An Essay On Bullfighting

the-last-arena-logo

José Tomás by Carlos Cazalis from his forthcoming book Sangre de Reyes, 'Blood Of

José Tomás by Carlos Cazalis from his forthcoming book Sangre de Reyes, ‘Blood Of Kings’

When I first went to a bullfight 17 years ago, I was 23 and was sure I would hate it. I was a passionate animal lover and had been a keen amateur naturalist since childhood, WWF & Greenpeace member and zoology undergraduate. Not an auspicious CV for a future aficionado de los toros.

As expected, what I saw contained many moments of brutality and blood  but I was surprised also to find I could see beyond them to feel moments of breathlessness thrill as well. What genuinely shocked me, though, was that I could also perceive intermittently, and only with one of the bullfighters present, a kind of beauty that was entirely new to me.

In my moral confusion, I decided to research this alien thing, reading what I could in English – mainly Ernest Hemingway and Barnaby Conrad – and going when possible to see a corrida, a ‘bullfight’, on my irregular visits to Spain. Each time I went with a little more understanding and a little less aversion. Some would argue I became more sensitive to the aesthetics, others that I had become more inured to the ethics (or lack thereof.) I wouldn’t like to say either way.

into-the-arena-coverIn 2008 I was commissioned to write a book on the subject and I moved to Seville for two years and among other researches I trained as a bullfighter to the level of matador de novillos-toros – a novice level matador de toros bravos – ending by killing a single animal in the ring, a novillo, a three-year-old bull weighing around a third of a ton. (Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight was published by Profile Books in 2011 and shortlisted for the William Hill Sports Book Of The Year Award the same year.)

As part of the research, I also attended the encierros, ‘bull-runs’, of Pamplona and ran with fear and ignorance among the masses of drunken foreigners and adrenaline seekers. Unlike those visitors, I returned, and ended up running in towns across Spain, away from the tourist trail and among those born to this bloodless and less formal, more pagan practice. I ran with the bulls from San Sebastián de los Reyes in the suburbs of Madrid, to Falces, where you hurtle pell-mell down a goat-path, bordered by a sheer drop, in the foothills of Navarran Pyrenees. From Tafalla, also in Navarre, which resembles Pamplona in the 1920s to Cuéllar in Old Castille, which hosts the most ancient encierros in Spain.

(The book I edited and co-authored with the Mayor of Pamplona, Ernest Hemingway’s grandson, Orson Welles’s daughter and the finest bull-runners including the late Julen Madina, Jokin Zuasti, Joe Distler and Jim Hollander, Fiesta: How To Survive The Bulls Of Pamplona (And Beyond), was published by Mephisto Press in 2013, available online here.)

I may be something of an oddity in my afición in English-speaking countries – although there is a Club Taurino of London as there is of New York – but in Spain (or Portugal, France, Mexico, Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, Venezuela) the picture is very different.

Alexander Fiske-Harrison running with the Torrestrella bulls of Álvaro Domecq - striped jacket - in Pamplona (Photo: Joseba Etxaburu - Reuters)

Alexander Fiske-Harrison running with the Torrestrella bulls of Álvaro Domecq – striped jacket – in Pamplona (Photo: Joseba Etxaburu – Reuters)

According to the annual figures on asuntos taurinos, ‘taurine matters’, published by Spain’s Ministry of Culture, the bulls are on the way back for the first time since the world economy collapsed in 2008.

The number of full-fledged corridas in 2015 stabilised at 394, down only 1% since 2014 compared with that year’s drop of 7% on the year before and 10% before that.

There were even large increases in some regions – Andalusia, Aragon, Murcia, the two Castiles and the Basque Country – and it seems that Madrid was the real fall, perhaps a reflection of the strange political stirrings going on in the capital.

The number of bullfights in the broader sense of the word – including novilladas for novices and rejoneo for horseback toreros etc., – 80% of which occur in Andalusia, Madrid and the two Castiles,  had fallen by 7% to 1,736, but this after a slight increase the year before.

Far more importantly in a country where subsidies distort the market, the number of people actually attending bullfights in 2015 was up to 3.7 million, an increase of more than a third of a million since 2011 when my book came out. Back, in fact, to pre-financial crisis levels.

This is alongside some 6.4 million having watched bullfighting on the television to which it had only returned in 2015 (and half a million more on the internet.) Continue reading

Advertisements

THE PAMPLONA POST: The Dangerous Summer: Editor’s (my) article In The Telegraph

Untitled

the-telegraph-logo

Alexander Fiske-Harrison running the bulls in Cuéllar on morning described (Photo © Antonio Tanarro / El Norte de Castilla)

Alexander Fiske-Harrison running the bulls in Cuéllar on the morning described in the article (Photo © Antonio Tanarro / El Norte de Castilla)

My article on the extraordinary fatality rate in the encierros, ‘bull-runs’, and other ‘popular’ taurine events this year, and why we continue to participate in them, is in The Telegraph today (to read on click here.)

