Love of animals or hatred of man?

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El País, Spain's equivalent of The Guardian (The Guardian ran the story here.)

El País, Spain’s equivalent of The Guardian (The Guardian ran the story here.)

Francisco Rivera Ordóñez, born to fame… and to pain

This is the headline of the article by Antonio Lorca, bullfighting critic, in the culture section of El País, Spain’s left of centre national newspaper. Francisco is, along with his brother the matador Cayetano, heir to the greatest dynasty in the history of bullfighting.

Their father was Francisco Rivera Peréz, ‘Paquirri’, killed by a bull in 1984, a death made all the more famous since it was televised, as were his final moments on the surgeon’s table, telling the panicking medical staff that it didn’t matter, to remain calm. The effect of this death on his youngest son, my friend the matador Cayetano, I quoted in my previous post. I am sure his older brother Francisco felt similarly.

How Cayetano feels today I dare not ask: Francisco, who had also taken his father’s nom de guerre Paquirri, was gored by a bull in Huesca in Aragon in north-eastern Spain, a horn entering his abdominal cavity to a depth of 25cm – or a foot – hitting everything from his spine to his aorta in its visceral trajectory. As an admirer who has always found him charm itself in person, I wish him a swift and complete recovery.

In fact, let me rephrase that, as a human being of good conscience, I wish him a swift and complete recovery. Even were I to think the method of killing cattle used in the bullrings of Spain morally inferior to that in our British or American slaughterhouses I would not wish my fellow man anything else.

Yes, the bullfight – as we wrongly translated the word corrida – is a twenty-minute long staged ‘combat’ from the bull’s perspective (it is a dance from the man’s hence it is reviewed as such in the culture section) and some people might think this is worse than queuing for hours with the stench of death in the abattoir, even despite the average fighting bull dying at 5-years-old after living wild in forests while the average meat cow is reared in a corral or pen and died at 18 months, but that arguable ethical stance wouldn’t make me wish death on the practitioners of the art and craft of toreo. I eat cattle on the whim of their flavour, not from any need. This tells me everything about their actual moral status. N.B. All of the carcases end up in the food chain.

Francisco is carried wounded from the ring. Although not toreando, 'fighting', that day, the matador Juan José Padilla ran in unarmed to help save his injured friend. He was my first teacher in the ring, and I wrote the sotry of his comeback after he lost his eye for GQ here.

El Mundo, Spain’s equivalent of The Times. (My interview with Francisco’s brother Cayetano for the Sunday Times magazine is here. The man with an eyepatch carrying him is my friend the matador Juan José Padilla. My account of his comeback after losing his eye to a bull is in GQ magazine here.

Police asked to act against ‘death threats to Fran Rivera on Twitter

However, in some cases an apparent – and loudly asserted – love of animals is actually a device to justify and conceal a deep hatred of humanity, especially of any variations or differences in it, anything that disagrees with your world view: the mask of overt and virtuous love soon slips to reveal skull of snarling, spitting hate beneath. Such as we see in the headline above. Much the same, I suspect, was true in the case of the unfortunate old lion, who people insist on calling Cecil as though he would have come if called, who was illegally shot in Zimbabwe. (I wrote about it in some detail on my personal blog here.) Continue reading

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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)

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Capote y Toros, 157 Old Brompton Road, London, SW5

Back when my book, Into The Arena, was published last year the Reuter’s editor Angus MacSwan decided to interview me at a new, bullfighting-themed tapas bar in South Kensington called Capote y Toros (‘cape and bulls’).

All the food was excellent, especially the gambas al ajillo – sizzling prawns in garlic. It also has the largest selection of sherries in London: not only the standard finos, olorosos and amontillados of Jerez de la Frontera and Puerto de Santa María, but also the manzanillas of Sanlucar de Barrameda. CyT is also the only place I have found in London with proper jamón ibérico de bellota – the pata negra name you sometimes hear refers to the distinctive black hooves of the ibérico breed. They import the 5J from the town synonymous with jamón: Jabugo.

So when a production company asked for a good venue in which to talk about bulls, this is where we ended up, under the photos of all the great matadors alive today from Curro Romero to Morante de la Puebla (its name is capote after all.)

While I was there, the restauranteuraficionado Abel Lusa came along to say hello. He recently opened CyT and also owns the more formal tapas restaurant Tendido Cero across the road, and the justly famed Cambio de Tercio a few doors down, a favourite of the likes of Rafa Nadal when he’s in town and most recently graced by the Duchess of Cambridge.

Abel Lusa

(I was meant to eat there with Giles Coren so he could review it along with my book as as follow up to his piece on my training as a bullfighter, but they don’t do lunch, so we went to 34 instead.)

Alexander Fiske-Harrison

The Times: Toreros Through Time, captioned by Alexander Fiske-Harrison

 

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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

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

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