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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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

The Australian reviews my book: Death in the afternoon revisited by a beginner bullfighter

As an Australian citizen (dual-nationality with my British citizenship), I am very pleased to see that their best-selling national newspaper, The Australian has reviewed my book Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight in this weekend’s edition (online here: Death in the afternoon revisited by a beginner bullfighter | The …).

I think that the author, Matthew Clayfield, who refers heavily to Ernest Hemingway’s Death In The Afternoon as a strongancestral influence to my book has got it largely right – including in his criticisms.) Especially in his line on my ethical misgivings about bullfighting in the book:

While Fiske-Harrison eventually dismisses his qualms, it is difficult to read his final chapter, “La escotada” – the thrust of the matador’s sword – without getting a sense that his year with the bulls has only deepened their mystery. It certainly hasn’t put an end to his concerns. Or, one suspects, his searching for an answer.

I should add here, just to clarify, that despite press reports to the contrary, my talk at Blackwell’s Bookstore in Oxford has not been ‘threatened’ as such, and neither have I with regards to the talk. This was a miscommunication somewhere in the chain, as was the in-hindsight preposterous idea that the Thames Valley Police were aware of this and had failed to act.

I have myself received “death-threats” on this blog and elsewhere – although I have always found that phrase a little melodramatic, as I am neither dead nor feeling in the least threatened. Which is why I delete them, forget them and sleep easy at night. (Well, not quite: I dream, almost constantly, about bulls. My strangest – and most moving – dream about them opening chapter twenty of Into The Arena.)

Anyway, I will be talking at Blackwell’s at 7pm on Thursday, February 9th.

Alexander Fiske-Harrison

The photo of my one and only “bullfight” is enclosed below (Photo: Andy Cooke). A full discussion of the ethics – or lack of – in bullfighting is the next post in this blog.

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

I didn’t win the Bookie Prize but as the latest Sunday Telegraph says, it’s “pure theatre” anyway…

FINALIST

Sadly, my book did not win the ‘Bookie Prize’ this year. That honour went to Ronald Reng’s A Life Too Short about the tragic suicide of his friend, Robert Enke, the German goalkeeper. Ronald gave a deeply moving impromptu speech, and then he, the champion cyclist David Millar (whose book Racing Through The Dark was also shortlisted) and I went for dinner. I would like to thank William Hill, Waterstones of Piccadilly, and all the other contestants (and my agent, publisher and girlfriend who were all present) for a great day. As I argued in my article in the Daily Telegraph on Saturday, I shouldn’t have won anyway. Here is the review their sister newspaper the Sunday Telegraph gave me the following day.

Alexander Fiske-Harrison

27.11.11

Books for Christmas

Sport books

Oliver Brown

INTO THE ARENA: The World of the Spanish Bullfight BY ALEXANDER FISKE-HARRISON Profile Books, £15.99

Bullfighting was banned in Catalonia last year and yet has continued to capture both the quintessence of Spain and the extremes of sporting heroism. It exerted a fascination early upon Alexander Fiske-Harrison, who watched his first bullfight as a 23-year-old philosophy student in Seville and embarked soon after on a quest to understand the spectacle in all its cultural complexity. This is no passive work, however: he undertakes months of training with one of the top matadors, Eduardo Dávila Miura, to steel himself for the final act of his own corrida de toros. Uneasy ethical dilemmas abound, not least how much suffering the animals are put through. But this remains a compelling read, unusual for its genre, exalting the bullfight as pure theatre.

The unedited version of my article for the Daily Telegraph on why I shouldn’t win the Bookie Prize

My article about bullfighting and my book, Into The Arena, appeared in the Daily Telegraph yesterday (online here). However, it was edited to two-thirds of its original length, mainly to save money on photos it would seem. Here is the original.

Alexander Fiske-Harrison

Why I shouldn’t win the ‘Bookie’ Prize

Alexander Fiske-Harrison, on why his shortlisted book Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight should not win the William Hill Sports Book Of The Year Award 2011

A life and death matter: Alexander Fiske-Harrison (far right) running with the bulls in Pamplona, Spain Photo: Reuters /Joseba Etxaburu

When my publisher told me that my book was longlisted for a sports writing prize sponsored by William Hill – the Bookie Prize as it is known – I smiled a cynical smile. Controversy equals publicity, I thought, and this little gambit had a timely ring to it, given that it came less than a week after the Barcelona bullring had its last ever fight before a Catalonia wide ban on the activity came into force. Something often reported here as “Bullfighting Dies In Spain”, even though of the thousand bullfights a year, less than a dozen were held there.

In Spain itself bullfighting is written about in the cultural pages of the newspapers, not their sporting section and 2011 not only saw its regulation transferred from the Ministry of the Interior to that of Culture, but over the border in France it was placed on the list of the “cultural patrimonies” making it effectively unbannable. (French bullfights are mainly in the south, most notably in the restored Roman colisea of Arles and Nîmes.) Even Ernest Hemingway, the most famous writer on the subject in English wrote in Death In The Afternoon: “The bullfight is not a sport.”

Ernest Hemingway and the matador Antonio Ordóñez

So, whilst grateful for the nod, I didn’t think any more of it. However, when I found myself on the shortlist of just seven books, I wondered to myself what I would say if I received the prize and was then asked the inevitable question, “is it even a sport?” Continue reading

My interview about Into The Arena on Sports Tonight Live

Below is a link to the podcast of the interview I gave about my view of bullfighting, from the stands and from the sand, to Neil Cole on Sports Tonight Live.

Sports Tonight Live: The Book Club with Alexander Fiske-Harrison