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.
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.
As Xander walks off from working with his animal, I scuttle from my hiding place and bolt across the hot sand to another, flimsier fence, behind which is my photographer, Nicolás Haro, to see if he got the shots we need.
I feel exposed, out on the sand. The red iron door which they open to let the wild beasts out is bolted shut. But all the same, they are there. This ring is a fighting pit where men and animals meet and bodies are carried out. Two thousand years of brutal history, from the Colosseum onwards, look down upon my scuttling shadow.
I arrive at the fence and squeeze hurriedly in between it and the peeling wall, rubbing white flakes of rotted plaster into my shirt and jeans. Nicolás shuffles up to make room. There is no stone room behind us here. Just the wall, an 18in man-gap, and the barrier, about two metres wide with the stability of a good garden fence. There’s no way out, except into the ring.
“Hola,” says Nicolás.
“Did you get it properly when he was hit?” I ask.
“Possibly,” says Nicolás. “It is hard to know. I hope.”
“Did you get the blood on his jeans?”
“I tried. I hope.”
I’m wondering what will happen if he didn’t get the shot. The whole thing will have been pointless. This whole trip to Spain. The weeks of planning and organisation. And then the iron door swings open, and there is a pause, and all eyes are on the door. And then out comes the bull.
I knew there was going to be a bull this afternoon, and that Adolfo Suárez would kill it, in preparation for the one he will kill on Tuesday at Castellón in front of thousands of people. But I had not thought that it would be now. I had not been planning to be in the ring when he came. I had been planning, specifically, not to be.
He is around 600 kilos. Too heavy, really. He comes out quick, turns left towards us, covers the 30 or 40 feet in the blink of an eye (I know because, boy, do I blink) and hits the barrier hard, just as I’m ducking beneath it. It shakes. It splinters. He hits at it a couple of times, and I watch the plank joins, waiting for the horn to come through and open me up to my sweetbreads.
He scrapes a couple more times, and then stops. And I slowly raise my head above the fence and he turns one great eye towards me, and I look him in it.
I am at home at my parents’ house in suburban North London. It is mid-afternoon in the April after my A levels and before I go to university. I am at home because I have only two friends in the world, one of whom is in Thailand but didn’t invite me along, and the other of whom, Jules, is in Zermatt, skiing. I hate skiing. It’s dangerous.
The house phone rings. I know it’s not for me because I have my own phone line. For talking to my two friends. Then my mother calls up the stairs.
“There’s someone called Clive Harrison on the phone for you.”
Clive Harrison? Who’s Clive Harrison?
“Hello, this is Jules’s father. There’s been a terrible accident. Jules has been killed.”
It’s 21 years later, and I’ve just written a piece for The Times on the death by skiing of Natasha Richardson, which happens to fall very close to the anniversary of Jules’s death, about which I also write.
I get an e-mail from his little brother, Xander, who is now 32, to say that he enjoyed the piece, and so did his parents. I am delighted. I had worried. It’s 20 years since I spoke to them. Xander says he is living in Seville, and training to become a bullfighter. I say that sounds dangerous. I’ll come out and see him before he dies.
So, the baby brother of my dead friend – dead from his passion for a dangerous sport – is training to be a bullfighter.
What is he thinking?
What does his mother think?
Who in the world ever heard of an English bullfighter?
Does he want to die?
Why does he want to die?
How much does it have to do with his dead brother?
Do they let Englishmen fight the bulls?
Do they really still have bullfights in modern Spain?
Do they have many?
Who the hell goes to them?
I’m being a bit disingenuous. I do know something about bullfighting. I’ve been to watch it quite a number of times. The phrase “I’m training to be a bullfighter” does not fall on my ears with quite the clattering alien hullabaloo that it would for a lot of Northern Europeans, to whom it mightn’t sound any different from “I’m joining the French Foreign Legion”. Perhaps, because I have a good idea of what it entails, it staggers me even more.
I am not a blood-sports person. I have never shot a pheasant or a deer. Or a gun. I don’t ride to hounds. I did not grow up thinking of the word “sport” as having to do with the killing of animals. But I flew to Spain expressly to watch my first bullfight in 1995, as excited about the watching of a paid spectacle as I have ever been.
I had a friend living out there who had been banging on about the corrida for years, and he had called to say he was in Seville, and if I was ever going to come to a bullfight, I might as well come now.
English lovers of the bullfight are almost without exception, I have found, financially independent, work-shy and disaffected with Britain. Disaffected in the way that all people are who develop a late and all-conquering love of a foreign country. It’s the same with people who go nuts for Russia or South America or the Middle East (never France or Italy, which are too easy and bourgeois) – they are always fleeing something, some failure, some terrible family burden or sexual disappointment. They ostentatiously straddle their two cultures, and make you feel less of a person for having only one.
