An Essay On Bullfighting

the-last-arena-logo

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

Advertisements

Cuéllar: Bullfight Minus Bull Equals Fight

the-last-arena-logo

11828749_875519032541460_7081789042409516294_n

Over at the bull-running blog The Pamplona Post, I had vowed to write my first proper review for  some time of a corrida de toros, the tragic drama culminating in a ritual sacrifice we wrongly call a ‘bullfight’ in English.

I was in Cuéllar in Old Castille, which hosts the most ancient encierros, ‘bull-runs’, in Spain. I have been going to the town to run with the bulls there for a few years, and brought many friends with me along the way. When I first arrived the wasn’t a single foreigner here and I wrote it up Financial Times.

FT Cuellar article online

Anyway, the fact that I have returned to the same town, the same hotel in fact – thank you Hostal Mesón San Francisco – for the entire six day Feria de Nuestra Señora del Rosario on the last weekend in August every year says how much I enjoy it. However, this is in part because of the people, the town in both its location – an hour and a half from Madrid – and the dilapidated beauty of its buildings and general ambiance, as well as its unique encierros, of which there are five on consecutive mornings.

However, I have never spoken here about what happens in the plaza de toros, the ‘bull-ring’. This is because I realise how precious the feria is to the locals.

Manuel Escribano and Alexander Fiske-Harrison (on Tramadol and Oxycodon for broken ribs, see post here. (Photo: Lore Monnig)

Manuel Escribano and Alexander Fiske-Harrison heavily medicated. Noted young Welsh bull-runner Jordan Tipples is in the background.  (Photo: Lore Monnig)

This year, though, I wasn’t only there for the bull-running, although I was in  writing on that subject for the Telegraph. I had also brought a group ranging from the BBC to Lore Monnig, President of the New York City Taurino, and so I knew the corrida would be under serious scrutiny as well.

We had dinner with the main matador, Manuel Escribano, the night before, although I was far from at my best having broken my ribs saving children from an escaped bull in the streets earlier that day (almost, real story here.) As the photo shows I’m dosed on red wine, vodka, Tramadol and Oxycodon. Continue reading

My article ‘See you soon, Cuéllar’ in El Norte de Castilla

El Norte de Castilla 2014 header

Yesterday’s newspaper

Yesterday, the Spanish regional newspaper El Norte de Castilla – ‘The North of Castile’ – published my third annual ‘thankyou-note’ article about the town of Cuéllar (original Spanish here), in Castile and Leon for its generosity during its feria – my favourite – and its incredible bull-runs. I cannot recommend the town enough to visitors and tourists – especially during the feria, where the bull-runs are as spectacular to watch as they are to participate in (as I have written before for the Financial Times.) The best place to stay is the Hotel Mesón San Francisco (click here to book), and other details of the town are in the article below. It is an hour and a half’s drive from Madrid, or a twenty minute fast train to Segovia and forty minute taxi ride… AFH

El Norte de Castilla 2014

As it appeared in the paper…

See you soon, Cuéllar

Opinion

“I have run in many bull-runs, but my favourite is, without doubt, the one in Cuéllar»

Alexander Fiske-Harrison | Segovia

For three years now I have come to the heart of Old Castile for the Fair of Our Lady of the Rosary of Cuéllar, and each year before, like a polite but unfamiliar guest, I would write a thank you letter as is the custom of we English. (2012, 2013) Now that I feel know Cuéllar a little better, even if not each of its inhabitants personally, and I can address you less formally, as real friends are allowed to do. And yet there are still so many thanks to be given, and not just from myself in England but also from my other friends whom came from around the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ world this year: from Australia and from Scotland, from Canada and from Wales, even from Australia (you have had celts from Ireland in your Irish pub since before I first came.) And of course,  your great sculptor of, historian of and runner of encierros, Dyango Velasco.

(From outside the Saxon world we also brought a crazy Viking from Sweden – who ran with your bulls despite an aneurysm in his leg – and an even crazier Mexican, who never normally runs, except he found himself lost in the forest among the bulls – the blind leading the lame among the lethal.)

We all of us wish to thank Mariano de Frutos, his daughter Elisa and her husband Ruben Salamanca at the Hotel Mesón San Francisco, which was our headquarters in much the same way Hotel Quintana in Pamplona was once that of Ernest Hemingway and his friends – it is also the hotel of the bullfighters, some of whom I still know – and gardens on calle San Francisco are like the outside tables of the Café Iruña, attended with divinely inspired patience by Enrique and Cristina. However, we also ventured beyond our querencia – ‘lair’ – there, to your peñas, beginning on the afternoon of the Pregón with Bill’s presenting his new novel – with me as translator – at El Pañuelo at the invitation of its president Valentin Quevedo on its fiftieth anniversary for CyLTV and various assembled journalists. There is also always Dyango’s peña el Orinal, and the even nameless poker club of Luis Quevedo and his wife Soco since their son Alberto’s Bodega La Carchena has closed. In the words of our poet Tennyson, “though much is taken, much abides.” So instead we went to the flamenco of the Café Theatre Oremus of Marcos Gómez and the taurine bar Paralex of Miguel Ángel Cobos who has more carteles than your town hall, but no bull’s head (yet.)

