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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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

Fiesta: How To Survive The Bulls Of Pamplona by Fiske-Harrison, Hemingway, Welles… and the Mayor of Pamplona

Out now is the eBook, Fiesta: How To Survive The Bulls Of Pamplona (available on Amazon in all regions – details on website here. ) I edited and contributed to it, as has John Hemingway – Ernest’s grandson, Beatrice Welles – Orson’s daughter, Joe Distler – the greatest ever American bull-runner, Jim Hollander – senior EPA photographer and Pamplona veteran of over 50 years, and four of the greatest Basque and Spanish runners, with over 2,000 bull-runs between them, Julen Madina, Miguel Ángel Eguiluz, Jokin Zuasti and Josechu Lopez (and photos by my old friend Nicolás Haro.)

Of course, you’ll notice the slight Anglo-Spanish imbalance above, so, luckily, Don Enrique Maya, the Mayor of Pamplona since 2011, has just sent me an official ‘Foreword’ to place in the book, making this Fiesta, not just the only guide book of its type, but simply the only guidebook in the English language. I enclose my translation of his Foreword below, for those who have already purchased the eBook (your devices should automatically update with it in the next 24 hours.)

As you can see, the publicity machine has already begun to turn, beginning with the Londoner’s Diary of the Evening Standard below, and SanFermin.com in Pamplona here. Now to finish my articles for The New York Times, Newsweek, hopefully The Toronto Star and, I believe, The Times.

¡Viva San Fermín!

Alexander Fiske-Harrison

evening standard

Alexander Fiske-Harrison’s feeling bullish about some bloody memoirs

Someone hide the red flags. The actor, writer and “bullfighter-philosopher” Alexander Fiske-Harrison has teamed up with John Hemingway — grandson of the novelist and blood-sports enthusiast Ernest — to put together a collection of essays and accounts of the infamous Spanish bull-running festival.

Fiesta: How to Survive the Bulls of Pamplona also includes a brief memoir by the daughter of another famous bullfighting enthusiast — the film director Orson Welles.

“We’re dividing the profits between the five major contributors,” Fiske-Harrison tells The Londoner, “but as photographer Jim Hollander pointed out, he gets the best deal — he’s the only one not running with the bulls in two weeks so may well be the only one around to collect! Although since I’m the editor, he’s going to have to get the money out of my bank account.”

 

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Foreword by the Mayor of Pamplona

Government of Pamplona

The Encierro – the ‘bull-run’ – is rooted deep in the history of Pamplona, where the bulls have, since medieval times, been driven for the evening bullfight from outside the city’s walls to its centre. Over the centuries, the Encierro has grown until it has become a legendary race, combining the weight of a tradition amassed over decades and the universal reach of an international event in the 21st century.

1776 gave us the introduction of fencing on the route of the Encierro; in 1856 the bulls ran for the first time on calle Estafeta; in 1922 the layout we have today was finally settled; in 1974 the start of the race was changed to 8 o’clock in the morning; in 1982 they began live television broadcasts, and this year the Encierro Ordinance has been approved, which regulates the conditions under which the run occurs and establishes appropriate mechanisms to punish (in ways which are minor, serious and very serious) behaviors that are not allowed.

During this time, the Encierro has been built on the work of thousands of people and with the scrupulous respect for a thing as attractive as it is dangerous. Because, as is well recognised in the title of this book, “How to Survive the bulls of Pamplona,” the story of the Encierro is also a hard story, alternating joys and victorious moments with black days in our old festival calendar. In fact, since the San Fermín festival last year, one of the fence posts located in the plaza Consistorial serves as a tribute to the 15 people who have lost their lives on the run, with a caption that reads “To the fallen of the Encierro.”

With all its sharp edges, its beauty, its danger and its difficulties, the Encierro is now a spectacular space, with close to 3,500 runners risking their lives every morning, backed up by first-class support along the entire route and with more than 440 journalists accredited to send their updates to countries in all continents.

