Perhaps bullfighting is not a moral wrong: My talk at the Edinburgh International Book Festival

Yesterday evening I immensely enjoyed giving a talk to the sold out audience at the 500-seat Scottish Power Theatre at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on my award-winning book Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bulllfight. It was followed by a discussion with the chair, Al Senter, and the Q&A session with the audience that (along with brief personal chats with about half of those present who came to have their books signed by me in the London Review of Books tent afterwards.) The questions were all well-informed and interesting, not least because, as many of the audience members said to me in person, I’d answered most of the more controversial questions in my opening talk. Here is the transcript of what I said:

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I was going to read from my book, but it seems that the most important topic in the United Kingdom in the 21st Century, indeed in the English-speaking world – when discussing bullfighting – are the ethical issues surrounding the injuring and killing of animals as part of a public spectacle. So I want to address these head on.

As a liberal – in the classical, John Suart Mill sense – it is not my intention, or my place, to tell people whether or not they should approve of or enjoy bullfighting anymore than it is whether they should approve of or enjoy opera. However, when people seek to ban an art form from existing, so that other people may not enjoy it, whatever claims have been made by other people who have never witnessed it, then certain questions have to be raised.

Whatever the motivations behind the ban on bullfighting on Catalonia – and there have been accusations of underhand dealings, thumbing of noses at Madrid to gain votes, which has some circumstantial evidence for it as the popular Catalan regional hobby of attaching burning tar balls and fireworks onto bulls’ horns and letting them into the streets is unaffected by the legislation – anyway, the stated reason is the ethics, or rather lack of ethics, of bullfighting. So, that is what I should like to discuss here.

However, before I can do that, I have to dispel some myths that have long surrounded the bullfight, pieces of propaganda that have been propagated by the anti-bullfight lobby such as CAS International, the League Against Cruel Sports and PETA.

The one I most often hear is the complaint that the matador faces a broken down and destroyed animal. Take a close look at this bull in these photos and tell me how broken down it looks.

Morante de la Puebla performs a ‘veronica’ (Photo: Author)

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‘World’s Scariest Animal Attacks’ on Channel 5* (UK) & Discovery Channel (USA)

It is nice to see that the inteview I filmed at my favourite tapas bar in London, Capote y Toros on the Old Brompton Road, was broadcast again as narration for the fighting bull segment in ‘World’s Scariest Animal Attacks’ on both sides of the Atlantic last night.

If you missed it in the UK, on Channel 5* at 9pm BST last night, you can watch it again here. If you missed in the US at 10pm EDT last night on the Discovery Channel as part of ‘Shark Week’ (when is it not Shark Week on Discovery?), it can be seen again today, August 16th, at 12 am & 2:00 pm, and then again on Aug 18th at 11 am.

Alexander Fiske-Harrison is the expert witness on the toro bravo – Spanish fighting bull – segment of ‘World Scariest Animal Attacks’, first broadcast in the Spring on Channel 5 in the UK, re-broadcast on the Discovery Channel in the US…

In 2010, a fighting bull went on the rampage through the crowded audience at a bullring in Tafalla in north-eastern Spain. The event was not a bullfight, though, but a spectacle of acrobatic bull-leaping, in which the bull normally leaves the ring unharmed to be used again. However, this time, things ended very differently, and very badly, for the people in the audience and the bull…

Mentorn TV

You can read more about Alexander Fiske-Harrison’s account of his two years in Spain, Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight here, where there are also links to purchase or download from Amazon, iTunes etc.

The famous ‘conversion’ photo of the ‘matador’ Álvaro Múnera is…

Fraud

…actually of the real matador Francisco Javier Sánchez Vara, while the words associated with it were actually written by Antonio Gala Velasco in the Spanish newspaper El País. Read the full story on my updated blog post hereAlexander Fiske-Harrison

My interview on BBC Radio Oxford

As the Oxford Mail reported, my talk at Blackwell’s bookshop in Oxford on my book Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight was finally cancelled following a debacle involving purported death-threats and postponements for security reasons which all seemed deeply dubious.

However, as a result, I was invited to talk instead on Bille Heine’s Sunday morning show on BBC Radio Oxford. The other guests were a hunt saboteur, a representative of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals – PETA – and the secretary of the Club Taurino of London – CTL.

You can find the interview by clicking here. It begins one hour into the show and lasts for an hour.
Alexander Fiske-Harrison

Oxford Mail: Bullfighting author’s talk called off

News

Bullfighting author’s talk called off

9:30am Thursday 9th February 2012

A TALK tonight by Oxford bullfighter Alexander Fiske-Harrison has been cancelled.

Mr Fiske-Harrison mounted a fierce attack on Blackwell’s for cancelling the event, rescheduled to today after the Broad Street bookshop postponed the original talk because of security fears.

