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

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Cuéllar: Bullfight Minus Bull Equals Fight

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Over at the bull-running blog The Pamplona Post, I had vowed to write my first proper review for  some time of a corrida de toros, the tragic drama culminating in a ritual sacrifice we wrongly call a ‘bullfight’ in English.

I was in Cuéllar in Old Castille, which hosts the most ancient encierros, ‘bull-runs’, in Spain. I have been going to the town to run with the bulls there for a few years, and brought many friends with me along the way. When I first arrived the wasn’t a single foreigner here and I wrote it up Financial Times.

FT Cuellar article online

Anyway, the fact that I have returned to the same town, the same hotel in fact – thank you Hostal Mesón San Francisco – for the entire six day Feria de Nuestra Señora del Rosario on the last weekend in August every year says how much I enjoy it. However, this is in part because of the people, the town in both its location – an hour and a half from Madrid – and the dilapidated beauty of its buildings and general ambiance, as well as its unique encierros, of which there are five on consecutive mornings.

However, I have never spoken here about what happens in the plaza de toros, the ‘bull-ring’. This is because I realise how precious the feria is to the locals.

Manuel Escribano and Alexander Fiske-Harrison (on Tramadol and Oxycodon for broken ribs, see post here. (Photo: Lore Monnig)

Manuel Escribano and Alexander Fiske-Harrison heavily medicated. Noted young Welsh bull-runner Jordan Tipples is in the background.  (Photo: Lore Monnig)

This year, though, I wasn’t only there for the bull-running, although I was in  writing on that subject for the Telegraph. I had also brought a group ranging from the BBC to Lore Monnig, President of the New York City Taurino, and so I knew the corrida would be under serious scrutiny as well.

We had dinner with the main matador, Manuel Escribano, the night before, although I was far from at my best having broken my ribs saving children from an escaped bull in the streets earlier that day (almost, real story here.) As the photo shows I’m dosed on red wine, vodka, Tramadol and Oxycodon. 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 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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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.

Continue reading