My column for Taki’s Magazine: ‘Among the Gold and the Gore’

Last night I filed my copy – and I fear as a result missed the birthday party of Don Tristán Ybarra n the feria – about bullfighting and reality television, the corrida and Made In Chelsea for my column in Taki’s magazine. It has been edited, as is always the case. However, this time I prefer the long version, not least as is is not quite so savage to Ollie Locke, whom I know, and his amusing little book, Laid in Chelsea.

Alexander Fiske-Harrison

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Last night, while seated in the La Maestranza bullring of Seville to watch the great matador José Marí Manzanares dance with and dispatch six bulls, I was reminded once again why I became so fascinated by the spectacle we ‘Anglo-Saxons’ incorrectly call bullfighting. (It is not a fight, but a highly structured drama centring on a ritual sacrifice. Nor is it a sport, but is conceived of as an art-form, unique in having a risk of death for the practitioner, but reviewed between the ballet and theatre in the newspapers and spoken of in terms of its aesthetics rather than its athletics.)

My girlfriend, a recent convert but still possessed of strong and valid doubts about the activity, asked what it was amongst the gold and the gore that draws me back to the plaza de toros time and time again. The answer I gave was the absolute reality of the corrida. As an art-form, it represents man’s struggle with death, and how it should be best faced, which is with a striking and elegant defiance. However, it is the only art-form that also is what it represents, which is a man standing alone on the sand with an animal intent on killing him. And kill they do: 533 noted professional toreros have died in the past three centuries, and a far greater number number of less famous ones and amateurs. My first instructor in how to torear, the matador Juan José Padilla, almost joined their ranks two years ago when a bull removed his eye and a chunk of his skull. Needless to say he was back in the ring five months later, sans depth perception, a triumphant return which I covered for GQ magazine here.

I come to Seville whenever I can to see these exceptionally brave men stand in front of these beautiful bulls, the best time of year being now as the town prepares for its annual celebration of the death of winter, the feria de abril, ‘April Fair’. This year I am not here on holiday, but have come to meet with another matador, Cayetano Rivera Ordóñez, about whom I am co-producing and writing a documentary. Cayetano has risen to fame and riches through risking his life in this way, a risk he knows all too well. His father, the matador Paquirri, was killed by a bull when Cayetano was just seven years old.

Whatever one thinks of the ethics of injuring and killing an animal as part of a public spectacle – personally I find it no less reprehensible than killing one at a third the age and after a far worse life for meat I do not medically need to eat – there is an undeniable honour and glamour in earning your status and fortune by dancing with death.

Which is why it stands in such stark contrast to what passes for honour and glamour in my home country of Great Britain. I say this having just attended the book launch of an acquaintance who had brought out his memoirs at the ripe old age of 26. I say memoirs, it is more accurately described as a travelogue of his sexual adventures, something made clear by its title Laid In Chelsea. It is currently at number three in the Sunday Times bestseller list. The reason for this literary success is because the author, Ollie Locke, is famous for being in a reality television show called Made In Chelsea.

Now, I must admit up front my envy at his book sales. My own travelogue Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight didn’t make it onto the bestseller lists, even after it was erroneously but flatteringly shortlisted for the William Hill Sports Book Of The Year Award. (See earlier comments about the corrida not being a sport.)

The fact that having your life filmed and broadcast, and then writing about your carnal exploits, can bring wealth and glory neatly sums up so much that is wrong with modern Britain, a generalisation that extends to our Saxon cousins in the US. Spain may be financially bankrupt, but at least it isn’t morally so.

I should add here that the book is actually quite readable, although that is helped by the fact that I know some of the people in it. Indeed, I’m even related to one of them. The author himself, Ollie Locke, is a witty and charming young man, with the bizarrely marketable talent of being good at being himself. However, he is also the sort of person – I’m sure he won’t mind me remarking on this – that had to have explained to him for an hour why the girl to whom he lost his virginity might not like that event written up and published.

Having the sexual ethics of an alley cat to one side, the reason I cannot watch Made In Chelsea, despite having grown up there and knowing some of the cast, is that no one on it ever does, or has ever done, anything worthy of note. It is a parade of moderately good looking people having rather stilted conversations about one another’s utterly irrelevant and pedestrian personal lives. I know these people and find it unspeakably dull; God knows what anyone else sees in it. Fiction was invented to get away from exactly this sort of tedium.

However, when people use that oxymoronic and false phrase ‘Reality Television’, it is not Made In Chelsea, or Big Brother, or any of those other monstrosities that spring to mind. It is the television footage of Cayetano’s father, being tossed by that bull in 1984, and then the footage afterwards of him in the hospital, fully conscious, reassuring and calming the panicking surgeons as they struggle in vain to stop his life from haemorrhaging out onto the bed sheets where he lay. That was how Paquirri justified his salary and his celebrity, by paying the ultimate price, and facing it with a courage and grace at the end that beggers belief.

