Juan José Padilla: The Comeback of the Century for the NYCCT

The Comeback of the Century

By Alexander Fiske-Harrison

Editor’s Note: Alexander has been contracted by GQ Magazine for an article about his experiences with Padilla, which is due to be published in August 2012. Material for the GQ article could not be included in this article, as the author notes below.

(Right: Juan José Padilla leaving on shoulders of Adolfo Suárez after his triumphal return in Olivenza)

OF all the gorings I have ever seen on film (I have, gracias a Dios, never seen a bad one in the flesh), the most horrifying is that of the great matadorof corridas duras – the Cyclone of Jerez, Maestro of the Miuras, and adopted son of Pamplona – my first teacher, Juan José Padilla in Zaragoza on October 7th last year. His skull suffered multiple fractures, his left eye lost its sight, that side of his face lost its movement, and his body lost one third of its weight.

So, when I heard he was going to stage a comeback less than six months later in this year’s Feria de Olivenza, I knew I had to be there with him.

Last year I published a book on my two years in the world of the bulls – 2009 as spectator, 2010 as trainee torero ending in my killing a three year old toro de lidia from old Saltillo in Spain – and the first few chapters of Into The Arena describe in detail my time with Juan.

So I knew this story was the epilogue the book was missing. There was also a debt to be paid. Toreros face death and injury in exchange for gold and glory, and Juan had risked himself several times – in a minor way – to save my skin during the research for my book. What success it has had is owed in part to him, although he received no royalties from it. Which is why I got British GQ magazine to commission me to cover his reaparición. My formal interview with Juan before that corrida is thus owned by Condé Nast. However, the rest of that story is all yours…

* * *

I first met the madness, laughter and astonishing courage that is Juan through his good friend, Adolfo Suárez Illana. Adolfo is one of the finest aficionados prácticos practising today, having killed over one hundred full-size bulls puerta cerrada – behind closed doors – and a host more in festivals around Spain.

(The author, Padilla and Suárez on a ranch 2010 by Nicolás Haro )

(It helps when your father is the founding Prime Minister of democratic Spain. It is little known, even in Spain, that Adolfo’s father, now the Duke of Suárez, also fought bulls, although only once in public in the 1959 Festival de los Noveles in the plaza antigua in Ávila – see photo at right – Suárez Family Collection.)

It was actually Adolfo who had pressed Juan to get back in front of animals before 2011 had ended – less than three months after his goring – on December 30th. Juan, unable to eat solid foods, was at the time a mere hundred pounds of sinew hanging on a five foot ten skeleton. The big worries, though, were psychological. Well, that and the loss of half his visual field and his capacity to gauge distances…

So the two of them went to the finca of Fuente Ymbro – the first place I ever caped a vaquilla under their instruction in ’09 – and Juan began with some two year old vaquillas. According to Adolfo everyone was stunned by the total mastery and confidence Juan showed with these snappy little cows which turn on a dime as no toro bravo can. So the breeder Ricardo Gallardo offered Juan a three year old animal to kill. At which Juan turned up his nose and demanded a proper cuatreño, a four year old. This Juan caped and dispatched with exactly the same he always had on a ranch in the past.

I should add here that to see Juan torear ‘on the ranch’ is a very different experience to seeing him do so in public. There is no tremendismo and, as a result, his action is wonderfully smooth, the linkage of his passes better, and the ‘running of the hand’ more controlled and longer. For a long time I couldn’t understand this until Adolfo explained to me that Juan is actually very shy. Not among old friends, not with bulls, and not after drinking rum.

(The author, Padilla and flamenco dancer Antonio ‘El Pipa’ after much rum in Padilla’s house 2009 by Nicolás Haro)

However, as a result, in the plaza de toros under the watchful eyes of thousands, he has developed amask of bravado to hide behind – which explains some of the more exciting points of his style – but he still has too much adrenaline, which explains the constant movement, the shorter passes, the incessant cutting into the bull’s terrain and failure to let the animal – and in theatrical terms, ‘the moment’ – breathe.

Since the first time I ever saw Juan’s toreo – in 2009 – was from the burladero at Los Alburejos with Álvaro Domecq’s Torrestrellas, then from the sand next to him in Miravalles with Félix and Enrique Moreno de la Cova’s Saltillos, when I finally saw him in public, I was quite shocked at the difference.