And just as the Russianistas had their prime under communism, which enabled them to confront you with your own middle-class apathy, so the Hispanophiles were happiest under Franco, when it was all drought and donkeys and polio and their love of the nation could be seen to be noble and hard and visceral.
But now, with Spain so enthusiastically modernised, so heavily immigrated, so increasingly secularised and the very model of a new European state, the Hispanophiles have it harder, and the bullfight – which, paradoxically, is thriving more than at any time since the Sixties – is absolutely crucial to their belief in noble, ancient, hardcore Spain.
And I’ll admit, that’s one of the reasons I love it. I am depressed by modern travel. By the fact that everywhere I go seems the same. The bullfight, I anticipated, would throw me instantly into the ancient, terrifying Spain I knew from Laurie Lee, Orwell and Hemingway, and one or two sherry adverts with scary jumping horses.
I fell for it totally. I was shocked by the blood at first, as everyone is, and as Hemingway predicts that you will be, especially if you are a lady. But it’s less nightmarish now they don’t kill the horses. I was very much with Federico García Lorca, who considered the corrida “the last serious thing left in the world today”.
I fell in with some aficionados of a type that is ubiquitous in Spain, who go to the fights just to complain. They go specifically not to enjoy it. The bulls are not good. The bullfighter is old. He is not honest. He is faking it. He is not in danger. He is showing off. He is too artistic. He is not artistic enough. They spit. They boo. They wave their handkerchiefs and demand the removal of the bull.
In the mind of every serious bullfight fan, it seemed, was some Platonic ideal of a bullfight, some distilled essence of the Golden Age of Spain, which the real thing could only fail to imitate. And for this sort of fan, that endless failure seems to be the glory of it.
But I thought it was all just marvellous, and every fight more exciting than the one before. I went to see fights in the rings of Ronda, Jerez, Seville, Granada, Barcelona, Valladolid? I couldn’t get enough of it. Couldn’t believe that something this good, this different, loud and beautiful still went on.
There is no doubt that it is a brutal thing. And its brutality is ancient and grim, and every new generation of Spaniards struggles to accommodate it in his own Spanishness. And it has always been ancient, always been out of date, always been a struggle. As long ago as 1846, the British travel writer Richard Ford wrote, in his Gatherings from Spain, of, “These sports? where the present clashes with the past.”
And it clashes still today. But no more nor less. There are antis. But no more nor fewer than before. I’ve only ever seen them protesting in any numbers in Barcelona – and there it’s all bound up in Catalonian distaste for anything egregiously Spanish, which bullfighting most certainly is.
The bullfight, like blood sports in Britain (and, to a degree, horse racing), unites the top and bottom of society. The toffs own the land and the animals, the working man makes a living from it and/or enjoys the spectacle. Each finds a use for himself, high and low. It is largely the urban middle class that protests, in Spain as in Britain. For it is the middle class that is left out.
In 2002, I spent a month in Madrid watching bullfights every day during the Feria de San Isidro. One afternoon, I hooked up with my old secretary from The Times Diary, Ana Ureña, fashion flibbertigibbet and daughter of an Iberia executive, and invited her to a bullfight. “Eeooo,” she squealed. “That’s just for stinky old men and stag parties.”
Just a minute ago I e-mailed her. Now a fashion writer for the national newspaper ABC, she says: “Look, sons of bullfighters like Francisco Rivera Ordóñez and his brother Cayetano are treated like celebrities, or football players. They date models and beauty pageant winners. They model for designers like Giorgio Armani. But only because they are handsome and popular. People dress up and pictures appear in the next day’s social columns. But it’s mostly old people, the type who get excited when someone from the Royal Family attends.
“To my mind, it’s a cruelty sport. My family has permanent seats in the front row in Madrid. Seats worth €3,000 each [£2,700] but I never go. I promise you that the hip young crowd – ie, me – would much rather spend that sort of money on a Chanel bag.”
A few weeks after I received Xander’s e-mail telling me of his plans to become a bullfighter, I found myself in Jerez, at the feria, and so we hooked up for a drink, to see the bulls, and to talk about just what in the world he thought he was doing.
Turns out he’s writing a book on the back of a blog which began as a diary of the bullfighting year from the point of view of the spectator, but soon developed into something more unusual.
“I was very aware that the bullfight has been well covered by writers,” he says. “But always from the point of view of someone watching fights from the stands. I wanted to get in front of the horns. There is a moment when the torero leans his body over the horns to place the sword above the shoulders, so that it will breach the heart or sever the aorta, when he is totally exposed. I need to experience this to make it complete.”
“I couldn’t say I truly know. I think she thinks the book is important, and trusts my judgment that the bull part is necessary. If anything, my father is the more concerned of the two.”
It’s very strange to meet Jules’s little brother now, aged 32. He was 11 when I last saw him, standing rigidly next to his parents and surviving brother at the entrance to Westminster Abbey as hundreds of people filed into Jules’s memorial service.
