For The Love Of ‘Toreo’ – article in ‘Boisdale Life’ on bullfighting

FOR THE LOVE OF TOREO

When Englishman, Old Etonian and Boisdale regular Alexander Fiske-Harrison travelled to Spain to write  a book on bullfighting, he never imagined that he’d be stepping into the ring himself. But after he picked up  the red muleta for the first time, everything changed

Anyone who speaks of their first time in the ring in terms of the sweat or the heat, the overwhelming fatigue or the numbing fear, the grittiness of the sand under foot, or the particular odour the Spanish fighting bull brings with it from the corrals, is either lying, misremembering or deranged. For such detailed cognition is not how such massive levels of acute stress work in the normal human mind.

When you are first faced with a bull your world consists of two things: the animal’s eyes and where they are looking, and the animal’s horns and where they are going. As the saying goes of war: there are far too many things to be afraid of to have time to be scared.

By the time I was facing a big animal – three years old and weighing a third of a ton – I had learned how to control that adrenal flow so that I could devote time to reading the animal. For example, seeing which horn he preferred to lead with (like boxers, bulls are either southpaw or orthodox), and noticing whether he wanted to break into a canter in a close-range charge or preferred merely to extend his trot. Then there was the choice of pass I’d make with the muleta – the red cloth with a wooden stick for a spine – extended wider with the sword in its folds when used for a derechazo on the right, or on its own on the more risky, but more elegant, left for a pase natural.

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A Referendum on Spanish culture itself: Podemos on Bullfighting

Yesterday Google opened its page with an image from the Cave of Altamira, the oldest known art, painted on walls deep underground in Cantabria, northern Spain. (I have written about them in more detail in my chapter on the history of the region in the recent book The Bulls Of Pamplona.)

This is the 150th anniversary of the rediscovery of those caves, suitably a wandering hunter, and the institute which manages them has just launched a new exhibition to better educate the people of today about a range of artworks which began 36,000 years ago.

The subject of this art, the first Art – like the subject of the life of its rediscoverer – is the hunt, and Man’s first confrontation with those intertwined concepts of Nature and Death and how we inflict the latter upon the former in order to sustain ourselves against both.

Man kills to live, and thus lives in the shadow of Death, his own and that of others. Our first religious instincts come from here, thus the ritualistic nature of the hunting scenes upon the walls.

The first hunters – like all good hunters today – are humble and venerate the animals they kill, even as they defy their attempts to do the same to us. There is contradiction there, and as there always is when humans encounter contradiction, there is a ritual manner to quieten the troubling questions raised.

So it is an irony that on the same day we celebrate thirty-six millenia of art, a Spanish party of the political extreme, Podemos – the Left in this case – is offering to use that bane of modern populist politics, the referendum, to censor it. In particular one of its more arcane and archaic instantiations, and the one that is most singularly Spanish, bullfighting.

As I have written in these pages before, bullfighting is an English word, not a Spanish one, but is co-opted from its original use as an alternative to bull-baiting, i.e. setting dogs on a tethered animal. La corrida de toros actually translates as ‘the coursing of bulls’ – coursing being to hunt at a run – showing the historic origins of that which is now almost pure art and ritual, an aestheticized rite that ends in a sacrifice.

The art of the matador José Tomás, regarded by many as not only the most artistic torero alive today, but in history. This photo was taken during a historic corrida in Nîmes, France, in 2012 by Carlos Cazalis, and forms part of his book Sangre de Reyes, ‘Blood of Kings’

(N.B. All bullrings are EU-registered slaughterhouses, their products ending in the food-chain, as with all the world’s 1.3 billion cattle)

However, rather than recite my own views once again, or even to give the excellent public riposte of Victorino Martín in the newspaper El Mundo, himself a famed bull-breeder and president of la Fundación del Toro de Lidia, ‘the Foundation of the Fighting Bull’, which includes the perfectly apposite comparison:

One remembers all too well the actions of the Taliban upon the Buddhas of Bamiyan, destroyed because for failure to fit into their moral canon. Pablo Iglesias [leader of Podemos] considers the bulls morally wrong, so he proposes a referendum to end them.

 

It was precisely to avoid these things that UNESCO approved conventions such as the Cultural Diversity of 2001 and of which Spain is a party, which seeks to protect all cultural expressions against fundamentalisms…and if Podemos is tempted to say that “is that bullfighting is not culture”, UNESCO is already ahead of them, explaining that the only limit when considering when a culture is inadmissible are human rights and fundamental freedoms. I repeat, human rights …

I offer instead the words of someone from the other side of the debate, an author who defines himself as both of the Left and as anti-bullfighting, but who  – unlike the narrower political minds of Podemos – took up the Foundation on its offer to at least witness what he stood against. His fascinating essay on his reactions is translated.

Alexander Fiske-Harrison
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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

Noel Chandler, Prince of Pamplona: A Tribute

Noel Chandler and Alexander Fiske-Harrison, Pamplona, July 2013 (Photo: David Penton)

Noel Chandler and Alexander Fiske-Harrison, Pamplona, July 2013 (Photo: David Penton)

It seems it is my season for tributes to dead friends: I lost a near-sister on September 14th, and a true friend one month later on October 14th. Noel Chandler, though, was a few weeks shy of his 80th birthday, where Antonia Francis died just before her 40th. There is quite a difference.

The Spanish newspapers have been suitably effusive – for example his Pamplona local Diario de Navarra headlined with Welshman Noel Chandler dies, illustrious visitor to the feria of San Fermín’. However, they all seem to have propagated certain errors, starting with his age. Noel died at 79 not 76.

For that reason among others I am pleased not only to include my own memories of Noel, interspersed with a little journalistic research (about, for example, his service in the army), but also an interview he did with the secretary of the Club Taurino of London, David Penton, for their magazine La Divisa in 2013 which I suggested someone should do before it was all forgotten. However, nothing will ever capture the man in full. As even David noted when he forwarded the piece:

I promised to send you… the Lunch with Noel article which you prompted me to do. I hope you think it does him justice. Sadly he asked me to take a number of things out – mostly related to his generosity.

I’ll raise a glass to that.

AFH

Noel John Chandler

On his way to the great encierro (Photo: Jim Hollander, 1981)

On his way to the great encierro (Photo: Jim Hollander, 1981)

15 November 1935, Newport, Wales – 14 October 2015, Madrid Spain

B.A. (Hons.) Law, University of Bristol, 1958.

Lieutenant, Middlesex Regiment (Duke of Cambridge’s Own), 1961.

Managing Director, ICL Singapore Pte Ltd. 1994.

After the corrida on the final day of my first feria de San Fermín –  July 14th, 2009 – a few hours before pobre de mí– when I was… (ahem)… tired and emotional having run with bulls that morning and drunk whatever was handed to me during the day until I had seen them killed very badly that evening, I bumped into a pretty young woman called Ivy Mix – a good name for such a famous bartender – who led me to a bar called Al Capone where in the doorway was standing Noel Chandler.

I had heard of Noel, of course, but in my research for my book Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight I had courteously avoided British and American aficionados as I did not want to inherit non-native prejudices or to see Spain second-hand. (The only reason I had gone to Pamplona was because my first teacher of toreo, Juan José Padilla said he would run with me and his bulls.)

Miss Mix introduced me to Noel saying I was writing a book on the world of the bulls. Noel looked into my eyes – which were a little blurry on the third day of my first Pamplona fiesta – through his own  – which were… well, he was ten days into his forty-eighth fiesta – and said:

“What the fuck do you know about bulls?” 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

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

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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

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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

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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