The Great Fighting Bulls Of Pamplona

The Breeding of the Toro Bravo

The author running with a prototypical bull of Torrestrella, a cross of the encastes, ‘breeds’, of Juan Pedro Domecq and Núñez, in Pamplona in 2011. (Touching the bulls is illegal. However, as can be seen below, the author was balancing before slipping between this bull and his brother behind him.)

I was recently commissioned by Running Of The Bulls, Inc. – the United States’ largest tour operator to Pamplona for its annual Fiesta de San Fermín – to provide some information for their clients on the bulls themselves.

I was asked for a light, introductory, Hall of Fame of Bulls in Pamplona. However, since I also work with the industry body the Fundación del Toro de Lidia, ‘Foundation of the Fighting Bull’, I took this article more seriously than they expected. As a result, by the time I was halfway through writing I was already several thousand words over my limit…

The full written version is here, minus a series of specially filmed interviews I did for them around the world which are available only on their site, www.runningofthebulls.com.

In it I discuss about a dozen ganaderías, ranches that breed bulls registered under Spanish law as being of the fighting bull ‘race’.

However, there are many, many more. According to the Ministry of Culture’s latest figures, published Spring 2018, there are 1,329 ganaderas de reses de lidia, ‘breeders of fighting cattle’, in their registry.

These supplied the past season’s 1,553 bullfights of all varieties. These include novilladas with novice matadors, rejoneo from horseback and full corridas in which 1,2 or 3 full matadors face 6 full-sized toros bravos, ‘brave bulls’, and various combinations of these types of event.

(These combinations can lead to media confusion. Although there were only 387 pure corridas last year, there were a further 370 events in which at least one matador faced a toro bravo as part of the event.)

These were serviced by the 10,959 licensed bullfighting professionals in Spain, 825 of them being matadors.

And this is all alongside the 17,920 popular festivals involving cattle such as the encierros, ‘bull-runs’, for which Pamplona is famed.

It is a big thing, this mundo de los toros, ‘world of the bulls’. Continue reading

A Referendum on Spanish culture itself: Podemos 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.

The art of the matador José Tomás, regarded by many as not only the most artistic torero alive today, but in history. This photo was taken during a historic corrida in Nîmes, France, in 2012 by Carlos Cazalis, and forms part of his book Sangre de Reyes, ‘Blood of Kings’

(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.

Alexander Fiske-Harrison
Continue reading

Iván Fandiño: We Who Are About To Die Salute You…

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 hierro, ‘iron’ or brand, of the ranch of Baltasar Ibán along with its colours.

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.

July 11, 2013-Pamplona, Spain- Matador Iván Fandiño does a pase de pecho with a bull from the ranch of Torrestrella of Álvaro Domecq (Photo © Jim Hollander / EPA)

Continue reading

Cuéllar: Bullfight Minus Bull Equals Fight

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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.

FT Cuellar article online

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.

Manuel Escribano and Alexander Fiske-Harrison (on Tramadol and Oxycodon for broken ribs, see post here. (Photo: Lore Monnig)

Manuel Escribano and Alexander Fiske-Harrison heavily medicated. Noted young Welsh bull-runner Jordan Tipples is in the background.  (Photo: Lore Monnig)

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

The Huffington Post, Bullfighting and Pamplona

John Hemingway, author and grandson of Ernest, in conversation with Alexander Fiske-Harrison, British author and bullfighter, at Bar Windsor, Pamplona, July 7th 2015, photographed by Cristen Hemingway Jaynes, another of the Nobel Prize-winners grandchildren

John Hemingway, author and grandson of Ernest, in conversation with Alexander Fiske-Harrison, British author and bullfighter, at Bar Windsor, Pamplona, July 7th 2015, photographed by Cristen Hemingway Jaynes, another of the Nobel Prize-winners grandchildren

 

It is nice of The Huffington Post’s editor, Hilary Hanson to give a nod to my book Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight – and to this blog – at the end of her article ‘People Aren’t The Only Ones Getting Hurt At The Running Of The Bulls’. Her final paragraph says,

Proponents of bull runs and bullfighting cite them as joyous cultural events, and dispute that they are frivolously cruel. Alexander Fiske-Harrison, author of Into the Arena: The World of the Spanish Bullfight, argued in a February speech that bulls raised for bullfighting have, on the whole, far better lives than most cattle raised for meat.

However, I would like to quickly point one inaccuracies in the piece whose source should have led to its reporting in a much more questioning light:

The League Against Cruel Sports, a U.K.-based charity, notes that bulls sometimes do not die in the ring immediately, but are merely stabbed repeatedly until they become paralyzed, then are still conscious as their ears and tail are cut off for “trophies.”

This “stabbed repeatedly until they become paralyzed” is in fact an almost surgical severing of the spinal column at the base of the skull which severs both motor neurones – i.e. those which facilitate movement – and sensory neurones – i.e. those which allow any sensation. It is a coup de grace by a skilled executioner with a broad-bladed dagger – the puntillador – of far greater effect (and affect) than the bolt gun which only extremely rarely will destroy enough brain tissue to prevent a feeling portion still connected to a fully functional spine remaining operational for a short while.

