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.

Continue reading

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

The Pamplona Post: A Paean to Pamplona

This is the full version of what I submitted for my regular column ‘By The Sword’ in Taki’s Magazine. As you can see here, about half was cut, leaving only a narcissistic skeleton, rather than the other people, which is what Fiesta is all about. (I forget whether it was Stephen Ibarra or Rick Musica, those pillars of Pamplona, who said that if they took the bulls away from the feria, but kept the people, they’d still come, but if they took away the people, it wouldn’t be worth it for the bulls alone. Which is why so many of them are mentioned. Those that I could not fit even in this are mentioned in the post-script.)

Noel Chandler & Alexander Fiske-Harrison by David Penton

Noel Chandler & Alexander Fiske-Harrison, Pamplona 2012 (Photo: David Penton)

The great thing is to last and get your work done and see and hear and learn and understand; and write when there is something that you know; and not before; and not too damned much after.
Ernest Hemingway, Death In the Afternoon 1932

In 2009 I first came to Pamplona to run with the bulls to give a first-person perspective to that chapter of my book on the “world of the Spanish bullfight.” I was terrified in that complete and overwhelming way that total ignorance brings, standing on a street corner where a friend had stood for his first time the day before – that was the sum total of advice I had been given – and waiting for death to come.

I comported myself honourably but not brilliantly and did so again two days later before boarding a train to Barcelona and vowing never to come to the city again. The relentless loud, bad music, the all-day drinking by people who clearly hadn’t washed in some time, and the fact that the corridas, ‘the bullfights’ (as I’ve said in this column before, it’s neither a fight nor a sport) were made abysmal by even worse music played by multiple bands in the audience in apparent competition with one another, all combined to set me firmly against in this Navarran Fiesta. The place seemed crude, cruel and uncouth compared to the sun-blasted, deathless dignity of Andalusia where my aficion for the bulls was formed.

Then, two years later, after the book came out, a Reuters journalist called Angus MacSwan asked to interview me. By then I had been worn smooth and glib by endlessly justifying the ritual injuring and killing of animals in the ring and so was surprised when he told me outright that he liked the book but that I was wrong about one thing: Pamplona… Read on at The Pamplona Post by clicking here.

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Alexander Fiske-Harrison

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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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 Spectator: A Good Run by Alexander Fiske-Harrison

My article from The Spectator, written largely on the breakfast tables of Pamplona, half cut on vanilla and cognac, having just run with the bulls. (With thanks to Joe Distler.)

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A good run

14 July 2012

Why I risk my life among the bulls of Pamplona

I have just finished running — with a thousand like-minded souls from around the world — down a half-mile of medieval city streets while being pursued by a half-dozen half-ton wild Spanish fighting bulls. They were accompanied by an equal number of three-quarter-ton galloping oxen, but we didn’t worry about them: they know the course as well as anyone and keep the bulls in a herd. This is good, because when fighting bulls are on their own they become the beast of solitary splendour and ferocity you may see in bullrings across Spain, France, Portugal, Mexico and much of Latin America. However, every second week in July, during the festival of Saint Fermín, they are run together as a herd from the corrals to the bullring. Continue reading

GQ magazine on the comeback of the bravest bullfighter in Spain: Juan José Padilla

My British GQ article on the comeback of the now one-eyed bullfighter Juan José Padilla is online here. The US edition of GQ sent there own author to interview him afterwards, which was silly, as she hadn’t the first idea about bullfighting – whereas I’ve been doing it since 2009 – nor Padilla and his place in that world – whereas as I had the man as my first teacher. The photo below is of the two of us during one of those lessons. We were both very different men then. He had two eyes…

Fiske-Harrison and Padilla training with a young fighting bull in 2009.

By coincidence, Claire Danes, the beautiful actress on the cover of the issue on which the article appeared is a dear friend whom I thanked in the acknowledgments to the book that came out of those two years in Spain Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight in the first five chapters of which Padilla is so central. So I must thank her once again in the acknowledgments to this article, this time for providing such glamorous packaging.

Padilla is a man of great dignity, aesthetically and internally, but he isn’t exactly pretty. And, as Zed Nelon’s wonderful spread which opens the physical edition of the article shows, he ain’t no cover girl. The photo is in his house, which we went to the day before his comeback ‘fight.’

Please note, should you read the article, that, GQ holds the view, in common with many other publications, that when you pay a writer for his words, you have also bought the right to put words in his mouth.

I, personally, could not write a phrase like “my dread boiled.” (What I actually wrote was “I was worried.”) My dread just doesn’t boil (anymore).

Nor could I have written that the Spanish financial bailout was £80m. I used to work for the Financial Times and know a million from a billion.

Nor did I write the paragraph below, which appeared twice, once as a pull quote. I don’t even really agree with it.

Just so you know. (Bullfighters do not compare bull’s horns to “a Louboutin stilleto”. Ever.)

Anyway, much of the article is mine, and all of Padilla’s words are his own, which on their own would make it worth reading. However, if you come across something in the article that feels wrong, then it probably is, and probably didn’t come from me.

Anyway, if you want to know Padilla’s whole story, and much, much more, read my book Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight. You can purchase it as an eBook via GQ on their website where it tops their recommendation list here. (It was also shortlisted for the William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award, “the world’s richest sports’ writing prize”.)

If you live outside the UK or want it as a physcial book, other options are here.

Alexander Fiske-Harrison