However, beyond the importance of the Encierro, the appeal of the fiestas of San Fermín are not just in the legendary run. We have eight and a half days full of joy and fun, and with a festive array composed of more than 400 events, most notably the Chupinazo, Procession and dances of the Giants and Big Heads, that underpin the excellent environment that lives on the streets of Pamplona and serves to renew year after year, the greatness of an long-awaited and heartfelt holiday.

As Mayor of Pamplona it is a great joy to participate in a book like this, especially one aimed at the English-speaking community, because of its commitment to approaching the San Fermín liturgy with respect for the traditions of Pamplona as its roadmap, and valuable testimonies from people who have, over decades, learned how participate in the Encierro with aplomb.

In this sense, I want to take the opportunity afforded to me in this foreword to congratulate Alexander Fiske-Harrison for this story, and all those who took part in this project. I am sure that this work will become a great reference for all lovers of the Encierro beyond our borders, and serve as a source of information for people who want to find out the details that have defined, for centuries, the most famous bull-run in the world.

And finally, a tip. If you have the opportunity to visit, do not hesitate. Pamplona awaits you with open arms and with only two conditions: the desire to have a good time and respect for the city and its traditions.

¡Viva San Fermín!

Don Enrique Maya

Mayor of Pamplona – 2011 to present day

With thanks to Doña Yolanda Barcina, President of the Government of Navarre.
Govenment of Navarra
And to His Excellency, Federico Trillo-Figueroa Martínez-Conde, Ambassador from the Kingdom of Spain to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and El Señor Fidel López Álvarez, Minister-Counsellor for Cultural Affairs.

Government of Spain

 

The Statue And The Storm

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José Mari Manzanares showing his art last Friday in Jerez

 

Cristina Ybarra presents her poster for the Rocío pilgrimage in the Salón de Borbón at the City Hall of Seville

Cristina Ybarra presents her poster for the Rocío pilgrimage in the Salón de Borbón at the Ayuntiamento, ‘City Hall’, of Seville

On Friday morning we took the train from Seville to Jerez de la Frontera and the temperature went south with us to a pleasant 30 degrees.

We exited the world of Ybarras and (encaste) Ibarra, Borbóns and (liquid) bourbon, and entered the land of horses and Domecqs. (For a farewell tale about a Zippo lighter, see Doña Cristina Ybarra’s blog here.)

As I said in my last post, the bulls and bullfights of the Feria de Abril of Seville had been bad – the bullfighters unable to show either art with them or skill. I have written before – on this blog, in my book Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight – that large bulls, such as a first category bull-ring like Seville requires by law, have a far greater probability of being unfightable than the smaller ones found in a second category bullring like Jerez. As the Royal Decree No. 145 of February 2nd, 1996, states:

Article 46: The minimum weight of animals in bullfights will be from 460kg in rings of the first category, from 435 in those of the second and 410 in those of the third.

Now, most serious aficionados look at the weight of toros, ‘bulls’ before they enter the ring, however, often they do not look – and in certain rings they do not publish – the equally if not more important age of the animal, which, of course, bears a varying and indirect relation to its weight. The toreros, ‘bullfighters’, I know all spoke as often about age as size or horn type. A year in a bull’s life is a long time. So, although the same Royal Decree pronounces that – IMG_5690

Article 45: The males that are destined to be fought in corridas de toros (‘bullfights’) should be as a minimum four full years and in every case less than six.

– this still offers a two year range which is the difference between headlong aggression and a more judicious and challenging approach to what the bull, at least, experiences as a combat. IMG_5669

Of the corrida of bulls from El Pilar we saw in Seville, not only were four of the six over 550kg, but four were also over five years old (the overlap between the two groups being three of four). In part this explained their lack of nobleza, ‘nobility’, a concept which can be explicated in terms of unquestioning aggression or volatile stupidity, depending on your viewpoint.

(The full nature of the toro bravo, ‘fierce bull’ breed, I go into in one of the ‘pages’ listed on the top right of this website. For those whose main interest is how bullfighting can still exist in the modern world – the ethics – or why I refer to its as an art – the aesthetics – or a breakdown of the three act structure of a corrida – cape-picador, banderillas, muleta-sword – there are also pages there on these topics.)

