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

Bullfighting Roundup

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This year was meant to be a quiet for me in terms of los toros, but instead I find myself booked to run the encierros – ‘bull runs’ – and watch the corridas – ‘bullfights’ (a misnomer, it is neither a fight nor a sport, but a dramatic spectacle culminating in a ritual sacrifice)- and capeas – ‘messing about with bulls’ (?) – in Tafalla and Falces in Navarre, San Sebastián de los Reyes in Madrid and Cuéllar in Old Castile – the four fingers of la mano de los encierros  – of which Pamplona is el pulgar, fuerte y torcido – ‘the strong, crooked thumb’.

While the newly deputised Lucy has done a great job in summing up this year’s Fiesta of San Fermín over at ‘The Pamplona Post‘ (and I have written on non-taurine matters at ‘Xander’s Blog‘), I thought I’d better write a few words on the world of the bulls.

El Cid in Seville in 2011 (Photo: Alexander Fiske-Harrison)

I do not go to this small but emblematic selection of the hundreds of encierros in Spain to watch good corridas. I do not believe in running bulls on the morning of their corrida any more than I would advocate a hard morning work-out for a race-horse, or a ballerina, or a chess player, or a fencer…

Seated, L-R, Jim Hollander, David Mora and Julen Madina (Photo: Alexander Fiske-Harrison)

Seated, L-R, Jim Hollander, David Mora and Julen Madina (Photo: Alexander Fiske-Harrison)

However, I did once see an excellent and educational performance by El Cid in Cuéllar, no more than four foot away from me in my relatively cheap front row seats in the shade (barrera sombra, bought from the ticket window at the ring that day.) So I am happy to see Cid fighting once again, along with David Mora, although he did say to me on the last day of Pamplona’s feria that he would not be able to bullfight again until next year, so one wonders who will replace him.

If the left-wing press is to be believed, all is not well in the world of the bulls in general. The centre-right governing party of Spain, El Partido Popular, has become not so popular, and as a result local government elections have put various centre left, crypto-Trotskyist and quasi-anarcho-syndicalist people in power at the lower levels. This has resulted in a call in a dozen municipalities, including cities such as Alicante, for referenda on whether these events should be banned altogether. Even in Madrid,

the new city government, led by Mayor Manuela Carmena of the leftist bloc Ahora Madrid, has given up its box at Las Ventas bullring. Carmena has announced that she intends to turn the Spanish capital into “an animal-friendly city” and supports eliminating all subsidies to bullfighter training schools and bullfights.

(Courtesy of El Pais)

All this despite the fact that in 2014 the newly released figures from the Ministry of Culture show that for the first time since 2007 when the economic collapse began, the number of bull-based festivals in Spain actually increased.

Last year there were 1,868 taurine festivals, an increase of 0.5% on 2013. Yes, corridas de toros – full-scale, old school ‘bullfights’ – are down 7% to 398, but advanced novice corridas, novilladas con picadors,  are up, as is horse-back bullfighting, rejoneo, and corridas mixtas which combine bullfighting on foot with rejoneo.

This is largely to do with an economic resurgence starting in the province of Madrid (77.6% of all festivals are held in the regions of Andalusia, Madrid, Castille and Leon and Castille and La Mancha.)

It is also interesting that since San Sebastián, the Basque seaside town,  was recovered by Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) from the radical leftists of Bildu, the ban on bull events has been lifted.

A final little interesting factoid. There are 10,194 registered professional bullfighters of all varieties in Spain of whom 249 or 2.4% are women. 801 are fully-fledged matadors while 3,018 are novice matadors.

This year running with the bulls in Pamplona, I fell in probably the most dangerous place on the run, the narrow entry into the bull-ring, where if the bulls don’t get you, the people falling on top of you will – that is not hyperbole, in 1977 José Joaquín Esparza died from crush-injuries in a pile-up in exactly that place. Although I advise beginners against it, I could see the way was clear of cattle and got up and ran safely into the ring. Jim Hollander caught the moment I fell – and even though it is clear I was pushed, as a matter of decency we call it falling, people in panic cannot be blamed.

Alexander Fiske-Harrison in his striped jacket (Photo: Jim Hollander)

Alexander Fiske-Harrison in his striped jacket (Photo: Jim Hollander)

All throughout that day, including while providing humorous commentary for NBC’s Esquire Network, I had a phrase of Robert Browning going through my head.

“We fall to rise.”

Alexander Fiske-Harrison, centre, with the 'Men in Blazers' for Esquire TV (Photo: Toni-Ann Lagana)

Alexander Fiske-Harrison, centre, with the ‘Men in Blazers’ for Esquire TV (Photo: Toni-Ann Lagana)

So do the bulls. I’ll leave you with the astonishing recent words of my dear friend, the matador Cayetano Rivera Ordóñez, whose father the star matador Paquirri, was killed by a bull in the ring in 1984. Forgive my translation, Cayetano, of these emotional words. (He speaks English far better than this, I just can’t translate the conversational idiom of his Spanish without deviating wildly from his words.)

“Personally, I can say that the bull was for a long time that which taught me to hate.  I lost my father to the bull when I was 7 years old and at that age and much later I still had no awareness of why things happen, but precisely because of the bullfighting culture, the ‘taurine’ education, the respect, the values that my family taught me about our tradition and our culture I learned to forgive, to respect and to love the animal that today and I am here to show respect and love for. As a bullfighter I ask the respect to keep doing what I love: with all the respect and love that I feel for the animal. When I speak of my bull’s rights, and although it sounds like a cliché, to a bullfighter there is no one that respects and loves the bull more.”

