For The Love Of ‘Toreo’ – article in ‘Boisdale Life’ on bullfighting

FOR THE LOVE OF TOREO

When Englishman, Old Etonian and Boisdale regular Alexander Fiske-Harrison travelled to Spain to write  a book on bullfighting, he never imagined that he’d be stepping into the ring himself. But after he picked up  the red muleta for the first time, everything changed

Anyone who speaks of their first time in the ring in terms of the sweat or the heat, the overwhelming fatigue or the numbing fear, the grittiness of the sand under foot, or the particular odour the Spanish fighting bull brings with it from the corrals, is either lying, misremembering or deranged. For such detailed cognition is not how such massive levels of acute stress work in the normal human mind.

When you are first faced with a bull your world consists of two things: the animal’s eyes and where they are looking, and the animal’s horns and where they are going. As the saying goes of war: there are far too many things to be afraid of to have time to be scared.

By the time I was facing a big animal – three years old and weighing a third of a ton – I had learned how to control that adrenal flow so that I could devote time to reading the animal. For example, seeing which horn he preferred to lead with (like boxers, bulls are either southpaw or orthodox), and noticing whether he wanted to break into a canter in a close-range charge or preferred merely to extend his trot. Then there was the choice of pass I’d make with the muleta – the red cloth with a wooden stick for a spine – extended wider with the sword in its folds when used for a derechazo on the right, or on its own on the more risky, but more elegant, left for a pase natural.

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An Open Letter to the (new) Mayor of Pamplona


 

I have just released a book, which I edited and co-authored, titled The Bulls Of Pamplona (purchase details and the July 7th post-bull-run Pamplona signing by its authors – 1pm outside Marceliano’s – online here.) Among our list of esteemed authors – including a Hemingway, a Welles, and the finest writers and runners from around the world – there is a foreword “by the Mayor of Pamplona.”

It should be noted that the book has been some time in the making, and when I asked the Spanish Ambassador to the United Kingdom – I had given a speech for him on bullfighting to various notables including British Members of Parliament and Government Ministers, and he did this in return – for some words for the book, he in turn contacted the Ministry of Culture – who regulate the spectacle – who in turn contacted the President of Navarre, the autonomous community of which Pamplona is capital, who in turn contacted the Mayor’s office. The foreword I received back was during the term of office of Enrique Maya. However, given the official channels it came down, it is definitely a foreword by a serving Mayor of Pamplona, written as holder of office, not as private citizen or ex-Mayor.

However, the current Mayor, Joseba Asirón, holds rather different views about the emblematic and iconic Bulls of Pamplona, as anti-taurine organisations like PETA have noted.

At the bullfighting journalism awards 2018, given by the Spanish national newspaper ABC in Seville

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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

The Runners’ Breakfast

the-last-arena-logoAs I pack my bags for the encierros – ‘bull-runs’ – of San Sebastián de los Reyes and Cuéllar, I was about to happily announce a new tradition, that of an international Runners’ Breakfast in the latter, the oldest encierros in Spain. Here is how I put it in an article to be published in El Norte de Castilla on Sunday.

As part of this spirit of cooperation between local and foreigner, I have asked the principal pastor, Enrique Bayon Brandi, to join with me in arranging a “breakfast of runners” following a tradition begun in Pamplona by the great runners, and our good friends, Julen Madina and Joe Distler thirty years ago. We hope to bring a new international tradition to the oldest encierro in Spain. As a mark of respect to the bulls and those who work with them, this first will be held in honour of the memory of Victor Barrio and attended by the matador David Mora the morning before he faces the same risks himself with the bulls with which we have just run.

Julen Madina in the traditional red and white (with blue elbow support) leads the bulls into the ring in Pamplona

Julen Madina in the traditional red and white (with blue elbow support) leads the bulls into the ring in Pamplona

However, I then heard the news that Julen Madina, a mythic runner of bulls, was in a coma in intensive care in San Sebastián having almost drowned in the sea. Only two days before I was messaging him on Facebook to invite him along.

IMG_2249Now all I can say is that Julen is in all of our prayers.

Alexander Fiske-Harrison

Julen Madina, front and centre, in happier days, with me David Mora, Joe Distler and many other friends at the Pampona Runners' Breakfast (Photo ©John Kimmich - on Jim Hollander's camera - 2015)

Julen Madina, front and centre, in happier days, with me, David Mora, Joe Distler and many other friends at the Pampona Runners’ Breakfast (Photo ©John Kimmich – on Jim Hollander’s camera – 2015)

Noel Chandler, Prince of Pamplona: A Tribute

Noel Chandler and Alexander Fiske-Harrison, Pamplona, July 2013 (Photo: David Penton)

Noel Chandler and Alexander Fiske-Harrison, Pamplona, July 2013 (Photo: David Penton)

It seems it is my season for tributes to dead friends: I lost a near-sister on September 14th, and a true friend one month later on October 14th. Noel Chandler, though, was a few weeks shy of his 80th birthday, where Antonia Francis died just before her 40th. There is quite a difference.

