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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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 column for Taki’s Magazine: ‘Among the Gold and the Gore’

Last night I filed my copy – and I fear as a result missed the birthday party of Don Tristán Ybarra n the feria – about bullfighting and reality television, the corrida and Made In Chelsea for my column in Taki’s magazine. It has been edited, as is always the case. However, this time I prefer the long version, not least as is is not quite so savage to Ollie Locke, whom I know, and his amusing little book, Laid in Chelsea.

Alexander Fiske-Harrison

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Last night, while seated in the La Maestranza bullring of Seville to watch the great matador José Marí Manzanares dance with and dispatch six bulls, I was reminded once again why I became so fascinated by the spectacle we ‘Anglo-Saxons’ incorrectly call bullfighting. (It is not a fight, but a highly structured drama centring on a ritual sacrifice. Nor is it a sport, but is conceived of as an art-form, unique in having a risk of death for the practitioner, but reviewed between the ballet and theatre in the newspapers and spoken of in terms of its aesthetics rather than its athletics.)

My girlfriend, a recent convert but still possessed of strong and valid doubts about the activity, asked what it was amongst the gold and the gore that draws me back to the plaza de toros time and time again. The answer I gave was the absolute reality of the corrida. As an art-form, it represents man’s struggle with death, and how it should be best faced, which is with a striking and elegant defiance. However, it is the only art-form that also is what it represents, which is a man standing alone on the sand with an animal intent on killing him. And kill they do: 533 noted professional toreros have died in the past three centuries, and a far greater number number of less famous ones and amateurs. My first instructor in how to torear, the matador Juan José Padilla, almost joined their ranks two years ago when a bull removed his eye and a chunk of his skull. Needless to say he was back in the ring five months later, sans depth perception, a triumphant return which I covered for GQ magazine here.

I come to Seville whenever I can to see these exceptionally brave men stand in front of these beautiful bulls, the best time of year being now as the town prepares for its annual celebration of the death of winter, the feria de abril, ‘April Fair’. This year I am not here on holiday, but have come to meet with another matador, Cayetano Rivera Ordóñez, about whom I am co-producing and writing a documentary. Cayetano has risen to fame and riches through risking his life in this way, a risk he knows all too well. His father, the matador Paquirri, was killed by a bull when Cayetano was just seven years old.

Whatever one thinks of the ethics of injuring and killing an animal as part of a public spectacle – personally I find it no less reprehensible than killing one at a third the age and after a far worse life for meat I do not medically need to eat – there is an undeniable honour and glamour in earning your status and fortune by dancing with death.

Which is why it stands in such stark contrast to what passes for honour and glamour in my home country of Great Britain. I say this having just attended the book launch of an acquaintance who had brought out his memoirs at the ripe old age of 26. I say memoirs, it is more accurately described as a travelogue of his sexual adventures, something made clear by its title Laid In Chelsea. It is currently at number three in the Sunday Times bestseller list. The reason for this literary success is because the author, Ollie Locke, is famous for being in a reality television show called Made In Chelsea.

Now, I must admit up front my envy at his book sales. My own travelogue Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight didn’t make it onto the bestseller lists, even after it was erroneously but flatteringly shortlisted for the William Hill Sports Book Of The Year Award. (See earlier comments about the corrida not being a sport.)

The fact that having your life filmed and broadcast, and then writing about your carnal exploits, can bring wealth and glory neatly sums up so much that is wrong with modern Britain, a generalisation that extends to our Saxon cousins in the US. Spain may be financially bankrupt, but at least it isn’t morally so.

I should add here that the book is actually quite readable, although that is helped by the fact that I know some of the people in it. Indeed, I’m even related to one of them. The author himself, Ollie Locke, is a witty and charming young man, with the bizarrely marketable talent of being good at being himself. However, he is also the sort of person – I’m sure he won’t mind me remarking on this – that had to have explained to him for an hour why the girl to whom he lost his virginity might not like that event written up and published.

Having the sexual ethics of an alley cat to one side, the reason I cannot watch Made In Chelsea, despite having grown up there and knowing some of the cast, is that no one on it ever does, or has ever done, anything worthy of note. It is a parade of moderately good looking people having rather stilted conversations about one another’s utterly irrelevant and pedestrian personal lives. I know these people and find it unspeakably dull; God knows what anyone else sees in it. Fiction was invented to get away from exactly this sort of tedium.

However, when people use that oxymoronic and false phrase ‘Reality Television’, it is not Made In Chelsea, or Big Brother, or any of those other monstrosities that spring to mind. It is the television footage of Cayetano’s father, being tossed by that bull in 1984, and then the footage afterwards of him in the hospital, fully conscious, reassuring and calming the panicking surgeons as they struggle in vain to stop his life from haemorrhaging out onto the bed sheets where he lay. That was how Paquirri justified his salary and his celebrity, by paying the ultimate price, and facing it with a courage and grace at the end that beggers belief.

