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

Seville: I have not deserted her

Charlas Taurinas en Cuellar

I have been getting busy undoing the damage of Pamplona – barely a good run among five, injuries from that one, a habit of craving cognac at 8.05 a.m. – and began a regime of training for the infinitely more serious, and ancient, encierros, ‘bull-runs’, of Cuéllar in Old Castile which as I described in the travel section of the Financial Times (link here) (for which I am receiving my prize as stated – with odd spelling – in the above poster, along with my friend Nicolás Haro who took the photographs for the article.) I may be making my way out of the world of the bulls – as I’ve written here – but there’s still time for one last perfect run, one last job, one last score…

The-American-Spectator-LogoMeanwhile, my writing on the topic still trickles out, publication lags being what they are, this time in ‘The Great American Bar Room’ series in The American Spectator, which is finally available online here. It tells the story of an morning, afternoon, evening and night spent drinking with the great one-eyed matador, my old friend Juan José Padilla (before he lost his eye. How he lost his eye, and came back to bullfighting without it, I wrote up for GQ magazine hast year here.) SCN_0004
Reading that account of my time in Spain, at the very beginning my journey that I recounted in my William Hill Sports Book of the Year shortlisted Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight (details here), I realise again how much I owe to Andalusia in general, and particular to the city of Seville which gave me everything. Which is why, in its hour of need, I was particularly glad that my rewrite of one of the bestselling guide books in the world, the Wallpaper* magazine City Guide, published by Phaidon Press, has just come out.

These guides have sold well over a million copies. So when I was asked to “update” their Seville edition – replacing about half of the original text- I thought it would be an excellent chance to repay old friends, This is in no way dishonest, nor a conflict of interest: these friends simply are my friends because their establishments are the best in town. Sadly, they do not always fit the aesthetics of ‘urbane sophistication’ that Wallpaper* demands for its photographically-based pages. So they are mainly mentioned in the text. However, their is no simply no denying that if you go to Seville and want an apartment, you should go to my friend Kinchu’s apartments at Almansa 11 (they did get a photo, p.20, website here.)

Wallpaper cover

If you want a cheap hotel, stay at the Hotel Adriano by the bullring (from here on in, click on names for websites). If more expensive but traditional, Hotel Las Casas de la Judería (p.22-23) in the Barrio Santa Cruz of which my friend the Duke of Segorbe still holds a part. If boutique, Hotel Corral del Rey (p.30) belonging to the Scott brothers. And if old school grandeur, the Hotel Alfonso XIII (p.24-25) where we had such a great party in June…

The nicest restaurant near the bullring is that owned by Horacio, after whom it takes its name (and one of the few to speak English) on calle Antonio Diaz. Around the corner on calle Arfe is the most authentic of the small bars in town, Casa Matías which often has flamenco – sometimes sung by the moustachioed Matías himself – in the afternoons (the true flamenco, the cante jondo, the deep song, rather than the dance spectacle which tourists crave.) For the best old school atmosphere with your tapas, go round the corner again to Hijos de E. Morales on calle García de Vinuesa. For the finest ham, the jamón ibérico pata negra, go to Bar Las Teresas in Barrio Santa Cruz on calle de Santa Teresa, or for more modern tapas, Vinería San Telmo, owned by the charming Juan Manuel Tarquini on paseo Catalina de Ribera, also in that quarter. (These all feature on p.48 of the guide. None require bookings.)

Finally, for the true heart of Seville, go to La Maestranza, the great plaza de toros of Seville, where corridas de toros – it is not a bull-fight, nor is it a sport, as I argue throughout this blog – are held in the mini feria of Saint Michael on the last weekend of September, with the best young novice matadors on the Friday evening (27th) and some of the finest matadors on the Saturday and the very best on the Sunday. (For anything from matador’s swords to wallets made of toro bravo leather – go to the torero’s tailor, Pedro Algaba on calle Adriano, part of the Maestranza building itself – on p.70 of the guide.)

And there is so much else to see in Seville: every building of historic beauty fragranced by the iconic orange trees that line the streets; and the vast fallen bull of the cathedral in the baking sun, with its belltower, La Giralda – once the minaret of the Moorish mosque – standing matador-proud on the skyline; the art galleries and museums, the exquisite Moorish gardens of the Alcazar palace and the eclectic botany of the original Empire on which the sun did not set in the Park of Maria Luisa… and the beautiful river Guadalquivir carving through it all.

Alexander Fiske-Harrison