(Left: The author and Padilla in Los Alburejos 2009 by Nicolás Haro)

(Right: Finito de Córdoba and Padilla teach AFH in Miravalles 2009 by Nicolás Haro)

Returning to 2011: after this breakthrough, Juan went on to killed a dozen or so bulls in the campo, including on the ranch of Ana Romero, the breeder whose bull almost took away his livelihood and life. Aficionados seldom want to admit this in public – but the honest ones do in private – but there is often a darkness in the heart of those who kill, and those who regularly kill bulls with swords are no exception. Which is why I will not comment on Juan’s need to not only wear the suit of lights in which he was gored that day, but to demand to kill a bull from the same mother and father as the one which nearly killed him.

It was a fortnight after Fuente Ymbro that Juan went public, announcing his reappearance at Olivenza. The Spanish press went to town, running story after story with the subtext that Juan was emblematic of the fiesta brava itself, his wounding in Zaragoza coming so soon after the ban on corridas in Catalonia came into de facto effect. His return with the opening feria of the temporada was perfectly designed to show the world that bullfighting was bloodied by Barcelona but unbowed. They even detailed the suit he was to wear, from Justo Algaba in Madrid: its green representing Spring and rebirth, and embroidered with the laurel leaves so associated with ancient Rome.

(It was Adolfo who pointed out to me after Olivenza that the press had got the symbolism on this one wrong: Juan was not claiming a Roman Emperor’s laurel wreath here, nor even that of a triumphant gladiator. The original laurel wreath was given to surviving gladiators as a restorative, to be taken as an infusion to heal wounds. Juan later confirmed this, although he has said other things since. The symbolism was that of injured warrior, not conquering hero. Justo Algaba’s brother Pedro in Seville, who has also made trajes for Juan and I have never heard Pedro speak so highly – in personal terms – of a torero as he does of Juan, which explains why he was to be seen in Olivenza as well.)

* * *

Juan invited me to his house just before the corrida, so with a day to kill I called up Álvaro Núñez Benjumea – who runs his father Joaquin Núñez del Cuvillo’s ranch – and asked if I could see the bulls for Olivenza. Although I had not met Álvaro before, I knew his sister Tilda well and had faced his brother Curro’s cattle in Portugal in 2010 under the tutelage of my Maestro Eduardo Dávila Miura. (They were infinitely preferable to the ‘minotaurs’ Eduardo used to drag me to face at his family ranch Zahariche with alarming regularity, much to the amusement of his uncles, Eduardo and Antonio Miura.)

After taking me round the paddock to see the bulls – they looked fine – Álvaro suggested I stick around to watch the tienta he had on that day. I asked who the Maestro was, and he answered José Marí Manzanares. Which, given his historic indulto in Seville last year, was not an opportunity I was going to pass up.

There are many things that stuck in my mind from that tentadero. One was quite how personable and gracious Manzanares hijo is. I mean real, come-up-and-shake-your-hand before and after the event polite. (Which made me regret short-changing him in my book, although in my defence, I do think his style has developed considerably since then. Something proved to me in this year’s April Fair in Seville when he took four ears and the Gate of the Prince again, a thing of beauty which I witnessed a few rows in front of that Prince of Pamplona, Joe Distler, who introduced me to your President, who invited me to write this piece for you.)

(The author and his father – circled left- watching José Marí Manzanares, padre y hijo, in La Maestranza, Seville, 2012 by Guy Walters)

The second abiding memory was a side-effect of that graciousness. Manzanares spent over half his time at El Grullo giving tuition to a class from a nearby taurine school who took on the vacas after he had tested them for Álvaro.

At the top of his game, Manzanares had apparently decided that burladeros are only needed by mere mortals and simply stood in the ring chain-smoking and chatting about the animals to Álvaro through the breeders viewing-slot onto the plaza de tienta. One young man, determined to show his hero that he too could ‘run the hand’, overextended the pass before turning his wrist so the vaca kept going, and it ended up cantering, horns lowered, at Manzanares.

The Maestro, with neither capote nor muleta to hand, gave his cigarette to Álvaro, rubbed his hands together while gauging the charge and then did a standing two-footed jump, recortador-style, clean over the animal. Then he calmly picked up where he left off – both cigarette and conversation – as his banderillero Curro Javier took the vaca away with a capote. Now, I’ve seen a fair few top level toreros in the plaza de tienta, but not only have I never seen one do anything like that, I cannot even image them doing that. And it’s not like Manzanares has a recortador background.