Alexander Fiske-Harrison

Cuéllar: Bullfight Minus Bull Equals Fight

the-last-arena-logo

11828749_875519032541460_7081789042409516294_n

Over at the bull-running blog The Pamplona Post, I had vowed to write my first proper review for  some time of a corrida de toros, the tragic drama culminating in a ritual sacrifice we wrongly call a ‘bullfight’ in English.

I was in Cuéllar in Old Castille, which hosts the most ancient encierros, ‘bull-runs’, in Spain. I have been going to the town to run with the bulls there for a few years, and brought many friends with me along the way. When I first arrived the wasn’t a single foreigner here and I wrote it up Financial Times.

FT Cuellar article online

Anyway, the fact that I have returned to the same town, the same hotel in fact – thank you Hostal Mesón San Francisco – for the entire six day Feria de Nuestra Señora del Rosario on the last weekend in August every year says how much I enjoy it. However, this is in part because of the people, the town in both its location – an hour and a half from Madrid – and the dilapidated beauty of its buildings and general ambiance, as well as its unique encierros, of which there are five on consecutive mornings.

However, I have never spoken here about what happens in the plaza de toros, the ‘bull-ring’. This is because I realise how precious the feria is to the locals.

Manuel Escribano and Alexander Fiske-Harrison (on Tramadol and Oxycodon for broken ribs, see post here. (Photo: Lore Monnig)

Manuel Escribano and Alexander Fiske-Harrison heavily medicated. Noted young Welsh bull-runner Jordan Tipples is in the background.  (Photo: Lore Monnig)

This year, though, I wasn’t only there for the bull-running, although I was in  writing on that subject for the Telegraph. I had also brought a group ranging from the BBC to Lore Monnig, President of the New York City Taurino, and so I knew the corrida would be under serious scrutiny as well.

We had dinner with the main matador, Manuel Escribano, the night before, although I was far from at my best having broken my ribs saving children from an escaped bull in the streets earlier that day (almost, real story here.) As the photo shows I’m dosed on red wine, vodka, Tramadol and Oxycodon. Continue reading

Love of animals or hatred of man?

the-last-arena-logo

El País, Spain's equivalent of The Guardian (The Guardian ran the story here.)

El País, Spain’s equivalent of The Guardian (The Guardian ran the story here.)

Francisco Rivera Ordóñez, born to fame… and to pain

This is the headline of the article by Antonio Lorca, bullfighting critic, in the culture section of El País, Spain’s left of centre national newspaper. Francisco is, along with his brother the matador Cayetano, heir to the greatest dynasty in the history of bullfighting.

Their father was Francisco Rivera Peréz, ‘Paquirri’, killed by a bull in 1984, a death made all the more famous since it was televised, as were his final moments on the surgeon’s table, telling the panicking medical staff that it didn’t matter, to remain calm. The effect of this death on his youngest son, my friend the matador Cayetano, I quoted in my previous post. I am sure his older brother Francisco felt similarly.

How Cayetano feels today I dare not ask: Francisco, who had also taken his father’s nom de guerre Paquirri, was gored by a bull in Huesca in Aragon in north-eastern Spain, a horn entering his abdominal cavity to a depth of 25cm – or a foot – hitting everything from his spine to his aorta in its visceral trajectory. As an admirer who has always found him charm itself in person, I wish him a swift and complete recovery.

In fact, let me rephrase that, as a human being of good conscience, I wish him a swift and complete recovery. Even were I to think the method of killing cattle used in the bullrings of Spain morally inferior to that in our British or American slaughterhouses I would not wish my fellow man anything else.

Yes, the bullfight – as we wrongly translated the word corrida – is a twenty-minute long staged ‘combat’ from the bull’s perspective (it is a dance from the man’s hence it is reviewed as such in the culture section) and some people might think this is worse than queuing for hours with the stench of death in the abattoir, even despite the average fighting bull dying at 5-years-old after living wild in forests while the average meat cow is reared in a corral or pen and died at 18 months, but that arguable ethical stance wouldn’t make me wish death on the practitioners of the art and craft of toreo. I eat cattle on the whim of their flavour, not from any need. This tells me everything about their actual moral status. N.B. All of the carcases end up in the food chain.

Francisco is carried wounded from the ring. Although not toreando, 'fighting', that day, the matador Juan José Padilla ran in unarmed to help save his injured friend. He was my first teacher in the ring, and I wrote the sotry of his comeback after he lost his eye for GQ here.

