The text of my speech at the University of Seville on ‘Into The Arena’

(In the original Spanish here.)

Last Friday, before the opening of the Feria de Abril here in Seville, I gave a conference on my two perspectives on bullfighting: from far away – England – and far too close – the sand of the bullring.

It was a great honour to talk in the main lecture theatre in the antique Royal Tobacco Factory of Seville, the setting for Bizet’s Carmen among other things (which was in turn based on the novella of that name by Prosper Mérimée.)

The speech was particularly well-received. Rafael Peralta, a poet, author and amateur bullfighter from a great family of bull-breeders and rejoneadors – horseback bullfighters – had the following to say about it in the newspaper La Razón, ‘The Reason’ (my translation):

An Englishman in the arena; by Rafael Peralta Revuelta

This past Easter Sunday, a British diplomat, Lord Tristan Garel-Jones, made a defense of bullfighting from the lectern of the Lope de Vega theatre in the classic Pregón Taurino, ‘Taurine Proclamation’, of the Royal Maestranza of Seville. Bullfighting has always appealed in one way or another to the English. For some, it is a show that, far from their Anglo-Saxon culture, they describe as barbaric. For others it may mean something curious, full of mystery and romance. Such was the case of Joseph William Forbes, a boxing manager who every summer went to Spain for his own particular taurine “tournament”. As do the members of the Club Taurino of London, who every year visit our city to attend the bullfights of the April Fair. Alexander Fiske-Harrison is an English writer and actor, whom we find at the entrance of the Plaza de Toros. Several years ago now, he began to have contact with the world of bullfighting, with the help of family and close friends. Little by little, he went deeper into the secrets of the world of the bulls. He became an amateur bullfighter, fighting on the ranch “Zahariche” of the Miuras, and arrived at the point of killing a Saltillo bull on the ranch of the Moreno de la Cova family. He became friends with bull-breeders, with bullfighters like Juan José Padilla and Adolfo Suárez Illana. His experiences are contained in the book Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight. As a philosopher and writer specializing in analyzing the behavior of animals, he recognized in England that there is a lot of hypocrisy about bullfighting. Last week gave a lecture at the University of Seville, explaining his vision of bullfighting. Fiske-Harrison opens a new door, fundamental and necessary, to the Fiesta Brava in Anglo-Saxon culture.

I enclose the text of my speech below. The text of Lord Garel-Jones’s Pregón Taurino, which he has kindly provided to me in English (his speech, like mine, was delivered in Spanish), is viewable as a PDF by clicking here: El Pregón Taurino de Lord Tristan Garel-Jones – English. I will finish by saying how happy I am that after leaving a lecture like this, the entire audience went to the Seville bullring, La Plaza de Toros de la Real Maestranza de Caballería de Sevilla (in whose 250-year-old library, Into The Arena is the only book in English). There we saw the very essence of what I was talking about in terms of beauty in the toreo of José Mari Manzanares who cut four ears and left on the shoulders of the crowd through the Gate of the Prince. (We met in the training ring a month ago.) I must also mention the astonishing valour of the now one-eyed Juan José Padilla.

In the photo below, by the historian and author Guy Walters who was sitting with my mother and my girlfriend, you can see Manzanares embracing his father, a former matador of great note. Circled left are myself and my own father, in seats generously provided by Enrique Moreno de la Cova and Cristina Ybarra. Leaning on the planks in the foreground is Padilla.

“Into The Arena”: The bullfight as lived by an Englishman

Ladies and Gentleman,

You will forgive me but in the eighteen months since I completed the research for my book I have forgotten as much of my Spanish as I have of my bullfighting – as a little bull of Astolfi discovered to his delight a week ago. However, I hope that more language remains than my technique of tauromachy and that I walk away with fewer bruises!

First, I would like to thank the University of Seville – and especially Jose Luis and Antonio and their Forum of Analysis for inviting me, an Englishman, to speak about my perspective on the bulls. I was going to say that this is a rare honour indeed, until I read in the newspaper that my fellow Briton, Lord Tristan Garel-Jones, was doing just that two weeks ago. I would like to say it doesn’t count, because he is Welsh and not English, but then I might offend my dear friend and deep aficionado Noel Chandler who is here today. Also, since Lord Garel-Jones’s talk was the annual Pregón Taurino of La Maestranza, and it was delivered with such eloquence, I must doff my cap, and have provided a copy of it courtesy of its author.

So I am now faced with the problem many matadors have in facing a bull immediately after a colleague has taken two ears.

