For The Love Of ‘Toreo’ – article in ‘Boisdale Life’ on bullfighting

FOR THE LOVE OF TOREO

When Englishman, Old Etonian and Boisdale regular Alexander Fiske-Harrison travelled to Spain to write  a book on bullfighting, he never imagined that he’d be stepping into the ring himself. But after he picked up  the red muleta for the first time, everything changed

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.

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An Open Letter to the (new) Mayor of Pamplona


 

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.

At the bullfighting journalism awards 2018, given by the Spanish national newspaper ABC in Seville

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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

Bullfighting Roundup

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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

Fiesta: How To Survive The Bulls Of Pamplona by Fiske-Harrison, Hemingway, Welles… and the Mayor of Pamplona

Out now is the eBook, Fiesta: How To Survive The Bulls Of Pamplona (available on Amazon in all regions – details on website here. ) I edited and contributed to it, as has John Hemingway – Ernest’s grandson, Beatrice Welles – Orson’s daughter, Joe Distler – the greatest ever American bull-runner, Jim Hollander – senior EPA photographer and Pamplona veteran of over 50 years, and four of the greatest Basque and Spanish runners, with over 2,000 bull-runs between them, Julen Madina, Miguel Ángel Eguiluz, Jokin Zuasti and Josechu Lopez (and photos by my old friend Nicolás Haro.)

Of course, you’ll notice the slight Anglo-Spanish imbalance above, so, luckily, Don Enrique Maya, the Mayor of Pamplona since 2011, has just sent me an official ‘Foreword’ to place in the book, making this Fiesta, not just the only guide book of its type, but simply the only guidebook in the English language. I enclose my translation of his Foreword below, for those who have already purchased the eBook (your devices should automatically update with it in the next 24 hours.)

As you can see, the publicity machine has already begun to turn, beginning with the Londoner’s Diary of the Evening Standard below, and SanFermin.com in Pamplona here. Now to finish my articles for The New York Times, Newsweek, hopefully The Toronto Star and, I believe, The Times.

¡Viva San Fermín!

Alexander Fiske-Harrison

evening standard

Alexander Fiske-Harrison’s feeling bullish about some bloody memoirs

Someone hide the red flags. The actor, writer and “bullfighter-philosopher” Alexander Fiske-Harrison has teamed up with John Hemingway — grandson of the novelist and blood-sports enthusiast Ernest — to put together a collection of essays and accounts of the infamous Spanish bull-running festival.

Fiesta: How to Survive the Bulls of Pamplona also includes a brief memoir by the daughter of another famous bullfighting enthusiast — the film director Orson Welles.

“We’re dividing the profits between the five major contributors,” Fiske-Harrison tells The Londoner, “but as photographer Jim Hollander pointed out, he gets the best deal — he’s the only one not running with the bulls in two weeks so may well be the only one around to collect! Although since I’m the editor, he’s going to have to get the money out of my bank account.”

 

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Foreword by the Mayor of Pamplona

Government of Pamplona

The Encierro – the ‘bull-run’ – is rooted deep in the history of Pamplona, where the bulls have, since medieval times, been driven for the evening bullfight from outside the city’s walls to its centre. Over the centuries, the Encierro has grown until it has become a legendary race, combining the weight of a tradition amassed over decades and the universal reach of an international event in the 21st century.

1776 gave us the introduction of fencing on the route of the Encierro; in 1856 the bulls ran for the first time on calle Estafeta; in 1922 the layout we have today was finally settled; in 1974 the start of the race was changed to 8 o’clock in the morning; in 1982 they began live television broadcasts, and this year the Encierro Ordinance has been approved, which regulates the conditions under which the run occurs and establishes appropriate mechanisms to punish (in ways which are minor, serious and very serious) behaviors that are not allowed.