He’s turned out a bit too handsome. Enough to be almost a handicap, I think, as big breasts can be for a woman who wants to be taken seriously. In the old days, bullfighters were most often ugly, stunted peasants. These days pretty boys are more in demand.
Jules would be relieved that his brother is handsome. That sort of thing was important to Jules. And also that he went to Eton. Jules and I were at Westminster and he was very down on it as a place. Barely more than a fee-paying local school, he felt. He always wished he’d gone to Eton himself.
Thereafter, we have no idea what Jules would have done. He wanted to go to Oxford, but frazzed his A levels and was retaking when he died. Then he wanted to write. But who didn’t?
Xander did go to Oxford, moved from biology to PPE when it turned out he’d have to spend all his time in a lab, did postgraduate work in philosophy and science at LSE and then went to New York to study acting. In summer 2008, he performed in a play he had written at the Jermyn Street Theatre in London’s West End.
He smokes like Jules, pursing his lips and exhaling the smoke upwards, towards an imaginary air vent. He also walks like Jules did, only more so. Swaggers with his head held very high, his chest out and his shoulders back. He walks like a bullfighter, even if he isn’t one yet. I wondered where the idea to become one started, if not with the walk.
“I came to Seville when I was 23,” he says, “and we ended up with excellent seats watching a novillada [bullfight for novices] in which one novillero [apprentice bullfighter] did a portagayola, kneeling at the ‘gates of fear’ as the bull explodes out into the ring, and turning the cape around his head, to usher the animal past him. I knew then I was watching something remarkable.
“I left with the usual first-time reaction that it was very exciting, but also that this was a morally borderline pursuit. A good bullfight with an aggressive, charging bull, who died in accordance with his own atavistic nature, seemed to make up for the morally questionable activity of turning a violent death into a public spectacle. But a bad fight, with a bull that was merely defending itself, that clearly had insufficient adrenaline and so was in actual pain, was an ugly, cruel and vicious thing.
“I can’t think of many spectacles in the world which are evil when done badly but good when done well. That sense of existing on the boundary between right and wrong made me realise that it is a very important thing.”
Now, Xander is not planning to “become” a bullfighter in the sense that he will end up performing all over Spain in a traje de luces (“suit of lights”) in front of tens of thousands of people in vast arenas. That takes years. What he is hoping to do is to learn enough and practise enough to make it possible (though far from easy and far from safe) for him to kill a bull.
This isn’t like killing a pheasant, which a certain type of Englishman does without thinking several times in an hour on a misty autumn morning. Nor even like stalking and killing a deer, which many Englishmen think is such a drama (“We were out practically all day?”). To kill a single bull will take months and months of preparation.
“To make it happen, I needed the world of the Spanish bullfight to open its doors to me,” he explains. “And to open those doors, I was given some great introductions. One was to Adolfo Suárez Illana, the son of Adolfo Suárez González, the prime minister who, post-Franco, took the country through the transición to modern statehood.
“Adolfo Jnr, a lawyer and published poet, briefly followed his father into politics, but then chose to follow his footsteps in another way, becoming an aficionado práctico of the bullfight, killing big bulls, 500-600kg, and putting his life absolutely on the line.”
And so this Adolfo character takes Xander under his wing, and introduces him to the great Juan José Padilla (reputedly the bravest living matador, killer of the most dangerous bulls) and Xander also befriends the matador Cayetano (great-grandson of Cayetano Ordóñez, one of the inspirations for Hemingway’s Fiesta) and scores of other people, all with a dozen names each.
At the time of our meeting in Jerez in May, Xander has already been in a ring once or twice. He has “caped” vaquillas in what are called tentaderos – non-lethal private bullfights in which young females of fighting bloodlines are tested to see if they will make good mothers of fighting bulls: to see if they are brave, if they charge straight, if they are responsive to the cape.
The young females Xander has worked with are much smaller than full-grown bulls, perhaps a third of the weight, but they are much faster, and carry their own dangers. They have killed matadors.
Ultimately, he will be given the chance to kill a three-year-old novillo weighing 350kg (three quarters of the average weight of a full-sized bull) by his friend Enrique Moreno de la Cova, who breeds the Saltillo bloodline. It will happen, he thinks, in late October or early November. But he’ll have to do a lot more practice before then. I say I’d like to see some of that. Maybe I’ll see about doing a piece.
E-mails go back and forwards. It is not a straightforward thing to arrange. At the same time as coming out to see Xander I’d like to see some other bullfights. Specifically, I want to see José Tomás, the sensation of the moment. He is, they say, the greatest ever. He is so still, passes the bull so close, it can only be a matter of time before he is killed. He was very nearly killed a few years ago, retired, but has come back and is now, they say, better than ever. Each time he fights, crowds flock to see him for fear that it is their last chance.
