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

Alexander Fiske-Harrison in ‘ABC’: “Many foreigners would not spend a cent in Spain without the bulls.”

The Spanish national newspaper ABC ran the following interview with me last week (with photos by Nicolás Haro).

The online version is available here. The beginning translates in a way you would only find in Spain:

Alexander Fiske-Harrison at his book launch in Seville (ABC)

Alexander Fiske-Harrison: “Many foreigners would not spend a cent in Spain without the bulls.”

Interview by Anna Grau

A British Gentleman passionate about the Fiesta, he is an amateur matador (the “bullfighter-philosopher” they call him) and has published a book on the art of bullfighting.

To Alexander Fiske-Harrison in his own country, which is the UK, some call him the “bullfighter-philosopher.” While others send him death threats, since he has gone from being active supporter of animal rights and a student of philosophy and piology in London and Oxford to being a matador in Spain. He is the author of Into the Arena (Profile Books), treatise on Spanish bullfighting for non-believers and foreigners. Many of which, he notes, come to our country intensely attracted to the fiesta nacional… and would swiftly back from where they came if this disappeared.

How to ask this man what he thinks of bullfighting ban in Barcelona? “Since then, the only money I’ve spent there has been to take a taxi from the airport to the train station to go to run with the bulls in Pamplona, a city that invests 4 million Euros each year in the Feria de San Fermín, and gets in return 60 million Euros from tourism.” Clear cut. Continue reading

The Spectator: A Good Run by Alexander Fiske-Harrison

My article from The Spectator, written largely on the breakfast tables of Pamplona, half cut on vanilla and cognac, having just run with the bulls. (With thanks to Joe Distler.)

AFH

A good run

14 July 2012

Why I risk my life among the bulls of Pamplona

I have just finished running — with a thousand like-minded souls from around the world — down a half-mile of medieval city streets while being pursued by a half-dozen half-ton wild Spanish fighting bulls. They were accompanied by an equal number of three-quarter-ton galloping oxen, but we didn’t worry about them: they know the course as well as anyone and keep the bulls in a herd. This is good, because when fighting bulls are on their own they become the beast of solitary splendour and ferocity you may see in bullrings across Spain, France, Portugal, Mexico and much of Latin America. However, every second week in July, during the festival of Saint Fermín, they are run together as a herd from the corrals to the bullring. Continue reading

Hemingway’s Fiesta, “condemned to being very good.”

Fiesta-eflyer

Today sees the final performances of the West End show, Hemingway’s Fiesta (The Sun Also Rises). If you have not been to see it, good luck on getting tickets now – I was told by the producer ten days ago that they only had ten tickets left for evenings performances, and a few more for matinées (there is one today.) There’s always a chance: details are here.

I very much like the cast and crew. I first met with them at the best tapas bar in London, Capote y Toros on the Old Brompton Road, to ‘assist’ the production as detailed in The Daily Telegraph.

7 February 2012

by Tim Walker

Curtain also rises

Ernest Hemingway’s granddaughter Mariel will attend the first night of Fiesta (The Sun Also Rises) at the Trafalgar Studios in Whitehall on Thursday night.

The cast of the show, which is based on his first novel, about bullfighting, were given tips on the Spanish “art” by Alexander Fiske-Harrison, an Old Etonian, who trained as a matador.

“I tried to convey the essence of what it is to be a bullfighter,” says Fiske-Harrison, who is courting Antalya Nall-Cain, the daughter of Lord Brocket.

I met them again at the First Night after-party at Boyd’s Bar in the old Grand Hotel and at the same place venue last Friday to listen to their excellent on-stage supporting jazz band Trio Farouche.

So I was, in some ways at least, happy when The Spectator told me they couldn’t fit my review in. The production has had largely excellent reviews, as well as selling out. However, I am most inclined to agree with Michael Billington’s review. It is worth saying that we saw the play the same night, and even discussed it before, during the interval and after. His award of three stars seems about fair, and not just because that was the same number my own last venture on stage got in Billington’s review.

Anyway, given that it is now far too late for any negativity in my piece to have an effect, I hope the producers, director, cast and crew take this in the spirit of honest appraisal it was intended. After all, being “condemned to being merely very good” is still very good, n’est-ce pas?