During this time, the Encierro has been built on the work of thousands of people and with the scrupulous respect for a thing as attractive as it is dangerous. Because, as is well recognised in the title of this book, “How to Survive the bulls of Pamplona,” the story of the Encierro is also a hard story, alternating joys and victorious moments with black days in our old festival calendar. In fact, since the San Fermín festival last year, one of the fence posts located in the plaza Consistorial serves as a tribute to the 15 people who have lost their lives on the run, with a caption that reads “To the fallen of the Encierro.”

With all its sharp edges, its beauty, its danger and its difficulties, the Encierro is now a spectacular space, with close to 3,500 runners risking their lives every morning, backed up by first-class support along the entire route and with more than 440 journalists accredited to send their updates to countries in all continents.

However, beyond the importance of the Encierro, the appeal of the fiestas of San Fermín are not just in the legendary run. We have eight and a half days full of joy and fun, and with a festive array composed of more than 400 events, most notably the Chupinazo, Procession and dances of the Giants and Big Heads, that underpin the excellent environment that lives on the streets of Pamplona and serves to renew year after year, the greatness of an long-awaited and heartfelt holiday.

As Mayor of Pamplona it is a great joy to participate in a book like this, especially one aimed at the English-speaking community, because of its commitment to approaching the San Fermín liturgy with respect for the traditions of Pamplona as its roadmap, and valuable testimonies from people who have, over decades, learned how participate in the Encierro with aplomb.

In this sense, I want to take the opportunity afforded to me in this foreword to congratulate Alexander Fiske-Harrison for this story, and all those who took part in this project. I am sure that this work will become a great reference for all lovers of the Encierro beyond our borders, and serve as a source of information for people who want to find out the details that have defined, for centuries, the most famous bull-run in the world.

And finally, a tip. If you have the opportunity to visit, do not hesitate. Pamplona awaits you with open arms and with only two conditions: the desire to have a good time and respect for the city and its traditions.

¡Viva San Fermín!

Don Enrique Maya

Mayor of Pamplona – 2011 to present day

With thanks to Doña Yolanda Barcina, President of the Government of Navarre.
Govenment of Navarra
And to His Excellency, Federico Trillo-Figueroa Martínez-Conde, Ambassador from the Kingdom of Spain to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and El Señor Fidel López Álvarez, Minister-Counsellor for Cultural Affairs.

Government of Spain

 

An English farewell – ‘Una despedida Inglés’

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A portrait of me by Nicolás Haro

I wrote on this blog just before the April Fair that I first came to Seville on the back of a broken relationship ten years before. My dates were wrong: it was in June. This June, I found myself back again.

Seeing things through different eyes, a realisation came over me, which I have expressed in my column in today’s issue of Taki’s Magazine, centring as it does on the saddest story in cinema, Orson Welles. Even the title is a quotation from the great man: ‘The Second-Hand Men’. As I write there,

Welles either couldn’t admit to himself or couldn’t say out loud that the more pressing issue is not just becoming audience rather than artist, but in being fêted for just sitting in the stands and reveling in that. At this point one has slid from the morally and aesthetically questionable world of the voyeur to the far more reprehensible one of poseur.
(To read the column in full click here.)

Cf., the photo above…

At the same time, fate conspired me to spend a little time with all the people who helped me make, and themselves made up, my book on this beautiful and strange land, Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight.

As I describe in the column, I stood in front of the last lot of Saltillos ever to exit the gates of Félix and Enrique Moreno de la Cova’s ranch ‘Miravalles’, alongside my former Maestro, the ex-matador Eduardo Dávila Miura. And given what I used to be able to do…

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Me with a Saltillo bull in 2010 (Photo Nicolás Haro)

… what remained of my bullfighting technique was a rather poor thing…

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Me with a Saltillo becerra in 2013 (Photo: Miguel Santos)

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Me with a Saltillo becerra in 2013 (Photo: Miguel Santos)

However, it was still an emotional day with a large audience, many toritos and vaquillas, young bulls and cows, for the toreros practicós, ‘amateur bullfighters’, and a beautiful long lunch at the former Saltillo finca ‘La Vega’ afterwards, even if I was not in any condition to enjoy it as much as I should.