El Mundo, Spain’s equivalent of The Times. (My interview with Francisco’s brother Cayetano for the Sunday Times magazine is here. The man with an eyepatch carrying him is my friend the matador Juan José Padilla. My account of his comeback after losing his eye to a bull is in GQ magazine here.

Police asked to act against ‘death threats to Fran Rivera on Twitter

However, in some cases an apparent – and loudly asserted – love of animals is actually a device to justify and conceal a deep hatred of humanity, especially of any variations or differences in it, anything that disagrees with your world view: the mask of overt and virtuous love soon slips to reveal skull of snarling, spitting hate beneath. Such as we see in the headline above. Much the same, I suspect, was true in the case of the unfortunate old lion, who people insist on calling Cecil as though he would have come if called, who was illegally shot in Zimbabwe. (I wrote about it in some detail on my personal blog here.) Continue reading

Bullfighting Roundup

the-last-arena-logo

This year was meant to be a quiet for me in terms of los toros, but instead I find myself booked to run the encierros – ‘bull runs’ – and watch the corridas – ‘bullfights’ (a misnomer, it is neither a fight nor a sport, but a dramatic spectacle culminating in a ritual sacrifice)- and capeas – ‘messing about with bulls’ (?) – in Tafalla and Falces in Navarre, San Sebastián de los Reyes in Madrid and Cuéllar in Old Castile – the four fingers of la mano de los encierros  – of which Pamplona is el pulgar, fuerte y torcido – ‘the strong, crooked thumb’.

While the newly deputised Lucy has done a great job in summing up this year’s Fiesta of San Fermín over at ‘The Pamplona Post‘ (and I have written on non-taurine matters at ‘Xander’s Blog‘), I thought I’d better write a few words on the world of the bulls.

El Cid in Seville in 2011 (Photo: Alexander Fiske-Harrison)

I do not go to this small but emblematic selection of the hundreds of encierros in Spain to watch good corridas. I do not believe in running bulls on the morning of their corrida any more than I would advocate a hard morning work-out for a race-horse, or a ballerina, or a chess player, or a fencer…

Seated, L-R, Jim Hollander, David Mora and Julen Madina (Photo: Alexander Fiske-Harrison)

Seated, L-R, Jim Hollander, David Mora and Julen Madina (Photo: Alexander Fiske-Harrison)

However, I did once see an excellent and educational performance by El Cid in Cuéllar, no more than four foot away from me in my relatively cheap front row seats in the shade (barrera sombra, bought from the ticket window at the ring that day.) So I am happy to see Cid fighting once again, along with David Mora, although he did say to me on the last day of Pamplona’s feria that he would not be able to bullfight again until next year, so one wonders who will replace him.

If the left-wing press is to be believed, all is not well in the world of the bulls in general. The centre-right governing party of Spain, El Partido Popular, has become not so popular, and as a result local government elections have put various centre left, crypto-Trotskyist and quasi-anarcho-syndicalist people in power at the lower levels. This has resulted in a call in a dozen municipalities, including cities such as Alicante, for referenda on whether these events should be banned altogether. Even in Madrid,

the new city government, led by Mayor Manuela Carmena of the leftist bloc Ahora Madrid, has given up its box at Las Ventas bullring. Carmena has announced that she intends to turn the Spanish capital into “an animal-friendly city” and supports eliminating all subsidies to bullfighter training schools and bullfights.

(Courtesy of El Pais)

All this despite the fact that in 2014 the newly released figures from the Ministry of Culture show that for the first time since 2007 when the economic collapse began, the number of bull-based festivals in Spain actually increased.

Last year there were 1,868 taurine festivals, an increase of 0.5% on 2013. Yes, corridas de toros – full-scale, old school ‘bullfights’ – are down 7% to 398, but advanced novice corridas, novilladas con picadors,  are up, as is horse-back bullfighting, rejoneo, and corridas mixtas which combine bullfighting on foot with rejoneo.

This is largely to do with an economic resurgence starting in the province of Madrid (77.6% of all festivals are held in the regions of Andalusia, Madrid, Castille and Leon and Castille and La Mancha.)

It is also interesting that since San Sebastián, the Basque seaside town,  was recovered by Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) from the radical leftists of Bildu, the ban on bull events has been lifted.

A final little interesting factoid. There are 10,194 registered professional bullfighters of all varieties in Spain of whom 249 or 2.4% are women. 801 are fully-fledged matadors while 3,018 are novice matadors.