Tomás is fighting at the Monumental in Barcelona. Instead of fighting two bulls, as is usual, he will fight six, as a thank you to his home crowd who were so supportive in his time of need.
It’s a tear-jerking story. But I hear also that he first offered the six bulls to Seville and Madrid, but that neither was prepared to stump up his asking price of €1 million (£900,000) for the afternoon’s work. Only Barcelona was prepared to do that. So maybe it’s a thank you for that, too.
On the morning of July 5, I fly to Barcelona and meet up with Xander for a long lunch. We talk about what we expect from Tomás, from the bulls, from the crowd. We may be about to see the greatest fight in the history of Spain. Obviously, I do not want Tomás to be killed. The whole thing is that you don’t want the matador to be killed. But it would be damn handy for the article.
Tomás is not killed. And he fights poorly. Maybe he’s having an off day. Maybe he was just banking the money. But to me, there was no heightened sense of danger, nor of purity, nor of poetry. Just 500 quid in flights, tickets and hotel bills down the Swanee.
But that is the thing about bullfighting. Death and glory are promised, but disappointment is most often delivered. Hemingway made it very clear that you should hope the first bullfight you see is not a good one, or you will be disappointed for the rest of your life.
And then, finally, the tentadero comes together. Adolfo Suárez Illana, Juan José Padilla, Alexander Rupert Fiske-Harrison and Giles Robin Patrick Coren have their date with destiny: Saturday, September 26, 2009, at the El Chaparral finca (estate) of María José Barral, in Las Pajanosas, near Seville.
Xander will fight vaquillas with a cape. Adolfo will kill a bull. That’s been arranged specially for The Times. All these years I have dropped into the bullfight, one of many thousands, made my moral decisions, but only spectated. The bull would have died that day anyway. Not this one. This one is being killed for me.
And not just for me. For you, too.
My few days in Seville are very bizarre indeed. Very high and low, suspended in the strange air between scavenging touts, scarred bullfighting paysanos and toffs with so many names I don’t have enough ears to get through the introductions.
I’m staying at a hotel owned by the Duke of Segorbe, who knows Xander for some reason, and on the first night am introduced to his tertulia (a sort of salon) in one of the drawing rooms there. We shake hands and I have half an idea that he is called Ignacio, and is the husband of Princess Gloria de Orléans-Braganza, who is the cousin of Princess Gerarda de Orléans-Borbón (Nicolás Haro’s mother-in-law; her cousin, Jean d’Orléans, the Duke of Vendôme, laid claim to the throne of France in October this year), at whose home in Sanlúcar de Barrameda we will be staying the following night, and whose son-in-law will be taking our photos.
As we leave the tertulia and head off for a drink in town, Xander hands me a scrap of paper on which he has drawn a sort of family tree to help me negotiate the social intricacies of the coming days.
The next morning I call on Xander at his apartment, to take him for breakfast. It is a ground-floor set of rooms in a large house owned by Nicolás the photographer’s mother, Consuela Fernandez de Córdoba. There is a central courtyard, full of sun and painted white and yellow, like everything in Seville.
Xander’s rooms are lightless and cool, with a view out of huge windows to the white and yellow courtyard. Dark furniture, very Moorish.
“Nice,” I say.
“Yes,” he says. “I walked in here the first time and said to myself, ‘Here, I can write.’” But then, luckily, he laughs.
On the way to breakfast, I ask him some questions I ought to get out of the way. For example, this year of dossing around Spain, hanging out with toffs, caping bulls, eating, drinking? How is he paying for it? His advance for the book, he says.
We chat about the state of the bullfight in Spain and the effect of the recession. Xander says takings are down by 30 per cent this year, which will have quite a knock-on effect on an industry that employs 200,000 people, kills around 10,000 bulls a year and has annual revenues of more than €1 billion (£900 million).
“Still, more people go to bullfights now than at any time in history,” says Xander. “Which is a function of tourism, population increase and a general increase in wealth. Although there is a generation gap. A 2002 Gallup poll found that 50 per cent of over-65s were ‘interested’ in the bullfight, compared to less than a quarter in the 25-35 bracket. But then that percentage goes up rapidly when a big new figura like José Tomás or Cayetano emerges.”
And it remains this popular because Spain is keen to keep in some sort of touch with its brooding, mythic past?
“Well, yes,” says Xander. “But it’s also because the Spanish are bloodthirsty bastards, and love to see animals killed.”
After breakfast we think about trying to razz up some sort of pass into the callejón for Nicolás (the callejón is the circular runway between the ring and the front row of the seats which can be entered only by certain authorised personnel), so that when we go to watch the big bullfight on Sunday he can get some decent pictures. It’s one of those Andalusian days where nothing is happening because it’s all happening “mañana”. And there’s not much to do except sit in bars.
