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

Capote y Toros, 157 Old Brompton Road, London, SW5

Back when my book, Into The Arena, was published last year the Reuter’s editor Angus MacSwan decided to interview me at a new, bullfighting-themed tapas bar in South Kensington called Capote y Toros (‘cape and bulls’).

All the food was excellent, especially the gambas al ajillo – sizzling prawns in garlic. It also has the largest selection of sherries in London: not only the standard finos, olorosos and amontillados of Jerez de la Frontera and Puerto de Santa María, but also the manzanillas of Sanlucar de Barrameda. CyT is also the only place I have found in London with proper jamón ibérico de bellota – the pata negra name you sometimes hear refers to the distinctive black hooves of the ibérico breed. They import the 5J from the town synonymous with jamón: Jabugo.

So when a production company asked for a good venue in which to talk about bulls, this is where we ended up, under the photos of all the great matadors alive today from Curro Romero to Morante de la Puebla (its name is capote after all.)

While I was there, the restauranteuraficionado Abel Lusa came along to say hello. He recently opened CyT and also owns the more formal tapas restaurant Tendido Cero across the road, and the justly famed Cambio de Tercio a few doors down, a favourite of the likes of Rafa Nadal when he’s in town and most recently graced by the Duchess of Cambridge.

Abel Lusa

(I was meant to eat there with Giles Coren so he could review it along with my book as as follow up to his piece on my training as a bullfighter, but they don’t do lunch, so we went to 34 instead.)

Alexander Fiske-Harrison

Mad Bulls and Englishmen by Giles Coren in The Times

This article of Giles Coren’s was originally published in The Times magazine on Boxing Day ’09 where it is still available along with Dominic Elliot’s film of our day bullfighting here. All photos are by Nicolás Haro.

Alexander Fiske-Harrison, the English bullfighter, takes on a ‘vaquilla’ of the Saltillo breed. Inset: with Giles Coren, attending a bullfight in Seville.

Writers and travellers have long been drawn to the drama and romance of the bullfight. Giles Coren is no exception, so when he was contacted out of the blue by the younger brother of his dead best friend, now training to be a bullfighter in Spain, Giles was intrigued. Here he describes his journey into a unique culture of noblemen, peasants and swindlers, all driven by deadly serious dreams of death and glory

I am in a bullring. Not in the seats, in the ring. On the sand. From the relative safety of a wooden barrier with a small room behind it, built into the stone wall, I have seen four vaquillas, young cows, “caped” by one of Spain’s most famous matadors, the son of the first post-Franco prime minister of Spain, Adolfo Suárez Illana, and by Alexander Fiske-Harrison, the younger brother of my best friend at school, who died in an accident the year we left, three months before his 19th birthday. 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

Interlude: Jules William Fiske Harrison

'The Times' of London, March 21st, '09

‘The Times’ of London, March 21st, ’09

On March 21st, following the death of the actress Natasha Richardson in a skiing accident, the front page of The Times of London was as you see it above. Giles Coren, an award-winning columnist and critic, was a school friend of my eighteen-year-old brother at the time of his death (the photographs below are from his last day) and had written a long and glowing tribute to him.

Jules William Fiske Harrison, Zermatt, April 4th, '88

Jules William Fiske Harrison, Zermatt, April 4th, ’88

Continue reading