“El Indultado”, ‘The Pardoned One’, by Alexander Fiske-Harrison:
“I’d much rather be a Spanish fighting bull than a farm cow”
I left the site of my last Andalusian postcard with a heavy heart and burning ears: apparently some locals had taken offence to the “elitist” connotations of my comparison of their town to Notting Hill. People take things the wrong way with a vengeance nowadays: as with Montparnasse in Paris, the artists that first made Notting Hill famous were followed by richer creative-types and the resulting economic gear-change had both upsides and downsides.
Notably, though, these complaints were British ex-pats. The Spanish were delighted, with the Mayor of the town, a socialist, writing to say how much he looked forward to hosting Telegraph readers.
After Gaucín, for the first time in a decade I did not know where to go in Spain mid-July. Normally, I would head north to Pamplona for the Feria of San Fermín, known here simply as Fiesta.
Some people think running with bulls, a pastime for which that city is most famous, is dangerous and anachronistic, and the end place of that run, the bull-ring, is a place of torture and death. And indeed, all Spain’s bull rings are registered abattoirs – they have to be, because the carcass of every bull ends up in the food chain. The only difference, in terms of the bull’s welfare, is the manner and duration of their life and the manner and duration of their death, but perhaps not in the way readers think.
To celebrate the tenth anniversary of my own first visit to Zahariche, the legendary ranch of my friends the Miura family – the most famous breeders of Spanish fighting bulls in history – and in this difficult time for all taurinos, I thought I would translate this interview with Don Eduardo Miura in the Spanish newspaper ABC.
Miura: «Muchos toros de Pamplona acabarán en el anonimato de un matadero»
The mythical cattle from the ranch of Zahariche, saint and symbol of Pamplona, close each year the Feria de San Fermín
A dark silence ran through the world of bullfighting at the suspension of the Fiesta of the fury in red and white: not bull-runs nor bullfights, nothing. The cancellation of the Feria del Toro enlarges even further the shadow of the crisis in the world of bull-breeding.
“This season is a ruin,” is the unanimous voice. Although the cartels were not yet known – the Bullfighting Commission suspended the contracting of the bullfighters in March when they first heard the sounds about the State of Emergency – the Casa de la Misericordia had already decided on the ranches in December, nine bullfights and one novice bullfight, sixty bulls will stay in the countryside: Pincha, Capea, La Palmosilla, Núñez del Cuvillo, Victoriano del Río, Jandilla, Fuente Ymbro, Cebada Gago, José Escolar and Miura.
And now in one of the scenes where usually the main part of the money is paid to the ranches, and then their very best bulls are sent to the Corrals of Gas in the City, yet another setback is delivered to this most affected sector of the economy, where there is no income and everything is expenses:
“Animals must be cared for and fed daily,” says Eduardo Miura. The ranch of ‘Zahariche’, saint and symbol of Pamplona, was going to sent yet another perfect group of bulls for the Sanfermines on July 14.”
“I imagined it would not be celebrated this year but this is a very cruel blow. We have been there for fifty years without missing a single one, except during the riots of ’78. This coronavirus is crushing us; in addition to health, it is going to have a very negative impact on global tourism and the economy. ”
The Fiesta of Pamplona was one of the eight bullfights that the Miura had lined up for 2020, around fifty bulls whose final time “may be the slaughterhouse”, without the honors of the bullring.
“We have raised them with the greatest care to be dealt with in rings like Seville or Pamplona, and now the destiny of many may be to be sacrificed in the anonymity of a slaughterhouse. It is a real shame.”
Miura, the brand of bull with which the matador Juan José Padilla was crowned the eternal hero in San Fermín, had prepared for Pamplona bulls from Cuatreños to Cinqueños [Four- to five-years-old, no bull of six years or older may enter the ring by Spanish law – AFH] but he knows that not even all four-year-olds will be able to contend in 2021 either:
“There will be an excess of bulls out in the fields, prices will drop, expenses will continue … And I do not expect much help from a government that is not very friendly to the activity to which I have dedicated myself.”
The Casa de la Misericordia of Pamplona plans to give preference to the livestock contracted for this year at the next fair [in 2021], but even so “the economic damage is going to be very heavy, and each one will have to get out of this crisis as best they can.”
Here in Spain there is martial law in all but name – surely the British wouldn’t put up with it
20th March 2020
It was when they taped off the children’s playground on the Plaza de la Constitución, as though it were a crime scene, that we knew the rumours were true.
All that Saturday the streets had been empty of people save the town’s ex-pat population as the Spanish government debated at every level – local, provincial and national – about what would put on ‘lockdown’ and how. I came down from my balcony to investigate as the local police pinned a notice to the swings, reading “Proclamation: Preventative Measures for the Protection of Citizens against the Coronavirus”, written in the name of the Mayor, and followed by a list of closures ranging from the municipal library to the 12th-century Moorish castle which stands guard over our Andalusian hilltop town.
Knowing that more was sure to come we stayed at Bar Pastor until closing time. The next morning we woke up to find the police sealing that bar, and all the others. It had begun.
This blog was begun twelve years ago to keep track of my research into the world of bullfighting following my award-winning essay for Prospect, “the most intelligent magazine of current affairs and cultural debate in Britain.”
Above you can find pages on the author, an introduction to the structure of the bullfight, a more scientific piece on the nature of the Spanish fighting bull, and how to contact me. Two other posts I would mention here are this one on the popularity of bullfighting in Spain and the often quoted ‘Gallup’ polls, and also this one on the 533 famous professional bullfighters killed in the ring in the past three centuries. However, the standalone piece on this blog, and the product of 20 years research – I saw my first bullfight in the Spring of 2000 – is my long essay on bullfighting here.