The next day I went to Juan’s house in Sanlúcar de Barrameda. For fear of breaching my contract with GQ magazine, there isn’t much I can say other than his home is suitably called Puerta Gayola, and you can read about my first visit there in Into The Arena.

(The author and Padilla at Padilla’s home, 2012, by Zed Nelson)

One thing I can say is that he was worryingly thin, reassuringly confident, and as devoutly religious and unnervingly fidgety as I remember him – no man needs to alter sofa cushions and light switches that often. His young children, Paloma and Martín, had grown large enough to make me feel old – Paloma made a good stab at translating a passage from my book on her father into Spanish – while his beautiful wife Lydia looked a little more careworn than her years alone explain.

I would also later learn that Juan could still not eat solid food, that he had permanent tinnitus depriving him of sleep, and that he had made the mistake of foregoing his montera in training, an omission which caused him agony in the ring in Olivenza as it rested directly one of the dozen tiny titanium plates that now held his skull together. (When I heard Juan had an operation to have that plate removed after Olivenza, I wondered if he wasn’t having surgery just so he could still fit his remarkable collection of hats.)

* * *

The next day up in Olivenza the atmosphere was unnerving. I’d arrived at the Hotel Heredero the night before the corrida and met up that other Prince of Pamplona, Noel Chandler, along with various members of the Club Taurino of London. The concern for Juan’s wellbeing was tangible, and not just among aficionados. That night I also met up with Cayetano – who I am working on a documentary with – and he seemed more worried about and interested in Juan than his own corridaof Zalduendos alongside Ponce and Ferrera the next morning.

Cayetano’s corrida having passed without incident – good or bad – I saw Juan briefly on arrival and left him to dress with Adolfo and Ponce in attendance.

* * *

At the plaza, the sense of excitement and fear in the tendidos was like nothing I had ever felt. It was a cold night, but we were so packed together in the sold-out stadium that I was sweating. Juan’s arrival in the ring was greeted by a standing ovation, followed by chants of “tor-er-o”, and that was just for turning up. This was something Juan judiciously downplayed, not least with the man-of-the-moment Manzanares and the artistic genius that is Morante de la Puebla to his left.

(It is notable that Manzanares has signed to fight so many of this year’s corridas alongside Juan. Morante, a family friend of Juan’s, has fought alongside him many times, including both in the plaza with muletas on the same bull.)

(The author and Padilla, by Paloma de Santa Coloma)

The bull, Trapajoso No.53, a negro of 480kg, came in hesitantly. The peones got him to criss-cross the ring with capote flicks from behind the planks until he started chopping up a burladero in earnest.

Juan stepped out and began with a couple of preliminary passes with one knee bent like a lunging fencer, keeping the bull at a distance, and you could tell he was studying the bull in exactly the same way the audience was studying him – for capacity and disposition, strength and weakness.

Decisions made, Juan took his stand and gave three sound verónicas. With each pass the crowd shouted olé, and he followed with the media and the walk away. His second tanda was similarly technically proficient. However, the effect was electric.

At this point I realised that it was going to be all but impossible to objectively judge how good this performance was, personal relationships aside: everyone was simply amazed he could do it all.

Then picador did his job, neither notably well nor badly, and the crowd asked themselves one of the biggest questions of the evening: would the lidiador Juan place his own banderillas? Since it involves calculating intersecting geometries on the run, how is it possible with only one eye, especially given that he had nearly died doing it with two?

However, do them he did – two al cuarteo and the last al violín – and all to the music of the brass band and a crescendo of applause for each pair placed, their blue and white papers fluttering in his the colours of Jerez de la Frontera. (I did note one change, which was the careful choreography so he always ended his run with two of his cuadrilla cutting between him and the bull with capotes after the sticks were in. Before, Padilla wouldn’t have let them into the ring.)

Entering for the tercio de la muerte, Juan summoned two men over from the callejón whom I recognised from one of his interviews. They were the two surgeons who had put back together the organs and bones of his life. He dedicated the bull to them, embraced them both, and then walked out onto the sand.

