A Celebration of
The Reform Club and Spain
Thursday 16th May 2013 at 7pm
The evening will commence with a Reception at 7pm, to take place on the Gallery, when members will be invited to enjoy acorn-fed Iberian ham and Gazpacho, served with Gonzalez Byass’s Palo Cortado Leonor sherry. Dinner will be served at 7.30 pm in the Smoking Room, prior to which Father Jorge Boronat will offer Bendecir la mesa.
Musical entertainment will be provided between courses when Isabel Maria Martinez Garrido, guitarist, and Ricard Rovirosa, pianist, will perform some memorable Spanish pieces by, among others, the composers Manuel de Falla and Enrique Granados.
The evening will be further enhanced with an address by Alexander Rupert Fiske-Harrison, renowned academic, writer, broadcaster, and conservationist, who will speak on ‘The British and the Bulls: A History of Love and Hate from Charles I to Churchill and beyond’. Alexander, pictured in the photo, is a sought after speaker whose topic is guaranteed to provide much food for thought.
The Club is honoured that the Spanish Ambassador to London, His Excellency Frederico Trillo-Figueroa, and former Minister of Defence for the Kingdom of Spain, will be present. His Excellency will be accompanied by Mr. Fidel López Álvarez, Minister for Cultural and Scientific Affairs.
Embajada de España en Londres
Oficina de Asuntos Culturales y Científicos
INTRODUCTION OF THE SPEAKER ALEXANDER FISKE-HARRISON
(Reform Club May 16th 2013)
My Lords, Ladies and Gentlemen,
The Reform Club asked the Spanish Embassy to present its best to the assembled guests who include your members of parliament, ministers of cabinet and secretaries of state, and we have. Thanks to their initiative and the support of certain others we all are here tonight enjoying a delicious Spanish dinner, listening to the finest music, and now preparing to listen to our guest speaker.
When the Chairman invited me to look for a speaker I was thinking of someone knowledgeable of both Spanish and British cultures. The task seemed easy, since I had nearly a million Britons living in Spain to choose from, but I finally decided, given the subject in question – bullfighting – on the one person I would call in this tradition truly Anglo-Spanish.
Tonight’s speaker, Alexander Fiske Harrison, is, first of all, son of a Reform Club member and very appropriate for tonight’s speech, because he not only loves his country and Spain too but he’s an Oxford graduate in biology, a London postgraduate in philosophy, a New York trained method actor, a writer and a journalist, a runner before Pamplona’s bulls and even a torero!
In the summer of 2008 Alexander Fiske Harrison was acting in a play two streets from this very club, in the West End, which he had also written. In his own words, that play went so “well” that he decided to give up the stage for the sand of the bullring and moved to Spain to write about the – for him – alien world of the Spanish fighting bulls.
By the spring of 2010, the London Times was calling him “the bullfighter-philosopher”, even though he had not by that point even fought a bull, only their daughters and their mothers, las vacas!
In 2011, his book Into The Arena was published and was shortlisted for the William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award, even though he wrote in the book, and in the Daily Telegraph on the eve of the prize-giving, that bullfighting is definitely not a sport.
No wonder he did not win.
Tonight we have the opportunity of listening to a real Anglo/Spaniard on his personal experiences in Spain.
The title of his speech is “The British and the Bulls: a history of love and hate from Charles I to Churchill and beyond”.
With you, Don Señor Alexander Fiske Harrison.
Alexander Fiske-Harrison, Palma del Río, Spain, 2010 (Photo: Nicolás Haro)
Su excelencia, my lords, ladies and learnéd gentleman,
When I originally came up with this title, I was told I would be speaking for somewhat longer, so forgive me if this speech seems a little more abrupt and anecdotal than you might have hoped.
Beginning with the most concise and anecdotal description of the views of the British on the bulls I have ever heard, I offer you this: on the day after I published my book Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight, I was in a taxi on my way to be interviewed on the BBC. The driver, on hearing destination, asked what I was going there for. I said I was being interviewed about bullfighting.
“Oh, I can’t be having with that…” said the driver.
“…I know,” I reolied, “it can seem terribly cruel…”
“…no, it’s not that.” He countered.
“What then?” I asked
“My mother always told me never to play with my food.”
This anecdote is the very real frame to all our talk about bullfighting in Britain, but it is so often forgotten.
