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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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