His derechazos were again good and pure. Not as long as one might like, but still excellent, midway between Fandi and Tomás. However, the image that stayed with you was of a man with an eye patch standing implacably upright besieged by a plunging and furious toro bravo. (As he said to me with a bizarre pride, “I may not be the first torero with one eye, but I am the first with an eye patch.”)

The bull, which had nobility but no stamina, rapidly came to the end of its wind and Juan accepted this with a resignation and grace many other toreros could learn from and killed well and cleanly with a well-placed media estocada..

The crowd were on their feet before the bull had hit the dust, white handkerchiefs out, petitioning the president of the plaza for a trophy for their hero, who had not so much earned an ear as gallantly failed to lose it.

The next two bulls were fought by Manzanares and Morante, and fought well, although like Juan’s bull they seemed to lack a little something in aggression and stamina. In a nice adorno de afición, each matador dedicated his bull to Juan.

When Juan entered the ring for the second time – again, as he told me afterwards – he knew he had won back the trust, and had lost the pity, of the audience. So, now he had to show them what he could really do. His second bull, Reposado No, 118 a colorao y chorreado, was faster and lighter – in weight and colour – and Juan walked into the middle of its charge with the capote and dropped to his knees for a signature larga cambiada de rodillas. In a single, simple and incontrovertible taurine gesture Juan had said, “I’m back!”

Then, as the bull turned to find him, he rose to his feet and began a series of four perfect veronicas, followed by three walking chicuelinas, before finishing with media verónica and then a spinning and apparently spontaneously created remate which, if it has a name, I do not know it. This was, quite frankly, better than anything I had ever seen Juan do before. The audiences fear and sympathy was now replaced with pride and exultation.

After the picador Juan took his first set of banderillas and invited the other two matadors to join him so they could each place a pair alongside him. Morante de la Puebla does this very rarely and Manzanares almost never. You could see Juan ask him if he was okay with it and Manzanares smiling say he had no idea (Adolfo, who was in the callejón, later told me Manzanares actually said he hadn’t done it “since school”.) And yet each one of them placed their pair brilliantly, with Juan inevitably the best, the closest to the horns.

He then invited his elderly father into the ring. Padilla padre, a baker to whom his son was apprenticed when young, once told me of his own foray into the ring: “I heard the breath of the bull in the ring, just the breath, and I said f*** this for a job and went back to baking.”

Juan dedicated the bull to him. They embraced, clearly emotional, Juan’s forehead against his father’s tearful face as he spoke rapidly and quietly. His words to his nine-year-old daughter Paloma, though, were clear enough as she sat barrera with Adolfo’s wife Isabel in the front row of the audience: “I love you.” (Juan’s wife Lydia was back at the hotel, unable to face watching, sat dreading a phone call like the last time he had gone “to work”. Their son, Martín, too young to understand was at home in Sanlúcar.)

Juan then walked into the ring and gave people an exhibition of the matador he had become. Although it included much of his trademark toreo de desplante, he seemed to have developed a more understated style which better suited these smoother animals. He took the bull through a catalogue of passes – including a tanda which began with a molinete and then danced the compass with derechazos en redondo with the band in blazing accompaniment. His mastery, though, was finally shown on a mistimed pase de pecho which ended with the bull taking the muleta from his hands. Despite a nervous cuadrilla – and audience – Juan merely stood unarmed before the bull, front leg bent towards it, jacket held open to bare his chest to the horns.

(Right: Padilla in Pamplona 2011 by the author)

This time he killed on the second attempt, losing the second ear to a pinchazo caused by the error of trying to time his entry to the cante jondo of an audience member who had come all the way from Jerez to sing flamencofor his friend (as, notably, had the finest bull-runners from his other taurine home, Pamplona.)

We watched the other two matadors fight and they did beautiful things: Morante with his exquisitely nonchalant trincherazos discarding the bull at his feet, Manazanares killing recibiendo with a confidence no one has outside of Ernest Hemingway’s fictions.

However, it was Juan alone who was swept up on to the shoulders of the crowd and toured the ring. At least, at first I thought it was the crowd, and then I saw it was actually Adolfo, then El Juli, then Serafín Marín and all the other toreros like Perera, Tato and Javier Solís who had been watching hidden from view in the callejón.

That night, an entire profession seemed to be holding Padilla up in the air so an entire nation could applaud him.

