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 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

Bullfighting and the Gallup Polls: “Lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

I was recently interviewed on the BBC and one of the people also interviewed, a representative from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), brought up an opinion poll “by Gallup” in 2006, which said that 72% of the people in Spain were “against bullfighting.”

Now, putting to one side the fact that PETA’s claim was not true – the poll actually said that 72% said they had “no interest” in bullfighting – this got me thinking. There was another “Gallup poll” I read about from four years before which said that 69% of Spanish people polled had no interest, and the most recent one, from 2008, gave the same figure. These are big swings: millions of people.

So I looked into it further, and what I found was fascinating. Continue reading

Perhaps bullfighting is not a moral wrong: My talk at the Edinburgh International Book Festival

Yesterday evening I immensely enjoyed giving a talk to the sold out audience at the 500-seat Scottish Power Theatre at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on my award-winning book Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bulllfight. It was followed by a discussion with the chair, Al Senter, and the Q&A session with the audience that (along with brief personal chats with about half of those present who came to have their books signed by me in the London Review of Books tent afterwards.) The questions were all well-informed and interesting, not least because, as many of the audience members said to me in person, I’d answered most of the more controversial questions in my opening talk. Here is the transcript of what I said:

* * *

I was going to read from my book, but it seems that the most important topic in the United Kingdom in the 21st Century, indeed in the English-speaking world – when discussing bullfighting – are the ethical issues surrounding the injuring and killing of animals as part of a public spectacle. So I want to address these head on.

As a liberal – in the classical, John Suart Mill sense – it is not my intention, or my place, to tell people whether or not they should approve of or enjoy bullfighting anymore than it is whether they should approve of or enjoy opera. However, when people seek to ban an art form from existing, so that other people may not enjoy it, whatever claims have been made by other people who have never witnessed it, then certain questions have to be raised.

Whatever the motivations behind the ban on bullfighting on Catalonia – and there have been accusations of underhand dealings, thumbing of noses at Madrid to gain votes, which has some circumstantial evidence for it as the popular Catalan regional hobby of attaching burning tar balls and fireworks onto bulls’ horns and letting them into the streets is unaffected by the legislation – anyway, the stated reason is the ethics, or rather lack of ethics, of bullfighting. So, that is what I should like to discuss here.

However, before I can do that, I have to dispel some myths that have long surrounded the bullfight, pieces of propaganda that have been propagated by the anti-bullfight lobby such as CAS International, the League Against Cruel Sports and PETA.

The one I most often hear is the complaint that the matador faces a broken down and destroyed animal. Take a close look at this bull in these photos and tell me how broken down it looks.

Morante de la Puebla performs a ‘veronica’ (Photo: Author)

Continue reading

The Uses of Cruelty and the “Gentling Effect”

“The question of whether a modern society should endorse animal suffering as entertainment is bound to cross the mind of any casual visitor to a bullfight. Alexander Fiske-Harrison first tussled with the issue in his early twenties and, as a student of both philosophy and biology, has perhaps tussled with it more lengthily and cogently than most of us.”
Literary Review, August 1st, 2011

“It’s to Fiske-Harrison’s credit that he never quite gets over his moral qualms about bullfighting.”
Financial Times, June 4th, 2011

“He develops a taste for the whole gruesome spectacle, but what makes the book work is that he never loses his disgust for it.”
Daily Mail, May 26th, 2011

As I got on the plane to the Roman coliseum at Nîmes in France to see the greatest living bullfighter, José Tomás, on Sunday, September 18th, the idea of cruelty was foremost on my mind for obvious reasons. The gladiatorial arena is the birth place of the bullfight, whatever other historical traditions may have partly inspired it or later imposed themselves and moulded it – Minoan bull-dancers, Carthaginian marriage rituals, Mithraic initiation rites, the knightly joust, the circus, flamenco, ballet and the theatre. The gladiator is he who wields the gladius, the ‘sword’. The old name for a matador, ‘killer’, is espada or sword.

(All photos are mine from that day unless otherwise marked.)

Continue reading

The League of Cruel Sports

At the same time as the Sunday Telegraph joined the Sunday Times in listing my book Into The Arena as “essential summer reading”, and I was doing what you see in the photo below (more photos here), the animal rights lobby groups have broken their silence and ‘The League Against Cruel Sports’ has put up a review of my book which even contains a complimentary paragraph:

To his credit, Fiske-Harrison does at least acknowledge the morally questionable nature of the bullfight. And the book does contain some interesting explorations of concepts such as fear, bravery and drive.

Alexander Fiske Harrison, far right – red and white jacket – with Torrestrella bull in Pamplona, July 7th 2011 (Photo: REUTERS/Joseba Etxaburu)

Despite this, the rest of their review is riddled with errors from the first sentence:

Alexander Fiske-Harrison spent a year immersing himself in the bullfighting culture of Spain, with the seemingly noble aim of trying to gain a greater understanding of it.

I spent two years in Spain with the bulls. To the last: Continue reading