Where Lord Garel-Jones has given a virtuoso display of classical bullfighting, moving from the veronicas of his views on Death to the naturales of his views on Art and ending recibiendo by calling aficionados to arms in defence of the fiesta brava. I have only tricks. The larga cambiada of having spent time with great bullfighters who work today, the manoletinas of having fought many of the great strains of fighting cattle in Spain, and my finish is and was volapie: Consejote, ‘Councillor’, who was born of the strain still called Saltillo in November 2007, and died in the testing ring there in November 2010 on the blade of my sword.

Photo: AFH personal collection

To begin at the beginning, I came to Spain in the winter of 2008 to write a book about the bulls, because I thought that in the six or so bullfights I had visited with my parents, I had seen something unique in the civilised world – a public spectacle that each time moved the heart, the spirit and the mind with its skill, its courage and its reality and, far more rarely – but far more importantly for me – its beauty. However, it is also – and necessarily so – a spectacle steeped in the blood and death of its one of its many ancestors: the coliseum of Rome.

As Lord Garel-Jones said in his speech, the American and British mind is repelled by this aspect of the bullfight in a way which is symptomatic of a culture which is afraid to even think of death. It is a great irony to me that in Spain this Anglo-American culture is referred to as called “Anglo-Saxon”, an old phrase which in English describes the people who lived in England over a thousand years ago. They are as closely related to me – despite my Saxon name of Fiske – as the fighting bull is to its wild ancestor the aurochs.

For the true Anglo-Saxons, as you can read in their great poem Beowulf, blood was mere “battle-sweat” or “sword-water”, and the human body a “bone house”. The ravens that fed on the fallen were the dark and beautiful “swans of war” and war itself the “web of men.”

We have moved a long way since then, through industrial and then scientific revolution, universal emancipation and the creation of the welfare state. We live three times as long, we do not suffer hunger or thirst, and we have not faced a war serious enough to threaten our culture in the lifetime of more than 90 per cent of us. However, as horrible as it is to say, the one thing we have not cured, nor can we pay for a solution to, is death.

Lord Garel-Jones spoke of this, but I wish to emphasise further how the bullfight is an important and fundamentally human response to this mortal problem.

I believe that the original fascination of the early matadors, Pedro Romero of Ronda and Costillares of Seville, was the way in which they remained standing in the face of a great dark thunder that enveloped them, a wild Death with horns. They not only stood, but commanded it to pass, and then demanded it return again. In the phrasing of Pedro Romero: To stand, To cite, And to command away. (And “change the luck” so Death lifts his head, and comes back once more.)

The audience of the seventeenth century who – confronted with the ever-present reality of death from poverty, disease, arbitrary violence of state and individual – could not help but be stunned and moved when a man not only refused to flee the charge of such an animal, but instead with a piece of cloth enforced his will on a force of nature.

This, I believe, was the evolutionary mutation which allowed the bullfight to survive while the other species of animal combat became extinct in the civilised world. Some combats were rightly banned – in my eyes – like the bull-bait, the bear-bait, the dog-fight. Others were banned that perhaps did not deserve this fate like the fox hunt. Another factor was the habitat in which the bullfight came into existence, Spain. In the words of your poet Federico Garcia Lorca in his famous lecture on Duende:

“It is not an accident that all Spanish art is linked to our mountains, with their thistles and sharp stones.”

And Garcia Lorca knew that that landscape, and the unblinking sun which ruled it, gave you a different perspective on Death – as he said:

“In all other countries death is an end. It arrives and the curtains are drawn. In Spain, no. In Spain they open. Many people there live indoors until the day they die and they are taken out into the sun. A person dead in Spain is more alive than dead than anywhere else in the world.”

The ability to engage and emotionally move an audience at a level beyond the basic display of courage and skill that gladiators showed is what has allowed the bullfight to survive. The ability to affect all people so they feel that they may too face their Death with only a piece of cloth. Yes, they may do so with the hope that they can make it pass and live on. But they also know that if it finds them in the cape, at least they face their fate with honour, eyes open. I am like the fencing master of Arturo Perez-Reverte: “He had always been of the opinion that every man should be given the opportunity to die standing up.”

Of course, this direct defiance of raging Death is contrasted by the elegance, dexterity and physical suavity with which it is conducted. This counterpoint between bullfighter and bull, between Nature and Art, is the source of the beauty one can perceive in the bullfight – hence such melodic concepts as linkage of passes being so central – and here the spectacle accesses the “higher” emotional responses of the crowd. This ability to move beyond a primitive origin, but keep the terrifying reality of that origin, is the reason that the bullfight not only survived the social changes of the 20th century, but prospers in the 21st. I am aware there has been a decline in numbers, but it seems to me to exactly echo that of the wounded economy of Spain.

If bullfighting is an art, it must also be remembered that it is a performance art. And, as someone who trained and worked on the stage as an actor long before I did on the sand as an amateur bullfighter, I can say that the element at the heart of all performance is empathy. You must feel for the protagonist: the actor or the bullfighter.