As Noel Chandler, usually so immovable in his wise and well-travelled afición, said afterwards in the bar: “Alexander, I had tears in my eyes.” And so did I.

(Padilla went onto to great triumphs – 4 ears and shoulders – in the plazas of Arles and Jerez, among others, but sadly took no trophies in the Feria de Abril, and did not appear in San Isidro, at least not in the ring. He will, however, being appearing in Pamplonain the final corrida on July 14th with El Juli y Daniel Luque and bulls of Torrehandilla y Torreherberos.)

(Left:Suárez and Padilla in Las Ventas 2012)

*********************************************************

Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight is published in the UK by Profile Books and is available from all major British bookshops and online from Amazon or Amazon UK, also as an eBook.

©Alexander Fiske-Harrison 11 June 2012

(Above: Padilla with 700 kg Miura in Pamplona 2011 by the author)

The text of my speech at the University of Seville on ‘Into The Arena’

(In the original Spanish here.)

Last Friday, before the opening of the Feria de Abril here in Seville, I gave a conference on my two perspectives on bullfighting: from far away – England – and far too close – the sand of the bullring.

It was a great honour to talk in the main lecture theatre in the antique Royal Tobacco Factory of Seville, the setting for Bizet’s Carmen among other things (which was in turn based on the novella of that name by Prosper Mérimée.)

The speech was particularly well-received. Rafael Peralta, a poet, author and amateur bullfighter from a great family of bull-breeders and rejoneadors – horseback bullfighters – had the following to say about it in the newspaper La Razón, ‘The Reason’ (my translation):

An Englishman in the arena; by Rafael Peralta Revuelta

This past Easter Sunday, a British diplomat, Lord Tristan Garel-Jones, made a defense of bullfighting from the lectern of the Lope de Vega theatre in the classic Pregón Taurino, ‘Taurine Proclamation’, of the Royal Maestranza of Seville. Bullfighting has always appealed in one way or another to the English. For some, it is a show that, far from their Anglo-Saxon culture, they describe as barbaric. For others it may mean something curious, full of mystery and romance. Such was the case of Joseph William Forbes, a boxing manager who every summer went to Spain for his own particular taurine “tournament”. As do the members of the Club Taurino of London, who every year visit our city to attend the bullfights of the April Fair. Alexander Fiske-Harrison is an English writer and actor, whom we find at the entrance of the Plaza de Toros. Several years ago now, he began to have contact with the world of bullfighting, with the help of family and close friends. Little by little, he went deeper into the secrets of the world of the bulls. He became an amateur bullfighter, fighting on the ranch “Zahariche” of the Miuras, and arrived at the point of killing a Saltillo bull on the ranch of the Moreno de la Cova family. He became friends with bull-breeders, with bullfighters like Juan José Padilla and Adolfo Suárez Illana. His experiences are contained in the book Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight. As a philosopher and writer specializing in analyzing the behavior of animals, he recognized in England that there is a lot of hypocrisy about bullfighting. Last week gave a lecture at the University of Seville, explaining his vision of bullfighting. Fiske-Harrison opens a new door, fundamental and necessary, to the Fiesta Brava in Anglo-Saxon culture.

I enclose the text of my speech below. The text of Lord Garel-Jones’s Pregón Taurino, which he has kindly provided to me in English (his speech, like mine, was delivered in Spanish), is viewable as a PDF by clicking here: El Pregón Taurino de Lord Tristan Garel-Jones – English. I will finish by saying how happy I am that after leaving a lecture like this, the entire audience went to the Seville bullring, La Plaza de Toros de la Real Maestranza de Caballería de Sevilla (in whose 250-year-old library, Into The Arena is the only book in English). There we saw the very essence of what I was talking about in terms of beauty in the toreo of José Mari Manzanares who cut four ears and left on the shoulders of the crowd through the Gate of the Prince. (We met in the training ring a month ago.) I must also mention the astonishing valour of the now one-eyed Juan José Padilla.

In the photo below, by the historian and author Guy Walters who was sitting with my mother and my girlfriend, you can see Manzanares embracing his father, a former matador of great note. Circled left are myself and my own father, in seats generously provided by Enrique Moreno de la Cova and Cristina Ybarra. Leaning on the planks in the foreground is Padilla.