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The last capea of Saltillo at Miravalles (Photo: Miguel Santos)

Having realised that I was now just a torero on paper – a second-hand guy on the sand – I decided to quit while I was still ahead. (The bulls gave me a great deal, and I gave a great deal back, but they took something as well.)

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A portrait of me by Nicolás Haro

First, I paid a visit to my old friend and frequent collaborator, the photographer Nicolás Haro, who took these portrait shots while I could still fit into my traje corto. Hopefully, Nicolás and I will soon be collaborating once more on a book about the psychological link between horses and men, a centaur project to balance our minotaur one (Nicolás took the black and white photos for Into The Arena.) The initial collection of Nicolás’s photos for this project have already been nominated for one of the most prestigious international photographic contests held in Spain: PhotoEspaña.)

I will, once I have completed my new novel, finished the task of washing the blood from my hands with a book on what Teddy Roosevelt called “the beast of waste and desolation” and Man’s Best Friend: wolves and dogs.

That said, as you can see from the cover of this new book, Olé! Capturing the Passion of Bullfighters and Aficionados in the 21st Century, due to be published in the United States in the next few weeks, I have been writing on the bulls up to the very last minute (my chapter also contains great photos by Nicolás.)

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Before I left, I even got to say farewell to that one-eyed gladiator, my first teacher, Juan José Padilla, when he fought in the feria de manzanilla in his home town of Sanlúcar de Barrameda. (These photos are by me.)

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20130612-011107.jpgAnd then a last adíos to that matador de arte from the greatest of the taurine dynasties, my dear friend Cayetano Rivera Ordóñez, who was my chauffeur from Seville to Ronda so I could talk about Orson Welles, whose ashes are interred at his family home.

So, all that remains for me to do is say farewell to the streets of Pamplona in July with a couple of runs among their bulls, and those of that other, and more ancient, bull-running town Cuéllar in August (I wrote comparing and contrasting them in the Financial Times last weekend, linked to here.) I even have an invitation from Cayetano to join him in the ring (on a ranch in Ronda) one last time for “amusement” on the morning of the Feria Goyesca. We will see…

However, such amusements and formalities to one side, I’m done here. “There’s a world elsewhere.”

Alexander Fiske-Harrison

To read my Takimag column in full click here.

P.S. In a neat and final symmetry, having reached my highest point on talking about the bulls – the speech I gave to the Reform Club at the request of, and beside, the Spanish Ambassador – I have now gone full circle and been invited to talk about the bulls at my old school, Eton. I wonder if they know I’ll be running my last runs in my Eton College Athletic Club Colours blazer (400m). It’s the striped one on the right – I have my hand on the bull for balance – in this Reuters photo in 2011.

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My Speech on the bulls before the Spanish Ambassador at the Reform Club

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A Celebration of

The Reform Club and Spain

Thursday 16th May 2013 at 7pm

The evening will commence with a Reception at 7pm., to take place on the Gallery, when members will be invited to enjoy acorn-fed Iberian ham and Gazpacho, served with Gonzalez Byass’s Palo Cortado Leonor sherry. Dinner will be served at 7.30 pm in the Smoking Room, prior to which Father Jorge Boronat will offer Bendecir la mesa

Musical entertainment will be provided between courses when Isabel Maria Martinez Garrido, guitarist, and Ricard Rovirosa, pianist, will perform some memorable Spanish pieces by, among others, the composers Manuel de Falla and Enrique Granados. The evening will be further enhanced with an address by Alexander Rupert Fiske-Harrison, renowned academic, writer, broadcaster, and actor, who will speak on ‘The British and the Bulls: A History of Love and Hate from Charles I to Churchill and beyond’ Alexander, pictured in the photo is a sought after speaker whose topic is guaranteed to provide much food for thought.

The Club is honoured that the Spanish Ambassador to London, His Excellency Frederico Trillo-Figueroa will be present. His Excellency will be accompanied by Mr. Fidel López Álvarez, Minister for Cultural and Scientific Affairs.