This is the essence of that complex concept aficion, and it is the failure of the Anglo-Saxons to identify with their fellow man, and their deluded views about animals (which they then slaughter in their tens of millions behind closed doors), which is why it is so hard for them to understand the bullfight.

If you have the privilege to have been born and raised in a city like Seville; to have grown with the Maestranza there on the skyline like a noble bull herself, which you watch charge again and again and again, then your aficion comes naturally. You learn as a child to admire the gold and bravery of a matador standing before the bull, and as an adult you develop a feeling for the low hand than runs clean and close to the body without tricks.

However, if you were born in London as I was, and you must write a book on this subject which you have only the time to gain the most superficial experience of – fifty corridas, maybe a few more – how do you gain the wisdom of a lifetime? You cannot. But you try catch up by taking the advice of some good Spanish friends – to quote the great Isaac Newton, “if I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants”

The first man I met in the world of the bulls was an amateur bullfighter, and the son of one as well. He was Adolfo Suarez Illana. (His father Adolfo Suarez Gonzalez fought and killed a bull in 1959 in the ancient bullring in Avila in the Festival of the Novices.) I first met Adolfo here in Seville alongside his friend, the bravest of matadors, Juan José Padilla, who fights here with only one eye tonight in the Maestranza.

The first time I went to a tentadero (a training fight) was with Juan to Los Alburejos – only to watch – and later to drink and dance along with him his friend, the flamenco dancer Antonio El Pipa.

However, the next time we went we were joined by Adolfo at the ranch of Fuente Ymbro. It was Adolfo who first suggested I step onto the sand – for the sensation – and, amazingly, the vaca did not catch me.

I went on to join Juan at a tentadero at the finca of the Saltillos, Miravalles, which is owned by Felix and Enrique Moreno de la Cova – who are represented here by their wives Ita Solis and Cristina Ybarra. This one was a little more difficult, but I received my first instruction from Juan and his friend Finito de Cordoba.

The first time I passed a small bull was like the first time I saw a bullfight – I was amazed that such a thing could exist at all. The world disappeared into the points of two horns and did not reappear until some time afterwards.

The second time with the Saltillos I gained the knowledge that I could take a hit, and when I made a proper pass, I started to feel sensations which were more controlled and more subtle. Then I began to believe that I could surpass my original expectation for how far into the world of the bulls I could go. If I could last until the hour of truth, the moment of death, then I would be able to explain something both as writer AND actor – in the true sense of the word actor in both our languages: “he who does” – in a way which would unique in the world of Anglo-Saxon literature.

By coincidence, the same night I met Juan and Adolfo, they introduced me in a restaurant to the former matador, Eduardo Dávila Miura. When Enrique Moreno de la Cova told me Eduardo would be willing to teach me privately to see if I could get to a level to kill a Saltillo, I knew I had to take the opportunity.

I trained for many months with Eduardo in what was – for an Englishman – an endless Spanish summer of bullfighting training in the garden at his home with his children watching and joining in, and at tentaderos: Saltillo, of course, Núñez del Cuvillo, Guardiola, Miura, Samuel Flores and Jandilla, which I remember for having my first proper series of passes.

A few nights ago I was talking long into the night with a great American aficionado of the bulls who is here today, Joe Distler, and what we were talking about was the different types and sources of aficion. There is undeniably a place for the proper study of history and bloodlines, the names and dates of long dead bullfighters and all the things we find in the volumes of the esteemed Cossio. However, there is also the aficion born of proximity and first hand experience. Joe has run every single bullrun there has been in Pamplona in the past 44 years. This has informed and expanded his aficion, not only infusing his passion but allowing him to more accurately gauge, more correctly feel the proximity of the matador to death.

I am not saying you cannot appreciate the bullfight without having been close to a bull yourself. But does it add depth to your appreciation. How much can you appreciate William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet by studying the rhythm of the words and the complexity of the metaphors, when you yourself have never been in love?

Photo: AFH personal collection

Anyway, I am talking for too long now. As with my training, there is never enough time. I learnt how to kill for the very first time with the training carriage on the morning of my fight, which may explain the two misses before the sword went in. But it did go in. And thus I avoided, and witnessed from close up, the end which we all face, bull or man. Consejote, as his name was, died in the beautiful countryside of the ranch Miravalles where he had been raised. I cannot deny it was emotional, and confusing: but in the end it taught me more than anything has before or since what the American author Scott Fitzgerald called “the sadness and splendour of the world.”

Thank you.

1 thought on “The text of my speech at the University of Seville on ‘Into The Arena’

  1. Pingback: – The Last Arena

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