The debate is not about “animals”, a word which we always associate with our pets, but what we do to things which we kill for food, before we do the killing. The toro bravo, the distinct breed that is the Spanish fighting bull, enters the food chain, although nowadays most of it is not for human consumption. It is too tough. The fighting bull is reared in natural forests and meadows until the age of five, running and combating with his herd mates, building hard muscle.
The 3 million or so cattle we kill in the UK die at eighteen months after largely corralled lives. Of the 35 million they kill in the US, 78% are factory farmed. And the fact is we don’t need to eat meat – vegetarians live longer – we eat it for the flavour, for the pleasure of our palates: these millions are killed for entertainment, just like the six thousand fighting bulls in the rings of Spain last year.
Here you have the first problem with after dinner speaking about bullfighting… it is hard to deal with it lightly. It is a serious thing. The Spanish poet Federico García Lorca, in words paraphrased by Pablo Picasso, went so far as to call it “the last serious thing left in the world today.”
I think it is statements like that which often rouse British scepticism. There is a certain Latin poetic temperament, an operatic emotionality, which thrills to seriousness, to drama, to ritual. And this is found in spades in the world of the bulls. The man who taught me most about bullfighting, the former matador Eduardo Dávila Miura, whose uncles breed the so-called ‘Bulls of Death’, the Miuras, once said to me – “fighting with bulls is like talking to God.”
The British find this sort of talk hyperbole, melodrama. We like our courage discrete, our stiff upper lipped-service to be discharged with a wry smile and a raised eyebrow.
In contrast, the opening sequence of the bullfight is a man, wearing silk and gold, standing erect and still in front of a half ton of charging bull, and bringing the bull past him with the capote, the large cape, in a move called the veronica, named after Saint Veronica, who wiped the face of Christ with a cloth on his way to Golgotha as the bullfighter wipes the face of the bull.
No wonder the British and Spanish can’t see eye to eye on this!
Which brings me to me neatly to my first little historical aside, and a sentence I dared myself to say in this august company: following the unfortunate events of the Spanish Armada…
… and the often forgotten, and equally disastrous, English Armada the following year…
…our two kings, James the First and Philip the Third, agreed on a peace, and as part of that came to a deal by which James’s then second living son, Charles, would marry Philip’s second daughter, Maria Anna.
Plaza Mayor, Madrid
To be brief, Charles’s elder brother died, he became Prince of Wales, and negotiations stalled. So Charles visited Spain incognito in 1623 with his friend the Duke of Buckingham, travelling under the names of Thomas and John Smith, and arriving unannounced, anonymous and in the middle of the night at the door of the house of the British Ambassador, Lord Bristol, in Madrid – rather to his surprise.
The Spanish King was duly informed and so, in the way of Spain, immediately arranged a bullfight in the Plaza Mayor. Here is a near-contemporary account. I begin halfway through.
Therefore, after the three bulls had been killed, and the fourth a coming forth, there appeared four gentlemen in good equipage; not long after a brisk lady, in most gorgeous apparel, attended with persons of quality, and some three or four grooms, walked all along, the square a foot. Astonishment seized upon the beholders, that one of the female sex could assume the unheard boldness of exposing herself to the violence of the most furious beast yet seen, which had overcome, yea, almost killed, two men of great strength, courage, and dexterity. Incontinently the bull rushed towards the corner where the lady and her attendants stood; she, after all had fled, drew forth her dagger very unconcernedly, and thrust it most dexterously into the bull’s neck, having catched hold of his horn; by which stroke, without any more trouble, her design was brought to perfection; after which turning about towards the king’s balcony, she made her obeysance, and withdrew herself in suitable state and gravity.
Sir, did you ever see, or hear, any example to parallel this? Wonderful indeed! that a faint-hearted feeble woman, one would think, should stand in the fields undauntedly, after her attendants had quickly made their escape, yea, and have overcome such a furious creature as that bull was.
I will not conceal the mystery of the matter from you. This person was a man, though in the habit of a woman, of great experience, agility, and resolution, who had been well inured to this hard labour at several other occasions, whom they appointed to be disguised so much the rather, that the Prince of Wales might be the more taken with the thing.