“Into The Arena”: The bullfight as lived by an Englishman

Ladies and Gentleman,

You will forgive me but in the eighteen months since I completed the research for my book I have forgotten as much of my Spanish as I have of my bullfighting – as a little bull of Astolfi discovered to his delight a week ago. However, I hope that more language remains than my technique of tauromachy and that I walk away with fewer bruises!

First, I would like to thank the University of Seville – and especially Jose Luis and Antonio and their Forum of Analysis for inviting me, an Englishman, to speak about my perspective on the bulls. I was going to say that this is a rare honour indeed, until I read in the newspaper that my fellow Briton, Lord Tristan Garel-Jones, was doing just that two weeks ago. I would like to say it doesn’t count, because he is Welsh and not English, but then I might offend my dear friend and deep aficionado Noel Chandler who is here today. Also, since Lord Garel-Jones’s talk was the annual Pregón Taurino of La Maestranza, and it was delivered with such eloquence, I must doff my cap, and have provided a copy of it courtesy of its author.

So I am now faced with the problem many matadors have in facing a bull immediately after a colleague has taken two ears. Continue reading

For those that missed it: The return of Juan José Padilla to the bullring in Olivenza.

 

YouTube video below:

Alexander Fiske-Harrison

The matador Juan José Padilla triumphs

Juan José Padilla tours the ring in triumph on the shoulders of our friend Adolfo Suárez Illana (click to enlarge)

Juan José Padilla is a Spanish matador whose generosity of time, spirit and courage allowed much of my book, Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight, to exist (click here to purchase at Amazon UK, and here for Amazon US). And, without him, as many critics pointed out, it certainly have been as widely praised as it was (nor shortlisted for Sports Book Of The Year 2011, I suspect.)

Juan José was the first matador I met in Spain. It was he who took me to my first training session with cattle at the ranch of Álvaro Domecq, ‘Los Alburejos’ (and then onto his own nightclub ‘La Lola’ in Jerez de la Frontera afterwards). This – including the club – forms chapter three of the book. He was also with my when I first entered the ring myself at the ranch of Fuente Ymbro (chapter four), and much, much more besides.

So, when I heard about his horrific goring, detailed in the post here, in which he lost his left eye I knew that I had to be present when he inevitably returned to the ring.

However, no amount of confidence inspired by Juan José’s words when I visited him at home two days before the fight, nor seeing the calm beauty of the bulls in their natural wilderness the day before that, could prepare me for his triumph in the ring, ending with him being carried out on the shoulders not of the crowd as is usual with a great success in the plaza, but on the shoulders of the top matadors of today – who had gathered to watch – and now jockeyed to carry the Maestro themselves.

However, should you wish to know more of Juan José, read Into The Arena, and then go and see him in Valencia on March 16th alongside the No.1 matador in Spain, José María Manzanares or they will both be fighting at my own favourite ring, in Seville at the April Fair, on the 20th and again, with his old friend Fandi (the technical no .1 in Spain) and El Cordobés on the 28th (you can buy tickets here). I would suggest that in Seville those on a budget stay at the Hotel Adriano (website here) next to the bullring, those who want old beauty stay with my friends at the Hotel Las Casas de la Juderia (website here), and those who prefer the boutique, with my friends at the Hotel Corral del Rey (website here). Direct flights from London are by Ryanair and Easyjet.

Alexander Fiske-Harrison

Juan José Padilla with his capote (Photo: Daniel Ochoa de Olza / APMore Photos)

The Man of the Moment: Juan José Padilla

Screen capture of interview (videos embedded below)

I have embedded below, in two parts, Canal Sur’s Jesús Quintero interviewing the matador Juan José Padilla – and his wife Lidia at the end of the second part – about his forthcoming return to the ring in Olivenza on March 4th, following his horrific injuries I posted about here. Not for nothing did Continue reading

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

 

Continue reading

Matador Juan José Padilla returns to the ring… and so do I

My friend, the legendary matador Juan José Padilla who is the first four chapters of my book Into The Arena, whose terrible goring last year cost him an eye as detailed here, is confirmed to return to the professional arena in Olivenza, Spain, on the final day of the feria there on Sunday, March 4th.

The matadors who are to accompany him are two of greatest working today. Morante de la Puebla, the Divine Cape, is an artistic genius and a childhood friend of Padillas. The second is José María Manzanares, son of the great matador of the same name, who put in a performace last year which stunned Spain and elevated him to “man of the moment”. Only Julián López – El Juli – and José Tomás also fight at this level.

