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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My Kingdom for a Horse

Nicolás Haro's brother, Kinchu, Burghie Westmorland and Alexander (Photo: Mercedes Aguilar Camacho)

Nicolás’s brother, Kinchu, Burghie Westmorland & Alexander Fiske-Harrison (Photo: Mercedes Aguilar Camacho)

Seville, Spain: Nicolás Haro’s exhibition at SICAB – Salón Internacional del Caballo de Pura Raza Española, ‘international salon of the thoroughbred horses of Spain’ – of his photos was a huge success. I only hope that our idea of turning this into a book, with his photos accompanied by my words – some of them are already in my foreword to his exhibition catalogue here – becomes a reality. Then, I can also embark on my book on wolves and humans and continue my on-going coverage of man’s relationship with the rest of the Animal Kingdom. Nicolás’s interview in the Spanish national newspaper, ABC, is below. Here’s some of what he has to say in English…

—What do you remember of Alexander Fiske[-Harrison]?
— He became a friend and has participated with an article in the catalogue of ‘équema’. So has José Antonio Sánchez Cousteau (jockey and writer) with another interesting article.

—But Fiske lived here in Sevilla and wanted to be a bullfighter. Did he ever tread the sand of a bullring?

– (Laughs) I believe so. Yes, he got to tread the sand. And he killed a bull. Nothing less than a Saltillo [an old and famously tricky and dangerous breed of Spanish fighting bull]

Nicolas y yo en ABC sobre caballos

Continue reading

All The Pretty Horses by Nicolás Haro

As they salt the roads for ice and the mercury falls below par, it is time for a last venture to Seville of 2013 for my friend and colleague Nicolás Haro’s exhibition of photography of the psychological and behavioural ties between humans and horses.

Packed and back on the road...

Packed and back on the road…

Nicolás took the contemporary black and white images which illustrated my book Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight (Profile Books, London, 2011, finalist, William Hill Sports Book of the Year 2011.)

Since I contributed the introduction to the exhibition’s catalogue, it was nice to have an excuse to flee the chill. As for why it belongs on a blog about bullfighting, well… I’ll start with Nicolas’s words and then mine (in the English original.)

Alexander Fiske-Harrison

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Dear Friends,

By virtue of my relationship with various bull breeders, I take the liberty of addressing myself to you, to inform you that, during the week of SICAB, Salon Internacional de Caballos de Pura Raza Española, which I understand that you or your associates will be attending, I will be inaugurating an exhibition centred on the figure of the horse, with all of its emotional vitality.This exhibition is produced with the support of the ganadería Estirpe Cárdenas, The Real Maestranza de Caballería de Sevilla, and Bodegas Infantes de Orleáns y Borbón.

To this end I attach an invitation to the exhibition, which I trust will be of interest to you. I will be delighted to meet you personally at stand number 2164/2165, where the exhibition will be held. On Wednesday evening I am pleased to invite you to a cup of sherry from 7:30 on; the exhibition will be open throughout the week.

I look forward to seeing you there.

Best regards,

Nicolás Haro Fernández de Córdoba

http://www.nicolasharo.com

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The horse: Our last love…

Of all the major animals that man has taken into his home, the horse was the last.

The first was the wolf, which not only gave us the dog, but changed us forever. How different the tribe which had to risk its braves facing the bison and mammoth with spears, to the one which could merely wound with a few well-placed arrows and then unleash the pack to bring the beast down many miles distant.

However, after that ally, all the animals we brought into the house – cattle, sheep, goats, chickens – were much briefer and less honoured guests whose short lives ended in our stomachs.

Not so, the horse. If anything, he lifted man out of such base and basic interests. A horse gave a man a metre more height, twenty kilometres per hour more speed, and 400 kilos more muscle. He made a man into more than he was before, which is why the first men on horses, probably nomadic Asian tribes, when seen by those who could not ride such as the first Minoan Greeks, gave rise to the myth of the ‘centaur’, half man, half horse.

The centaur also represented the deep and ever-present connection which must be present between horse and rider. Cattle can be herded and need not have their bestial nature altered, only diminished: the minotaur merely blundered around the labyrinth of Crete, while the combination of man and wolf -the lycanthrope or werewolf – was more savage still. However, in classical tradition, Chiron, a centaur was tutor and mentor to Theseus, Achilles, Jason and Perseus.

Away from myth, horses made men into more than they were because of their role in war, from which the original notions of nobility were derived. Caballero in Castilian, Chevalier in French, Cavalier in English, all mean both horseman and someone who is more than a common man. A knight was defined by his horse, both literally – he must possess one – and abstractly, the code he followed, that of chivalry, owes its etymology to the horse as well.

Horses, literally and figuratively, raised man up. However, what of the animal itself? Although the horse assisted man’s warlike nature, man himself could not live in a state of war with an animal that had to bear him into battle. The oldest breed of horse, the four and a half millenia Arabian – whose blood flows so strongly in both the pure race of Spain and thoroughbred of England – had to live within the tent with his Bedouin masters, which, in an animal so large, required one of intelligence, sensitivity, physical control and grace and the ability to understand his master and, most of all, to make himself understood. Hundreds of kilos of undemonstrative terror or anger cannot long live happily in the house of human beings. The most communicative, intuitive and attuned to the human psyche would have been selected for, just as much as the courageous and the strong, the tireless and the obedient.

It is this vital psychic kinship between man and animal that the photos of my friend and colleague Nicolás have so elegantly captured, a kinship which I myself was brought up to feel and have witnessed in Nicolás in his dealings with horses as well as the art he has made from them. His images contain so many of the emotions we share: pride, fear, playfulness, despair, resignation and power. They are a reminder although the centaur – like the unicorn and the pegasus – may not exist: we have much to learn from pondering the very real ethological and psychological origins of these ideas.

Copyright Alexander Fiske-Harrison December 2012