In the past two decades I have watched well over a thousand bullfights, run the bulls myself in Pamplona for a decade,, along with a over dozen other bull-running towns such as Cuéllar and San Sebastián de los Reyes, Tafalla and Falces. I’ve fought alongside matadors in the ring myself and wrote the first two years of those experiences as a national book award shortlisted memoir, Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight, available from Amazon (for Amazon UK click here, US here, Canada here, Australia here and India here.)
“Complex and ambitious, compelling and lyrical.”
Mail on Sunday
“An engrossing introduction to Spain’s ‘great feast of art and danger’. Brilliantly capturing a fascinating, intoxicating culture”
“A compelling read, unusual for its genre, exalting the bullfight as pure theatre.”
“He did not expect to fall in love with bullfighting, but then he had his eyes opened by the beauty, dignity and art of the sport.”
“Thrilling. An engrossing introduction to bullfighting.”
“An informed piece of work on a subject about which we are all expected to have a view.”
“Although Fiske-Harrison develops a taste for the whole gruesome spectacle, what makes the book work is that he never loses his disgust for it.” (Daily Mail), “It’s to Fiske-Harrison’s credit that he never quite gets over his moral qualms about bullfighting.” (Financial Times), “Uneasy ethical dilemmas abound, not least the recurring question of how much suffering the animals are put through.” (Sunday Telegraph), “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 taken.” (Mail on Sunday) and “The question of whether a modern society should endorse animal suffering as entertainment is bound to cross the mind of any casual visitor to a bullfight. Alexander Fiske-Harrison first tussled with the issue in his early twenties and, as a student of both philosophy and biology, has perhaps tussled with it more lengthily and cogently than most of us.”(Literary Review)
Editor’s Note: This 10,000 word essay has been updated for republication since its original appearance in 2016. I have, however, kept the original data from Spain’s Ministry of Culture etc., as relevant changes have not really occurred: there were 1,521 bullfights in 2018, and 17,698 bull ‘festivities’ as defined below. And, as reported on the site here, the great matador Iván Fandiño was killed by a bull in a ring in France – AFH
When I first went to my first bullfight 20 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, a WWF (which I remain to this day) & Greenpeace member, former zoology undergraduate at Oxford, and current philosophy postgraduate at LSE.
It should be obvious that this is not an auspicious CV for a future aficionado a 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 breathless 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 annual 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.
In 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, 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 ritualised, 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 Reuters & EPA photographer Jim Hollander, The Bulls Of Pamplona, was published by Mephisto Press in 2018, purchasing details are 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.
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
El Norte de Castilla
‘The North Of Castile’
The Joy Of The Thrill
Monday, September 9th, 2019
Lungs burning, vision fuzzing, heart thumping and hands shaking, I stood watching and chatting with my companions in the street, Josechu Lopez and David Garcia, as the last bull moved up the street last Tuesday, in the antepenultimate encierro of the oldest feria of bull-running in the world, and the last time I expect to find myself sharing the asphalt with my favourite animal ever again.
It is not that I have lost my love for the bull or my affection for encierros, ‘bull-runs’: my admiration for this meeting place for man and beast is entirely undiminished. Nor is it the decrepitude of old age or excesses of an indulgent lifestyle that are pulling me out as I enter my mid-40s: I could still clock a three-and-three-quarter hour marathon in Mont Saint-Michel in France last year, and did my finest taurine runs ever the year before that in such rarified places as Funes and Falces.
No, ten years after my first ever encierro – with Miuras, in San Fermin – I have had to admit that my personal experience of running alongside, and occasionally in front of, such animals has ceased to deliver a pleasure that outweighs the ultimate risk. It is not that, to quote the great B. B. King, “the thrill is gone”, but that the joy in that thrill has. Continue reading
The Breeding of the Toro Bravo
I was recently commissioned by Running Of The Bulls, Inc. – the United States’ largest tour operator to Pamplona for its annual Fiesta de San Fermín – to provide some information for their clients on the bulls themselves.
I was asked for a light, introductory, Hall of Fame of Bulls in Pamplona. However, since I also work with the industry body the Fundación del Toro de Lidia, ‘Foundation of the Fighting Bull’, I took this article more seriously than they expected. As a result, by the time I was halfway through writing I was already several thousand words over my limit…
The full written version is here, minus a series of specially filmed interviews I did for them around the world which are available only on their site, www.runningofthebulls.com.
In it I discuss about a dozen ganaderías, ranches that breed bulls registered under Spanish law as being of the fighting bull ‘race’.
However, there are many, many more. According to the Ministry of Culture’s latest figures, published Spring 2018, there are 1,329 ganaderas de reses de lidia, ‘breeders of fighting cattle’, in their registry.
These supplied the past season’s 1,553 bullfights of all varieties. These include novilladas with novice matadors, rejoneo from horseback and full corridas in which 1,2 or 3 full matadors face 6 full-sized toros bravos, ‘brave bulls’, and various combinations of these types of event.
(These combinations can lead to media confusion. Although there were only 387 pure corridas last year, there were a further 370 events in which at least one matador faced a toro bravo as part of the event.)
These were serviced by the 10,959 licensed bullfighting professionals in Spain, 825 of them being matadors.
And this is all alongside the 17,920 popular festivals involving cattle such as the encierros, ‘bull-runs’, for which Pamplona is famed.
It is a big thing, this mundo de los toros, ‘world of the bulls’. Continue reading
What to do in Seville aside from bullfighting: click here to read.
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.