Alexander Fiske-Harrison, Larry Belcher and Dyango Veslaco in Café Oremvs (Photo: Mónica Rico)

Alexander Fiske-Harrison, Larry Belcher and Dyango Veslaco in Café Oremvs (Photo: Mónica Rico)

Continue reading

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

Seville: I have not deserted her

Charlas Taurinas en Cuellar

I have been getting busy undoing the damage of Pamplona – barely a good run among five, injuries from that one, a habit of craving cognac at 8.05 a.m. – and began a regime of training for the infinitely more serious, and ancient, encierros, ‘bull-runs’, of Cuéllar in Old Castile which as I described in the travel section of the Financial Times (link here) (for which I am receiving my prize as stated – with odd spelling – in the above poster, along with my friend Nicolás Haro who took the photographs for the article.) I may be making my way out of the world of the bulls – as I’ve written here – but there’s still time for one last perfect run, one last job, one last score…

The-American-Spectator-LogoMeanwhile, my writing on the topic still trickles out, publication lags being what they are, this time in ‘The Great American Bar Room’ series in The American Spectator, which is finally available online here. It tells the story of an morning, afternoon, evening and night spent drinking with the great one-eyed matador, my old friend Juan José Padilla (before he lost his eye. How he lost his eye, and came back to bullfighting without it, I wrote up for GQ magazine hast year here.) SCN_0004
Reading that account of my time in Spain, at the very beginning my journey that I recounted in my William Hill Sports Book of the Year shortlisted Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight (details here), I realise again how much I owe to Andalusia in general, and particular to the city of Seville which gave me everything. Which is why, in its hour of need, I was particularly glad that my rewrite of one of the bestselling guide books in the world, the Wallpaper* magazine City Guide, published by Phaidon Press, has just come out.

These guides have sold well over a million copies. So when I was asked to “update” their Seville edition – replacing about half of the original text- I thought it would be an excellent chance to repay old friends, This is in no way dishonest, nor a conflict of interest: these friends simply are my friends because their establishments are the best in town. Sadly, they do not always fit the aesthetics of ‘urbane sophistication’ that Wallpaper* demands for its photographically-based pages. So they are mainly mentioned in the text. However, their is no simply no denying that if you go to Seville and want an apartment, you should go to my friend Kinchu’s apartments at Almansa 11 (they did get a photo, p.20, website here.)

Wallpaper cover

If you want a cheap hotel, stay at the Hotel Adriano by the bullring (from here on in, click on names for websites). If more expensive but traditional, Hotel Las Casas de la Judería (p.22-23) in the Barrio Santa Cruz of which my friend the Duke of Segorbe still holds a part. If boutique, Hotel Corral del Rey (p.30) belonging to the Scott brothers. And if old school grandeur, the Hotel Alfonso XIII (p.24-25) where we had such a great party in June…

The nicest restaurant near the bullring is that owned by Horacio, after whom it takes its name (and one of the few to speak English) on calle Antonio Diaz. Around the corner on calle Arfe is the most authentic of the small bars in town, Casa Matías which often has flamenco – sometimes sung by the moustachioed Matías himself – in the afternoons (the true flamenco, the cante jondo, the deep song, rather than the dance spectacle which tourists crave.) For the best old school atmosphere with your tapas, go round the corner again to Hijos de E. Morales on calle García de Vinuesa. For the finest ham, the jamón ibérico pata negra, go to Bar Las Teresas in Barrio Santa Cruz on calle de Santa Teresa, or for more modern tapas, Vinería San Telmo, owned by the charming Juan Manuel Tarquini on paseo Catalina de Ribera, also in that quarter. (These all feature on p.48 of the guide. None require bookings.)

Finally, for the true heart of Seville, go to La Maestranza, the great plaza de toros of Seville, where corridas de toros – it is not a bull-fight, nor is it a sport, as I argue throughout this blog – are held in the mini feria of Saint Michael on the last weekend of September, with the best young novice matadors on the Friday evening (27th) and some of the finest matadors on the Saturday and the very best on the Sunday. (For anything from matador’s swords to wallets made of toro bravo leather – go to the torero’s tailor, Pedro Algaba on calle Adriano, part of the Maestranza building itself – on p.70 of the guide.)

And there is so much else to see in Seville: every building of historic beauty fragranced by the iconic orange trees that line the streets; and the vast fallen bull of the cathedral in the baking sun, with its belltower, La Giralda – once the minaret of the Moorish mosque – standing matador-proud on the skyline; the art galleries and museums, the exquisite Moorish gardens of the Alcazar palace and the eclectic botany of the original Empire on which the sun did not set in the Park of Maria Luisa… and the beautiful river Guadalquivir carving through it all.

Alexander Fiske-Harrison

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