Xander’s favourite bar is a small, dark little place with a scattering of bullfight posters, which was found for him, he says, by his old school friend, the English actor, Hugh Dancy. And indeed, we bump into Dancy there a couple of days later with his wife, the American actress Claire Danes. They are on honeymoon in Spain and have just been to their first bullfight, a wedding present from Xander.
But today there are no sexy American actresses tossing their golden hair around and constantly crossing and uncrossing their naked legs (what was I going to do, not notice?). There is just Mani, a scabrous old ticket tout, maybe 53 or 54, with a barrel chest and thinning, slicked-back hair, who looks just like Bob Hoskins and comes very much from the Hoskins school of character, Spanish-style.
He remembers that Xander owes him money, and some large notes are handed over. Maybe he can sort us out, maybe he can’t. Some more money will be needed. It’s bizarre that we depend on this porky old chancer to get the princess’s son-in-law into the callejón. But the bullfight is his livelihood. His daughter’s boyfriend is a novillero. Mani has the “bottom” end sewn up. But he is desperate to come with us to the tentadero tomorrow, to meet Adolfo Suárez, to get in with the toff crowd.
I ask Mani, through Xander, what he thinks of an Englishman training to kill bulls. He says, apparently: “It is important when bravery is declining in the bullfight that Alejandro does this brave thing in the ring.”
Yes, I say, but would a Spanish crowd pay to watch? Mani demurs. “Listen,” he says. “The only interesting thing is the ability, not the nationality.” But Xander says he is being especially liberal for our sake. And he’s not kidding. What Mani would say about it to his amigos is, I suspect, very different.
Later that night, we arrive at El Botánico, a vast botanical garden occupying a huge chunk of the town of Sanlúcar de Barrameda. A palace. A cab driver reluctant to go in through the iron gates. Very good tortilla left for us by the princess’s cook. An octagonal drawing room. Cool bottles of the family manzanilla, bearing the Orléans-Borbón coat of arms.
Our hostess, Carla, daughter of the princess, arrives with Nicolas, her husband and our photographer. And Xander’s old schoolfriend Dominic Elliot comes a little later, who’s going to film the tentadero. We drink some of the family’s brandy and, with an early start tomorrow, we retire early.
Or rather, I retire early. Xander, it transpires in the morning, has trouble sleeping. He finally nods off about 6am. He dreams that Adolfo is telling him, “Be ready to be ready” (in fact it was Mani, the old tout, who very helpfully spent two hours haranguing Xander about the importance of being prepared). He also dreams that Padilla was asleep in his father’s bed, Adolfo in Jules’s.
When my phone alarm goes to wake me for breakfast at 7.30, Xander is up, washed, dressed and smoking. It has rained very heavily in the night. If the ring is waterlogged the fight won’t happen. If it is just a bit wet, then it will. But it will be even more dangerous. Xander seems a bit different this morning. More self-possessed. A bit haughtier.
Matadors do not eat on the day of a fight in case they are gored and require a general anaesthetic. I do not ask Xander if he plans to have breakfast. He might as well; at the remote ranch where we are going, there will be no surgeons. But anyway, he doesn’t look hungry.
We drive out in Nicolás’s car in quite good spirits, past endless miles of wind and solar farms. Xander points out the window into the rolling plains and says, “Look, a cow. I think maybe it’s a Saltillo. She’s a beauty.”
“Quick, Xander,” says Dominic. “Kill it!”
Xander laughs. “It’s true they have to be eradicated.”
“Vermin?” Dominic mutters
And then the car is quiet again.
When we’re about ten minutes away from the farm, Xander puts on a CD of the music from Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, as he apparently always does before a fight. It is very sombre. And also faintly ridiculous. Dominic and I, from the backseat, cannot help but take the piss.
Xander suddenly turns round in the front and stares at us, his face like thunder. And in a very fair imitation of Russell Crowe, he says: “My name is Maximus Decimus Meridius, commander of the Armies of the North, General of the Felix Legions, loyal servant to the true emperor, Marcus Aurelius. Father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife. And I will have my vengeance, in this life or the next.”
Funnily enough, there was always a soundtrack when Jules and I went out driving, aged 16 or 17. We’d neck a bottle of Smirnoff and Jules would take the keys to whichever of his father’s cars had been left at home that weekend, and he would drive us, unlicensed and underage, to a party. Or if not a party, then just around, listening to music. Xander, who was 8 or 9, was always there, asking what we were doing. And Jules always told him the truth. And then told him what to say if his parents rang.
We’d cruise the streets with the windows down, smoking. We’d look at girls, and they’d look back and not understand what two spotty kids were doing in a company chairman’s car. Then we’d race back through London at 80 or 90mph with pop music blaring, with very little idea of road signs, or where we were going. Jules’s favourite trick was to bomb the wrong way up Baker Street at midnight, watching the other drivers scatter. One night, in Hampstead, we hit a parked car at about 70mph, bounced, spun round and round and round, lights flashing, horns blasting, and finally came to a stop in the middle of the street, pointing the wrong way back down the road.
