Cuéllar: Bullfight Minus Bull Equals Fight

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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

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The Statue And The Storm

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José Mari Manzanares showing his art last Friday in Jerez

 

Cristina Ybarra presents her poster for the Rocío pilgrimage in the Salón de Borbón at the City Hall of Seville

Cristina Ybarra presents her poster for the Rocío pilgrimage in the Salón de Borbón at the Ayuntiamento, ‘City Hall’, of Seville

On Friday morning we took the train from Seville to Jerez de la Frontera and the temperature went south with us to a pleasant 30 degrees.

We exited the world of Ybarras and (encaste) Ibarra, Borbóns and (liquid) bourbon, and entered the land of horses and Domecqs. (For a farewell tale about a Zippo lighter, see Doña Cristina Ybarra’s blog here.)

As I said in my last post, the bulls and bullfights of the Feria de Abril of Seville had been bad – the bullfighters unable to show either art with them or skill. I have written before – on this blog, in my book Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight – that large bulls, such as a first category bull-ring like Seville requires by law, have a far greater probability of being unfightable than the smaller ones found in a second category bullring like Jerez. As the Royal Decree No. 145 of February 2nd, 1996, states:

Article 46: The minimum weight of animals in bullfights will be from 460kg in rings of the first category, from 435 in those of the second and 410 in those of the third.

Now, most serious aficionados look at the weight of toros, ‘bulls’ before they enter the ring, however, often they do not look – and in certain rings they do not publish – the equally if not more important age of the animal, which, of course, bears a varying and indirect relation to its weight. The toreros, ‘bullfighters’, I know all spoke as often about age as size or horn type. A year in a bull’s life is a long time. So, although the same Royal Decree pronounces that – IMG_5690

Article 45: The males that are destined to be fought in corridas de toros (‘bullfights’) should be as a minimum four full years and in every case less than six.

– this still offers a two year range which is the difference between headlong aggression and a more judicious and challenging approach to what the bull, at least, experiences as a combat. IMG_5669

Of the corrida of bulls from El Pilar we saw in Seville, not only were four of the six over 550kg, but four were also over five years old (the overlap between the two groups being three of four). In part this explained their lack of nobleza, ‘nobility’, a concept which can be explicated in terms of unquestioning aggression or volatile stupidity, depending on your viewpoint.

(The full nature of the toro bravo, ‘fierce bull’ breed, I go into in one of the ‘pages’ listed on the top right of this website. For those whose main interest is how bullfighting can still exist in the modern world – the ethics – or why I refer to its as an art – the aesthetics – or a breakdown of the three act structure of a corrida – cape-picador, banderillas, muleta-sword – there are also pages there on these topics.)

When you combine these old wise bulls, who ‘can speak Latin and Greek’ as the saying goes, with young, unknown – or older and relatively little known – toreros, the audience of Seville vote with their feet and wallets, not least because bad toros and toreros cost no less than great ones at the Maestranza box office (tickets above), and you’d do better to spend your money on a cocktail at the Hotel Alfonso XIII (photo left), and read the critics in the Spanish newspapers bemoaning the lack of a single true toro in the whole damned feria (scan below.) There was ‘much concrete’ – i.e. empty seats – in the stands in Seville, both for the bulls of El Pilar and the bulls of Victorino Martín who took the traditional final Sunday slot of the Miuras. I hear every other day was much the same…

The Spanish newspaper ABC bemoans the lack of bulls with the headline 'When there is raw material' (click to enlarge)

The Spanish newspaper ABC bemoans the lack of bulls with the headline ‘When there is raw material’ (click to enlarge)

Continue reading

Between one feria and the next: a round-up

Lady Westmorland's Fan (property of Miss Sarah Pozner)

A Fan Of Seville (property of Miss Sarah Pozner)

Since my last post the number of unique views of this blog has gone from half a million to over 800,000, which makes me feel very lax for not posting in months. Here is something of a round-up of news etc.:

Rocío cartel of Cristina Ybarra
My friend Cristina Ybarra, wife of Enrique Moreno de la Cova who bred the Saltillo fighting cattle I so often faced in the ring, has had her painting selected as the cartel, official ‘poster’, for the pilgrimage of the Rocío which attracts about a million of the faithful to Andalusia each June. It is being exhibited for the first time at the ayuntiamento, ‘city hall’, of Seville, tomorrow morning at eleven-thirty a.m., and is open to all. For more details, on Cristina’s own blog, click here.

Sarah by Cathedral pool

I will be there as I am currently sat sweltering in Seville in air the same temperature as my blood. There are worse places to swelter than a terrace overlooking the most charismatic cathedral on Earth. (FYI: I have since moved from the lovely Hotel La Doña María to an apartment at No. 11, calle Almansa, in El Arenal by the plaza de toros. To rent one of the same – short term or long le – contact Joaquín Fernández de Córdoba by clicking here.)

Lounging at Almansa 11

However, it was for the bulls that we came to Seville – more fool us – and about the bulls this blog nominally is.

Photo: Sarah Pozner

Photo: Sarah Pozner

We came to see the corridas, ‘bullfights’, of the Feria de Abril – my parents, Sarah and I – but after an awful showing at the Maestranza bullring on Thursday with the toros of El Pilar facing the toreros Miguel Abellan, Manuel Escribano and David Mora, we sloped off to the pool of the Sherry Park Hotel in Jerez and the restaurants on the beach in Sanlúcar de Barrameda. 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

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)

Continue reading

The Australian reviews my book: Death in the afternoon revisited by a beginner bullfighter

As an Australian citizen (dual-nationality with my British citizenship), I am very pleased to see that their best-selling national newspaper, The Australian has reviewed my book Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight in this weekend’s edition (online here: Death in the afternoon revisited by a beginner bullfighter | The …).

I think that the author, Matthew Clayfield, who refers heavily to Ernest Hemingway’s Death In The Afternoon as a strongancestral influence to my book has got it largely right – including in his criticisms.) Especially in his line on my ethical misgivings about bullfighting in the book:

While Fiske-Harrison eventually dismisses his qualms, it is difficult to read his final chapter, “La escotada” – the thrust of the matador’s sword – without getting a sense that his year with the bulls has only deepened their mystery. It certainly hasn’t put an end to his concerns. Or, one suspects, his searching for an answer.

I should add here, just to clarify, that despite press reports to the contrary, my talk at Blackwell’s Bookstore in Oxford has not been ‘threatened’ as such, and neither have I with regards to the talk. This was a miscommunication somewhere in the chain, as was the in-hindsight preposterous idea that the Thames Valley Police were aware of this and had failed to act.

I have myself received “death-threats” on this blog and elsewhere – although I have always found that phrase a little melodramatic, as I am neither dead nor feeling in the least threatened. Which is why I delete them, forget them and sleep easy at night. (Well, not quite: I dream, almost constantly, about bulls. My strangest – and most moving – dream about them opening chapter twenty of Into The Arena.)

Anyway, I will be talking at Blackwell’s at 7pm on Thursday, February 9th.

Alexander Fiske-Harrison

The photo of my one and only “bullfight” is enclosed below (Photo: Andy Cooke). A full discussion of the ethics – or lack of – in bullfighting is the next post in this blog.