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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A Dedication To Seville

Ten years ago, I arrived in Seville with a broken engagement behind me and a career as investment banker in front of me. I had come to Andalusia to recover from the horrors of the one and prepare myself for the horrors of the other. I had been to the city a few times – I discovered it on the way back from an early attempt to ‘be an author’ in the Sahara desert – and seen a few corridas de toros, that we English wrongly call bullfights, as though it were a sporting contest rather than what it is, a scripted drama culminating in a ritual sacrifice. The Spanish word for the activity, toreo is as well translated by the word ‘bullfighting’ as flamenco would be by ‘heel-dancing’.

(We had the word bullfight and its cognates sitting idle in our vocabulary since we banned our own grim ‘sport’ of bull-baiting with dogs, which gave us our national symbol, the bull-dog, as Spain was given its, the toro bravo by the corrida, hence it is also called the fiesta nacional. For discussion of its current popularity and the oft-quoted ‘Gallup’ polls, see this post. On the ethics of the corrida, see this one.)

The corridas confused and fascinated me – when done well, they were beautiful, when badly a sin: they appeared to exist on a moral precipice – while the atmosphere of Seville – the buildings and people so clearly European when seen on my way back from Africa, yet somehow alien when arrived at from London – had a similar effect. And underneath both was the soul-twisting lament of the flamenco voice with its dark rhythms that pulse like the inevitable approach of death.

Author, Algerian border, 1998 (Photo: Camille Natta)

Author, Algerian border, 1998

Lorca dedicaciónHemingway dedicaciónSo I came back to Seville in 2003, staying at the Hotel Alfonso XII according to my copy of that poet of flamenco, toreo and Andalusia, Federico García Lorca. My copy of the aficionado’s bible, Ernest Hemingway’s Death In The Afternoon, charts my progress through the town to what was the bullfighter’s hotel in those days, the Colón, and on east to Cordoba.

Now, ten years later, I am coming back to a different Seville as a different person. Spain’s economy, like a bull stumbling after a bad wound from the picador’s lance, is being watched by the world to see if it will get up to charge again – something even the bull does not know – or will have to be replaced with something different. I, however, have moved from my seat in the audience to the callejón, the alleyway around the ring where the toreros stand.

After that first visit in 2003, I came back a few times, most notably for the feria de abril, the ‘April Fair’, of ’07, when I saw the matador El Cid torear a bull of Victorino Martín so well that I based an entire essay for Prospect magazine on it. As a result of that, I was sent back to Seville to write a book on toreo, and it was then that first met a series of people who would both populate my book and change my life.

This history of a taurine tribe

This history of a taurine tribe

The Dedication of a Friend

The Dedication of a Friend

Among the most important of these are the family that bred the only bull I have ever killed with a sword.

I first met Enrique Moreno de la Cova in the Spring of 2009, as I described in chapter five of my book Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight, and he invited me to come and face his cattle along with the now one-eyed – and world famous – matador Juan José Padilla. Enrique and his elder brother Félix had inherited the ‘mark’ (literally a ‘brand’) of cattle called Saltillo, now more famous as an encaste, a ‘strain’ of the breed that is the toro bravo. The original Saltillos still exist, though. (They are named after their first owner, the Marquess of Saltillo, from whom Enrique’s grandfather, Félix Moreno Ardanuy purchased them in 1918.) However, their decline was noted as long ago as 1937, when the matador and father of modern toreo, Juan Belmonte remarked in his memoirs, “What has happened to the breeds of Parladé, Saltillo and so many others?”

When I faced the Saltillos, I had only been in the ring once before – with the far simpler and smoother cattle of Fuente Ymbro with Padilla and our friend Adolfo Suárez Illana, son of the founding Prime Minister of Spanish Democracy – and the account of my injuries on their horns is fully recorded in chapter six of the book.

Finito de Córdoba, Juan José Padilla, author & vaquilla (Photo: Nicolás Haro)

Matadors Finito de Córdoba & Juan José Padilla give a lesson(Photo: Nicolas Haro)

For me the Saltillos are Seville, and so I was sad to hear from Enrique that he and his brother no longer had them. However, they remain within the family, having moved to a cousin, José Joaquín Moreno Silva. One of my greatest memories of my two years living in Spain is an afternoon spent with the Saltillos at their ranch Miravalles under the tutelage of my friend, the former matador Eduardo Dávila Miura (whose grandfather bred the most famous bulls of all, including the one that killed Manolete). We then returned to the former ranch of the Saltillos, La Vega, with all three grandsons of Don Félix, who, along with Maestro Dávila Miura, inscribed a copy of their forebear’s philosophical musings on the bulls.

Filosofía taurina portadaFilosofía taurina dedicaciónNow, I must pack for my return to Seville, where I shall be watching corridas with Enrique, drinking at La Fresquita with him, his wife the artist Cristina Ybarra (who has an excellent blog here) her brother Tristán and his aficionada pura wife Maria O’Neill, joking with Adolfo and Padilla as he dresses before going to torear in the Maestranza, and returning to the ring myself with Eduardo.

 

Spring is here, and Seville, she has not abandoned me .

(The heraldic motto ‘NO8DO’ is to be found all over Seville, from the drain covers to the police cars. The skein of wool in its centre represented by an ‘8’ is called a madeja in Spanish, so it reads, “no madeja do”, a play on the words no me ha dejado, ‘she has not abandoned me.” These were reputedly said by King Alfonso X when the city remained loyal to him against his son, Sancho IV of Castile.)

Alexander Fiske-Harrison

P.S. Obviously, I never became an investment banker, although in a strange twist of fate and friendship Enrique and Cristina’s eldest son did come and work for a summer with my father in the City doing exactly that, exchanging Saltillo for Fiske & Co PLC.

Enrique Moreno de la Cova and the author en route to the bullring of his Saltillos (Photo: Nicolás Haro)

An Englishman in Miura country

 

Author with a Miura (Photo: Pepe Sánchez)

As I train with my Maestro, to kill a single bull so I can write the most complete book on bullfighting possible (although abandoning my reputation for neutrality as a writer by getting into the arena) remarkable things happen. It is well known in the bullfighting world that no photography is allowed in the unique rectangular ‘plaza’ of Zahariche, the ranch where the world famous Miura bulls are bred, but that rule was broken for a demonstration for a select group of guests – including my friend Enrique Moreno de la Cova who breeds the equally historic Saltillo bulls. This piece of picture reportage by the photographer Pepe Sánchez can be found in the article ‘An Englishman in Zahariche’ on the website of Spain’s most popular bullfighting programme, Toros para Todos, ‘Bulls for All’, to see it click here. The first images are of Pepe Luis Vázquez, a notable former matador and son of an even greater one. Then comes my Maestro, Eduardo Dávila Miura, a recently retired matador and nephew of the house of Miura. Then the aficionado práctico Pepe González Barba. Followed by myself.

Here is what Hemingway had to say about Miura back in the 1930s.

“These bulls must be fought and killed as rapidly as possible with the minimum of exposure by the man, for they learn more rapidly than the fight ordinarily progresses and become exaggeratedly difficult to work with and kill.

Bulls of this sort are the old caste of fighting bulls raised by the sons of Don Eduardo Miura of Sevilla”

Two of the sons of those sons are below, and their daughter’s son as well…

Eduardo Miura, Author, Antonio Miura and Eduardo Dávila Miura