This year running with the bulls in Pamplona, I fell in probably the most dangerous place on the run, the narrow entry into the bull-ring, where if the bulls don’t get you, the people falling on top of you will – that is not hyperbole, in 1977 José Joaquín Esparza died from crush-injuries in a pile-up in exactly that place. Although I advise beginners against it, I could see the way was clear of cattle and got up and ran safely into the ring. Jim Hollander caught the moment I fell – and even though it is clear I was pushed, as a matter of decency we call it falling, people in panic cannot be blamed.

Alexander Fiske-Harrison in his striped jacket (Photo: Jim Hollander)

Alexander Fiske-Harrison in his striped jacket (Photo: Jim Hollander)

All throughout that day, including while providing humorous commentary for NBC’s Esquire Network, I had a phrase of Robert Browning going through my head.

“We fall to rise.”

Alexander Fiske-Harrison, centre, with the 'Men in Blazers' for Esquire TV (Photo: Toni-Ann Lagana)

Alexander Fiske-Harrison, centre, with the ‘Men in Blazers’ for Esquire TV (Photo: Toni-Ann Lagana)

So do the bulls. I’ll leave you with the astonishing recent words of my dear friend, the matador Cayetano Rivera Ordóñez, whose father the star matador Paquirri, was killed by a bull in the ring in 1984. Forgive my translation, Cayetano, of these emotional words. (He speaks English far better than this, I just can’t translate the conversational idiom of his Spanish without deviating wildly from his words.)

“Personally, I can say that the bull was for a long time that which taught me to hate.  I lost my father to the bull when I was 7 years old and at that age and much later I still had no awareness of why things happen, but precisely because of the bullfighting culture, the ‘taurine’ education, the respect, the values that my family taught me about our tradition and our culture I learned to forgive, to respect and to love the animal that today and I am here to show respect and love for. As a bullfighter I ask the respect to keep doing what I love: with all the respect and love that I feel for the animal. When I speak of my bull’s rights, and although it sounds like a cliché, to a bullfighter there is no one that respects and loves the bull more.”

Ernest Hemingway and Antonio Ordonez - Alexander Fiske-Harrison and Cayetano Rivera Ordonez, his grandson

Ernest Hemingway and Antonio Ordonez – Alexander Fiske-Harrison and Cayetano Rivera Ordonez, his grandson

Alexander Fiske-Harrison

P.S. I should also point out the excellent writer Joseph S. Furey’s piece on Pamplona in the Daily Telegraph magazine last Saturday. As good a description as there’s been in the British press (online here.)

Telegraph

The Pamplona Post: A Paean to Pamplona

This is the full version of what I submitted for my regular column ‘By The Sword’ in Taki’s Magazine. As you can see here, about half was cut, leaving only a narcissistic skeleton, rather than the other people, which is what Fiesta is all about. (I forget whether it was Stephen Ibarra or Rick Musica, those pillars of Pamplona, who said that if they took the bulls away from the feria, but kept the people, they’d still come, but if they took away the people, it wouldn’t be worth it for the bulls alone. Which is why so many of them are mentioned. Those that I could not fit even in this are mentioned in the post-script.)

Noel Chandler & Alexander Fiske-Harrison by David Penton

Noel Chandler & Alexander Fiske-Harrison, Pamplona 2012 (Photo: David Penton)

The great thing is to last and get your work done and see and hear and learn and understand; and write when there is something that you know; and not before; and not too damned much after.
Ernest Hemingway, Death In the Afternoon 1932

In 2009 I first came to Pamplona to run with the bulls to give a first-person perspective to that chapter of my book on the “world of the Spanish bullfight.” I was terrified in that complete and overwhelming way that total ignorance brings, standing on a street corner where a friend had stood for his first time the day before – that was the sum total of advice I had been given – and waiting for death to come.

I comported myself honourably but not brilliantly and did so again two days later before boarding a train to Barcelona and vowing never to come to the city again. The relentless loud, bad music, the all-day drinking by people who clearly hadn’t washed in some time, and the fact that the corridas, ‘the bullfights’ (as I’ve said in this column before, it’s neither a fight nor a sport) were made abysmal by even worse music played by multiple bands in the audience in apparent competition with one another, all combined to set me firmly against in this Navarran Fiesta. The place seemed crude, cruel and uncouth compared to the sun-blasted, deathless dignity of Andalusia where my aficion for the bulls was formed.

Then, two years later, after the book came out, a Reuters journalist called Angus MacSwan asked to interview me. By then I had been worn smooth and glib by endlessly justifying the ritual injuring and killing of animals in the ring and so was surprised when he told me outright that he liked the book but that I was wrong about one thing: Pamplona… Read on at The Pamplona Post by clicking here.

untitled3

Alexander Fiske-Harrison