Mr Fiske-Harrison, 35, angered animal rights extremists after training to become a bullfighter and killing a bull in a ring in Spain, later describing his experiences in a book. The writer said the original lunchtime meeting two weeks ago was postponed after Blackwell’s informed him that they had received “a credible threat.”

But he has now accused Blackwell’s of overstating the threat, scaring people away from tonight’s rearranged talk.

Tony Cooper, manager of Blackwell’s, said: “After several conversations with Alexander Fiske-Harrison we decided to cancel the event due to the small number of tickets taken up. Despite initial interest in the lunchtime talk this did not carry forward into a full evening talk by the author.

“We are obviously disappointed that this is the case as we never like to cancel an event unless absolutely necessary.”

Mr Fiske-Harrison, 35, spent two years in Spain’s heartland of bullfighting with matadors and breeders, talking with fans and training to fight bulls himself.


Alexander Fiske-Harrison with a 3-year-old Saltillo bull.

Photo: Paloma Gaytán de Ayala (Santa Coloma)

My talk on Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight at Blackwell’s of Oxford on Thursday at 7pm

On Thursday, February 9th, at 7pm I will be giving a talk on my book, Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight at Blackwell’s Bookshop on Broad Street, Oxford. Tickets are free and are available by calling 01865 333623.

Putting to one side the articles in the Oxford Times and Oxford Mail, which discuss an apparently needless postponement of the talk – Blackwell’s effectively caved into complaints and then misrepresented them to me as messages of a threatening nature so I would agree – it is still worth clarifying one point of fundamental importance. Into The Arena is not a piece of pro-bullfighting propaganda. And it’s not just me saying that. Here’s what the press said:

Shortlisted for

*****

Fiske-Harrison’s argument that the interplay between man and bull, when done with the highest skill, merits the tragedy will not convince many readers. But his descriptions of the fights are compelling and lyrical, and his explanation of different uses of the matador’s capes is illuminating. One begins to understand what has captivated Spaniards for centuries. This complex and ambitious book examines not only life in the bullring but also Spain’s cultural identity and modern ideas of masculinity. Fiske-Harrison admits that with each of his fights he knows more, not less fear. When he kills his first and only bull he feels not triumph but overwhelming sadness for a life take.

Provides an engrossing introduction to Spain’s “great feast of art and danger”…brilliantly capturing a fascinating, intoxicating culture.

Uneasy ethical dilemmas abound, not least the recurring question of how much suffering the animals are put through. But this remains a compelling read, unusual for its genre, exalting the bullfight as pure theatre.

Fiske-Harrison did not expect to fall in love with bullfighting when he saw it for the first time in 2000. A philosophy student and member of the World Wildlife Fund and Greenpeace, he would argue with his brother about animal cruelty. But then he travelled to Seville and had his eyes opened by the beauty, dignity and art of the sport. Fiske-Harrison recounts his year spent studying the matadors, breeders, fans and the bulls themselves, set against the backdrop of the campaign to ban bullfighting in Catalonia.

Others have been there before, not least Ernest Hemingway, the 50th anniversary of whose death neatly coincides with this travelogue. Hemingway concluded that bullfighting was ‘moral’ as it gave him a ‘feeling of life, death and mortality’. Fiske-Harrison comes to much the same conclusion, albeit after considerable soul-searching… He develops a taste for the whole gruesome spectacle, but what makes the book work is that he never loses his disgust for it…

This is an informed piece of work on a subject about which we are all expected to have a view. But what I really enjoyed about Into The Arena is that after nearly 300 pages I still couldn’t quite decide whether bullfighting should be banned or allowed to flourish.”

It’s to Fiske-Harrison’s credit that he never quite gets over his moral qualms about bullfighting; the book is at its strongest when he uses his degree in biology to investigate the cruelty question… Into the Arena is full of intriguing detail… an engrossing introduction to bullfighting. Continue reading

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

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

Alexander Fiske-Harrison

Why I shouldn’t win the ‘Bookie’ Prize

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

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

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

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

Ernest Hemingway and the matador Antonio Ordóñez

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

My “literary spat” with Mark Rowlands in the TLS (as reported in the Evening Standard)