Ernest Hemingway and Antonio Ordonez - Alexander Fiske-Harrison and Cayetano Rivera Ordonez, his grandson

Ernest Hemingway and Antonio Ordonez – Alexander Fiske-Harrison and Cayetano Rivera Ordonez, his grandson

Alexander Fiske-Harrison

P.S. I should also point out the excellent writer Joseph S. Furey’s piece on Pamplona in the Daily Telegraph magazine last Saturday. As good a description as there’s been in the British press (online here.)

Telegraph

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

My book ‘Into The Arena’ shortlisted for the William Hill Sports Book Prize

It has just been announced that my book, Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight has been promoted from the longlist for the world’s richest sports writing prize, the William Hill Sports Book Of The Year Award 2011, onto the six-strong short list.

I should like to say that without the friendship and courage of the matadors of Spain, most particularly my Maestro Eduardo Dávila Miura and my friend Cayetano Rivera Ordóñez, this book would never have existed. However, the greatest thanks of all are owed to the first matador I met, the Cyclone from Jerez, Juan José Padilla, who is even now recuperating from a hideous near-fatal goring and preparing himself for further surgical intervention in Seville next week in the hope they can restore the sight to his left eye after the bull’s horn took it away (see earlier blogposts.) Continue reading

Bullfighting is an Art: My Talk at the Oxford & Cambridge Club

I delivered the following talk on the bulls to a packed dining room at the Oxford and Cambridge Club on Pall Mall, London yesterday. I wish I could remember the fascinating questions put afterwards, particularly the one by the philosopher Brendan McLaughlin bringing in schadenfreude and Nietzsche rather neatly. I sold copies of my book Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight afterwards. It can be found at most British bookshops, or purchased at a 50% discount at Amazon by clicking here, or purchased and downloaded even more cheaply as an eBook by clicking here (it includes both the black & white and the colour photos).

Alexander Fiske-Harrison

Like the undergraduate I would like to being this talk with a definition, this is from the Oxford English Dictionary:

Cruel, adjective

From the Middle English, Cruel. Also in French, Cruel, Spanish Cruel, Italian, Crudele, All from the Latin crūdēl-em – morally rough, cruel, from same root as crude.

Primary definition: Of persons: Disposed to inflict suffering; indifferent to or taking pleasure in another’s pain or distress; destitute of kindness or compassion; merciless, pitiless, hard-hearted.

First given use: 1297

Now let me move onto bullfighting.

Now, I can – and have given – various relative defences of bullfighting to Anglo-Saxon audiences (in which loose tribe I count myself), which can be found in detail in Chapter 7 of the book [and with vivid pictures in the transcript of my talk at the Edinburgh Festival – AFH]. I won’t repeat here the horrors of the abattoir, the utterly unnecessary and environmentally damaging habit of eating meat for adult humans, the fact that one fifth of Spain’s wilderness, the dehesa, is owned and maintained by the breeders of the fighting bulls which would surely become more standard farmland were the activity banned, nor the fact that the British don’t seem quite so squeamish about the brutal and real death of animals contained in the output of the BBC Natural History Unit.

Continue reading

Is bullfighting an art?

Cayetano Rivera Ordóñez in Sanlucar de Barrameda in 2009 by Nicolás Haro

In last weekend’s Sunday Times there is a review of my book, Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight (which can be purchased at Amazon by clicking here) which, although largely positive, has two main criticisms.

The first, a minor one, is that the author is too self-regarding. I can’t really protest against this on pain of self-contradiction, and my only response is to say that the bullfight is, as I argue below, all about the emotion it inspires in both bullfighter and the audience. Since I play both of those roles at different points in the book, I have no choice but to describe who I am so the reader can try to triangulate what sort of emotions it might inspire in them.

His second, more serious criticism is two-pronged: he finds my apparent conversion from journalist to aficionado, and then beyond that to practioner, repellent, and this is made worse by the fact that he finds my justifications given in defence of bullfighting fatuous. The funny thing is, the review in the usually much more sentimental and emotional Daily Mail says that what makes my book readable is that I manage to maintain my “disgust “for the bullfight throughout the book.

So what is the truth? Am I in love with the bullfight, or in hate? The answer is both, at different times, and sometimes with such a quick turnaround between them that they seem to overlap. However, there is one thing I am not, and that is someone who would unprotestingly allow any law to be passed to ban it. The primary reason is because politically I am a liberal. The secondary one is that I believe bullfighting can be justified, even if the justification will not convince everyone all of the time (and that includes me.) The justification I phrased best in the Prospect magazine article which led to the book:

Whether or not the artistic quality of the bullfight outweighs the moral question of the animals’ suffering is something that each person must decide for themselves – as they must decide whether the taste of a steak justifies the death of a cow. But if we ignore the possibility that one does outweigh the other, we fall foul of the charge of self-deceit and incoherence in our dealings with animals.

This is what has given me the title of this blog post. I believe that the bullfight does have an artistic quality, in fact, that can be an art in its own right. Now, I am aware that a large number of people, including the Sunday Times reviewer, think that even if it is an art-form, it could not possibly be justified on that basis. In fact, one journalist for the BBC – our national television network that has a state-enforced monopoly largely to guarantee the impartiality of its journalism – whom I approached on the subject, put his views even more strongly in an email to me.

Dear Xander,

Thanks so much for the invitation. I do have a passing interest in the subject – nothing quite cheers up my morning like reading in the paper that some matador or another has been gored to death by one of the bulls he was proposing to kill. It’s sort of like a man-bites-dog story, but with an added moral twist. But most of the time, I’m more interested in sports stories where both participants have volunteered to take part, and where one of the parties hasn’t been deliberately hobbled by minions sticking spears in them beforehand. Come to think of it, I guess you could see it as appreciating the rules of fair-play they instill at Eton.

Ole… Continue reading