art in running seriously as there is in toreo. But there are many people who do only one. There are people who come here every year and never run just as there are many runners who never go to a corrida.” And it is something the true runners take very seriously; not just the place to run, but how to judge the way the bull is likely to move, which one to run close to, where to join and where to exit. All of this requires the ability to make split second judgments. As well as developing this knowledge, the good runners train extensively to make sure they reach full fitness before coming to Pamplona or wherever else they may run. To demonstrate this, Noel showed me his diaries which document the rigorous training schedule he imposed on himself to reach the required level of fitness to maintain his position as a leading runner.
Many years ago Noel hosted elegant breakfasts at the Hotel Tres Reyes but, when he got the flat, the parties migrated there: and his famous champagne parties still take place to celebrate the chupinazo – the rocket which officially starts the festivities at noon every 6 July. Although an unashamed torerista, Noel knows more ganaderos and more about the bulls than most people and he is one of a group of five men who visit the ganderías each year to see the bulls reserved for San Fermines. As you can imagine, they have a great time. He tells me that “over recent years the Jandilla branch of domecqs have been the most successful” and when I ask if there is not a strange dichotomy between him being a torerista and being an expert on the bulls, he says: “No, I just love everything to do with the fiesta.”
The flat is a veritable museum to Noel’s taurine life. As well as some wonderful objets d’art of impeccable taste and varying degrees of antiquity there are some 700 photos, drawings and prints of taurine topics. There is a special rincón d’Ordoñez, a room solely devoted to memorabilila of the generations of that family. This includes a treasured letter from Antonio. “I wrote to him after he became the first matador to be presented with the Medalla de Bellas Artes by the King, congratulating him and apologising that I could not attend. This is his charming reply of thanks saying that he was proud of the honour but he hoped people would understand it was not for him but formal recognition that toreo was an art.” There are also two mounted ears from the bull Voceado, weighing 555 kilos from the ganadería Marques de Domecq that Fran fought in Pamplona on 13 July 1998. “He suffered a terrible voltereta. He was spun round on the horns and then tossed up a second time and many people thought he was dead. But no. He came back in a pair of cut off jeans and cut two ears before being rushed to hospital. It was one of the great performances.” What Noel, with characteristic modesty, does not tell me is that Fran kept the ears with him under his hospital bed until Noel arrived to see him later that night and he could present them.
The flat also has a room dedicated to Matt Carney, Noel’s great running partner with many of his things still there. His early death was a great blow. He refers to Matt’s daughter Deirdre as his daughter, in fact his god-daughter who clearly adores Noel and with whom there is a very strong bond.
We go out into the 40C degree heat and seek the shade to walk to one of Noel’s favourite haunts – San Ignacio, a light and airy, first floor restaurant just off the Plaza del Castillo. It is pretty empty, unlike during San Fermines, but Noel’s regular corner table is occupied. The place is run by the delightful ex-ballerina Nuntxi with whom Noel gently flirts. As you get to know Noel you will realise that he is very popular with the ladies – just look at the photos in the flat and in Ray Mouton’s book. He married a Swedish girl and they lived in Canada before “amicably agreeing to go our separate ways when it was clear that she wanted children and I wanted to pursue my career which I saw as a conflict. My wife was from a musical family, her brother being the Director of Swedish National Opera with David and Igor Oistrakh frequent visitors to their house.”
We have a cool gazpacho with all the trimmings for starters. For the main course Noel orders two fried eggs with chips and tomato sauce reminding me of his pasta del pomodoro in Madrid and leaving me wondering if he ever eats traditional Spanish fare. I go for a grilled Dover sole. Noel chooses a red Navarrese 70% tempranillo crianza from Chivite near Estella but, sadly, I can drink little as I am driving. Once settled, the stories emerge. He tells me more about Fran, of whom he is clearly very fond. I know he has been a great friend of his and, latterly, with his brother Cayetano. I also know he spent a great deal of time and money following Fran throughout whole temporadas, even after his early promise proved ephemeral and I am puzzled by such devotion to two matadors who many regard as second rate. Was it perhaps out of loyalty to their grandfather, or was he seduced by their personal charm? Noel responds: “When I retired in April 1995 I flew from Hong Kong to Sevilla to see Fran’s alternativa with the torrestrella Bocalimpio. He was sensational. As a novillero, and in the first years after his alternativa, he was brilliant. When he took his alternativa he had only one more contract. But a few days later he had some fifty contracts and triumphed all over Spain fighting in nearly all the important plazas. He then joined up with Joselito and Enrique Ponce to form the Tres Tenores who dominated toreo for some years until José Tomás appeared. Following Fran, I became part of the cuadrilla sharing the highs and lows. After he became one of the dreaded mediaticos with El Cordobés, I backed off a bit but never abandoned him. I still have not. It is sometimes sad to see him, as it was yesterday in San Sebastian. But anyone who saw his performance in Ronda in his last goyesca in 2010 can see that when he wants to torear he can still do it with the best. As for Cayetano, I do not agree that he is second rate. I was in Barcelona when José Tomás came back after seven years’ absence. He went out on shoulders having cut three ears: but many overlook the fact that Cayetano cut four ears and was the triunfador. Moreover he killed reciebiendo. His performance with El Juli and Manzanares in the 2011 goyesca was inspirational and he was magnificent in León last year. It is true that he does not fight in all the first class plazas and at times seems to lack ambition: but I still like to see him on the cartel.”
