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

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Love of animals or hatred of man?

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El País, Spain's equivalent of The Guardian (The Guardian ran the story here.)

El País, Spain’s equivalent of The Guardian (The Guardian ran the story here.)

Francisco Rivera Ordóñez, born to fame… and to pain

This is the headline of the article by Antonio Lorca, bullfighting critic, in the culture section of El País, Spain’s left of centre national newspaper. Francisco is, along with his brother the matador Cayetano, heir to the greatest dynasty in the history of bullfighting.

Their father was Francisco Rivera Peréz, ‘Paquirri’, killed by a bull in 1984, a death made all the more famous since it was televised, as were his final moments on the surgeon’s table, telling the panicking medical staff that it didn’t matter, to remain calm. The effect of this death on his youngest son, my friend the matador Cayetano, I quoted in my previous post. I am sure his older brother Francisco felt similarly.

How Cayetano feels today I dare not ask: Francisco, who had also taken his father’s nom de guerre Paquirri, was gored by a bull in Huesca in Aragon in north-eastern Spain, a horn entering his abdominal cavity to a depth of 25cm – or a foot – hitting everything from his spine to his aorta in its visceral trajectory. As an admirer who has always found him charm itself in person, I wish him a swift and complete recovery.

In fact, let me rephrase that, as a human being of good conscience, I wish him a swift and complete recovery. Even were I to think the method of killing cattle used in the bullrings of Spain morally inferior to that in our British or American slaughterhouses I would not wish my fellow man anything else.

Yes, the bullfight – as we wrongly translated the word corrida – is a twenty-minute long staged ‘combat’ from the bull’s perspective (it is a dance from the man’s hence it is reviewed as such in the culture section) and some people might think this is worse than queuing for hours with the stench of death in the abattoir, even despite the average fighting bull dying at 5-years-old after living wild in forests while the average meat cow is reared in a corral or pen and died at 18 months, but that arguable ethical stance wouldn’t make me wish death on the practitioners of the art and craft of toreo. I eat cattle on the whim of their flavour, not from any need. This tells me everything about their actual moral status. N.B. All of the carcases end up in the food chain.

Francisco is carried wounded from the ring. Although not toreando, 'fighting', that day, the matador Juan José Padilla ran in unarmed to help save his injured friend. He was my first teacher in the ring, and I wrote the sotry of his comeback after he lost his eye for GQ here.

El Mundo, Spain’s equivalent of The Times. (My interview with Francisco’s brother Cayetano for the Sunday Times magazine is here. The man with an eyepatch carrying him is my friend the matador Juan José Padilla. My account of his comeback after losing his eye to a bull is in GQ magazine here.

Police asked to act against ‘death threats to Fran Rivera on Twitter

However, in some cases an apparent – and loudly asserted – love of animals is actually a device to justify and conceal a deep hatred of humanity, especially of any variations or differences in it, anything that disagrees with your world view: the mask of overt and virtuous love soon slips to reveal skull of snarling, spitting hate beneath. Such as we see in the headline above. Much the same, I suspect, was true in the case of the unfortunate old lion, who people insist on calling Cecil as though he would have come if called, who was illegally shot in Zimbabwe. (I wrote about it in some detail on my personal blog here.) Continue reading