(James Salgado, 1683)
Now, no record exists of Charles’s immediate reaction, but I think we can deduce from the fact that he not only returned to England and demanded we declare war on Spain, but also married a Frenchwoman, that perhaps this bloody show, the climax of which was the revelation that the woman was actually a man all along – a transvestite torero – hadn’t had the desired effect on the Royal guests.
It is hard to see when during the evolution of the bullfight this scene is set. There has been a transition in that history from a knightly jousting of bulls, after which the bull was finished off by a servant of the knight – a man known as the ‘killer’, the matador – to the servant’s metaphorical ascendance over his master, who became his picador.
This climax of this usually located in the 18th century, with Pedro Romero of Ronda, the first matador to bring art to the arena as well as risk.
What does one mean by art? Well, by this point, the corrida de toros had its present structure of three acts. Opening with the matador with the large cape, then the testing of the bulls fortitude and ferocity against the lancer on horseback, the picador, then the display of athleticism which is the placing of the barbed banderilla-sticks, and then finally the dance with the matador ending in the kill, the moment of truth, and the moment of greatest risk to the matador.
That there is risk is undeniable, although courtesy of antibiotics and surgery’s astonishing advances, no bullfighter has died in some years. That said 533 noted matadors, banderilleros, and picadors have died in the past three centuries – and that’s just the noted professionals.
It is during an early phase of the evolution in this deadly “art” – I always think of it as a tragic play with a ritual sacrifice at its heart – that my next character appears, George Gordon Noel, Lord Byron.
In the Childe Harold Pilgrimage, Byron describes a bullfight he’d seen in Cadiz during his Grand Tour in 1809 thus:
Thrice sounds the Clarion; lo! the signal falls,
The den expands, and Expectation mute
Gapes round the silent circle’s peopled walls.
Bounds with one lashing spring the mighty brute,
And, wildly staring, spurns, with sounding foot,
The sand, nor blindly rushes on his foe:
Here, there, he points his threatening front, to suit
His first attack, wide-waving to and fro
His angry tail; red rolls his eye’s dilated glow.
But by the end:
Foil’d, bleeding, breathless, furious to the last,
Full in the centre stands the bull at bay,
Mid wounds, and clinging darts, and lances brast,
And foes disabled in the brutal fray:
And now the Matadores around him play,
Shake the red cloak, and poise the ready brand:
Once more through all he bursts his thundering way —
Vain rage! the mantle quits the cunning hand,
Wraps his fierce eye — ’tis past — he sinks upon the sand!
And Byron’s conclusion ?
Such the ungentle sport that oft invites
The Spanish maid, and cheers the Spanish swain.
Nurtured in blood betimes, his heart delights
In vengeance, gloating on another’s pain.
Now, there is no denying that the bullfight was much bloodier then – 200 years ago exactly – than now, not least with the injury and death of the horses, which has not occurred since the introduction of the peto armoured covering in the 1920s.
However, the heart of the matter is that Lord Byron, was that most British of things – and I include myself as one too – an animal lover. He famously wrote a four verse epitaph to his late dog, Boatswain.
So, having called myself an animal lover, what was my first response to a bullfight? Similar it seems to a member of your club, the novelist Henry James, who wrote two hundred years before I was born:
I ashamed to say I took more kindly to the bullfight than virtue, or even decency, allows. It is beastly, of course, but it is redeemed by an extreme picturesqueness and by a good deal of gallantry and grace on the part of the espada [matador].
I was very lucky in the first bullfight I saw – in 2000 in Seville – as the first matador, in fact a novice, a novillero, called El Fandi, was very good.
This nineteen-year-old Spaniard walked across the ring before the bull had entered, right up to the toril, known as ‘the gates of fear’, and knelt down before them, laying his cape delicately out over his knees. When the gates opened, this was how I described it in my book:
From within the darkness, came a rearing, jolting black head, eyes focused, nostrils flaring, ears forward, a foot and a half of horns tapering to fine points above it. And behind it came a half-ton of pulsing muscle propelling it at a steady twenty-five miles an hour.
Fandi pulled the cape up in a single long smooth movement so it swung out in front of the speeding animal’s eyes, catching their attention, and then spun out to the side of his head, the bull following, finding only empty air with its questing horns.
Fandi smiled. Then he stood up.
Of course, this is a dramatic description of a bravura move and is more about thrill than art, but it had its effect.
