An Essay On Bullfighting – 2019 update


the-last-arena-logo

Editor’s Note: This 10,000 word essay has been updated for republication since its original appearance in 2016. I have, however, kept the original data from Spain’s Ministry of Culture etc., as relevant changes have not really occurred: there were 1,521 bullfights in 2018, and 17,698 bull ‘festivities’ as defined below. And, as reported on the site here, the great matador Iván Fandiño was killed by a bull in a ring in France – AFH

José Tomás by Carlos Cazalis from his forthcoming book Sangre de Reyes, 'Blood Of

José Tomás by Carlos Cazalis from his book Sangre de Reyes, ‘Blood Of Kings’

When I first went to my first bullfight 20 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. It is obvious that ot an auspicious CV for a future aficionado a 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 breathless 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 ritualised, 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 Reuters & EPA photographer Jim Hollander, The Bulls Of Pamplona, was published by Mephisto Press in 2018, purchasing details are 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

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 Reuters & EPA photographer Jim Hollander, The Bulls Of Pamplona (And Beyond), was published by Mephisto Press in 2017, 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

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

image

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

image

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

The Cult Of The Bull

20130612-010502.jpg

As the 2013 season draws to a close, I have just received my copy of Olé! Capturing the Passion of Bullfighters and Aficionados in the 21st Century, which is filled with chapters and photos by some the foremost among the English-speaking faithful in the Spanish ‘Cult Of The Bull’, brought together and edited by Hal Marcovitz. (Available at Amazon in the US here, and the UK here.)

Among famous names such as Edward Lewine of the The New York Times, and John Hemingway, grandson of Ernest, there is an amazing chapter by the primus inter pares among runners of the bulls of Pamplona, the great Joe Distler, a veteran of over three hundred and sixty encierros, ‘bull-runs’, who “took me under his wing” (as I say in the book), and augmented and altered my afición, which was born in the flamenco and duende laden south of Spain.

It was he who suggested I write my own chapter in the book, and alongside us our friends and running mates Larry Belcher, a Texan rodeo rider turned professor at the University of Valladolid, Jim Hollander and the greatest photographer of Pamplona and the war-zones and torn places of the Earth for EPA.

There are also wonderful photographs, alongside those by Jim (who is responsible for the stunning cover), from my dear friend from Seville, Nicolás Haro, shortlisted contestant for the internationally presitigious Photo España prize.

(Nicolás also took the black and white photos in my own William Hill Sports Book of the Year shortlisted Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight.)

His work on horses is being exhibited in an exhibition in Seville on December 3rd (for which I have literally just filed the ‘foreword’ to the catalogue.)

Photo Espana Nicolas Haro

I should add a mention of my review of the complete letters of Hemingway, from the period 1923-1925, when his interest in bullfighting and Spain first developed, for The Spectator, online here.

However, it is not my own writing I should like to promote in this blog post, but that of the other writers in Olé!, some of whom I have not exactly seen eye-to-eye with over the years.

Continue reading

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

The Pamplona Post: A Paean to Pamplona

This is the full version of what I submitted for my regular column ‘By The Sword’ in Taki’s Magazine. As you can see here, about half was cut, leaving only a narcissistic skeleton, rather than the other people, which is what Fiesta is all about. (I forget whether it was Stephen Ibarra or Rick Musica, those pillars of Pamplona, who said that if they took the bulls away from the feria, but kept the people, they’d still come, but if they took away the people, it wouldn’t be worth it for the bulls alone. Which is why so many of them are mentioned. Those that I could not fit even in this are mentioned in the post-script.)

Noel Chandler & Alexander Fiske-Harrison by David Penton

Noel Chandler & Alexander Fiske-Harrison, Pamplona 2012 (Photo: David Penton)

The great thing is to last and get your work done and see and hear and learn and understand; and write when there is something that you know; and not before; and not too damned much after.
Ernest Hemingway, Death In the Afternoon 1932

In 2009 I first came to Pamplona to run with the bulls to give a first-person perspective to that chapter of my book on the “world of the Spanish bullfight.” I was terrified in that complete and overwhelming way that total ignorance brings, standing on a street corner where a friend had stood for his first time the day before – that was the sum total of advice I had been given – and waiting for death to come.

I comported myself honourably but not brilliantly and did so again two days later before boarding a train to Barcelona and vowing never to come to the city again. The relentless loud, bad music, the all-day drinking by people who clearly hadn’t washed in some time, and the fact that the corridas, ‘the bullfights’ (as I’ve said in this column before, it’s neither a fight nor a sport) were made abysmal by even worse music played by multiple bands in the audience in apparent competition with one another, all combined to set me firmly against in this Navarran Fiesta. The place seemed crude, cruel and uncouth compared to the sun-blasted, deathless dignity of Andalusia where my aficion for the bulls was formed.

Then, two years later, after the book came out, a Reuters journalist called Angus MacSwan asked to interview me. By then I had been worn smooth and glib by endlessly justifying the ritual injuring and killing of animals in the ring and so was surprised when he told me outright that he liked the book but that I was wrong about one thing: Pamplona… Read on at The Pamplona Post by clicking here.

untitled3

Alexander Fiske-Harrison