That his son – both sons in fact – should follow in his shoes, makes him truly deserving of having his life told as a story, on film and in print. Something Ernest Hemingway felt similarly about when he wrote the articles about Cayetano’s grandfather Antonio Ordóñez that were posthumously published as the book The Dangerous Summer. And when he fictionalised his 1924 encounter with Cayetano’s great grandfather, also called Cayetano, in Pamplona as The Sun Also Rises. Some people are deserving of recognition and others not. The British and American inability to distinguish between them is at the heart of our ethical, and aesthetic decline.

Vocento: “A Gentleman In The Ring”

(Versión original en español aquí.)

A couple of weeks ago the eleven newspapers of the Vocento Group in Spain – El Correo, El Diario Vasco, El Diario Montañés, La Verdad, Ideal, Hoy, Sur, La Rioja, El Norte de Castilla, El Comercio, La Voz de Cádiz, Las Provincias – ran the following interview with me. The only exception was ABC which ran this one a few weeks before.

Alexander Fiske-Harrison

A Gentleman In The Ring

by Francisco Apaolaza

Having crossed through a dimensional portal, suddenly he appears in the bull-run of Cuéllar (Segovia), in an out-and-out race with Spanish fighting bulls, a copy of the Financial Times rolled up in his hand. With each stride, Alexander Fiske-Harrison, English gentleman, writer, actor and reporter for the British press spans the huge distance between his world of the cultural and economic elite of London and the bull-run of Cuéllar with its dust, hooves, horns and shoe leather. This is the story of how one man crossed through the door of these parallel universes and then relayed it in the first person to the most anciest newspaper in the City.

Now, perhaps, the Financial Times will give a respite to the workhorse of Spanish debt and point instead to Spain’s oldest bull-run. Perhaps the best part of the story is the signature on the article. Fiske-Harrison is not the type of tourist who cannot distinguish a cart-ox from a fighting bull, but is an amateur bullfighter whose curious journey began many years ago while search of new cultures and strong sensations. What he found was very far from his life in a grand English family – a line of bankers – with its studies at Oxford, its games of rugby, horses, shooting and the exclusive red and white athletics blazer of Eton College, where Prince William and David Cameron also studied. Continue reading

Alexander Fiske-Harrison in ‘ABC’: “Many foreigners would not spend a cent in Spain without the bulls.”

The Spanish national newspaper ABC ran the following interview with me last week (with photos by Nicolás Haro).

The online version is available here. The beginning translates in a way you would only find in Spain:

Alexander Fiske-Harrison at his book launch in Seville (ABC)

Alexander Fiske-Harrison: “Many foreigners would not spend a cent in Spain without the bulls.”

Interview by Anna Grau

A British Gentleman passionate about the Fiesta, he is an amateur matador (the “bullfighter-philosopher” they call him) and has published a book on the art of bullfighting.

To Alexander Fiske-Harrison in his own country, which is the UK, some call him the “bullfighter-philosopher.” While others send him death threats, since he has gone from being active supporter of animal rights and a student of philosophy and piology in London and Oxford to being a matador in Spain. He is the author of Into the Arena (Profile Books), treatise on Spanish bullfighting for non-believers and foreigners. Many of which, he notes, come to our country intensely attracted to the fiesta nacional… and would swiftly back from where they came if this disappeared.

How to ask this man what he thinks of bullfighting ban in Barcelona? “Since then, the only money I’ve spent there has been to take a taxi from the airport to the train station to go to run with the bulls in Pamplona, a city that invests 4 million Euros each year in the Feria de San Fermín, and gets in return 60 million Euros from tourism.” Clear cut. Continue reading

GQ magazine on the comeback of the bravest bullfighter in Spain: Juan José Padilla

My British GQ article on the comeback of the now one-eyed bullfighter Juan José Padilla is online here. The US edition of GQ sent there own author to interview him afterwards, which was silly, as she hadn’t the first idea about bullfighting – whereas I’ve been doing it since 2009 – nor Padilla and his place in that world – whereas as I had the man as my first teacher. The photo below is of the two of us during one of those lessons. We were both very different men then. He had two eyes…

Fiske-Harrison and Padilla training with a young fighting bull in 2009.

By coincidence, Claire Danes, the beautiful actress on the cover of the issue on which the article appeared is a dear friend whom I thanked in the acknowledgments to the book that came out of those two years in Spain Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight in the first five chapters of which Padilla is so central. So I must thank her once again in the acknowledgments to this article, this time for providing such glamorous packaging.

Padilla is a man of great dignity, aesthetically and internally, but he isn’t exactly pretty. And, as Zed Nelon’s wonderful spread which opens the physical edition of the article shows, he ain’t no cover girl. The photo is in his house, which we went to the day before his comeback ‘fight.’

