The Cult Of The Bull

20130612-010502.jpg

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

Advertisements

The Dead Gods With Cold Eyes

image

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.

untitled3

Alexander Fiske-Harrison

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

Rest In Peace Bomber: Friend, Adventurer, Traveller, Warrior

On February 24th, 2013, my friend Bomber died. I thought it fitting to write a little tribute of my own to him here and translate the one from the website of the regional newspaper of one of his favourite cities on Earth, Pamplona.

20130226-112713.jpg Breakfast on Sunday of the Miuras, Pamplona, July 8th, 2012, among good friends. We had both just run with the bulls, I in my striped jacket, Bomber in his black one. The great bull-runner Joe Distler on Bomber’s left had removed his white tuxedo in case of spillages. (Photo: Jack Denault)

I first met Bomber properly in Pamplona in 2011, when I returned at the insistence of Angus MacSwan who told me I had got the city wrong in my book when he interviewed me for Reuters. That year, when I was flushed with the novelty of the feria de San Fermín, the wonders of running bulls properly, and the sheer excess of Fiesta properly lived, I can not remember how much we spoke, or what about. However, in the months that followed, he was a frequent commenter on this blog, and would often drop me notes congratulating me on the success of my book or my defence of los toros in various pieces of journalism.

His favourite of these was when I went to visit a matador he had met, Juan José Padilla, and who had taught me back in ’09, after he lost his eye in the ring, but was making a come back despite the injury and lack of depth perception.

Bomber had a great fondness for Padilla as a man, a matador, and in one of Bomber’s favourite complimentary phrases, “as a warrior”. He sent me this photo of the two of them together with great pride.

20130226-113351.jpg

(When I visited Padilla at his house before his comeback, he looked like this. [Photo: Zed Nelson])
20130226-113532.jpg

On my first day in Pamplona last year, July 6th, I joined the High Table of American bull-runners for dinner – Joe Distler, Larry Belcher and Bomber – and there Bomber told me how much it meant to him that another generation were coming to Pamplona, were becoming involved with the fiesta de los toros, and – most importantly to a man who at heart was a traveller – were helping to defend the diversity of things and cultures in the world, most especially Spain.

As Bomber and I walked back from that down into the Plaza de Castillo – well, he walked, I staggered from wine, funny how he made the encierro, the ‘bull-run’ the next day and I didn’t – I was reminded of the tragic story I was told about how the love of his life, Goldie, had died prematurely on the operating table, and how the news was conveyed to him in the that very square as he stood among friends outside Bar Txoco, where we always stand after the 8am encierro to ‘talk’ off the adrenaline, and how Bomber had collapsed from grief.

20130226-111655.jpg From left to right, Bomber, Joe Distler, Larry Belcher and Me one morning outside Bar Txoco, 2012 (Photo: Jim Hollander)

I cannot claim that I got to know Bomber half as well as I would like, but anyone who knows Pamplona knows that the fortnight that makes up two Fiestas is like three months of normal time. The only consolation for his passing aged 65 is that when he spoke of Goldie, you knew that life was simply so much less bright for him without her. And I noticed in our communications that he spoke of her more and more often after the 2012 Fiesta ended, and then he moved out of their shared home in Garmisch in Germany, posting strangely prophetic photos on Facebook as he did so, saying goodbye and thank you not just to the place, but seemingly to all his friends as well.

I had planned on going to meet him in Germany in the Autumn, but I never did, and that will always be a sadness in my life. Even my father, who only met Bomber a few times, asks after him, just as Bomber made a point of sending me this photo of the three of us.

20130226-114855.jpg

No one could be better prepared for the final encierro which we all one day will run. In the words of Joe Distler upon reading this post, “Bless and keep you brother.”

Alexander Fiske-Harrison

And here is what the newspapers said… Continue reading