They will be facing the best bulls in Spain, Núñez del Cuvillo, whose cattle are known for their ferocity and courage (as I have experienced myself). It was one of their bulls, fought by Manzanares, who was pardoned for bravery in Seville last year – the first pardon in that discerning ring in half a century.

I will be at Padilla’s side in training on the ranch – my own return to the ring with cattle – and in the callejón – the bullfighter’s alley – at the plaza de toros itself.

Alexander Fiske-Harrison

Juan José Padilla with a Miura bull, Pamplona 2011 (Photo: AFH personal collection)

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

The unedited version of my article for the Daily Telegraph on why I shouldn’t win the Bookie Prize

My article about bullfighting and my book, Into The Arena, appeared in the Daily Telegraph yesterday (online here). However, it was edited to two-thirds of its original length, mainly to save money on photos it would seem. Here is the original.

Alexander Fiske-Harrison

Why I shouldn’t win the ‘Bookie’ Prize

Alexander Fiske-Harrison, on why his shortlisted book Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight should not win the William Hill Sports Book Of The Year Award 2011

A life and death matter: Alexander Fiske-Harrison (far right) running with the bulls in Pamplona, Spain Photo: Reuters /Joseba Etxaburu

When my publisher told me that my book was longlisted for a sports writing prize sponsored by William Hill – the Bookie Prize as it is known – I smiled a cynical smile. Controversy equals publicity, I thought, and this little gambit had a timely ring to it, given that it came less than a week after the Barcelona bullring had its last ever fight before a Catalonia wide ban on the activity came into force. Something often reported here as “Bullfighting Dies In Spain”, even though of the thousand bullfights a year, less than a dozen were held there.

In Spain itself bullfighting is written about in the cultural pages of the newspapers, not their sporting section and 2011 not only saw its regulation transferred from the Ministry of the Interior to that of Culture, but over the border in France it was placed on the list of the “cultural patrimonies” making it effectively unbannable. (French bullfights are mainly in the south, most notably in the restored Roman colisea of Arles and Nîmes.) Even Ernest Hemingway, the most famous writer on the subject in English wrote in Death In The Afternoon: “The bullfight is not a sport.”

Ernest Hemingway and the matador Antonio Ordóñez

So, whilst grateful for the nod, I didn’t think any more of it. However, when I found myself on the shortlist of just seven books, I wondered to myself what I would say if I received the prize and was then asked the inevitable question, “is it even a sport?” Continue reading

The Great Pamplona Bullrunner, Joe Distler, reviews my book ‘Into The Arena’

Joe Distler, known as the “Iron Man” of Pamplona, has run every Pamplona bull-run for 44 years and been the subject of countless articles and documentaries. He is without doubt, question or challenge the greatest American runner of the bulls.

The latest issue of La Busca, the journal of the association “Taurine Bibliophiles of America” contains this review he wrote of my book Into The Arena: The World of the Spanish Bullfight.

Joe Distler (Photo: Gerry Dawes)

In 1967, in the Strand Bookstore in Manhattan, I walked down the wrong isle heading for the fiction section and that brief misstep would change my life forever. There, lying in wait, was a copy of Robert Daley’s book, The Swords of Spain. Since Spain was always a place I had desired to visit, I picked up the book and the very first page I turned to had photographs of men running in front of Bulls. I was enraptured. Reading Hemingway had never really interested me in Pamplona’s “encierro” but Daley’s book completely freaked me out. It was, being a used copy, the best five dollar investment I have ever made! Not only did it convince me I must go to Pamplona immediately, it led to my friendships with Matt Carney, John Fulton, Muriel Feiner, Barnaby Conrad, Bill Lyon and a host of other fabulous characters who would go on to fill my life with wonder and joy.

Matt Carney & Joe Distler by John Fulton

Every year, before going to Spain, I still go back to Daley. The book is as fresh today as it was when I first read it standing in the stacks so many years ago. His vignette ‘Spanish Springtime’ still brings tears to my eyes and I wonder what magic made me find such a book?

Over the years, like so many aficionados, I have amassed a large library of taurine books but none ever affected me the way The Swords of Spain did. Not, at least, until recently.

Joe Distler, top right, running in Pamplona

Alexander Fiske-Harrison, top right, running in Pamplona

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