What to do in Seville aside from bullfighting: click here to read.
What to do in Seville aside from bullfighting: click here to read.
Anyone who speaks of their first time in the ring in terms of the sweat or the heat, the overwhelming fatigue or the numbing fear, the grittiness of the sand under foot, or the particular odour the Spanish fighting bull brings with it from the corrals, is either lying, misremembering or deranged. For such detailed cognition is not how such massive levels of acute stress work in the normal human mind.
When you are first faced with a bull your world consists of two things: the animal’s eyes and where they are looking, and the animal’s horns and where they are going. As the saying goes of war: there are far too many things to be afraid of to have time to be scared.
By the time I was facing a big animal – three years old and weighing a third of a ton – I had learned how to control that adrenal flow so that I could devote time to reading the animal. For example, seeing which horn he preferred to lead with (like boxers, bulls are either southpaw or orthodox), and noticing whether he wanted to break into a canter in a close-range charge or preferred merely to extend his trot. Then there was the choice of pass I’d make with the muleta – the red cloth with a wooden stick for a spine – extended wider with the sword in its folds when used for a derechazo on the right, or on its own on the more risky, but more elegant, left for a pase natural.
Click here to go to the page for a very different sort of interview on bullfighting…
I have just released a book, which I edited and co-authored, titled The Bulls Of Pamplona (purchase details and the July 7th post-bull-run Pamplona signing by its authors – 1pm outside Marceliano’s – online here.) Among our list of esteemed authors – including a Hemingway, a Welles, and the finest writers and runners from around the world – there is a foreword “by the Mayor of Pamplona.”
It should be noted that the book has been some time in the making, and when I asked the Spanish Ambassador to the United Kingdom – I had given a speech for him on bullfighting to various notables including British Members of Parliament and Government Ministers, and he did this in return – for some words for the book, he in turn contacted the Ministry of Culture – who regulate the spectacle – who in turn contacted the President of Navarre, the autonomous community of which Pamplona is capital, who in turn contacted the Mayor’s office. The foreword I received back was during the term of office of Enrique Maya. However, given the official channels it came down, it is definitely a foreword by a serving Mayor of Pamplona, written as holder of office, not as private citizen or ex-Mayor.
However, the current Mayor, Joseba Asirón, holds rather different views about the emblematic and iconic Bulls of Pamplona, as anti-taurine organisations like PETA have noted.
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.
In 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 Reuters & EPA photographer Jim Hollander, The Bulls Of Pamplona (And Beyond), was published by Mephisto Press in 2017, 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.
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
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.)
Yesterday, the Spanish regional newspaper El Norte de Castilla – ‘The North of Castile’ – published my third annual ‘thankyou-note’ article about the town of Cuéllar (original Spanish here), in Castile and Leon for its generosity during its feria – my favourite – and its incredible bull-runs. I cannot recommend the town enough to visitors and tourists – especially during the feria, where the bull-runs are as spectacular to watch as they are to participate in (as I have written before for the Financial Times.) The best place to stay is the Hotel Mesón San Francisco (click here to book), and other details of the town are in the article below. It is an hour and a half’s drive from Madrid, or a twenty minute fast train to Segovia and forty minute taxi ride… AFH
For three years now I have come to the heart of Old Castile for the Fair of Our Lady of the Rosary of Cuéllar, and each year before, like a polite but unfamiliar guest, I would write a thank you letter as is the custom of we English. (2012, 2013) Now that I feel know Cuéllar a little better, even if not each of its inhabitants personally, and I can address you less formally, as real friends are allowed to do. And yet there are still so many thanks to be given, and not just from myself in England but also from my other friends whom came from around the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ world this year: from Australia and from Scotland, from Canada and from Wales, even from Australia (you have had celts from Ireland in your Irish pub since before I first came.) And of course, your great sculptor of, historian of and runner of encierros, Dyango Velasco.
(From outside the Saxon world we also brought a crazy Viking from Sweden – who ran with your bulls despite an aneurysm in his leg – and an even crazier Mexican, who never normally runs, except he found himself lost in the forest among the bulls – the blind leading the lame among the lethal.)
We all of us wish to thank Mariano de Frutos, his daughter Elisa and her husband Ruben Salamanca at the Hotel Mesón San Francisco, which was our headquarters in much the same way Hotel Quintana in Pamplona was once that of Ernest Hemingway and his friends – it is also the hotel of the bullfighters, some of whom I still know – and gardens on calle San Francisco are like the outside tables of the Café Iruña, attended with divinely inspired patience by Enrique and Cristina. However, we also ventured beyond our querencia – ‘lair’ – there, to your peñas, beginning on the afternoon of the Pregón with Bill’s presenting his new novel – with me as translator – at El Pañuelo at the invitation of its president Valentin Quevedo on its fiftieth anniversary for CyLTV and various assembled journalists. There is also always Dyango’s peña el Orinal, and the even nameless poker club of Luis Quevedo and his wife Soco since their son Alberto’s Bodega La Carchena has closed. In the words of our poet Tennyson, “though much is taken, much abides.” So instead we went to the flamenco of the Café Theatre Oremus of Marcos Gómez and the taurine bar Paralex of Miguel Ángel Cobos who has more carteles than your town hall, but no bull’s head (yet.)