That his son – both sons in fact – should follow in his shoes, makes him truly deserving of having his life told as a story, on film and in print. Something Ernest Hemingway felt similarly about when he wrote the articles about Cayetano’s grandfather Antonio Ordóñez that were posthumously published as the book The Dangerous Summer. And when he fictionalised his 1924 encounter with Cayetano’s great grandfather, also called Cayetano, in Pamplona as The Sun Also Rises. Some people are deserving of recognition and others not. The British and American inability to distinguish between them is at the heart of our ethical, and aesthetic decline.

Perhaps bullfighting is not a moral wrong: My talk at the Edinburgh International Book Festival

Yesterday evening I immensely enjoyed giving a talk to the sold out audience at the 500-seat Scottish Power Theatre at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on my award-winning book Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bulllfight. It was followed by a discussion with the chair, Al Senter, and the Q&A session with the audience that (along with brief personal chats with about half of those present who came to have their books signed by me in the London Review of Books tent afterwards.) The questions were all well-informed and interesting, not least because, as many of the audience members said to me in person, I’d answered most of the more controversial questions in my opening talk. Here is the transcript of what I said:

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I was going to read from my book, but it seems that the most important topic in the United Kingdom in the 21st Century, indeed in the English-speaking world – when discussing bullfighting – are the ethical issues surrounding the injuring and killing of animals as part of a public spectacle. So I want to address these head on.

As a liberal – in the classical, John Suart Mill sense – it is not my intention, or my place, to tell people whether or not they should approve of or enjoy bullfighting anymore than it is whether they should approve of or enjoy opera. However, when people seek to ban an art form from existing, so that other people may not enjoy it, whatever claims have been made by other people who have never witnessed it, then certain questions have to be raised.

Whatever the motivations behind the ban on bullfighting on Catalonia – and there have been accusations of underhand dealings, thumbing of noses at Madrid to gain votes, which has some circumstantial evidence for it as the popular Catalan regional hobby of attaching burning tar balls and fireworks onto bulls’ horns and letting them into the streets is unaffected by the legislation – anyway, the stated reason is the ethics, or rather lack of ethics, of bullfighting. So, that is what I should like to discuss here.

However, before I can do that, I have to dispel some myths that have long surrounded the bullfight, pieces of propaganda that have been propagated by the anti-bullfight lobby such as CAS International, the League Against Cruel Sports and PETA.

The one I most often hear is the complaint that the matador faces a broken down and destroyed animal. Take a close look at this bull in these photos and tell me how broken down it looks.

Morante de la Puebla performs a ‘veronica’ (Photo: Author)

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The Man of the Moment: Juan José Padilla

Screen capture of interview (videos embedded below)

I have embedded below, in two parts, Canal Sur’s Jesús Quintero interviewing the matador Juan José Padilla – and his wife Lidia at the end of the second part – about his forthcoming return to the ring in Olivenza on March 4th, following his horrific injuries I posted about here. Not for nothing did Continue reading

The Times: Toreros Through Time, captioned by Alexander Fiske-Harrison

 

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Oxford Mail: Bullfighting author’s talk called off

News

Bullfighting author’s talk called off

9:30am Thursday 9th February 2012

A TALK tonight by Oxford bullfighter Alexander Fiske-Harrison has been cancelled.

Mr Fiske-Harrison mounted a fierce attack on Blackwell’s for cancelling the event, rescheduled to today after the Broad Street bookshop postponed the original talk because of security fears.

Mr Fiske-Harrison, 35, angered animal rights extremists after training to become a bullfighter and killing a bull in a ring in Spain, later describing his experiences in a book. The writer said the original lunchtime meeting two weeks ago was postponed after Blackwell’s informed him that they had received “a credible threat.”

But he has now accused Blackwell’s of overstating the threat, scaring people away from tonight’s rearranged talk.

Tony Cooper, manager of Blackwell’s, said: “After several conversations with Alexander Fiske-Harrison we decided to cancel the event due to the small number of tickets taken up. Despite initial interest in the lunchtime talk this did not carry forward into a full evening talk by the author.

“We are obviously disappointed that this is the case as we never like to cancel an event unless absolutely necessary.”

Mr Fiske-Harrison, 35, spent two years in Spain’s heartland of bullfighting with matadors and breeders, talking with fans and training to fight bulls himself.


Alexander Fiske-Harrison with a 3-year-old Saltillo bull.

Photo: Paloma Gaytán de Ayala (Santa Coloma)