Please note, should you read the article, that, GQ holds the view, in common with many other publications, that when you pay a writer for his words, you have also bought the right to put words in his mouth.

I, personally, could not write a phrase like “my dread boiled.” (What I actually wrote was “I was worried.”) My dread just doesn’t boil (anymore).

Nor could I have written that the Spanish financial bailout was £80m. I used to work for the Financial Times and know a million from a billion.

Nor did I write the paragraph below, which appeared twice, once as a pull quote. I don’t even really agree with it.

Just so you know. (Bullfighters do not compare bull’s horns to “a Louboutin stilleto”. Ever.)

Anyway, much of the article is mine, and all of Padilla’s words are his own, which on their own would make it worth reading. However, if you come across something in the article that feels wrong, then it probably is, and probably didn’t come from me.

Anyway, if you want to know Padilla’s whole story, and much, much more, read my book Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight. You can purchase it as an eBook via GQ on their website where it tops their recommendation list here. (It was also shortlisted for the William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award, “the world’s richest sports’ writing prize”.)

If you live outside the UK or want it as a physcial book, other options are here.

Alexander Fiske-Harrison

Hemingway’s Fiesta, “condemned to being very good.”

Fiesta-eflyer

Today sees the final performances of the West End show, Hemingway’s Fiesta (The Sun Also Rises). If you have not been to see it, good luck on getting tickets now – I was told by the producer ten days ago that they only had ten tickets left for evenings performances, and a few more for matinées (there is one today.) There’s always a chance: details are here.

I very much like the cast and crew. I first met with them at the best tapas bar in London, Capote y Toros on the Old Brompton Road, to ‘assist’ the production as detailed in The Daily Telegraph.

7 February 2012

by Tim Walker

Curtain also rises

Ernest Hemingway’s granddaughter Mariel will attend the first night of Fiesta (The Sun Also Rises) at the Trafalgar Studios in Whitehall on Thursday night.

The cast of the show, which is based on his first novel, about bullfighting, were given tips on the Spanish “art” by Alexander Fiske-Harrison, an Old Etonian, who trained as a matador.

“I tried to convey the essence of what it is to be a bullfighter,” says Fiske-Harrison, who is courting Antalya Nall-Cain, the daughter of Lord Brocket.

I met them again at the First Night after-party at Boyd’s Bar in the old Grand Hotel and at the same place venue last Friday to listen to their excellent on-stage supporting jazz band Trio Farouche.

So I was, in some ways at least, happy when The Spectator told me they couldn’t fit my review in. The production has had largely excellent reviews, as well as selling out. However, I am most inclined to agree with Michael Billington’s review. It is worth saying that we saw the play the same night, and even discussed it before, during the interval and after. His award of three stars seems about fair, and not just because that was the same number my own last venture on stage got in Billington’s review.

Anyway, given that it is now far too late for any negativity in my piece to have an effect, I hope the producers, director, cast and crew take this in the spirit of honest appraisal it was intended. After all, being “condemned to being merely very good” is still very good, n’est-ce pas?

Alexander Fiske-Harrison

Hemingway & Ordonez padre

From left to right (foreground): Cayetano Ordóñez – ‘Niño de la Palma’, Ernest Hemingway & Cayetano’s son, Antonio Ordóñez

The Sun Is Now Set

I first read Fiesta, Ernest Hemingway’s debut novel published as The Sun Also Rises in the US, in 2008 while researching for a magazine article on bullfighting for Prospect magazine (online here). At the time I was also rehearsing to act in a play I had written in a theatre in London’s West End. Which was why I got talking to another cast of actors in a nearby pub who told me they were ‘workshopping’ a stage adaptation of Fiesta the Old Vic.

The vagaries of a life are strange, and as the scenery came down on my play, and I was once again unemployed, my literary agent suggested I turn my magazine article to a book on bullfighting and so I set of to Spain. During my two years, I went from spectator to participant, briefly becoming a torero myself.

Since publishing that book, Into The Arena, I have returned to Spain many times, sometimes to run with the bulls in Pamplona (as described in The Spectator last July) – often alongside Ernest’s grandson, John Hemingway – sometimes to get back in the training ring (no animals harmed) alongside matadors like the great Cayetano Rivera Ordóñez – great grandson of Cayetano Ordóñez, on whom the matador in Fiesta, Pedro Romero is based. (In fact, the book was originally drafted as a non-fiction short-story under the title ‘Cayetano Ordóñez’.) Continue reading

Capote y Toros, 157 Old Brompton Road, London, SW5

Back when my book, Into The Arena, was published last year the Reuter’s editor Angus MacSwan decided to interview me at a new, bullfighting-themed tapas bar in South Kensington called Capote y Toros (‘cape and bulls’).

