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

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

Bullfighting Roundup

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This year was meant to be a quiet for me in terms of los toros, but instead I find myself booked to run the encierros – ‘bull runs’ – and watch the corridas – ‘bullfights’ (a misnomer, it is neither a fight nor a sport, but a dramatic spectacle culminating in a ritual sacrifice)- and capeas – ‘messing about with bulls’ (?) – in Tafalla and Falces in Navarre, San Sebastián de los Reyes in Madrid and Cuéllar in Old Castile – the four fingers of la mano de los encierros  – of which Pamplona is el pulgar, fuerte y torcido – ‘the strong, crooked thumb’.

While the newly deputised Lucy has done a great job in summing up this year’s Fiesta of San Fermín over at ‘The Pamplona Post‘ (and I have written on non-taurine matters at ‘Xander’s Blog‘), I thought I’d better write a few words on the world of the bulls.

El Cid in Seville in 2011 (Photo: Alexander Fiske-Harrison)

I do not go to this small but emblematic selection of the hundreds of encierros in Spain to watch good corridas. I do not believe in running bulls on the morning of their corrida any more than I would advocate a hard morning work-out for a race-horse, or a ballerina, or a chess player, or a fencer…

Seated, L-R, Jim Hollander, David Mora and Julen Madina (Photo: Alexander Fiske-Harrison)

Seated, L-R, Jim Hollander, David Mora and Julen Madina (Photo: Alexander Fiske-Harrison)

However, I did once see an excellent and educational performance by El Cid in Cuéllar, no more than four foot away from me in my relatively cheap front row seats in the shade (barrera sombra, bought from the ticket window at the ring that day.) So I am happy to see Cid fighting once again, along with David Mora, although he did say to me on the last day of Pamplona’s feria that he would not be able to bullfight again until next year, so one wonders who will replace him.

If the left-wing press is to be believed, all is not well in the world of the bulls in general. The centre-right governing party of Spain, El Partido Popular, has become not so popular, and as a result local government elections have put various centre left, crypto-Trotskyist and quasi-anarcho-syndicalist people in power at the lower levels. This has resulted in a call in a dozen municipalities, including cities such as Alicante, for referenda on whether these events should be banned altogether. Even in Madrid,

the new city government, led by Mayor Manuela Carmena of the leftist bloc Ahora Madrid, has given up its box at Las Ventas bullring. Carmena has announced that she intends to turn the Spanish capital into “an animal-friendly city” and supports eliminating all subsidies to bullfighter training schools and bullfights.

(Courtesy of El Pais)

All this despite the fact that in 2014 the newly released figures from the Ministry of Culture show that for the first time since 2007 when the economic collapse began, the number of bull-based festivals in Spain actually increased.

Last year there were 1,868 taurine festivals, an increase of 0.5% on 2013. Yes, corridas de toros – full-scale, old school ‘bullfights’ – are down 7% to 398, but advanced novice corridas, novilladas con picadors,  are up, as is horse-back bullfighting, rejoneo, and corridas mixtas which combine bullfighting on foot with rejoneo.

This is largely to do with an economic resurgence starting in the province of Madrid (77.6% of all festivals are held in the regions of Andalusia, Madrid, Castille and Leon and Castille and La Mancha.)

It is also interesting that since San Sebastián, the Basque seaside town,  was recovered by Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) from the radical leftists of Bildu, the ban on bull events has been lifted.

A final little interesting factoid. There are 10,194 registered professional bullfighters of all varieties in Spain of whom 249 or 2.4% are women. 801 are fully-fledged matadors while 3,018 are novice matadors.

This year running with the bulls in Pamplona, I fell in probably the most dangerous place on the run, the narrow entry into the bull-ring, where if the bulls don’t get you, the people falling on top of you will – that is not hyperbole, in 1977 José Joaquín Esparza died from crush-injuries in a pile-up in exactly that place. Although I advise beginners against it, I could see the way was clear of cattle and got up and ran safely into the ring. Jim Hollander caught the moment I fell – and even though it is clear I was pushed, as a matter of decency we call it falling, people in panic cannot be blamed.

Alexander Fiske-Harrison in his striped jacket (Photo: Jim Hollander)

Alexander Fiske-Harrison in his striped jacket (Photo: Jim Hollander)

All throughout that day, including while providing humorous commentary for NBC’s Esquire Network, I had a phrase of Robert Browning going through my head.

“We fall to rise.”

Alexander Fiske-Harrison, centre, with the 'Men in Blazers' for Esquire TV (Photo: Toni-Ann Lagana)

Alexander Fiske-Harrison, centre, with the ‘Men in Blazers’ for Esquire TV (Photo: Toni-Ann Lagana)

So do the bulls. I’ll leave you with the astonishing recent words of my dear friend, the matador Cayetano Rivera Ordóñez, whose father the star matador Paquirri, was killed by a bull in the ring in 1984. Forgive my translation, Cayetano, of these emotional words. (He speaks English far better than this, I just can’t translate the conversational idiom of his Spanish without deviating wildly from his words.)

