My article on newspaper horseracing tipsters for The Times (full length)

Who to back in the Grand National? Not the tipsters

Alexander Fiske-Harrison

April 12, 2012

Alexander Fiske Harrison checks out the racing tips in the various newspapers before placing a bet (Photo: Times Photographer Matt Lloyd)

The “Sport of Kings” is not something I have ever wanted to know a lot about. I’ve had the odd flutter on the Grand National or the Ascot Gold Cup, but that no more makes me an aficionado of racing than the odd game of poker makes me a card sharp. Also, when I bet, I tend to lose, which – luckily for me – is something I really don’t like. Gambling is not in my blood.

Which is why it is ironic that the most dangerous thing I have ever done – to fight a bull in the Spanish style – resulted in my having to take up betting.

The short version is this: in 2008 I went to Spain to take a proper look at their bizarre national pastime of fighting bulls. I went with what I thought was an open, balanced mind – half full of doubts about what the animal rights groups were saying, half with doubts about pro-bullfighting authors like Ernest Hemingway.

After a year watching from the stands I decided I was for it (with serious reservations) and the matadors I met all said that if I really wanted to describe their world, I had to see it from the sand. I did, I survived, and I wrote the whole two years as a book which was shortlisted for the William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award, the “Bookie” Prize. I didn’t win, but what I did end up with was a thousand pounds at William Hill which I had to bet.

You might think that someone crazy enough to become a bullfighter would just go hell for leather (excuse the pun) and put it all on the nose of a horse chosen with a pin and The Times’s racing section. However, bullfighting, for the survivors at least, is actually about risk management. The trick is to keep your cool and remain rational.

Now, I know a bit about horses, but this was clearly no help as people who have devoted their lives to studying them usually lose. That said, clearly some people make a living at it and they are called bookies. Or racing journalists.

Alexander Fiske-Harrison with an Andalusian (Photo: Nicolás Haro)

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The Australian reviews my book: Death in the afternoon revisited by a beginner bullfighter

As an Australian citizen (dual-nationality with my British citizenship), I am very pleased to see that their best-selling national newspaper, The Australian has reviewed my book Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight in this weekend’s edition (online here: Death in the afternoon revisited by a beginner bullfighter | The …).

I think that the author, Matthew Clayfield, who refers heavily to Ernest Hemingway’s Death In The Afternoon as a strongancestral influence to my book has got it largely right – including in his criticisms.) Especially in his line on my ethical misgivings about bullfighting in the book:

While Fiske-Harrison eventually dismisses his qualms, it is difficult to read his final chapter, “La escotada” – the thrust of the matador’s sword – without getting a sense that his year with the bulls has only deepened their mystery. It certainly hasn’t put an end to his concerns. Or, one suspects, his searching for an answer.

I should add here, just to clarify, that despite press reports to the contrary, my talk at Blackwell’s Bookstore in Oxford has not been ‘threatened’ as such, and neither have I with regards to the talk. This was a miscommunication somewhere in the chain, as was the in-hindsight preposterous idea that the Thames Valley Police were aware of this and had failed to act.

I have myself received “death-threats” on this blog and elsewhere – although I have always found that phrase a little melodramatic, as I am neither dead nor feeling in the least threatened. Which is why I delete them, forget them and sleep easy at night. (Well, not quite: I dream, almost constantly, about bulls. My strangest – and most moving – dream about them opening chapter twenty of Into The Arena.)

Anyway, I will be talking at Blackwell’s at 7pm on Thursday, February 9th.

Alexander Fiske-Harrison

The photo of my one and only “bullfight” is enclosed below (Photo: Andy Cooke). A full discussion of the ethics – or lack of – in bullfighting is the next post in this blog.

I didn’t win the Bookie Prize but as the latest Sunday Telegraph says, it’s “pure theatre” anyway…

FINALIST

Sadly, my book did not win the ‘Bookie Prize’ this year. That honour went to Ronald Reng’s A Life Too Short about the tragic suicide of his friend, Robert Enke, the German goalkeeper. Ronald gave a deeply moving impromptu speech, and then he, the champion cyclist David Millar (whose book Racing Through The Dark was also shortlisted) and I went for dinner. I would like to thank William Hill, Waterstones of Piccadilly, and all the other contestants (and my agent, publisher and girlfriend who were all present) for a great day. As I argued in my article in the Daily Telegraph on Saturday, I shouldn’t have won anyway. Here is the review their sister newspaper the Sunday Telegraph gave me the following day.

Alexander Fiske-Harrison

27.11.11

Books for Christmas

Sport books

Oliver Brown

INTO THE ARENA: The World of the Spanish Bullfight BY ALEXANDER FISKE-HARRISON Profile Books, £15.99

Bullfighting was banned in Catalonia last year and yet has continued to capture both the quintessence of Spain and the extremes of sporting heroism. It exerted a fascination early upon Alexander Fiske-Harrison, who watched his first bullfight as a 23-year-old philosophy student in Seville and embarked soon after on a quest to understand the spectacle in all its cultural complexity. This is no passive work, however: he undertakes months of training with one of the top matadors, Eduardo Dávila Miura, to steel himself for the final act of his own corrida de toros. Uneasy ethical dilemmas abound, not least how much suffering the animals are put through. But this remains a compelling read, unusual for its genre, exalting the bullfight as pure theatre.

My interview about Into The Arena on Sports Tonight Live

Below is a link to the podcast of the interview I gave about my view of bullfighting, from the stands and from the sand, to Neil Cole on Sports Tonight Live.

Sports Tonight Live: The Book Club with Alexander Fiske-Harrison