Click here to go to the page for a very different sort of interview on bullfighting…
Click here to go to the page for a very different sort of interview on bullfighting…
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.
I have just released a book, which I edited and co-authored, titled The Bulls Of Pamplona (purchase details and the July 7th post-bull-run Pamplona signing by its authors – 1pm outside Marceliano’s – online here.) Among our list of esteemed authors – including a Hemingway, a Welles, and the finest writers and runners from around the world – there is a foreword “by the Mayor of Pamplona.”
It should be noted that the book has been some time in the making, and when I asked the Spanish Ambassador to the United Kingdom – I had given a speech for him on bullfighting to various notables including British Members of Parliament and Government Ministers, and he did this in return – for some words for the book, he in turn contacted the Ministry of Culture – who regulate the spectacle – who in turn contacted the President of Navarre, the autonomous community of which Pamplona is capital, who in turn contacted the Mayor’s office. The foreword I received back was during the term of office of Enrique Maya. However, given the official channels it came down, it is definitely a foreword by a serving Mayor of Pamplona, written as holder of office, not as private citizen or ex-Mayor.
However, the current Mayor, Joseba Asirón, holds rather different views about the emblematic and iconic Bulls of Pamplona, as anti-taurine organisations like PETA have noted.
Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
(from Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s ‘Ulysses’)
The 36-year-old Basque matador Iván Fandiño was killed by a bull in the ring yesterday in Aire-Sur-L’Adour, near Mont de Marsan, in the Nouvelle-Aquitaine region of southwestern France.
The bull, Provechito No. 53, was born in March 2013 in El Escorial in the province of Madrid, on the well-known as respect ranch of Baltasar Ibán – founded 1920 – whose herd is of the Contreras bloodline – whose origin is the historic Murubé line – with a touch of Domecq – whose origin is the historic Parladé line.
It was the third of six bulls fought that evening, and was actually being fought by the matador Juan del Álamo when Fandiño stepped in to perform a quite upon it – a sequence of artistic manoeuvres with cape done after the bull has faced the mounted picador with his lance.
This is not an uncommon occurrence in the centuries-old scripted sequence of a corrida. The corrida is not a sport, nor a fight (even though I use that English verb as “torear” has no proper translation) – nor thought of, discussed or reviewed in the papers as such. It is a tragic spectacle culminating in a ritual sacrifice.
Fandiño had already been awarded an ear from his own bull, the first of the evening as most senior matador – he became a full matador in 2005 in Bilbao (he was the only Basque matador at the time of his death) – and clearly thought this bull special enough that he could do something to entertain, impress or move the audience with it.
When I first went to a bullfight 17 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, WWF & Greenpeace member and zoology undergraduate. Not an auspicious CV for a future aficionado de 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 breathlessness 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 irregular 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 – a novice level matador de toros bravos – 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 formal, 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 (And Beyond), was published by Mephisto Press in 2017, available 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
As I pack my bags for the encierros – ‘bull-runs’ – of San Sebastián de los Reyes and Cuéllar, I was about to happily announce a new tradition, that of an international Runners’ Breakfast in the latter, the oldest encierros in Spain. Here is how I put it in an article to be published in El Norte de Castilla on Sunday.
As part of this spirit of cooperation between local and foreigner, I have asked the principal pastor, Enrique Bayon Brandi, to join with me in arranging a “breakfast of runners” following a tradition begun in Pamplona by the great runners, and our good friends, Julen Madina and Joe Distler thirty years ago. We hope to bring a new international tradition to the oldest encierro in Spain. As a mark of respect to the bulls and those who work with them, this first will be held in honour of the memory of Victor Barrio and attended by the matador David Mora the morning before he faces the same risks himself with the bulls with which we have just run.
However, I then heard the news that Julen Madina, a mythic runner of bulls, was in a coma in intensive care in San Sebastián having almost drowned in the sea. Only two days before I was messaging him on Facebook to invite him along.
It seems it is my season for tributes to dead friends: I lost a near-sister on September 14th, and a true friend one month later on October 14th. Noel Chandler, though, was a few weeks shy of his 80th birthday, where Antonia Francis died just before her 40th. There is quite a difference.
The Spanish newspapers have been suitably effusive – for example his Pamplona local Diario de Navarra headlined with ‘Welshman Noel Chandler dies, illustrious visitor to the feria of San Fermín’. However, they all seem to have propagated certain errors, starting with his age. Noel died at 79 not 76.
For that reason among others I am pleased not only to include my own memories of Noel, interspersed with a little journalistic research (about, for example, his service in the army), but also an interview he did with the secretary of the Club Taurino of London, David Penton, for their magazine La Divisa in 2013 which I suggested someone should do before it was all forgotten. However, nothing will ever capture the man in full. As even David noted when he forwarded the piece:
I promised to send you… the Lunch with Noel article which you prompted me to do. I hope you think it does him justice. Sadly he asked me to take a number of things out – mostly related to his generosity.
I’ll raise a glass to that.
After the corrida on the final day of my first feria de San Fermín – July 14th, 2009 – a few hours before pobre de mí– when I was… (ahem)… tired and emotional having run with bulls that morning and drunk whatever was handed to me during the day until I had seen them killed very badly that evening, I bumped into a pretty young woman called Ivy Mix – a good name for such a famous bartender – who led me to a bar called Al Capone where in the doorway was standing Noel Chandler.
I had heard of Noel, of course, but in my research for my book Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight I had courteously avoided British and American aficionados as I did not want to inherit non-native prejudices or to see Spain second-hand. (The only reason I had gone to Pamplona was because my first teacher of toreo, Juan José Padilla said he would run with me and his bulls.)
Miss Mix introduced me to Noel saying I was writing a book on the world of the bulls. Noel looked into my eyes – which were a little blurry on the third day of my first Pamplona fiesta – through his own – which were… well, he was ten days into his forty-eighth fiesta – and said:
“What the fuck do you know about bulls?” Continue reading
My article on the extraordinary fatality rate in the encierros, ‘bull-runs’, and other ‘popular’ taurine events this year, and why we continue to participate in them, is in The Telegraph today (to read on click here.)
Over at the bull-running blog The Pamplona Post, I had vowed to write my first proper review for some time of a corrida de toros, the tragic drama culminating in a ritual sacrifice we wrongly call a ‘bullfight’ in English.
I was in Cuéllar in Old Castille, which hosts the most ancient encierros, ‘bull-runs’, in Spain. I have been going to the town to run with the bulls there for a few years, and brought many friends with me along the way. When I first arrived the wasn’t a single foreigner here and I wrote it up Financial Times.
Anyway, the fact that I have returned to the same town, the same hotel in fact – thank you Hostal Mesón San Francisco – for the entire six day Feria de Nuestra Señora del Rosario on the last weekend in August every year says how much I enjoy it. However, this is in part because of the people, the town in both its location – an hour and a half from Madrid – and the dilapidated beauty of its buildings and general ambiance, as well as its unique encierros, of which there are five on consecutive mornings.
However, I have never spoken here about what happens in the plaza de toros, the ‘bull-ring’. This is because I realise how precious the feria is to the locals.
This year, though, I wasn’t only there for the bull-running, although I was in writing on that subject for the Telegraph. I had also brought a group ranging from the BBC to Lore Monnig, President of the New York City Taurino, and so I knew the corrida would be under serious scrutiny as well.
We had dinner with the main matador, Manuel Escribano, the night before, although I was far from at my best having broken my ribs saving children from an escaped bull in the streets earlier that day (almost, real story here.) As the photo shows I’m dosed on red wine, vodka, Tramadol and Oxycodon. Continue reading
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.