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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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

GQ magazine on the comeback of the bravest bullfighter in Spain: Juan José Padilla

My British GQ article on the comeback of the now one-eyed bullfighter Juan José Padilla is online here. The US edition of GQ sent there own author to interview him afterwards, which was silly, as she hadn’t the first idea about bullfighting – whereas I’ve been doing it since 2009 – nor Padilla and his place in that world – whereas as I had the man as my first teacher. The photo below is of the two of us during one of those lessons. We were both very different men then. He had two eyes…

Fiske-Harrison and Padilla training with a young fighting bull in 2009.

By coincidence, Claire Danes, the beautiful actress on the cover of the issue on which the article appeared is a dear friend whom I thanked in the acknowledgments to the book that came out of those two years in Spain Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight in the first five chapters of which Padilla is so central. So I must thank her once again in the acknowledgments to this article, this time for providing such glamorous packaging.

Padilla is a man of great dignity, aesthetically and internally, but he isn’t exactly pretty. And, as Zed Nelon’s wonderful spread which opens the physical edition of the article shows, he ain’t no cover girl. The photo is in his house, which we went to the day before his comeback ‘fight.’

Please note, should you read the article, that, GQ holds the view, in common with many other publications, that when you pay a writer for his words, you have also bought the right to put words in his mouth.

I, personally, could not write a phrase like “my dread boiled.” (What I actually wrote was “I was worried.”) My dread just doesn’t boil (anymore).

Nor could I have written that the Spanish financial bailout was £80m. I used to work for the Financial Times and know a million from a billion.

Nor did I write the paragraph below, which appeared twice, once as a pull quote. I don’t even really agree with it.

Just so you know. (Bullfighters do not compare bull’s horns to “a Louboutin stilleto”. Ever.)

Anyway, much of the article is mine, and all of Padilla’s words are his own, which on their own would make it worth reading. However, if you come across something in the article that feels wrong, then it probably is, and probably didn’t come from me.

Anyway, if you want to know Padilla’s whole story, and much, much more, read my book Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight. You can purchase it as an eBook via GQ on their website where it tops their recommendation list here. (It was also shortlisted for the William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award, “the world’s richest sports’ writing prize”.)

If you live outside the UK or want it as a physcial book, other options are here.

Alexander Fiske-Harrison

José Tomás: And The Myth Was Made Flesh Once More

When perhaps the greatest matador in history, José Tomás, returned to the ring from his inexplicable five-year retirement in 2007, the Spanish press ran with the headline, “And The Myth Was Made Flesh.” At that time, I had never seen him bullfight, and thought it pure journalistic hyperbole. Since then I have and have chosen this headline myself as a result. The Agence-France Presse released this report on his astonishing re-emergence from near-death and appalling injury:

Jose Tomas makes triumphant comeback to bullring in Spain

VALENCIA, Spain — Acclaimed Spanish bullfighter Jose Tomas made a triumphant comeback to the bullring Saturday, receiving a standing ovation more than a year after a bloody goring in Mexico that almost killed him. The 35-year-old, wearing a purple and gold outfit, offered his first bull of the night, a 502-kilogramme beast, to the doctors who had helped him recover. He was less successful with his second bull, a 556-kilo four-and-a-half-year-old, but delighted the sell-out crowd of 11,000, many of whom had traveled from overseas to see the spectacle in the eastern city of Valencia. Tomas was seriously gored and almost died in a bullfight April 24 last year in Aguasclientes, Mexico. A 470-kilo (1,000-pound) bull named Navegante, his second bull of the evening, thrust its horn into the muscle of Tomas’s left thigh, puncturing the artery and causing the bullfighter to lose about half of his blood. In September he will be able to fight at Barcelona’s Monumental ring in what may be the last La Merced festival before a bullfighting ban in the Catalonia region comes into force next year. Copyright © 2011 AFP. All rights reserved

In celebration of this return, I have put below my description of what I believe to Tomás’s greatest corrida de toros, in Jerez de la Frontera in 2009, where he fought alongside the matadors El Cid, who featured in my Prospect magazine article that led to my becoming a bullfighter (available here), and my great friend Juan José Padilla (whom you can read more about in my The Pamplona Post article here).
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