A Referendum on Spanish culture itself: Podemos on Bullfighting

Yesterday Google opened its page with an image from the Cave of Altamira, the oldest known art, painted on walls deep underground in Cantabria, northern Spain. (I have written about them in more detail in my chapter on the history of the region in the recent book The Bulls Of Pamplona.)

This is the 150th anniversary of the rediscovery of those caves, suitably a wandering hunter, and the institute which manages them has just launched a new exhibition to better educate the people of today about a range of artworks which began 36,000 years ago.

The subject of this art, the first Art – like the subject of the life of its rediscoverer – is the hunt, and Man’s first confrontation with those intertwined concepts of Nature and Death and how we inflict the latter upon the former in order to sustain ourselves against both.

Man kills to live, and thus lives in the shadow of Death, his own and that of others. Our first religious instincts come from here, thus the ritualistic nature of the hunting scenes upon the walls.

The first hunters – like all good hunters today – are humble and venerate the animals they kill, even as they defy their attempts to do the same to us. There is contradiction there, and as there always is when humans encounter contradiction, there is a ritual manner to quieten the troubling questions raised.

So it is an irony that on the same day we celebrate thirty-six millenia of art, a Spanish party of the political extreme, Podemos – the Left in this case – is offering to use that bane of modern populist politics, the referendum, to censor it. In particular one of its more arcane and archaic instantiations, and the one that is most singularly Spanish, bullfighting.

As I have written in these pages before, bullfighting is an English word, not a Spanish one, but is co-opted from its original use as an alternative to bull-baiting, i.e. setting dogs on a tethered animal. La corrida de toros actually translates as ‘the coursing of bulls’ – coursing being to hunt at a run – showing the historic origins of that which is now almost pure art and ritual, an aestheticized rite that ends in a sacrifice.

The art of the matador José Tomás, regarded by many as not only the most artistic torero alive today, but in history. This photo was taken during a historic corrida in Nîmes, France, in 2012 by Carlos Cazalis, and forms part of his book Sangre de Reyes, ‘Blood of Kings’

(N.B. All bullrings are EU-registered slaughterhouses, their products ending in the food-chain, as with all the world’s 1.3 billion cattle)

However, rather than recite my own views once again, or even to give the excellent public riposte of Victorino Martín in the newspaper El Mundo, himself a famed bull-breeder and president of la Fundación del Toro de Lidia, ‘the Foundation of the Fighting Bull’, which includes the perfectly apposite comparison:

One remembers all too well the actions of the Taliban upon the Buddhas of Bamiyan, destroyed because for failure to fit into their moral canon. Pablo Iglesias [leader of Podemos] considers the bulls morally wrong, so he proposes a referendum to end them.

 

It was precisely to avoid these things that UNESCO approved conventions such as the Cultural Diversity of 2001 and of which Spain is a party, which seeks to protect all cultural expressions against fundamentalisms…and if Podemos is tempted to say that “is that bullfighting is not culture”, UNESCO is already ahead of them, explaining that the only limit when considering when a culture is inadmissible are human rights and fundamental freedoms. I repeat, human rights …

I offer instead the words of someone from the other side of the debate, an author who defines himself as both of the Left and as anti-bullfighting, but who  – unlike the narrower political minds of Podemos – took up the Foundation on its offer to at least witness what he stood against. His fascinating essay on his reactions is translated.

Alexander Fiske-Harrison
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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

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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The Dead Gods With Cold Eyes

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I submitted this article for my column in Taki’s Magazine. However, I was told by the editor that she’d had quite enough about bulls. Which is ironic, given what it says. Anyway, here it is, for what it’s worth.

Alexander Fiske-Harrison

Alexander Fiske-Harrison waiting for the bulls, Cuéllar 2013 (Photo: Enrique Madroño Arranz)

Alexander Fiske-Harrison waiting for the bulls, Cuéllar 2013 (Photo: Enrique Madroño Arranz)

Dead Gods With Cold Eyes

I nearly died the other day. Not, like the time before when John Hemingway, Ernest’s grandson, pulled me out from a stampede in Pamplona or the time before that when Eduardo Dávila Miura pulled me out of a bull-ring in Palma del Río. This time was for real.

Alexander Fiske-Harrison begins to run with the bulls, Cuéllar 2013 (Photo: Enrique Madroño Arranz)

Alexander Fiske-Harrison begins to run with the bulls, Cuéllar 2013 (Photo: Enrique Madroño Arranz)

I was running with the bulls of Cuéllar, which is a much like running with the bulls of Pamplona, only the town is smaller, the encierro – ‘bull-run’ – more ancient (the most ancient, in fact, as I wrote in the Financial Times) less crowded, and those that do turn up are mainly local, all Spanish, with not a drunk or first-timer among them.

Cuellar photo 3 blogDespite this I still managed to bump into someone as I passed a lone, stationary bull in a narrow stretch of street. Being lighter than me, he was knocked to safety, but I dropped where I was and the commotion drew the bull’s eyes – black, bovine, lifeless and colour-blind, following only movement – and it charged across the street, skittering to a halt on its hooves as I similarly fought for grip in my new, untested running shoes.

With my back against the wall, its horns either side of my chest – literally – and, unlike in Pamplona or an official plaza de toros, no surgeon within a forty-five minute drive, I saw my own death ahead of me. However, for some reason the bull decided today was not my day and moved on, most likely because I had the presence of mind to freeze, making myself invisible to the clockwork brain behind the horns. Continue reading

Orson Welles on bullfighting as an art

Antonio Ordóñez, Matador of Ronda, and Orson Welles

Since bullfighting has moved from under the auspices of Spain’s Ministry of the Interior to that of the Ministry of Culture, I thought I would give the view of bullfighting as an artform by one of the greatest geniuses in the world of performing arts, Orson Welles, as recounted to the travel writer James Michener.

In case you have forgotten, Welles produced, directed, wrote and starred in Citizen Kane, usually considered the greatest film ever made, aged 25. And in case you didn’t know – i.e. you have not read my book, Into The Arena – seven years before that he briefly trained at as a bullfighter in Seville (as did I). His ashes are enterred at the ranch of his great friend, the matador Antonio Ordóñez (the house now belongs to his grandson, my friend the matador Cayetano Rivera Ordóñez.)

Here, he is describing the greatest of the Seville matadors at the time of the interview. The Seville matador today to whom Curro Romero is most similar today is Morante de la Puebla, whose photo I enclose at the end.

Alexander Fiske-Harrison

 

from Chapter VI: Sevilla

As to the bullfights, one evening I dined with Orson Welles, that scowling giant who in his youth had trained to be a matador, and he said in his rumbling voice, ‘What it comes down to is simple. Either you respect the integrity of the drama the bullring provides or you don’t. If you do respect it, you demand only the catharsis which it is uniquely constructed to give. And once you make this commitment you are no longer interested in the vaudeville of the ring. You don’t give a damn for fancy passes and men kneeling on their knees. There used to be this fraud who bit the tip of the bull’s horn. Very brave and very useless, because it played no part in the essential drama of man against bull. Such tricks cheapen the bull and therefore lessen the tragedy. What you are interested in is the art whereby a man using no tricks reduces a raging bull to his dimensions, and this means that the relationship between the two must always be maintained and even highlighted. The only way this can be achieved is with art.

Curro Romero, Matador of Seville, performs a ‘veronica’

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