Alexander Fiske-Harrison

Hemingway & Ordonez padre

From left to right (foreground): Cayetano Ordóñez – ‘Niño de la Palma’, Ernest Hemingway & Cayetano’s son, Antonio Ordóñez

The Sun Is Now Set

I first read Fiesta, Ernest Hemingway’s debut novel published as The Sun Also Rises in the US, in 2008 while researching for a magazine article on bullfighting for Prospect magazine (online here). At the time I was also rehearsing to act in a play I had written in a theatre in London’s West End. Which was why I got talking to another cast of actors in a nearby pub who told me they were ‘workshopping’ a stage adaptation of Fiesta the Old Vic.

The vagaries of a life are strange, and as the scenery came down on my play, and I was once again unemployed, my literary agent suggested I turn my magazine article to a book on bullfighting and so I set of to Spain. During my two years, I went from spectator to participant, briefly becoming a torero myself.

Since publishing that book, Into The Arena, I have returned to Spain many times, sometimes to run with the bulls in Pamplona (as described in The Spectator last July) – often alongside Ernest’s grandson, John Hemingway – sometimes to get back in the training ring (no animals harmed) alongside matadors like the great Cayetano Rivera Ordóñez – great grandson of Cayetano Ordóñez, on whom the matador in Fiesta, Pedro Romero is based. (In fact, the book was originally drafted as a non-fiction short-story under the title ‘Cayetano Ordóñez’.) Continue reading

‘World’s Scariest Animal Attacks’ on Channel 5* (UK) & Discovery Channel (USA)

It is nice to see that the inteview I filmed at my favourite tapas bar in London, Capote y Toros on the Old Brompton Road, was broadcast again as narration for the fighting bull segment in ‘World’s Scariest Animal Attacks’ on both sides of the Atlantic last night.

If you missed it in the UK, on Channel 5* at 9pm BST last night, you can watch it again here. If you missed in the US at 10pm EDT last night on the Discovery Channel as part of ‘Shark Week’ (when is it not Shark Week on Discovery?), it can be seen again today, August 16th, at 12 am & 2:00 pm, and then again on Aug 18th at 11 am.

Alexander Fiske-Harrison is the expert witness on the toro bravo – Spanish fighting bull – segment of ‘World Scariest Animal Attacks’, first broadcast in the Spring on Channel 5 in the UK, re-broadcast on the Discovery Channel in the US…

In 2010, a fighting bull went on the rampage through the crowded audience at a bullring in Tafalla in north-eastern Spain. The event was not a bullfight, though, but a spectacle of acrobatic bull-leaping, in which the bull normally leaves the ring unharmed to be used again. However, this time, things ended very differently, and very badly, for the people in the audience and the bull…

Mentorn TV

You can read more about Alexander Fiske-Harrison’s account of his two years in Spain, Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight here, where there are also links to purchase or download from Amazon, iTunes etc.

The Great Pamplona Bullrunner, Joe Distler, reviews my book ‘Into The Arena’

Joe Distler, known as the “Iron Man” of Pamplona, has run every Pamplona bull-run for 44 years and been the subject of countless articles and documentaries. He is without doubt, question or challenge the greatest American runner of the bulls.

The latest issue of La Busca, the journal of the association “Taurine Bibliophiles of America” contains this review he wrote of my book Into The Arena: The World of the Spanish Bullfight.

Joe Distler (Photo: Gerry Dawes)

In 1967, in the Strand Bookstore in Manhattan, I walked down the wrong isle heading for the fiction section and that brief misstep would change my life forever. There, lying in wait, was a copy of Robert Daley’s book, The Swords of Spain. Since Spain was always a place I had desired to visit, I picked up the book and the very first page I turned to had photographs of men running in front of Bulls. I was enraptured. Reading Hemingway had never really interested me in Pamplona’s “encierro” but Daley’s book completely freaked me out. It was, being a used copy, the best five dollar investment I have ever made! Not only did it convince me I must go to Pamplona immediately, it led to my friendships with Matt Carney, John Fulton, Muriel Feiner, Barnaby Conrad, Bill Lyon and a host of other fabulous characters who would go on to fill my life with wonder and joy.

Matt Carney & Joe Distler by John Fulton

Every year, before going to Spain, I still go back to Daley. The book is as fresh today as it was when I first read it standing in the stacks so many years ago. His vignette ‘Spanish Springtime’ still brings tears to my eyes and I wonder what magic made me find such a book?

Over the years, like so many aficionados, I have amassed a large library of taurine books but none ever affected me the way The Swords of Spain did. Not, at least, until recently.

Joe Distler, top right, running in Pamplona

Alexander Fiske-Harrison, top right, running in Pamplona

Continue reading