An English farewell – ‘Una despedida Inglés’

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A portrait of me by Nicolás Haro

I wrote on this blog just before the April Fair that I first came to Seville on the back of a broken relationship ten years before. My dates were wrong: it was in June. This June, I found myself back again.

Seeing things through different eyes, a realisation came over me, which I have expressed in my column in today’s issue of Taki’s Magazine, centring as it does on the saddest story in cinema, Orson Welles. Even the title is a quotation from the great man: ‘The Second-Hand Men’. As I write there,

Welles either couldn’t admit to himself or couldn’t say out loud that the more pressing issue is not just becoming audience rather than artist, but in being fêted for just sitting in the stands and reveling in that. At this point one has slid from the morally and aesthetically questionable world of the voyeur to the far more reprehensible one of poseur.
(To read the column in full click here.)

Cf., the photo above…

At the same time, fate conspired me to spend a little time with all the people who helped me make, and themselves made up, my book on this beautiful and strange land, Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight.

As I describe in the column, I stood in front of the last lot of Saltillos ever to exit the gates of Félix and Enrique Moreno de la Cova’s ranch ‘Miravalles’, alongside my former Maestro, the ex-matador Eduardo Dávila Miura. And given what I used to be able to do…

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Me with a Saltillo bull in 2010 (Photo Nicolás Haro)

… what remained of my bullfighting technique was a rather poor thing…

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Me with a Saltillo becerra in 2013 (Photo: Miguel Santos)

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Me with a Saltillo becerra in 2013 (Photo: Miguel Santos)

However, it was still an emotional day with a large audience, many toritos and vaquillas, young bulls and cows, for the toreros practicós, ‘amateur bullfighters’, and a beautiful long lunch at the former Saltillo finca ‘La Vega’ afterwards, even if I was not in any condition to enjoy it as much as I should.

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The last capea of Saltillo at Miravalles (Photo: Miguel Santos)

Having realised that I was now just a torero on paper – a second-hand guy on the sand – I decided to quit while I was still ahead. (The bulls gave me a great deal, and I gave a great deal back, but they took something as well.)

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A portrait of me by Nicolás Haro

First, I paid a visit to my old friend and frequent collaborator, the photographer Nicolás Haro, who took these portrait shots while I could still fit into my traje corto. Hopefully, Nicolás and I will soon be collaborating once more on a book about the psychological link between horses and men, a centaur project to balance our minotaur one (Nicolás took the black and white photos for Into The Arena.) The initial collection of Nicolás’s photos for this project have already been nominated for one of the most prestigious international photographic contests held in Spain: PhotoEspaña.)

I will, once I have completed my new novel, finished the task of washing the blood from my hands with a book on what Teddy Roosevelt called “the beast of waste and desolation” and Man’s Best Friend: wolves and dogs.

That said, as you can see from the cover of this new book, Olé! Capturing the Passion of Bullfighters and Aficionados in the 21st Century, due to be published in the United States in the next few weeks, I have been writing on the bulls up to the very last minute (my chapter also contains great photos by Nicolás.)

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Before I left, I even got to say farewell to that one-eyed gladiator, my first teacher, Juan José Padilla, when he fought in the feria de manzanilla in his home town of Sanlúcar de Barrameda. (These photos are by me.)

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20130612-011107.jpgAnd then a last adíos to that matador de arte from the greatest of the taurine dynasties, my dear friend Cayetano Rivera Ordóñez, who was my chauffeur from Seville to Ronda so I could talk about Orson Welles, whose ashes are interred at his family home.

So, all that remains for me to do is say farewell to the streets of Pamplona in July with a couple of runs among their bulls, and those of that other, and more ancient, bull-running town Cuéllar in August (I wrote comparing and contrasting them in the Financial Times last weekend, linked to here.) I even have an invitation from Cayetano to join him in the ring (on a ranch in Ronda) one last time for “amusement” on the morning of the Feria Goyesca. We will see…

However, such amusements and formalities to one side, I’m done here. “There’s a world elsewhere.”

Alexander Fiske-Harrison

To read my Takimag column in full click here.

P.S. In a neat and final symmetry, having reached my highest point on talking about the bulls – the speech I gave to the Reform Club at the request of, and beside, the Spanish Ambassador – I have now gone full circle and been invited to talk about the bulls at my old school, Eton. I wonder if they know I’ll be running my last runs in my Eton College Athletic Club Colours blazer (400m). It’s the striped one on the right – I have my hand on the bull for balance – in this Reuters photo in 2011.

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My article on newspaper horseracing tipsters for The Times (full length)

Who to back in the Grand National? Not the tipsters

Alexander Fiske-Harrison

April 12, 2012

Alexander Fiske Harrison checks out the racing tips in the various newspapers before placing a bet (Photo: Times Photographer Matt Lloyd)

The “Sport of Kings” is not something I have ever wanted to know a lot about. I’ve had the odd flutter on the Grand National or the Ascot Gold Cup, but that no more makes me an aficionado of racing than the odd game of poker makes me a card sharp. Also, when I bet, I tend to lose, which – luckily for me – is something I really don’t like. Gambling is not in my blood.

Which is why it is ironic that the most dangerous thing I have ever done – to fight a bull in the Spanish style – resulted in my having to take up betting.

