My talk on Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight at Blackwell’s of Oxford on Thursday at 7pm

On Thursday, February 9th, at 7pm I will be giving a talk on my book, Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight at Blackwell’s Bookshop on Broad Street, Oxford. Tickets are free and are available by calling 01865 333623.

Putting to one side the articles in the Oxford Times and Oxford Mail, which discuss an apparently needless postponement of the talk – Blackwell’s effectively caved into complaints and then misrepresented them to me as messages of a threatening nature so I would agree – it is still worth clarifying one point of fundamental importance. Into The Arena is not a piece of pro-bullfighting propaganda. And it’s not just me saying that. Here’s what the press said:

Shortlisted for

*****

Fiske-Harrison’s argument that the interplay between man and bull, when done with the highest skill, merits the tragedy will not convince many readers. But his descriptions of the fights are compelling and lyrical, and his explanation of different uses of the matador’s capes is illuminating. One begins to understand what has captivated Spaniards for centuries. This complex and ambitious book examines not only life in the bullring but also Spain’s cultural identity and modern ideas of masculinity. Fiske-Harrison admits that with each of his fights he knows more, not less fear. When he kills his first and only bull he feels not triumph but overwhelming sadness for a life take.

Provides an engrossing introduction to Spain’s “great feast of art and danger”…brilliantly capturing a fascinating, intoxicating culture.

Uneasy ethical dilemmas abound, not least the recurring question of how much suffering the animals are put through. But this remains a compelling read, unusual for its genre, exalting the bullfight as pure theatre.

Fiske-Harrison did not expect to fall in love with bullfighting when he saw it for the first time in 2000. A philosophy student and member of the World Wildlife Fund and Greenpeace, he would argue with his brother about animal cruelty. But then he travelled to Seville and had his eyes opened by the beauty, dignity and art of the sport. Fiske-Harrison recounts his year spent studying the matadors, breeders, fans and the bulls themselves, set against the backdrop of the campaign to ban bullfighting in Catalonia.

Others have been there before, not least Ernest Hemingway, the 50th anniversary of whose death neatly coincides with this travelogue. Hemingway concluded that bullfighting was ‘moral’ as it gave him a ‘feeling of life, death and mortality’. Fiske-Harrison comes to much the same conclusion, albeit after considerable soul-searching… He develops a taste for the whole gruesome spectacle, but what makes the book work is that he never loses his disgust for it…

This is an informed piece of work on a subject about which we are all expected to have a view. But what I really enjoyed about Into The Arena is that after nearly 300 pages I still couldn’t quite decide whether bullfighting should be banned or allowed to flourish.”

It’s to Fiske-Harrison’s credit that he never quite gets over his moral qualms about bullfighting; the book is at its strongest when he uses his degree in biology to investigate the cruelty question… Into the Arena is full of intriguing detail… an engrossing introduction to bullfighting. Continue reading

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The League of Cruel Sports

At the same time as the Sunday Telegraph joined the Sunday Times in listing my book Into The Arena as “essential summer reading”, and I was doing what you see in the photo below (more photos here), the animal rights lobby groups have broken their silence and ‘The League Against Cruel Sports’ has put up a review of my book which even contains a complimentary paragraph:

To his credit, Fiske-Harrison does at least acknowledge the morally questionable nature of the bullfight. And the book does contain some interesting explorations of concepts such as fear, bravery and drive.

Alexander Fiske Harrison, far right – red and white jacket – with Torrestrella bull in Pamplona, July 7th 2011 (Photo: REUTERS/Joseba Etxaburu)

Despite this, the rest of their review is riddled with errors from the first sentence:

Alexander Fiske-Harrison spent a year immersing himself in the bullfighting culture of Spain, with the seemingly noble aim of trying to gain a greater understanding of it.

I spent two years in Spain with the bulls. To the last: Continue reading

Is bullfighting an art?

Cayetano Rivera Ordóñez in Sanlucar de Barrameda in 2009 by Nicolás Haro

In last weekend’s Sunday Times there is a review of my book, Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight (which can be purchased at Amazon by clicking here) which, although largely positive, has two main criticisms.