Monday 24 October 2011

It’s wolf v bull as philosophers bare their teeth

Warring in blogland: Mark Rowlands and Alexander Fiske-Harrison

It’s the latest literary spat. Mark Rowlands, a British philosophy professor who spent a decade living with a wolf, gave a savage review to Alexander Fiske-Harrison’s book Into The Arena on the art of the matador in the Times Literary Supplement in September. Now Fiske-Harrison is as wounded as a bull lanced by a picador — and the men are locked in a battle of letters and blog posts against each other. Fiske-Harrison’s complaint is that Rowlands, who concerns himself with animal welfare, would be naturally indisposed to his love of bull-fighting, not to mention that Fiske-Harrison has previously given him a bad review. “Mark Rowlands is a proponent of vegetarianism and once tried to make his pet wolf into one, as described in The Philosopher and the Wolf,” says Fiske-Harrison. Professor Rowlands, who teaches at the University of Miami, had described Fiske-Harrison’s writing as being infected with “vainglory” and “startling arrogance” in his love of bull-fighting.The red rag in this feud was first waved two years when Fiske-Harrison reviewed Mark Rowlands’s wolf book for Prospect magazine. “If you combine misanthropy and lycophilia,” he wrote, “the resulting hybrid, lycanthropy, is indeed interesting but philosophically quite sterile.” Over to Rowlands. “I felt rather guilty that I was dispensing such a negative review,” he tells me. “I did, of course, inform the TLS of the fact that he had previously reviewed a book of mine. I resent the suggestion that my negative review was the result of personal animus … [it] was the result of the book not being very good.” Rowlands has also called Fiske-Harrison “thin-skinned”. The blog argument now runs to several thousands words, with still no victor in sight.

P.S. I suspect that Rowlands’ loathing of the book is more about my having fought a bull – see photo from my book above – than my ‘love’ of watching it. My aficion, or ‘love’, is actually what is in question throughout the book, something every other reviewer noted. As for the idea that a review could wound me – well, that’s just nice journalism I guess. My actual issues with Rowlands are quite clearly pointed out in our exchange in the letters’ page of the TLS here.

Alexander Fiske-Harrison

The Uses of Cruelty and the “Gentling Effect”

“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, August 1st, 2011

“It’s to Fiske-Harrison’s credit that he never quite gets over his moral qualms about bullfighting.”
Financial Times, June 4th, 2011

“He develops a taste for the whole gruesome spectacle, but what makes the book work is that he never loses his disgust for it.”
Daily Mail, May 26th, 2011

As I got on the plane to the Roman coliseum at Nîmes in France to see the greatest living bullfighter, José Tomás, on Sunday, September 18th, the idea of cruelty was foremost on my mind for obvious reasons. The gladiatorial arena is the birth place of the bullfight, whatever other historical traditions may have partly inspired it or later imposed themselves and moulded it – Minoan bull-dancers, Carthaginian marriage rituals, Mithraic initiation rites, the knightly joust, the circus, flamenco, ballet and the theatre. The gladiator is he who wields the gladius, the ‘sword’. The old name for a matador, ‘killer’, is espada or sword.

(All photos are mine from that day unless otherwise marked.)

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The Bullfight and the Ban (and the Spanish Economy)

El Cid in Seville on Saturday evening
(Photo: Alexander Fiske-Harrison)

The ban on formal Spanish-style bullfights, corridas de toros, in the autonomous region of Catalonia came into de facto effect last night with the final corrida in Barcelona’s great bullring, La Monumental. (The ban, voted for in the regional parliament in July 2010 actually begins in 2012, but the “season” is now over”.) At the time, I was in transit back from another, very different Spanish city, Seville. (Apologies to Fiona Govan at the Daily Telegraph for not available for comment as a result.)

I had flown out to Seville to fight – non-fatally – on a ranch nearby for the cameras of NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams in the US, before going to watch a corrida in the true heartland of bullfighting in Spain, it’s oldest major bullring, La Plaza de Toros de la Real Maestranza de Caballería de Sevilla (1749), then NBC was going to fly on to see 20,000 people pack into the century old Barcelona ring to watch Spain’s greatest matador, José Tomás, perform as the curtain fell on that part of the mundo taurino.

After NBC pulled out due to production problems, I took my girlfriend to the city I now regard as my second home after London and remained safely in the stands.

On Friday night, we saw a mediocre set of bulls of the second rank, fought with courage, determination and a lack of flair and technique by equally second-rank matadores. Given that we were sitting front row in seats generously donated by the bull-breeder Enrique Moreno de la Cova, it left a bad taste in my mouth. If the faena, the final part of each bull’s fight with the muleta or small red cape, has no art, then watching the picador drill his lance twice into each bull less than six feet in front of you can become the dominant visual memory. An evening out with that most garrulous of British aficionados, and the British Prince of Pamplona, Noel Chandler, did much to alleviate this.

Luckily, on Saturday night, we watched the Seville professional- as I think of him – El Cid fight his first bull with a blithe confidence which built up to a complicated brilliance using a sense of timing and grace of movement which I thought he had lost.

El Cid in Seville on Saturday evening
(Photo: Alexander Fiske-Harrison)

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