Government of Spain logo

Embajada de España en Londres

Oficina de Asuntos Culturales y Científicos

INTRODUCTION OF THE SPEAKER ALEXANDER FISKE-HARRISON

(Reform Club May 16th 2013)

Mr. Chairman

Ambassador

Ladies and gentlemen

As you all know it is nearly impossible to resist Audri’s enthusiasm when she is on the march; so, I have no option but to go along and, i must confess, happily become another victim of her charm. Thanks to her initiative and the support of some others we all are here tonight enjoying a delicious Spanish dinner and prepared to listen to our speaker.

When Audry invited me to look for a speaker I was thinking on someone knowledgeable of both Spanish and British cultures. The task seemed easy, since I had nearly a million Britons living in Spain to choose from, but I finally decide to get someone living in the UK; at least it was much cheaper.

Tonight speaker, Alexander Fiske Harrison, is, first of all, son of a former Reform club member and very appropriate for tonight speech, because he loves his country and Spain too He’s an Oxford graduate in biology, actor, writer and journalist, runner before Pamplona’s bulls and even torero!

In the summer of 2008 Alexander Fiske Harrison was acting in a play two streets from this club, in the Jermyn street theatre. That play went so “well” that he decided to give up the stage for the sand of the bullring and moved to Spain to write about the – for him – alien world of the Spanish fighting bulls.

By the spring of 2010, the London times was calling him “the bullfighter-philosopher”, even though he had never fought a bull (and he never made it beyond the second year of his doctorate in philosophy!)

In 2011 his book “into the arena” was published and was shortlisted for the William Hill sports book of the year award, even though he wrote in the book, and in the daily telegraph on the eve of the prize-giving, that bullfighting is definitely not a sport. No wonder he did not win.

Tonight we have the opportunity of listening to a real Oxbridge British on his personal experience in Spain. The title of his speech is “The British and the Bulls: a history of love and hate from Charles I to Churchill and beyond”.

With you Mr. Alexander Fiske Harrison.

Thank you.

Alexander Fiske-Harrison, Palma del Río, Spain, 2010 (Photo: Nicolás Haro)

Alexander Fiske-Harrison, Palma del Río, Spain, 2010 (Photo: Nicolás Haro)

Su Excelencia, my Lords, Ladies and Gentleman,

When I originally came up with this title, I thought I would be speaking for longer, so forgive me if this seems a little shorter and more anecdotal than you might have hoped.

So, for my first anecdote: the day after published my book Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight (http://www.intothearena.co.uk), I was in a taxi on my way to be interviewed on the BBC. The driver, hearing the address, asked what I was going there for. I said I was being interviewed about bullfighting.

“Oh, I can’t be having with that…”

“…I know,” I said, “it can seem terribly cruel…”

“…no, it’s not that.”

“What then?”

“My mother always told me never to play with my food.”

This anecdote is the frame to all our talk about bullfighting in Britain, but it is so often forgotten. The debate is not about “animals”, a word which we always associate with our pets, but what we do to things which we kill for food, before we do the killing. The toro bravo, the distinct breed that is the Spanish fighting bull, enters the food chain, although nowadays most of it is not for human consumption. It is too tough. The fighting bull is reared in natural forests and meadows until the age of five, running and combating with his herd mates, building hard muscle.

The 3 million or so cattle we kill in the UK die at eighteen months after largely corralled lives. Of the 35 million they kill in the US, 78% are factory farmed. And the fact is we don’t need to eat meat – vegetarians live longer –we eat it for the flavour, for the pleasure of our palates: these millions are killed for entertainment, just like the six thousand fighting bulls in the rings of Spain last year.

Here you have the first problem with after dinner speaking about bullfighting… it is hard to deal with it lightly. It is a serious thing. The Spanish poet Federico García Lorca went so far as to call it “the last serious thing left in the world today.”

