An Essay On Bullfighting

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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

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The Cult Of The Bull

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As the 2013 season draws to a close, I have just received my copy of Olé! Capturing the Passion of Bullfighters and Aficionados in the 21st Century, which is filled with chapters and photos by some the foremost among the English-speaking faithful in the Spanish ‘Cult Of The Bull’, brought together and edited by Hal Marcovitz. (Available at Amazon in the US here, and the UK here.)

Among famous names such as Edward Lewine of the The New York Times, and John Hemingway, grandson of Ernest, there is an amazing chapter by the primus inter pares among runners of the bulls of Pamplona, the great Joe Distler, a veteran of over three hundred and sixty encierros, ‘bull-runs’, who “took me under his wing” (as I say in the book), and augmented and altered my afición, which was born in the flamenco and duende laden south of Spain.

It was he who suggested I write my own chapter in the book, and alongside us our friends and running mates Larry Belcher, a Texan rodeo rider turned professor at the University of Valladolid, Jim Hollander and the greatest photographer of Pamplona and the war-zones and torn places of the Earth for EPA.

There are also wonderful photographs, alongside those by Jim (who is responsible for the stunning cover), from my dear friend from Seville, Nicolás Haro, shortlisted contestant for the internationally presitigious Photo España prize.

(Nicolás also took the black and white photos in my own William Hill Sports Book of the Year shortlisted Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight.)

His work on horses is being exhibited in an exhibition in Seville on December 3rd (for which I have literally just filed the ‘foreword’ to the catalogue.)

Photo Espana Nicolas Haro

I should add a mention of my review of the complete letters of Hemingway, from the period 1923-1925, when his interest in bullfighting and Spain first developed, for The Spectator, online here.

However, it is not my own writing I should like to promote in this blog post, but that of the other writers in Olé!, some of whom I have not exactly seen eye-to-eye with over the years.

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Alexander Fiske-Harrison in ‘ABC’: “Many foreigners would not spend a cent in Spain without the bulls.”

The Spanish national newspaper ABC ran the following interview with me last week (with photos by Nicolás Haro).

The online version is available here. The beginning translates in a way you would only find in Spain:

Alexander Fiske-Harrison at his book launch in Seville (ABC)

Alexander Fiske-Harrison: “Many foreigners would not spend a cent in Spain without the bulls.”

Interview by Anna Grau

A British Gentleman passionate about the Fiesta, he is an amateur matador (the “bullfighter-philosopher” they call him) and has published a book on the art of bullfighting.

To Alexander Fiske-Harrison in his own country, which is the UK, some call him the “bullfighter-philosopher.” While others send him death threats, since he has gone from being active supporter of animal rights and a student of philosophy and piology in London and Oxford to being a matador in Spain. He is the author of Into the Arena (Profile Books), treatise on Spanish bullfighting for non-believers and foreigners. Many of which, he notes, come to our country intensely attracted to the fiesta nacional… and would swiftly back from where they came if this disappeared.

How to ask this man what he thinks of bullfighting ban in Barcelona? “Since then, the only money I’ve spent there has been to take a taxi from the airport to the train station to go to run with the bulls in Pamplona, a city that invests 4 million Euros each year in the Feria de San Fermín, and gets in return 60 million Euros from tourism.” Clear cut. Continue reading

The Times: Toreros Through Time, captioned by Alexander Fiske-Harrison

 

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José Tomás: And The Myth Was Made Flesh Once More

When perhaps the greatest matador in history, José Tomás, returned to the ring from his inexplicable five-year retirement in 2007, the Spanish press ran with the headline, “And The Myth Was Made Flesh.” At that time, I had never seen him bullfight, and thought it pure journalistic hyperbole. Since then I have and have chosen this headline myself as a result. The Agence-France Presse released this report on his astonishing re-emergence from near-death and appalling injury:

Jose Tomas makes triumphant comeback to bullring in Spain

VALENCIA, Spain — Acclaimed Spanish bullfighter Jose Tomas made a triumphant comeback to the bullring Saturday, receiving a standing ovation more than a year after a bloody goring in Mexico that almost killed him. The 35-year-old, wearing a purple and gold outfit, offered his first bull of the night, a 502-kilogramme beast, to the doctors who had helped him recover. He was less successful with his second bull, a 556-kilo four-and-a-half-year-old, but delighted the sell-out crowd of 11,000, many of whom had traveled from overseas to see the spectacle in the eastern city of Valencia. Tomas was seriously gored and almost died in a bullfight April 24 last year in Aguasclientes, Mexico. A 470-kilo (1,000-pound) bull named Navegante, his second bull of the evening, thrust its horn into the muscle of Tomas’s left thigh, puncturing the artery and causing the bullfighter to lose about half of his blood. In September he will be able to fight at Barcelona’s Monumental ring in what may be the last La Merced festival before a bullfighting ban in the Catalonia region comes into force next year. Copyright © 2011 AFP. All rights reserved

In celebration of this return, I have put below my description of what I believe to Tomás’s greatest corrida de toros, in Jerez de la Frontera in 2009, where he fought alongside the matadors El Cid, who featured in my Prospect magazine article that led to my becoming a bullfighter (available here), and my great friend Juan José Padilla (whom you can read more about in my The Pamplona Post article here).
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