When you combine these old wise bulls, who ‘can speak Latin and Greek’ as the saying goes, with young, unknown – or older and relatively little known – toreros, the audience of Seville vote with their feet and wallets, not least because bad toros and toreros cost no less than great ones at the Maestranza box office (tickets above), and you’d do better to spend your money on a cocktail at the Hotel Alfonso XIII (photo left), and read the critics in the Spanish newspapers bemoaning the lack of a single true toro in the whole damned feria (scan below.) There was ‘much concrete’ – i.e. empty seats – in the stands in Seville, both for the bulls of El Pilar and the bulls of Victorino Martín who took the traditional final Sunday slot of the Miuras. I hear every other day was much the same…

The Spanish newspaper ABC bemoans the lack of bulls with the headline 'When there is raw material' (click to enlarge)

The Spanish newspaper ABC bemoans the lack of bulls with the headline ‘When there is raw material’ (click to enlarge)

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The Cult Of The Bull

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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.

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The Dead Gods With Cold Eyes

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I submitted this article for my column in Taki’s Magazine. However, I was told by the editor that she’d had quite enough about bulls. Which is ironic, given what it says. Anyway, here it is, for what it’s worth.

Alexander Fiske-Harrison

Alexander Fiske-Harrison waiting for the bulls, Cuéllar 2013 (Photo: Enrique Madroño Arranz)

Alexander Fiske-Harrison waiting for the bulls, Cuéllar 2013 (Photo: Enrique Madroño Arranz)

Dead Gods With Cold Eyes

I nearly died the other day. Not, like the time before when John Hemingway, Ernest’s grandson, pulled me out from a stampede in Pamplona or the time before that when Eduardo Dávila Miura pulled me out of a bull-ring in Palma del Río. This time was for real.

Alexander Fiske-Harrison begins to run with the bulls, Cuéllar 2013 (Photo: Enrique Madroño Arranz)

Alexander Fiske-Harrison begins to run with the bulls, Cuéllar 2013 (Photo: Enrique Madroño Arranz)

I was running with the bulls of Cuéllar, which is a much like running with the bulls of Pamplona, only the town is smaller, the encierro – ‘bull-run’ – more ancient (the most ancient, in fact, as I wrote in the Financial Times) less crowded, and those that do turn up are mainly local, all Spanish, with not a drunk or first-timer among them.

Cuellar photo 3 blogDespite this I still managed to bump into someone as I passed a lone, stationary bull in a narrow stretch of street. Being lighter than me, he was knocked to safety, but I dropped where I was and the commotion drew the bull’s eyes – black, bovine, lifeless and colour-blind, following only movement – and it charged across the street, skittering to a halt on its hooves as I similarly fought for grip in my new, untested running shoes.

With my back against the wall, its horns either side of my chest – literally – and, unlike in Pamplona or an official plaza de toros, no surgeon within a forty-five minute drive, I saw my own death ahead of me. However, for some reason the bull decided today was not my day and moved on, most likely because I had the presence of mind to freeze, making myself invisible to the clockwork brain behind the horns. Continue reading

Back to School

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A fortnight ago I accepted, a prize from the most ancient encierros, ‘bull-runs’, in all of Spain, those of the town of Cuéllar in Old Castille.

Earlier that same day I nearly died while running with those bulls. The bull in the photo-detail below was suelto – ‘loose’, alone – and had come to halt facing away from me. So I seized what I thought was a chance and tried to pass it in the narrow street.

At the exact same moment another runner tried the same thing, coming from the opposite direction. When we collided, both of us with eyes only for the bull, he was bounced clear to safety while I lost my footing on the slippery street at the very instant the bull caught sight of our movement in its peripheral vision and charged across the street. It ground to a halt on its hooves as I struggled to get upright, my back against the fence that protects the spectators on the pavement.

In this moment – which lasted as infinitely long as all the novelists, journalists and diarists of near-death say it does – I stood so still as to render myself invisible to the bull whose horn points were paused either side of my chest.

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