I think it is statements like that which often rouse British scepticism. There is a certain Latin poetic temperament, an operatic temperament almost, which thrills to seriousness, to drama, to ritual. And this is found in spades in the world of the bulls. The man who taught me most about bullfighting, the former matador Eduardo Dávila Miura, whose uncles breed the so-called ‘Bulls of Death’, the Miuras, once said to me – “fighting with bulls is like talking to God.”

The British find this sort of talk hyperbole, melodrama. We like our courage discrete, our stiff upper lip to be discharged with a wry smile and a raised eyebrow.

In contrast, the opening sequence of the bullfight is a man, wearing silk and gold, standing erect and still in front of a half ton of charging bull, and bringing the bull past him with the capote, the large cape, in a move called the veronica, named after Saint Veronica, who wiped the face of Christ with a cloth on his way to Golgotha as the bullfighter wipes the face of the bull. No wonder the British and Spanish don’t always see eye to eye on this!

Which brings me to me neatly to my first little historical aside and a sentence I dared myself to say in this august company: following the unfortunate events of the Spanish Armada…

… and the often forgotten, equally disastrous, English Armada the following year our two kings, James the First and Philip the Third, agreed on a peace, and as part of that came to a deal by which James’s second son, Charles, would marry Philip’s second daughter, Maria Anna.

Plaza Mayor, Madrid

Plaza Mayor, Madrid

The short version of the story is that Charles’s brother died, he became Prince of Wales, and negotiations stalled. So Charles visited Spain incognito in 1623 with his friend the Duke of Buckingham, travelling under the names of Thomas and John Smith and arriving at the British Ambassador, Lord Bristol’s door in Madrid rather to his surprise.

The Spanish King was informed and so, in the way of Spain, immediately arranged a bullfight in the Plaza Mayor of Madrid. Here is a near-contemporary account which, for some reason, begins halfway through.

Therefore, after the three bulls had been killed, and the fourth a coming forth, there appeared four gentlemen in good equipage; not long after a brisk lady, in most gorgeous apparel, attended with persons of quality, and some three or four grooms, walked all along, the square a foot. Astonishment seized upon the beholders, that one of the female sex could assume the unheard boldness of exposing herself to the violence of the most furious beast yet seen, which had overcome, yea, almost killed, two men of great strength, courage, and dexterity. Incontinently the bull rushed towards the corner where the lady and her attendants stood; she, after all had fled, drew forth her dagger very unconcernedly, and thrust it most dexterously into the bull’s neck, having catched hold of his horn; by which stroke, without any more trouble, her design was brought to perfection; after which turning about towards the king’s balcony, she made her obeysance, and withdrew herself in suitable state and gravity.

Sir, did you ever see, or hear, any example to parallel this? Wonderful indeed! that a faintJiearted feeble woman, one would think, should stand in the fields undauntedly, after her attendants had quickly made their escape, yea, and have overcome such a furious creature as that bull was.

I will not conceal the mystery of the matter from you. This person was a man, though in the habit of a woman, of great experience, agility, and resolution, who had been well inured to this hard labour at several other occasions, whom they appointed to be disguised so much the rather, that the Prince of Wales might be the more taken with the thing.

(James Salgado, 1683)

Now, no record exists of Charles’s immediate reaction, but I think we can deduce from the fact that he not only returned to England and demanded we declare war on Spain, but also married a Frenchwoman, that perhaps this bloody show, the climax of which was the revelation that the woman was actually a man all along – a transvestite torero – hadn’t had the desired effect on the Royal guests…

It is hard to see when during the evolution of the bullfight this scene is set. There has been a transition in that history from a knightly jousting of bulls, after which the bull was finished off by a servant of the knight – a man known as the killer, the matador – to the servant’s metaphorical ascendance over his master, who became his picador.

This climax of this usually located in the 18th century, with Pedro Romero of Ronda, the first matador to bring art to the arena as well as risk.