All the food was excellent, especially the gambas al ajillo – sizzling prawns in garlic. It also has the largest selection of sherries in London: not only the standard finos, olorosos and amontillados of Jerez de la Frontera and Puerto de Santa María, but also the manzanillas of Sanlucar de Barrameda. CyT is also the only place I have found in London with proper jamón ibérico de bellota – the pata negra name you sometimes hear refers to the distinctive black hooves of the ibérico breed. They import the 5J from the town synonymous with jamón: Jabugo.

So when a production company asked for a good venue in which to talk about bulls, this is where we ended up, under the photos of all the great matadors alive today from Curro Romero to Morante de la Puebla (its name is capote after all.)

While I was there, the restauranteuraficionado Abel Lusa came along to say hello. He recently opened CyT and also owns the more formal tapas restaurant Tendido Cero across the road, and the justly famed Cambio de Tercio a few doors down, a favourite of the likes of Rafa Nadal when he’s in town and most recently graced by the Duchess of Cambridge.

Abel Lusa

(I was meant to eat there with Giles Coren so he could review it along with my book as as follow up to his piece on my training as a bullfighter, but they don’t do lunch, so we went to 34 instead.)

Alexander Fiske-Harrison

The Times: Toreros Through Time, captioned by Alexander Fiske-Harrison

 

Continue reading

Orson Welles on bullfighting as an art

Antonio Ordóñez, Matador of Ronda, and Orson Welles

Since bullfighting has moved from under the auspices of Spain’s Ministry of the Interior to that of the Ministry of Culture, I thought I would give the view of bullfighting as an artform by one of the greatest geniuses in the world of performing arts, Orson Welles, as recounted to the travel writer James Michener.

In case you have forgotten, Welles produced, directed, wrote and starred in Citizen Kane, usually considered the greatest film ever made, aged 25. And in case you didn’t know – i.e. you have not read my book, Into The Arena – seven years before that he briefly trained at as a bullfighter in Seville (as did I). His ashes are enterred at the ranch of his great friend, the matador Antonio Ordóñez (the house now belongs to his grandson, my friend the matador Cayetano Rivera Ordóñez.)

Here, he is describing the greatest of the Seville matadors at the time of the interview. The Seville matador today to whom Curro Romero is most similar today is Morante de la Puebla, whose photo I enclose at the end.

Alexander Fiske-Harrison

 

from Chapter VI: Sevilla

As to the bullfights, one evening I dined with Orson Welles, that scowling giant who in his youth had trained to be a matador, and he said in his rumbling voice, ‘What it comes down to is simple. Either you respect the integrity of the drama the bullring provides or you don’t. If you do respect it, you demand only the catharsis which it is uniquely constructed to give. And once you make this commitment you are no longer interested in the vaudeville of the ring. You don’t give a damn for fancy passes and men kneeling on their knees. There used to be this fraud who bit the tip of the bull’s horn. Very brave and very useless, because it played no part in the essential drama of man against bull. Such tricks cheapen the bull and therefore lessen the tragedy. What you are interested in is the art whereby a man using no tricks reduces a raging bull to his dimensions, and this means that the relationship between the two must always be maintained and even highlighted. The only way this can be achieved is with art.

Curro Romero, Matador of Seville, performs a ‘veronica’

Continue reading

My interview with Cayetano Rivera Ordóñez in ‘The Times’.

Cayetano Rivera Ordoñez (Photo: Nicolás Haro)

Published in the magazine of yesterday’s edition of the Sunday Times is my interview with the extremely simpatico and gifted matador, Cayetano Rivera Ordóñez. On the day of his corrida in Sanlucar de Barrameda, my photographer Nicolás Haro and I went to meet him in his hotel where we spoke for a couple of hours from which these words are extracted.

A Life in the Day: The lord of the bullring

The matador Cayetano Rivera Ordóñez, 32, on his love-hate relationship with the bull

Alexander Fiske-Harrison
Published: 26 July 200

I usually arrive in a town the night before the fight. The day I fight, I don’t put on the alarm clock. It is important not to be tired. Depending on the time, I either get breakfast or I have an early lunch. I cannot eat for four or five hours before the fight, in case I have to have surgery. Matadors have to deal with those little matters. Usually I don’t go out from the hotel room. I’m in my own world, concentrating for the afternoon. I lie back, relax, talk to friends, watch some TV, listen to some music: flamenco, rock’n’roll, depending on how I feel.

When I am training at my family’s house in Ronda, near Malaga, I usually wake up around 9. I go to the gym for a couple of hours, then I practise my moves without the bull at home, what we call toreo de salon, for two hours. We also spend a long time thinking about the bull, because you have to read it: its movements, its speed, the height of its horns when it charges. The bull tells you what you are able to do and what you shouldn’t try, and you have to improvise on this in real time. Continue reading