There was no sound then except the gruesome Austrian electropop of Rock Me Amadeus by Falco booming out of the stereo. And we looked at each other and laughed.
A year or so later, the police action on the accident still pending as far as I remember, Jules went out on his skis after lunch in Zermatt, hit a woman who had come out of her bindings, and was killed when something freakish happened with a broken ski or a pole, which I’ve never quite understood and don’t really want to.
The farm looms up in the distance, and then the ring, surrounded by ochre fields full of black bulls. I meet Adolfo and Padilla and they go off with Xander to change.
I go into the changing room with Nicolas, to maybe get some cool, black and white behind-the-scenes shots of matadors changing.
When I walk in, Padilla, with his massive sideburns, is already naked, sitting on a bench. He has a long scar running down his chest and the biggest balls I have ever seen. It seems an odd thing to mention, but it’s true. Like a pair of pineapples, they are. The bravest killer of bulls in all Spain has truly massive testicles.
I didn’t get a look at Xander’s.
Out on the sand, I pull Xander and Adolfo over for a quick interview. What are they expecting? What are the dangers? Etc.
Xander does not seem scared, just worried about looking foolish, about disappointing his friends, about not making any attractive passes with the cape.
I ask Adolfo if what Xander is about to do is dangerous.
“Of course,” he says, as if I am a moron. “It is very dangerous.”
“He can die.”
Oh. Is he a good bullfighter?
“He is one of the bravest men that I have seen in the ring,” says Adolfo. “Because when you have the technique, you know you have that to fall back on. And he does not have this.”
Wow, brave because essentially clueless. Very British. Very Charge of the Light Brigade. Very trenches. Very scary.
I take a position behind a barrier in the ring, on the sand, in front of a little stone room, into which I plan to duck if anything comes for me.
No sooner am I tucked in there than the big, red, iron doors open and out comes the first vaquilla. Nobody would argue that this is the same thing as a bull. It is smaller, lighter, faster, bouncier, the ground does not shake when it comes bounding in. But it runs fast, straight for Padilla, who is out now in the ring, he passes it round him a few times with his cape (the big pink and yellow one, not the red muleta). As it passes, it leaps, all four feet off the ground, its horns passing close to his face. Bulls do not do this.
Now I understand how the tentadero works. Like a real bullfight, there is a process in place to tire the vaquilla until it charges more circumspectly and can be trained to the muleta, to drop its head, expose the back of its neck and be killed by a sword going in directly over the horns (as all bulls in Spain must be killed, by law). The difference here is that no stabbing or bleeding is involved in the tiring-out process and the “kill” is not a kill, just a slap on the hump in the place where the sword would have gone.
This happens with two, perhaps three animals. Nicolás, Dominic and I begin to wonder if Xander is going to be called. Xander looks worried. Whether at the prospect of fighting or of not fighting is hard to say. I doubt he could have told you himself.
But then comes the moment, when a suitable bull has been caped and tired and is ready for the muleta, when Xander is called. He walks out into the middle. And almost immediately the vaquilla is upon him (I can’t call it a “cow” – the bathos is too terrible). It bounds out of the shadow into the light. Xander stays still, moves the cape, the bull goes past.
It turns, it comes again, Xander passes again, motioning away from his body in a sweeping gesture, his right hand moving in a smooth arc from his left hip outwards, like a proud host presenting a lavish spread of hors d’oeuvre to his guests. Except that he’s holding a red cape in it, and a horned animal is going by.
The vaquilla comes again, Xander shuffles nervously (which you mustn’t do), he backs away (which you mustn’t do) and so the bull sees him (which is what will always happen) and it comes for him, and he’s in a bit of a mess now, tangled behind the cape, and the vaquilla charges him and he sort of pushes it away and scampers and Adolfo and a couple of others run on and entice it away with cape-swinging.
Less good. Less stylish. But still. You wouldn’t catch me doing it.
The rest is a mix of good and bad. Amazing that he can do it at all. Some passes are really very good, and then sometimes he quite naturally dances away from the bull (which you mustn’t do) and it sees him and hits him. He’s seen a thousand bullfights, he knows that’s not what you do. But instinct is instinct: a horned thing comes for you, you back off.
Once, he ends up sitting on the thing. That’s how he gets the blood on his jeans which I hope Nicolás has captured. Though an apparently bleeding arse is not perhaps the image Xander had most had in mind when we began all this.
Another time, Xander miscalculates and ends up holding both horns, physically pushing the animal off himself, and seeming to laugh at himself, or the situation. And, of course, that rather defuses the death-tension. And without the death-tension, even in a tentadero, it’s all sort of over.
The bull is different. The bull really is terrifying. After eyeballing me at the barrier it heads out into the middle of the ring to meet Adolfo, and its maker.