What does one mean by art? Well, by this point, the corrida de toros had its present structure of three acts. Opening with the matador with the large cape, then the testing of the bulls fortitude and ferocity against the lancer on horseback, the picador, then the display of athleticism which is the placing of the barbed banderilla-sticks, and then finally the dance with the matador ending in the kill, the moment of truth, and the moment of greatest risk to the matador.

That there is risk is undeniable, although courtesy of antibiotics and surgery’s astonishing advances, no bullfighter has died in some years. That said 533 noted matadors, banderilleros, and picadors have died in the past three centuries – and that’s just the noted professionals.

It is during an early phase of the evolution in this deadly “art” – I always think of it as a tragic play with a ritual sacrifice at its heart – that my next character appears, George Gordon Noel, Lord Byron.

Lord Byron by Richard Westall (Wikipedia)

In the Childe Harold Pilgrimage, Byron describes a bullfight he’d seen in Cadiz during his Grand Tour in 1809 thus:

Thrice sounds the Clarion; lo! the signal falls,

The den expands, and Expectation mute

Gapes round the silent circle’s peopled walls.

Bounds with one lashing spring the mighty brute,

And, wildly staring, spurns, with sounding foot,

The sand, nor blindly rushes on his foe:

Here, there, he points his threatening front, to suit

His first attack, wide-waving to and fro

His angry tail; red rolls his eye’s dilated glow.

But by the end:

Foil’d, bleeding, breathless, furious to the last,

Full in the centre stands the bull at bay,

Mid wounds, and clinging darts, and lances brast,

And foes disabled in the brutal fray:

And now the Matadores around him play,

Shake the red cloak, and poise the ready brand:

Once more through all he bursts his thundering way —

Vain rage! the mantle quits the cunning hand,

Wraps his fierce eye — ’tis past — he sinks upon the sand!

And Byron’s conclusion ?

Such the ungentle sport that oft invites

The Spanish maid, and cheers the Spanish swain.

Nurtured in blood betimes, his heart delights

In vengeance, gloating on another’s pain.

(1812)

Now, there is no denying that the bullfight was much bloodier then than now, not least with the injury and death of the horses, which has not occurred since the introduction of the peto armoured covering in the 1920s.

However, the heart of the matter is that Lord Byron, was that most British of things – and I include myself as one too – an animal lover. He famously wrote a four verse epitaph to his late dog, Boatswain.

So, having called myself an animal lover, what was my first response to a bullfight? Similar it seems to a member of your club, the novelist Henry James, who wrote:

I ashamed to say I took more kindly to the bullfight than virtue, or even decency, allows. It is beastly, of course, but it is redeemed by an extreme picturesqueness and by a good deal of gallantry and grace on the part of the espada [matador].

(1876)

I was very lucky in the first bullfight I saw – in 2000 in Seville – as the first matador, in fact a novice, a novillero, called El Fandi, was very good.

This nineteen year old walked across the ring before the bull had entered, right up to the toril, known as ‘the gates of fear’, and knelt down before them, laying his cape delicately out over his knees. When the gates opened, this was how I described it in my book:

From within the darkness, came a rearing, jolting black head, eyes focused, nostrils flaring, ears forward, a foot and a half of horns tapering to fine points above it. And behind it came a half-ton of pulsing muscle propelling it at a steady twenty-five miles an hour.

Fandi pulled the cape up in a single long smooth movement so it swung out in front of the speeding animal’s eyes, catching their attention, and then spun out to the side of his head, the bull following, finding only empty air with its questing horns.

Fandi smiled. Then he stood up.

Into The Arena portada

Of course, this is a dramatic description of a bravura move and is more about thrill than art, but it had its effect.

Fandi, although popular to this day, has little art. The real artist on the sand is called José Tomás. This is man who once commanded a million Euros for a single afternoon in Barcelona in 2009, the year before bullfighting was banned there, where he faced six bulls solo. However, it was not the contest that was interesting. It was what he did with them: it was his style.