I know that Noel had various encounters with Orson Welles and ask how they met. Inevitably it was through Antonio Ordoñez and he recounts: “I was hanging out with a French girl studying cinema at the University of Biarritz and she was here in Pamplona to film a corrida. We were in a restaurant and Welles was there with Antonio. We went over and she learned more in 20 minutes than she had in two years at uni.” He then smiles his characteristic grin and says; “Another time I was in the front bar in the Yoldi, which used to be THE taurine hotel here. Welles was seated when Miguelín came in, looked at Orson and then went up to him and started abusing him for not being in his usual barerra seat with Antonio when he was toreando. Welles stood up, placed a big hand on his head and held him there until he was rescued by his cudarilla.” As is normal, one anecdote prompts another. Switching to a serious expression he says: “Antonio once told me that ‘Miguelín was the most under-rated of toreros. He had a great capote and was technically superb.’ When he died aged 64 in 2003, the taurine afición ignored him. A special commemorative corrida was held in Algeciras that only about 400 people went to. On my way back to Madrid I stopped in Antequera for a meal. Damáso Gonzalez came into the restaurant. He had been on the cartel and cut four ears. He agreed that it was tragic that so few people had turned up to honour such a great torero.”
When the gazpacho has gone, the mains arrive and Noel, true to form, picks at his while I tuck into the sole. I recall him saying, when we first met, that Perera was a man to watch and ask what he thinks of today’s toreros and who he thinks I should watch out for. “Well, of course Manzanares is superb and El Juli is peerless. As for newcomers, I am impressed by Jiménez Fortes, Esau Fernández, Fernando Adrian and Gómez del Pilar. I think the young blood is as good as ever but, with the economic situation as it is, I wonder if some of them will ever get a proper chance. Look at Victor Barrio – top of the escalafón for novilleros last year and only four contracts this year.” He has only mentioned José Tomás in passing and when I ask his view he replies: “Yes, he is one of the great toreros and this is the first year when he has been appearing that I have not seen him. I just was not prepared to go through all the hassle and expense but everything I have read and heard persuades me that his performance in Nimes was outstanding in the variety of both capote and muleta.”
I had heard that Noel was a great supporter of El Yiyo and he tells me: “Ovidio Alvarez was a leading light in the taurine world of Arnedo and the Zapato de Oro, the most important trophy for aspiring novilleros. Ovidio was a great friend of mine and of Matt Carney and he would come here for San Fermines. He and his wife Paca befriended El Yiyo on his first visit to Arnedo where he duly won the Zapato de Oro. He became one of my favourite toreros and, whenever I could, I would go to see him. The tragedy of his death in Colmenar Viejo in 1985 was a tremendous shock. Paca Alvarez subsequently wrote a very moving poem in the form of an obituary. It hangs on the wall in the long corridor in my home here.”
Noel does not finish his chips. My sole has all gone – except for the bone. Nuntxi clears the plates and brings us café solos. My final question is how does he see the future of the fiesta. “Obviously the antis are mounting vociferous campaigns and, at present, the ‘crisis’ is having a big impact – witness the ease of picking up entradas here in the last couple of years and the dramatic reduction in novilladas. But if you go to the pueblos and tientas in this part of Spain, Castilla y León and other taurine strongholds you will see the afición among the kids is as strong as ever.” On this optimistic note we say goodbye to Nuntxi. I have to return to the festivities in Tafalla while Noel has to unload some stuff from his car. So we bid farewell in the comparative cool of the car park under the Plaza del Castillo.