But this is not a great fight either. The bull is too big and it has been injured in transit, making it all the more difficult to contain – although the on-site vet has passed it fit to die, a very Spanish legal paradox.
When it charges the armoured horse of the picador right in front of my nose it is like dinosaurs fighting. Sometimes, when it charges the cape, it catches a horn in the sand and somersaults, turning over in the air in slow motion and hitting the ground like a grand piano dropped from a helicopter. If this happens in the professional arena, crowds get very upset.
But Adolfo fights it very bravely and elegantly. He has trouble killing it (you try killing an elephant with a toothpick) but eventually does, jointly with Padilla, both placing a sword, going a little round the side (which is legal if an attempt has first been made to go over the horns), taking fewer risks, choosing not to die here, in front of nobody, in the middle of nowhere.
The dying bull totters over towards Nicolás and collapses at the edge of the ring, where a tattered tree overhangs the wall and gives a small square of speckled shade. It twitches. A farmhand comes in to finish it off with a dagger strike at the top of the spinal chord where it joins the neck. He needs a couple of stabs at it. There is plenty of blood and twitching.
Nicolas cries aloud his revulsion with a series of Spanish “Yuks”. I beg for him to be silent. We can’t show how revolted we are, even if we are Spanish. What will they think?
Now, suddenly, I remember that I need a photo of Xander and the dead bull. It could make or break the piece. I have prepared him for this earlier in the day and now, as Padilla and Adolfo leave the ring, I hurry across to where Xander is smoking and drag him over to pose by the bull.
He is desperately uneasy about it. I know he does not want to be seen to be claiming another man’s kill. A number of men are watching. I put Xander next to the bull and tell him to look at it, look at me, look at the camera, look back at the bull. Then a man comes over with a dagger and sticks it in the back of the bull’s neck and waggles it, and the bull twitches. So now it’s even more dead. The man has a slightly scornful look in his eye.
I ask Adolfo to join the pose, and he won’t. He is not happy with the photographing of the bull generally. He feels it is disrespectful. I think of all those dead bulls I have seen applauded out of the ring. And the ones I have seen booed (I hate it when they boo the corpse). We pack it in, and a forklift truck that has been hovering by the ring doors comes in and scoops up the dead animal, struggling to get its prongs under the huge carcass, and then staggers off with it.
I realise that Dominic has been filming this, and Nicolás has been photographing it. And I tell them to stop. This is the sort of thing you record if you want to discredit the bullfight.
I tell them both to get rid of any footage of the forklift before they send their stuff to The Times. I do not even want people in the office to see this. I sort of wish I hadn’t. When a bull is killed in the public ring, a team of plumed mules comes in and the body is dragged out in a bloody arc across the sand with muleteers cracking whips in the air. It’s a mini-funeral. But the forklift truck is just a forklift truck.
How does Xander think he did?
He thinks he could have done better. He is disappointed. He thinks he did some good passes but that he kept getting hit. He thinks this is the result of not having been in the ring for a while. He was meant to be killing a bull in six weeks’ time, but he sees now he is not ready. He will put it back to early next year, start training hard, maybe enrol in a bullfight school to learn a repertoire of passes. And also to learn how to cape his way out of danger when it goes wrong. He will also need to learn how to kill with the sword.
Washed and changed, Xander says he has to phone his father. “He knew I was doing this today, and I said I’d phone to tell him how it went.”
I watch him pacing backwards and forwards in the dust outside the ring, speaking to his father. And it occurs to me only now that if he had indeed been killed in the ring, as was apparently possible, it would have been me who had to phone. And it would have been on Xander’s phone, because that is where his father’s number would be stored.
And the moment his father answered the telephone and heard my voice instead of his son’s (saying, “Hello, is that Clive Harrison?”), he would have known.
Via a roadside tapas joint, where we lunch with Padilla, who signs autographs for a queue of diners, we return to Padilla’s home, a sort of celebrity mini-ranch called Puerta Gayola. In the dining room are the giant heads of six huge Miura bulls (the fearsome breed Padilla is famed for fighting). There are also antelope heads, and other things he has killed with more modern weapons.
Upstairs there is a trophy room: more bits of animals, ears, tails, swords – a thousand photos of Padilla in the ring and posing with celebrities and politicians. And, bizarrely, his wife’s wedding dress on a mannequin.
He apologises that he cannot carouse too hard because he fights in Granada tomorrow. “Padilla,” he says, “is not Padilla tonight.”
Nonetheless, we retire to Sin Problemas, the bar and hideaway that he built in the grounds of his house, next to the practice mini-ring and the children’s playground.
We smoke big Dominican cigars and drink rum, and try not to mention (assuming we all notice) the grim smell of Spanish plumbing.
We turn on the TV and watch, over and over again, the death of Paquirri, the last great fighter to die in the ring (and father of Cayetano and Francisco Rivera Ordóñez), which is being shown because he was killed 25 years ago to the day, the very hour.