Within the three acts of this drama, the one the modern Spanish audience reveres most is the last (as, by the way, do the French, and Mexican and South American audiences.) Vivemos en la epocha de la muleta. We live in the epoch of the muleta: the smaller red cape – more a cloth than a cape – which is draped over a wooden stick, and offered to the bull as a lure.

It is by the slow solemn execution of the centuries old dance-book of passes with this cloth that the matador performs his art. By his unmoving rigidity, his tranquillity and the elegance of his gesture, contrasted with the surging, pulsing darkness of horn and muscle that brushes against the fabric of his ‘suit of lights’, he transmits emotion to the audience.

José Tomás in Nîmes, France in 2011 (Photo: Alexander Fiske-Harrison)

José Tomás in Nîmes, France in 2011 (Photo: Alexander Fiske-Harrison)

Transmission and emotion are the key concepts here, and you will find them endlessly bandied about by the critics in the toros section of the Spanish newspapers among the theatre and opera reviews.

Ernest Hemingway was the probably the first to really come to grips with these ideas, partly because they only came into being the year before he first went to Spain in 1923. They were the invention of the Golden Age of bullfighting, the age of Belmonte and Joselito, until the latter was killed in the ring in 1920.

However, I promised myself that I wouldn’t talk about Hemingway, or that other great American aficionado Orson Welles whose ashes lie interred at a matador’s house near Ronda.

Which is fine as my early period of learning about bullfighting was as much influenced by Kenneth Tynan as Hemingway. Tynan, our greatest theatre critic, and co-founder of the National Theatre with Laurence Olivier, was the first to really make me see what he called “the slow, sad fury of the perfect bullfight.”

It was he who put it so neatly in his book Bull Fever when he said,

By profession, I am a drama critic; by conviction, a believer in the abolition of capital punishment; by birth, English. The reader may find it odd that a lover of the mimic deaths of stage tragedy, an enemy of judicial killing, and a native of a country which has immemorially detested those blood sports which involve personal hazard should have succumbed to bull fever, joined the afición, become a friend and apologist of the Spanish bullfight. And indeed it is odd. Or so I thought for many weeks after I saw my first corrida in 1950. But now the bullfight seems to me a logical extension of all the impulses my temperament holds – love of grace and valor, of poise and pride; and, beyond these, the capacity to be exhilarated by mastery of technique. No public spectacle in the world is more technical, offers less to the untaught observer, than a bullfight.

(1955)

So, after these brief glances at this quintessentially Spanish thing, through different sets of British eyes over the centuries, I thought I’d better end with a man voted Greatest Briton of all time, although how he is viewed in this club, where he was once a member, before resigning exactly a hundred years ago, I do not know.

The story goes like this: a stuffed bull’s head, solid black but with a white v on its forehead, arrived at No. 10 Downing Street in July 1945 with the following inscription.

This bull ‘Perdigon’, which came from my stud, was fought at Valencia by Manolete on the day of Victory. It was most noble in its ferocity and was born with the sign of victory on its brow. I present it to the great Mr. Winston Churchill, who with exemplary valour, nobility and humanity, wrought the victory which will save the world.

José Escobar

And this letter that was sent to Manolete in response that December:

My Dear Sir Manolete:

I have received some time ago the head of a magnificent toro, that was sent to me by the breeder Don José María Escobar. The toro had a distinct letter V in it’s forehead. They say that you killed this bull in Valencia on Victory Day.

I would like to thank you and for the generous act & expression of the friendship from Spain. I beg you to accept my best wishes for the happy ending for what must have been a difficult struggle.

Winston Churchill

One could pass it off as an amusing courtesy, were it not for the fact that when Manolete was killed by a Miura bull two years later, Churchill wrote a letter of condolence to his mother, containing the sentence:

I was moved when I received the noble trophy of your son’s superb skill in the bullring.

[To The Ambassador]

One wonders where, and if His Excellency could find out where, that bull head is today?

Thank you.

P.S. After His Excellency delivered his thanks as a response, The Right Honourable Nick Herbert, M.P., suggested to me the bull’s head and letter were both at Chartwell, Churchill’s home.