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 Australian reviews my book: Death in the afternoon revisited by a beginner bullfighter

As an Australian citizen (dual-nationality with my British citizenship), I am very pleased to see that their best-selling national newspaper, The Australian has reviewed my book Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight in this weekend’s edition (online here: Death in the afternoon revisited by a beginner bullfighter | The …).

I think that the author, Matthew Clayfield, who refers heavily to Ernest Hemingway’s Death In The Afternoon as a strongancestral influence to my book has got it largely right – including in his criticisms.) Especially in his line on my ethical misgivings about bullfighting in the book:

While Fiske-Harrison eventually dismisses his qualms, it is difficult to read his final chapter, “La escotada” – the thrust of the matador’s sword – without getting a sense that his year with the bulls has only deepened their mystery. It certainly hasn’t put an end to his concerns. Or, one suspects, his searching for an answer.

I should add here, just to clarify, that despite press reports to the contrary, my talk at Blackwell’s Bookstore in Oxford has not been ‘threatened’ as such, and neither have I with regards to the talk. This was a miscommunication somewhere in the chain, as was the in-hindsight preposterous idea that the Thames Valley Police were aware of this and had failed to act.

I have myself received “death-threats” on this blog and elsewhere – although I have always found that phrase a little melodramatic, as I am neither dead nor feeling in the least threatened. Which is why I delete them, forget them and sleep easy at night. (Well, not quite: I dream, almost constantly, about bulls. My strangest – and most moving – dream about them opening chapter twenty of Into The Arena.)

Anyway, I will be talking at Blackwell’s at 7pm on Thursday, February 9th.

Alexander Fiske-Harrison

The photo of my one and only “bullfight” is enclosed below (Photo: Andy Cooke). A full discussion of the ethics – or lack of – in bullfighting is the next post in this blog.

Mad Bulls and Englishmen by Giles Coren in The Times

This article of Giles Coren’s was originally published in The Times magazine on Boxing Day ’09 where it is still available along with Dominic Elliot’s film of our day bullfighting here. All photos are by Nicolás Haro.

Alexander Fiske-Harrison, the English bullfighter, takes on a ‘vaquilla’ of the Saltillo breed. Inset: with Giles Coren, attending a bullfight in Seville.

Writers and travellers have long been drawn to the drama and romance of the bullfight. Giles Coren is no exception, so when he was contacted out of the blue by the younger brother of his dead best friend, now training to be a bullfighter in Spain, Giles was intrigued. Here he describes his journey into a unique culture of noblemen, peasants and swindlers, all driven by deadly serious dreams of death and glory

I am in a bullring. Not in the seats, in the ring. On the sand. From the relative safety of a wooden barrier with a small room behind it, built into the stone wall, I have seen four vaquillas, young cows, “caped” by one of Spain’s most famous matadors, the son of the first post-Franco prime minister of Spain, Adolfo Suárez Illana, and by Alexander Fiske-Harrison, the younger brother of my best friend at school, who died in an accident the year we left, three months before his 19th birthday. 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.)

Continue reading

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)

Continue reading

Bullfighting is an Art: My Talk at the Oxford & Cambridge Club

I delivered the following talk on the bulls to a packed dining room at the Oxford and Cambridge Club on Pall Mall, London yesterday. I wish I could remember the fascinating questions put afterwards, particularly the one by the philosopher Brendan McLaughlin bringing in schadenfreude and Nietzsche rather neatly. I sold copies of my book Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight afterwards. It can be found at most British bookshops, or purchased at a 50% discount at Amazon by clicking here, or purchased and downloaded even more cheaply as an eBook by clicking here (it includes both the black & white and the colour photos).

Alexander Fiske-Harrison

Like the undergraduate I would like to being this talk with a definition, this is from the Oxford English Dictionary:

Cruel, adjective

From the Middle English, Cruel. Also in French, Cruel, Spanish Cruel, Italian, Crudele, All from the Latin crūdēl-em – morally rough, cruel, from same root as crude.

Primary definition: Of persons: Disposed to inflict suffering; indifferent to or taking pleasure in another’s pain or distress; destitute of kindness or compassion; merciless, pitiless, hard-hearted.

First given use: 1297

Now let me move onto bullfighting.

Now, I can – and have given – various relative defences of bullfighting to Anglo-Saxon audiences (in which loose tribe I count myself), which can be found in detail in Chapter 7 of the book [and with vivid pictures in the transcript of my talk at the Edinburgh Festival – AFH]. I won’t repeat here the horrors of the abattoir, the utterly unnecessary and environmentally damaging habit of eating meat for adult humans, the fact that one fifth of Spain’s wilderness, the dehesa, is owned and maintained by the breeders of the fighting bulls which would surely become more standard farmland were the activity banned, nor the fact that the British don’t seem quite so squeamish about the brutal and real death of animals contained in the output of the BBC Natural History Unit.

Continue reading

Am I a man out of time?

21 May 2011

by Alastair Mabbott

Plagued by conflicting feelings about bullfighting, writer and actor Alexander Fiske-Harrison decided the only way to resolve the issue was to spend a year in Spain immersing himself in bullfighting culture and training alongside professionals, then taking to the ring himself. Before he could conclude the spectacle of the fight might not be worth the life of an innocent creature, he felt he had to understand bullfighting at the deepest level. With Hemingway’s Death In The Afternoon a constantly looming presence, Fiske-Harrison comes across as the kind of devil-may-care Englishman who built an Empire. But is he a man out of time? Does he really have to get into the ring with one of these creatures to decide whether or not it’s barbaric? An informative and breathtaking volume of gonzo journalism.

I enclose this review of my book, Into The Arena (website here). It is overall an excellent review. However, the most interesting line in it is the question, referring to me, “Is he a man out of time?” Continue reading

The League of Cruel Sports

At the same time as the Sunday Telegraph joined the Sunday Times in listing my book Into The Arena as “essential summer reading”, and I was doing what you see in the photo below (more photos here), the animal rights lobby groups have broken their silence and ‘The League Against Cruel Sports’ has put up a review of my book which even contains a complimentary paragraph:

To his credit, Fiske-Harrison does at least acknowledge the morally questionable nature of the bullfight. And the book does contain some interesting explorations of concepts such as fear, bravery and drive.

Alexander Fiske Harrison, far right – red and white jacket – with Torrestrella bull in Pamplona, July 7th 2011 (Photo: REUTERS/Joseba Etxaburu)

Despite this, the rest of their review is riddled with errors from the first sentence:

Alexander Fiske-Harrison spent a year immersing himself in the bullfighting culture of Spain, with the seemingly noble aim of trying to gain a greater understanding of it.

I spent two years in Spain with the bulls. To the last: Continue reading