The first, a minor one, is that the author is too self-regarding. I can’t really protest against this on pain of self-contradiction, and my only response is to say that the bullfight is, as I argue below, all about the emotion it inspires in both bullfighter and the audience. Since I play both of those roles at different points in the book, I have no choice but to describe who I am so the reader can try to triangulate what sort of emotions it might inspire in them.

His second, more serious criticism is two-pronged: he finds my apparent conversion from journalist to aficionado, and then beyond that to practioner, repellent, and this is made worse by the fact that he finds my justifications given in defence of bullfighting fatuous. The funny thing is, the review in the usually much more sentimental and emotional Daily Mail says that what makes my book readable is that I manage to maintain my “disgust “for the bullfight throughout the book.

So what is the truth? Am I in love with the bullfight, or in hate? The answer is both, at different times, and sometimes with such a quick turnaround between them that they seem to overlap. However, there is one thing I am not, and that is someone who would unprotestingly allow any law to be passed to ban it. The primary reason is because politically I am a liberal. The secondary one is that I believe bullfighting can be justified, even if the justification will not convince everyone all of the time (and that includes me.) The justification I phrased best in the Prospect magazine article which led to the book:

Whether or not the artistic quality of the bullfight outweighs the moral question of the animals’ suffering is something that each person must decide for themselves – as they must decide whether the taste of a steak justifies the death of a cow. But if we ignore the possibility that one does outweigh the other, we fall foul of the charge of self-deceit and incoherence in our dealings with animals.

This is what has given me the title of this blog post. I believe that the bullfight does have an artistic quality, in fact, that can be an art in its own right. Now, I am aware that a large number of people, including the Sunday Times reviewer, think that even if it is an art-form, it could not possibly be justified on that basis. In fact, one journalist for the BBC – our national television network that has a state-enforced monopoly largely to guarantee the impartiality of its journalism – whom I approached on the subject, put his views even more strongly in an email to me.

Dear Xander,

Thanks so much for the invitation. I do have a passing interest in the subject – nothing quite cheers up my morning like reading in the paper that some matador or another has been gored to death by one of the bulls he was proposing to kill. It’s sort of like a man-bites-dog story, but with an added moral twist. But most of the time, I’m more interested in sports stories where both participants have volunteered to take part, and where one of the parties hasn’t been deliberately hobbled by minions sticking spears in them beforehand. Come to think of it, I guess you could see it as appreciating the rules of fair-play they instill at Eton.

Ole… Continue reading

My interview with Cayetano Rivera Ordóñez in ‘The Times’.

Cayetano Rivera Ordoñez (Photo: Nicolás Haro)

Published in the magazine of yesterday’s edition of the Sunday Times is my interview with the extremely simpatico and gifted matador, Cayetano Rivera Ordóñez. On the day of his corrida in Sanlucar de Barrameda, my photographer Nicolás Haro and I went to meet him in his hotel where we spoke for a couple of hours from which these words are extracted.

A Life in the Day: The lord of the bullring

The matador Cayetano Rivera Ordóñez, 32, on his love-hate relationship with the bull

Alexander Fiske-Harrison
Published: 26 July 200

I usually arrive in a town the night before the fight. The day I fight, I don’t put on the alarm clock. It is important not to be tired. Depending on the time, I either get breakfast or I have an early lunch. I cannot eat for four or five hours before the fight, in case I have to have surgery. Matadors have to deal with those little matters. Usually I don’t go out from the hotel room. I’m in my own world, concentrating for the afternoon. I lie back, relax, talk to friends, watch some TV, listen to some music: flamenco, rock’n’roll, depending on how I feel.

When I am training at my family’s house in Ronda, near Malaga, I usually wake up around 9. I go to the gym for a couple of hours, then I practise my moves without the bull at home, what we call toreo de salon, for two hours. We also spend a long time thinking about the bull, because you have to read it: its movements, its speed, the height of its horns when it charges. The bull tells you what you are able to do and what you shouldn’t try, and you have to improvise on this in real time. Continue reading