“He came to Seville, and he is called Manzanares”

Matador José Mari Manzanares dances a ‘chicuelina’ with the 510kg, 4-year, 10-month-old J P Domecq bull ‘Rasguero’ (Photo: Alexander Fiske-Harrison)

Gregorio Corrochano, the bullfighter critic of the influential newspaper, A. B. C., in Madrid, said of him, “Es de Ronda y se llama Cayetano.” He is from Ronda, the cradle of bullfighting, and they call him Cayetano, a great bullfighter’s name; the first name of Cayetano Sanz, the greatest old-time stylist. The phrase went all over Spain.

from Ernest Hemingway’s Death In The Afternoon (1932)

In this year’s Feria de San Miguel in Seville I watched the new hero of that city return to the sand to confirm yet again his supremacy in a mano a mano with another very skilled young matador named Alejandro Talavante.

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Note

From here on in, I shall refer to what we English call a ‘bullfight’ as a corrida de toros (literally ‘coursing of bulls’) or just a corrida, and bullfighters as toreros (lit. ‘those who deal with bulls’). All activities involving bulls in Spain come under the blanket term fiesta de los toros, aka the fiesta brava or fiesta nacional or just the Fiesta, the activity of bullfighting is called tauromaquia – we have the old word tauromachy in English – and the art, technique and style of bullfighthing is called toreo.

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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 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.)

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Orson Welles on bullfighting as an art

Antonio Ordóñez, Matador of Ronda, and Orson Welles

Since bullfighting has moved from under the auspices of Spain’s Ministry of the Interior to that of the Ministry of Culture, I thought I would give the view of bullfighting as an artform by one of the greatest geniuses in the world of performing arts, Orson Welles, as recounted to the travel writer James Michener.

In case you have forgotten, Welles produced, directed, wrote and starred in Citizen Kane, usually considered the greatest film ever made, aged 25. And in case you didn’t know – i.e. you have not read my book, Into The Arena – seven years before that he briefly trained at as a bullfighter in Seville (as did I). His ashes are enterred at the ranch of his great friend, the matador Antonio Ordóñez (the house now belongs to his grandson, my friend the matador Cayetano Rivera Ordóñez.)

Here, he is describing the greatest of the Seville matadors at the time of the interview. The Seville matador today to whom Curro Romero is most similar today is Morante de la Puebla, whose photo I enclose at the end.

Alexander Fiske-Harrison

 

from Chapter VI: Sevilla

As to the bullfights, one evening I dined with Orson Welles, that scowling giant who in his youth had trained to be a matador, and he said in his rumbling voice, ‘What it comes down to is simple. Either you respect the integrity of the drama the bullring provides or you don’t. If you do respect it, you demand only the catharsis which it is uniquely constructed to give. And once you make this commitment you are no longer interested in the vaudeville of the ring. You don’t give a damn for fancy passes and men kneeling on their knees. There used to be this fraud who bit the tip of the bull’s horn. Very brave and very useless, because it played no part in the essential drama of man against bull. Such tricks cheapen the bull and therefore lessen the tragedy. What you are interested in is the art whereby a man using no tricks reduces a raging bull to his dimensions, and this means that the relationship between the two must always be maintained and even highlighted. The only way this can be achieved is with art.

Curro Romero, Matador of Seville, performs a ‘veronica’

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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

An Englishman in Miura country

 

Author with a Miura (Photo: Pepe Sánchez)

As I train with my Maestro, to kill a single bull so I can write the most complete book on bullfighting possible (although abandoning my reputation for neutrality as a writer by getting into the arena) remarkable things happen. It is well known in the bullfighting world that no photography is allowed in the unique rectangular ‘plaza’ of Zahariche, the ranch where the world famous Miura bulls are bred, but that rule was broken for a demonstration for a select group of guests – including my friend Enrique Moreno de la Cova who breeds the equally historic Saltillo bulls. This piece of picture reportage by the photographer Pepe Sánchez can be found in the article ‘An Englishman in Zahariche’ on the website of Spain’s most popular bullfighting programme, Toros para Todos, ‘Bulls for All’, to see it click here. The first images are of Pepe Luis Vázquez, a notable former matador and son of an even greater one. Then comes my Maestro, Eduardo Dávila Miura, a recently retired matador and nephew of the house of Miura. Then the aficionado práctico Pepe González Barba. Followed by myself.

Here is what Hemingway had to say about Miura back in the 1930s.

“These bulls must be fought and killed as rapidly as possible with the minimum of exposure by the man, for they learn more rapidly than the fight ordinarily progresses and become exaggeratedly difficult to work with and kill.

Bulls of this sort are the old caste of fighting bulls raised by the sons of Don Eduardo Miura of Sevilla”

Two of the sons of those sons are below, and their daughter’s son as well…

Eduardo Miura, Author, Antonio Miura and Eduardo Dávila Miura

Animal Rights, Animal Welfare and the love of animals

The author and his first cat

The author and his first cat

Although I have long known that I was going to have to come into direct contact with issues of animal rights and animal welfare, I thought I would hold off for a little while. Then came March 4th. First, I landed in Portugal to read that the town of Viana do Castelo there has banned the bullfight as, “the defence of animal rights is not compatible with spectacles that torture and impose unjustifiable suffering.” Then I opened my mail to find an attack which accused me of “cynical opportunism” combined with a “deep-rooted hatred of living creatures.” A little while later, on the plane back to Spain, I read a passage by a writer whom I regard as something of a moral compass, in which he speaks of his hero Alyosha Karamozov and “all the love for ‘all creatures and all things’ which had concealed itself within his pure, young heart.” Finally, amongst the change I got from my taxi-driver home was a twenty Euro-cent piece with a red sticker on it saying “BULL-FIGHT IS BULLSHIT,” followed by a website address. When I looked it up I came across the website of the Comité Anti Stierenvechten (CAS), a powerful Dutch anti-bullfight lobbying organisation whose campaigns’ manager, Jordi Casamitjana, was interviewed with me on Al-Jazeera UK television and with whom I have exchanged thousands of words on the blog of Prospect magazine. So, all in all, I think I had best make an initial sortie on this subject at least to give people some idea where I am coming from. Continue reading