Fandi, although popular to this day, has little Art. The real artist on the sand is called José Tomás. This is man who once commanded a million Euros for a single afternoon in Barcelona in 2009, the year before bullfighting was banned there, where he faced six bulls solo. However, it was not the contest that was interesting. It was what he did with them: it was his style.
Within the three acts of this drama, the one the modern Spanish audience reveres most is the last (as, by the way, do the French, and Mexican and South American audiences.) Vivemos en la epocha de la muleta. We live in the epoch of the muleta: the smaller red cape – more a cloth than a cape – which is draped over a wooden stick, and offered to the bull as a lure.
It is by the slow solemn execution of the centuries old dance-book of passes with this cloth that the matador performs his art. By his unmoving rigidity, his tranquillity and the elegance of his gesture, contrasted with the surging, pulsing darkness of horn and muscle that brushes against the fabric of his ‘suit of lights’, he transmits emotion to the audience.
José Tomás in Nîmes, France in 2011 (Photo: Alexander Fiske-Harrison)
Transmission and emotion are the key concepts here, and you will find them endlessly bandied about by the critics in the toros section of the Spanish newspapers among the theatre and opera reviews.
Ernest Hemingway was the probably the first to really come to grips with these ideas, partly because they only came into being the year before he first went to Spain in 1923. They were the invention of the Golden Age of bullfighting, the age of Belmonte and Joselito, until the latter was killed in the ring in 1920.
However, I promised myself that I wouldn’t talk about Hemingway, as he is not British, nor that other great American aficionado Orson Welles, whose ashes lie interred at a matador’s house near Ronda.
Which is fine as my early period of learning about bullfighting was as much influenced by Kenneth Tynan as Hemingway. Tynan, Britain’s greatest theatre critic, and co-founder of the National Theatre with Laurence Olivier, was the first to really make me see what he called “the slow, sad fury of the perfect bullfight.”
It was he who put it so neatly in his book Bull Fever in 1955 when he said,
By profession, I am a drama critic; by conviction, a believer in the abolition of capital punishment; by birth, English. The reader may find it odd that a lover of the mimic deaths of stage tragedy, an enemy of judicial killing, and a native of a country which has immemorially detested those blood sports which involve personal hazard should have succumbed to bull fever, joined the afición, become a friend and apologist of the Spanish bullfight. And indeed it is odd. Or so I thought for many weeks after I saw my first corrida in 1950. But now the bullfight seems to me a logical extension of all the impulses my temperament holds – love of grace and valor, of poise and pride; and, beyond these, the capacity to be exhilarated by mastery of technique. No public spectacle in the world is more technical, offers less to the untaught observer, than a bullfight.
So, after these brief glances at this quintessentially Spanish thing, through different sets of British eyes over the centuries, I thought I’d better end with a man voted Greatest Briton of all time, although how he is viewed in this club, where he was once a member, before resigning exactly a hundred years ago, I do not know.
The story goes like this: a stuffed bull’s head, solid black but with a white v on its forehead, arrived at No. 10 Downing Street in July 1945 with the following inscription.
This bull ‘Perdigon’, which came from my stud, was fought at Valencia by Manolete on the day of Victory. It was most noble in its ferocity and was born with the sign of victory on its brow. I present it to the great Mr. Winston Churchill, who with exemplary valour, nobility and humanity, wrought the victory which will save the world.
And this letter that was sent to Manolete in response that December:
My Dear Sir Manolete:
I have received some time ago the head of a magnificent toro, that was sent to me by the breeder Don José María Escobar. The toro had a distinct letter V in it’s forehead. They say that you killed this bull in Valencia on Victory Day.
I would like to thank you and for the generous act & expression of the friendship from Spain. I beg you to accept my best wishes for the happy ending for what must have been a difficult struggle.
One could pass it off as an amusing courtesy, were it not for the fact that when Manolete was killed by a Miura bull two years later, Churchill wrote a letter of condolence to his mother, containing the sentence:
I was moved when I received the noble trophy of your son’s superb skill in the bullring.
[To The Ambassador]
One wonders where, and if His Excellency could find out where, that bull head is today?
P.S. After His Excellency delivered his thanks as a response, The Right Honourable Nick Herbert, M.P. and Minister of State for Police and Criminal Justice, informed me that the bull’s head and letter were both at Chartwell, Churchill’s home.