The short version is this: in 2008 I went to Spain to take a proper look at their bizarre national pastime of fighting bulls. I went with what I thought was an open, balanced mind – half full of doubts about what the animal rights groups were saying, half with doubts about pro-bullfighting authors like Ernest Hemingway.

After a year watching from the stands I decided I was for it (with serious reservations) and the matadors I met all said that if I really wanted to describe their world, I had to see it from the sand. I did, I survived, and I wrote the whole two years as a book which was shortlisted for the William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award, the “Bookie” Prize. I didn’t win, but what I did end up with was a thousand pounds at William Hill which I had to bet.

You might think that someone crazy enough to become a bullfighter would just go hell for leather (excuse the pun) and put it all on the nose of a horse chosen with a pin and The Times’s racing section. However, bullfighting, for the survivors at least, is actually about risk management. The trick is to keep your cool and remain rational.

Now, I know a bit about horses, but this was clearly no help as people who have devoted their lives to studying them usually lose. That said, clearly some people make a living at it and they are called bookies. Or racing journalists.

Alexander Fiske-Harrison with an Andalusian (Photo: Nicolás Haro)

Continue reading

The Man of the Moment: Juan José Padilla

Screen capture of interview (videos embedded below)

I have embedded below, in two parts, Canal Sur’s Jesús Quintero interviewing the matador Juan José Padilla – and his wife Lidia at the end of the second part – about his forthcoming return to the ring in Olivenza on March 4th, following his horrific injuries I posted about here. Not for nothing did Continue reading

The Australian reviews my book: Death in the afternoon revisited by a beginner bullfighter

As an Australian citizen (dual-nationality with my British citizenship), I am very pleased to see that their best-selling national newspaper, The Australian has reviewed my book Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight in this weekend’s edition (online here: Death in the afternoon revisited by a beginner bullfighter | The …).

I think that the author, Matthew Clayfield, who refers heavily to Ernest Hemingway’s Death In The Afternoon as a strongancestral influence to my book has got it largely right – including in his criticisms.) Especially in his line on my ethical misgivings about bullfighting in the book:

While Fiske-Harrison eventually dismisses his qualms, it is difficult to read his final chapter, “La escotada” – the thrust of the matador’s sword – without getting a sense that his year with the bulls has only deepened their mystery. It certainly hasn’t put an end to his concerns. Or, one suspects, his searching for an answer.

I should add here, just to clarify, that despite press reports to the contrary, my talk at Blackwell’s Bookstore in Oxford has not been ‘threatened’ as such, and neither have I with regards to the talk. This was a miscommunication somewhere in the chain, as was the in-hindsight preposterous idea that the Thames Valley Police were aware of this and had failed to act.

I have myself received “death-threats” on this blog and elsewhere – although I have always found that phrase a little melodramatic, as I am neither dead nor feeling in the least threatened. Which is why I delete them, forget them and sleep easy at night. (Well, not quite: I dream, almost constantly, about bulls. My strangest – and most moving – dream about them opening chapter twenty of Into The Arena.)

Anyway, I will be talking at Blackwell’s at 7pm on Thursday, February 9th.

Alexander Fiske-Harrison

The photo of my one and only “bullfight” is enclosed below (Photo: Andy Cooke). A full discussion of the ethics – or lack of – in bullfighting is the next post in this blog.

Mad Bulls and Englishmen by Giles Coren in The Times

This article of Giles Coren’s was originally published in The Times magazine on Boxing Day ’09 where it is still available along with Dominic Elliot’s film of our day bullfighting here. All photos are by Nicolás Haro.

Alexander Fiske-Harrison, the English bullfighter, takes on a ‘vaquilla’ of the Saltillo breed. Inset: with Giles Coren, attending a bullfight in Seville.

Writers and travellers have long been drawn to the drama and romance of the bullfight. Giles Coren is no exception, so when he was contacted out of the blue by the younger brother of his dead best friend, now training to be a bullfighter in Spain, Giles was intrigued. Here he describes his journey into a unique culture of noblemen, peasants and swindlers, all driven by deadly serious dreams of death and glory

I am in a bullring. Not in the seats, in the ring. On the sand. From the relative safety of a wooden barrier with a small room behind it, built into the stone wall, I have seen four vaquillas, young cows, “caped” by one of Spain’s most famous matadors, the son of the first post-Franco prime minister of Spain, Adolfo Suárez Illana, and by Alexander Fiske-Harrison, the younger brother of my best friend at school, who died in an accident the year we left, three months before his 19th birthday. Continue reading

My book ‘Into The Arena’ shortlisted for the William Hill Sports Book Prize

It has just been announced that my book, Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight has been promoted from the longlist for the world’s richest sports writing prize, the William Hill Sports Book Of The Year Award 2011, onto the six-strong short list.

I should like to say that without the friendship and courage of the matadors of Spain, most particularly my Maestro Eduardo Dávila Miura and my friend Cayetano Rivera Ordóñez, this book would never have existed. However, the greatest thanks of all are owed to the first matador I met, the Cyclone from Jerez, Juan José Padilla, who is even now recuperating from a hideous near-fatal goring and preparing himself for further surgical intervention in Seville next week in the hope they can restore the sight to his left eye after the bull’s horn took it away (see earlier blogposts.) Continue reading