The Spanish newspapers have been suitably effusive – for example his Pamplona local Diario de Navarra headlined with Welshman Noel Chandler dies, illustrious visitor to the feria of San Fermín’. However, they all seem to have propagated certain errors, starting with his age. Noel died at 79 not 76.

For that reason among others I am pleased not only to include my own memories of Noel, interspersed with a little journalistic research (about, for example, his service in the army), but also an interview he did with the secretary of the Club Taurino of London, David Penton, for their magazine La Divisa in 2013 which I suggested someone should do before it was all forgotten. However, nothing will ever capture the man in full. As even David noted when he forwarded the piece:

I promised to send you… the Lunch with Noel article which you prompted me to do. I hope you think it does him justice. Sadly he asked me to take a number of things out – mostly related to his generosity.

I’ll raise a glass to that.

AFH

Noel John Chandler

On his way to the great encierro (Photo: Jim Hollander, 1981)

On his way to the great encierro (Photo: Jim Hollander, 1981)

15 November 1935, Newport, Wales – 14 October 2015, Madrid Spain

B.A. (Hons.) Law, University of Bristol, 1958.

Lieutenant, Middlesex Regiment (Duke of Cambridge’s Own), 1961.

Managing Director, ICL Singapore Pte Ltd. 1994.

After the corrida on the final day of my first feria de San Fermín –  July 14th, 2009 – a few hours before pobre de mí– when I was… (ahem)… tired and emotional having run with bulls that morning and drunk whatever was handed to me during the day until I had seen them killed very badly that evening, I bumped into a pretty young woman called Ivy Mix – a good name for such a famous bartender – who led me to a bar called Al Capone where in the doorway was standing Noel Chandler.

I had heard of Noel, of course, but in my research for my book Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight I had courteously avoided British and American aficionados as I did not want to inherit non-native prejudices or to see Spain second-hand. (The only reason I had gone to Pamplona was because my first teacher of toreo, Juan José Padilla said he would run with me and his bulls.)

Miss Mix introduced me to Noel saying I was writing a book on the world of the bulls. Noel looked into my eyes – which were a little blurry on the third day of my first Pamplona fiesta – through his own  – which were… well, he was ten days into his forty-eighth fiesta – and said:

“What the fuck do you know about bulls?” Continue reading

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

The Huffington Post, Bullfighting and Pamplona

John Hemingway, author and grandson of Ernest, in conversation with Alexander Fiske-Harrison, British author and bullfighter, at Bar Windsor, Pamplona, July 7th 2015, photographed by Cristen Hemingway Jaynes, another of the Nobel Prize-winners grandchildren

John Hemingway, author and grandson of Ernest, in conversation with Alexander Fiske-Harrison, British author and bullfighter, at Bar Windsor, Pamplona, July 7th 2015, photographed by Cristen Hemingway Jaynes, another of the Nobel Prize-winners grandchildren

 

It is nice of The Huffington Post’s editor, Hilary Hanson to give a nod to my book Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight – and to this blog – at the end of her article ‘People Aren’t The Only Ones Getting Hurt At The Running Of The Bulls’. Her final paragraph says,

Proponents of bull runs and bullfighting cite them as joyous cultural events, and dispute that they are frivolously cruel. Alexander Fiske-Harrison, author of Into the Arena: The World of the Spanish Bullfight, argued in a February speech that bulls raised for bullfighting have, on the whole, far better lives than most cattle raised for meat.

However, I would like to quickly point one inaccuracies in the piece whose source should have led to its reporting in a much more questioning light:

The League Against Cruel Sports, a U.K.-based charity, notes that bulls sometimes do not die in the ring immediately, but are merely stabbed repeatedly until they become paralyzed, then are still conscious as their ears and tail are cut off for “trophies.”

This “stabbed repeatedly until they become paralyzed” is in fact an almost surgical severing of the spinal column at the base of the skull which severs both motor neurones – i.e. those which facilitate movement – and sensory neurones – i.e. those which allow any sensation. It is a coup de grace by a skilled executioner with a broad-bladed dagger – the puntillador – of far greater effect (and affect) than the bolt gun which only extremely rarely will destroy enough brain tissue to prevent a feeling portion still connected to a fully functional spine remaining operational for a short while.

I am in Pamplona at the moment running with the bulls and you can read more about it at ‘The Pamplona Post’. If you are on your way, I strongly recommend you read my guide to surviving the experience in Spain’s English-language newspaper, The Local, online here.

Alexander Fiske-Harrison