“Personally, I can say that the bull was for a long time that which taught me to hate.  I lost my father to the bull when I was 7 years old and at that age and much later I still had no awareness of why things happen, but precisely because of the bullfighting culture, the ‘taurine’ education, the respect, the values that my family taught me about our tradition and our culture I learned to forgive, to respect and to love the animal that today and I am here to show respect and love for. As a bullfighter I ask the respect to keep doing what I love: with all the respect and love that I feel for the animal. When I speak of my bull’s rights, and although it sounds like a cliché, to a bullfighter there is no one that respects and loves the bull more.”

Ernest Hemingway and Antonio Ordonez - Alexander Fiske-Harrison and Cayetano Rivera Ordonez, his grandson

Ernest Hemingway and Antonio Ordonez – Alexander Fiske-Harrison and Cayetano Rivera Ordonez, his grandson

Alexander Fiske-Harrison

P.S. I should also point out the excellent writer Joseph S. Furey’s piece on Pamplona in the Daily Telegraph magazine last Saturday. As good a description as there’s been in the British press (online here.)

Telegraph

All The Pretty Horses by Nicolás Haro

As they salt the roads for ice and the mercury falls below par, it is time for a last venture to Seville of 2013 for my friend and colleague Nicolás Haro’s exhibition of photography of the psychological and behavioural ties between humans and horses.

Packed and back on the road...

Packed and back on the road…

Nicolás took the contemporary black and white images which illustrated my book Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight (Profile Books, London, 2011, finalist, William Hill Sports Book of the Year 2011.)

Since I contributed the introduction to the exhibition’s catalogue, it was nice to have an excuse to flee the chill. As for why it belongs on a blog about bullfighting, well… I’ll start with Nicolas’s words and then mine (in the English original.)

Alexander Fiske-Harrison

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Dear Friends,

By virtue of my relationship with various bull breeders, I take the liberty of addressing myself to you, to inform you that, during the week of SICAB, Salon Internacional de Caballos de Pura Raza Española, which I understand that you or your associates will be attending, I will be inaugurating an exhibition centred on the figure of the horse, with all of its emotional vitality.This exhibition is produced with the support of the ganadería Estirpe Cárdenas, The Real Maestranza de Caballería de Sevilla, and Bodegas Infantes de Orleáns y Borbón.

To this end I attach an invitation to the exhibition, which I trust will be of interest to you. I will be delighted to meet you personally at stand number 2164/2165, where the exhibition will be held. On Wednesday evening I am pleased to invite you to a cup of sherry from 7:30 on; the exhibition will be open throughout the week.

I look forward to seeing you there.

Best regards,

Nicolás Haro Fernández de Córdoba

http://www.nicolasharo.com

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The horse: Our last love…

Of all the major animals that man has taken into his home, the horse was the last.

The first was the wolf, which not only gave us the dog, but changed us forever. How different the tribe which had to risk its braves facing the bison and mammoth with spears, to the one which could merely wound with a few well-placed arrows and then unleash the pack to bring the beast down many miles distant.

However, after that ally, all the animals we brought into the house – cattle, sheep, goats, chickens – were much briefer and less honoured guests whose short lives ended in our stomachs.

Not so, the horse. If anything, he lifted man out of such base and basic interests. A horse gave a man a metre more height, twenty kilometres per hour more speed, and 400 kilos more muscle. He made a man into more than he was before, which is why the first men on horses, probably nomadic Asian tribes, when seen by those who could not ride such as the first Minoan Greeks, gave rise to the myth of the ‘centaur’, half man, half horse.

The centaur also represented the deep and ever-present connection which must be present between horse and rider. Cattle can be herded and need not have their bestial nature altered, only diminished: the minotaur merely blundered around the labyrinth of Crete, while the combination of man and wolf -the lycanthrope or werewolf – was more savage still. However, in classical tradition, Chiron, a centaur was tutor and mentor to Theseus, Achilles, Jason and Perseus.

Away from myth, horses made men into more than they were because of their role in war, from which the original notions of nobility were derived. Caballero in Castilian, Chevalier in French, Cavalier in English, all mean both horseman and someone who is more than a common man. A knight was defined by his horse, both literally – he must possess one – and abstractly, the code he followed, that of chivalry, owes its etymology to the horse as well.

Horses, literally and figuratively, raised man up. However, what of the animal itself? Although the horse assisted man’s warlike nature, man himself could not live in a state of war with an animal that had to bear him into battle. The oldest breed of horse, the four and a half millenia Arabian – whose blood flows so strongly in both the pure race of Spain and thoroughbred of England – had to live within the tent with his Bedouin masters, which, in an animal so large, required one of intelligence, sensitivity, physical control and grace and the ability to understand his master and, most of all, to make himself understood. Hundreds of kilos of undemonstrative terror or anger cannot long live happily in the house of human beings. The most communicative, intuitive and attuned to the human psyche would have been selected for, just as much as the courageous and the strong, the tireless and the obedient.

It is this vital psychic kinship between man and animal that the photos of my friend and colleague Nicolás have so elegantly captured, a kinship which I myself was brought up to feel and have witnessed in Nicolás in his dealings with horses as well as the art he has made from them. His images contain so many of the emotions we share: pride, fear, playfulness, despair, resignation and power. They are a reminder although the centaur – like the unicorn and the pegasus – may not exist: we have much to learn from pondering the very real ethological and psychological origins of these ideas.

Copyright Alexander Fiske-Harrison December 2012

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