“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.
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)
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
Yesterday Google opened its page with an image from the Cave of Altamira, the oldest known art, painted on walls deep underground in Cantabria, northern Spain. (I have written about them in more detail in my chapter on the history of the region in the recent book The Bulls Of Pamplona.)
This is the 150th anniversary of the rediscovery of those caves, suitably a wandering hunter, and the institute which manages them has just launched a new exhibition to better educate the people of today about a range of artworks which began 36,000 years ago.
The subject of this art, the first Art – like the subject of the life of its rediscoverer – is the hunt, and Man’s first confrontation with those intertwined concepts of Nature and Death and how we inflict the latter upon the former in order to sustain ourselves against both.
Man kills to live, and thus lives in the shadow of Death, his own and that of others. Our first religious instincts come from here, thus the ritualistic nature of the hunting scenes upon the walls.
The first hunters – like all good hunters today – are humble and venerate the animals they kill, even as they defy their attempts to do the same to us. There is contradiction there, and as there always is when humans encounter contradiction, there is a ritual manner to quieten the troubling questions raised.
So it is an irony that on the same day we celebrate thirty-six millenia of art, a Spanish party of the political extreme, Podemos – the Left in this case – is offering to use that bane of modern populist politics, the referendum, to censor it. In particular one of its more arcane and archaic instantiations, and the one that is most singularly Spanish, bullfighting.
As I have written in these pages before, bullfighting is an English word, not a Spanish one, but is co-opted from its original use as an alternative to bull-baiting, i.e. setting dogs on a tethered animal. La corrida de toros actually translates as ‘the coursing of bulls’ – coursing being to hunt at a run – showing the historic origins of that which is now almost pure art and ritual, an aestheticized rite that ends in a sacrifice.
(N.B. All bullrings are EU-registered slaughterhouses, their products ending in the food-chain, as with all the world’s 1.3 billion cattle)
However, rather than recite my own views once again, or even to give the excellent public riposte of Victorino Martín in the newspaper El Mundo, himself a famed bull-breeder and president of la Fundación del Toro de Lidia, ‘the Foundation of the Fighting Bull’, which includes the perfectly apposite comparison:
One remembers all too well the actions of the Taliban upon the Buddhas of Bamiyan, destroyed because for failure to fit into their moral canon. Pablo Iglesias [leader of Podemos] considers the bulls morally wrong, so he proposes a referendum to end them.
It was precisely to avoid these things that UNESCO approved conventions such as the Cultural Diversity of 2001 and of which Spain is a party, which seeks to protect all cultural expressions against fundamentalisms…and if Podemos is tempted to say that “is that bullfighting is not culture”, UNESCO is already ahead of them, explaining that the only limit when considering when a culture is inadmissible are human rights and fundamental freedoms. I repeat, human rights …
I offer instead the words of someone from the other side of the debate, an author who defines himself as both of the Left and as anti-bullfighting, but who – unlike the narrower political minds of Podemos – took up the Foundation on its offer to at least witness what he stood against. His fascinating essay on his reactions is translated.
So I am out in Cuéllar again at the end of my season of bull-running and what a dark year it has been. Someone was killed just a few days before I went to Pamplona to run – I wrote about it in the preface to the 2015 edition of Fiesta: How To Survive The Bulls Of Pamplona. Despite 16,000 runners, 42 hospitalisations, and 10 gorings, no one died there at least (no one has since the year I first ran in 2009.) However, while I was running bulls in Tafalla and then down the mountain in Falces four people died on other runs in that single weekend.
Now, after running the bulls in San Sebastián de los Reyes, a suburb of Madrid, I have returned here to Cuéllar, in Old Castille, which has the most ancient bull-runs on Earth (they have a letter from a Pope banning priests from participating dated 1215 A.D.) I first came here in 2012 (which I wrote up for the Financial Times) and have been here every year since and even write a thank you letter to the town in the regional newspaper, El Norte de Castilla.
However, for the first time that I know of, indeed the first time anyone can remember, a 66-year-old man was killed at the beginning of the first of the five annual bull-runs (ending Thursday.) I saw that same bull come up the street to me with the man’s blood dripping down its horn. To read on click here.
This week’s edition of ¡Hola! magazine, Spanish parent of Hello! magazine, opens with myself and Sarah in a long feature with the slightly exaggerated headline of “Alexander Fiske-Harrison, the English ‘gentleman’ that one day became an expert on bullfighting” (the edition marked 13 de Mayo, not 6 de Mayo.) To read on – in English – click here…