“Shhhh?” says Padilla at one point. “This is the very moment.”
Over and over we watch the death. Paquirri gored through the femoral artery, and carried aloft around the ring on the great horn in his thigh. Padilla grows angrier and angrier, furious that Paquirri should have let it happen, furious that he made such a novice’s mistake.
It seems that Paquirri moved, backed off from the bull, and allowed it to see him. Just like Xander.
“Was Paquirri any good?” I ask.
“He was one of the best of that time,” says Adolfo. “But he was only as good as the poorest today.”
So we are in a golden age of sorts. Tomorrow the great Tom?s will fight again in Barcelona. Padilla will fight in Granada in front of a TV audience of millions (and be gored very badly in two places, and not fight again for some time), and we ourselves will see Daniel Luque at the Maestranza in Seville, French-born and only 19 years old, throw away the rule book by giving up the sword and performing naturales with both his left and right hand, and being awarded two ears, and we’ll wave our hankies and throw things, and he’ll be the guy I follow next year, when I go back, like I always do, despite the horror and disappointment of it all.
But for now, drunk, we go out into Padilla’s yard, where he picks up one of his training tools, a papier-mâché bull’s head mounted on a bicycle wheel, with wheelbarrow handles.
He takes up a position at one end of the yard, and Adolfo lurks in the lengthening shadows with a banderilla (barbed flag) in each hand, stamping his feet, as he would in the ring, to attract the attention of the “bull”. And then Padilla charges in a straight line towards Adolfo, who swoops in an arc and places the banderillas, “Thwack!”, right in the bicycle-bull’s papier-mâché hump.
He does it again a couple of times, and then he takes his sword. He faces Padilla and his wheelie-bull, Padilla charges, and Adolfo “kills”, drilling his sword perfectly into the sheath in the back of its papier-mâch? neck.
And then Xander has a go, wobbling on half a bottle of rum and the tired legs of a day’s excitement and anxiety. Xander “kills” awkwardly. But he kills. He goes over the horns. It’s legal.
Dominic, Nicolás and I cheer wildly. And long-dead Jules’s little brother takes a bow, watched by Padilla, the great slaughterer of bulls, and by Adolfo, son of the first leader of democratic Spain.
He has succeeded in what he set out to do today, more or less: survived the lunging of an angry, fighting bull-mother and successfully driven a sword into a unicycle pushed by a great matador as his friends, sitting on the sand, rolled pissed and giggling in the twilight.
© Giles Coren 2009
(You can find more of Nicolás’s photos of Giles’s visit here.)
Post Script: What happened afterwards…
Giles Coren – who I recently had lunch with for his Times restaurant column earlier, our first meeting since this article – has since married his then girlfriend, the journalist Esther Walker, and they have had a daughter. He has not seen another bullfight since his visit.
Dominic Elliot – who I am spending New Year with – has also since married his then girlfriend, the portrait painter Arabella Dorman, and they have also had a daughter. He also has not seen another bullfight since.
Adolfo Suárez Illana killed his bull at the festival in Castellón with great skill and art – I was in his cuadrilla, his ‘team’ – and was awarded both ears and the tail of the bull by the president of the ring. He has since retired from public bullfighting, although he long ago promised Padilla he would return for one last public fight with him.
Juan José Padilla was gored the next day in his fight in Granada, but he recovered. I saw him fight in Seville in 2010 and again this year. I also saw him this year Pamplona with a 700kg bull – which I ran with in the streets that morning. However, in October he received the worst goring any matador has ever received and lived. Despite the terrible injuries, including the loss of an eye, he has vowed to return to the ring.
From being part of Adolfo’s team, I trained for a further year with the former matador Eduardo Dávila Miura and fought and killed a three year old Saltillo bull from the finca of my friend Enrique Moreno de la Cova. I wrote my entire two years in Spain, including my time with Giles, and Nicolás Haro provided the photos. Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight was published by Profile Books in the UK on May 26th to excellent reviews. It made the national press’s Summer, and then Christmas, ‘best book’ lists and was shortlisted for the William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award. Perhaps I will return to the ring with Padilla and Adolfo next year. We shall see…
Oh, and as of midnight on New Year’s Eve, the autonomous province of Catalonia will have ‘banned’ bullfighting. I place the word in inverted commas, because what has been banned is Spanish bullfighting in plazas de toros. The Barcelona regional parliament was fearless in favour of animal rights when it came to crossing Madrid. They were a little less so when it came to banning the Catalan national pastime of setting fire to a bull’s horns and running it through the streets, sometimes until it dies. Which is not to imply that this victory was in anyway politically motivated to pander to petit nationalism. In the year the vote went through, 2010, there were 1,724 bullfights in plazas de toros in Spain, of which 18 were in the province of Catalonia. This in no way highlights the irrelevance of the ban nor the hollowness of the triumph…