I am in Pamplona at the moment running with the bulls and you can read more about it at ‘The Pamplona Post’. If you are on your way, I strongly recommend you read my guide to surviving the experience in Spain’s English-language newspaper, The Local, online here.

Alexander Fiske-Harrison

Fiesta: How To Survive The Bulls Of Pamplona by Fiske-Harrison, Hemingway, Welles… and the Mayor of Pamplona

Out now is the eBook, Fiesta: How To Survive The Bulls Of Pamplona (available on Amazon in all regions – details on website here. ) I edited and contributed to it, as has John Hemingway – Ernest’s grandson, Beatrice Welles – Orson’s daughter, Joe Distler – the greatest ever American bull-runner, Jim Hollander – senior EPA photographer and Pamplona veteran of over 50 years, and four of the greatest Basque and Spanish runners, with over 2,000 bull-runs between them, Julen Madina, Miguel Ángel Eguiluz, Jokin Zuasti and Josechu Lopez (and photos by my old friend Nicolás Haro.)

Of course, you’ll notice the slight Anglo-Spanish imbalance above, so, luckily, Don Enrique Maya, the Mayor of Pamplona since 2011, has just sent me an official ‘Foreword’ to place in the book, making this Fiesta, not just the only guide book of its type, but simply the only guidebook in the English language. I enclose my translation of his Foreword below, for those who have already purchased the eBook (your devices should automatically update with it in the next 24 hours.)

As you can see, the publicity machine has already begun to turn, beginning with the Londoner’s Diary of the Evening Standard below, and SanFermin.com in Pamplona here. Now to finish my articles for The New York Times, Newsweek, hopefully The Toronto Star and, I believe, The Times.

¡Viva San Fermín!

Alexander Fiske-Harrison

evening standard

Alexander Fiske-Harrison’s feeling bullish about some bloody memoirs

Someone hide the red flags. The actor, writer and “bullfighter-philosopher” Alexander Fiske-Harrison has teamed up with John Hemingway — grandson of the novelist and blood-sports enthusiast Ernest — to put together a collection of essays and accounts of the infamous Spanish bull-running festival.

Fiesta: How to Survive the Bulls of Pamplona also includes a brief memoir by the daughter of another famous bullfighting enthusiast — the film director Orson Welles.

“We’re dividing the profits between the five major contributors,” Fiske-Harrison tells The Londoner, “but as photographer Jim Hollander pointed out, he gets the best deal — he’s the only one not running with the bulls in two weeks so may well be the only one around to collect! Although since I’m the editor, he’s going to have to get the money out of my bank account.”

 

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Foreword by the Mayor of Pamplona

Government of Pamplona

The Encierro – the ‘bull-run’ – is rooted deep in the history of Pamplona, where the bulls have, since medieval times, been driven for the evening bullfight from outside the city’s walls to its centre. Over the centuries, the Encierro has grown until it has become a legendary race, combining the weight of a tradition amassed over decades and the universal reach of an international event in the 21st century.

1776 gave us the introduction of fencing on the route of the Encierro; in 1856 the bulls ran for the first time on calle Estafeta; in 1922 the layout we have today was finally settled; in 1974 the start of the race was changed to 8 o’clock in the morning; in 1982 they began live television broadcasts, and this year the Encierro Ordinance has been approved, which regulates the conditions under which the run occurs and establishes appropriate mechanisms to punish (in ways which are minor, serious and very serious) behaviors that are not allowed.

During this time, the Encierro has been built on the work of thousands of people and with the scrupulous respect for a thing as attractive as it is dangerous. Because, as is well recognised in the title of this book, “How to Survive the bulls of Pamplona,” the story of the Encierro is also a hard story, alternating joys and victorious moments with black days in our old festival calendar. In fact, since the San Fermín festival last year, one of the fence posts located in the plaza Consistorial serves as a tribute to the 15 people who have lost their lives on the run, with a caption that reads “To the fallen of the Encierro.”

With all its sharp edges, its beauty, its danger and its difficulties, the Encierro is now a spectacular space, with close to 3,500 runners risking their lives every morning, backed up by first-class support along the entire route and with more than 440 journalists accredited to send their updates to countries in all continents.

However, beyond the importance of the Encierro, the appeal of the fiestas of San Fermín are not just in the legendary run. We have eight and a half days full of joy and fun, and with a festive array composed of more than 400 events, most notably the Chupinazo, Procession and dances of the Giants and Big Heads, that underpin the excellent environment that lives on the streets of Pamplona and serves to renew year after year, the greatness of an long-awaited and heartfelt holiday.

As Mayor of Pamplona it is a great joy to participate in a book like this, especially one aimed at the English-speaking community, because of its commitment to approaching the San Fermín liturgy with respect for the traditions of Pamplona as its roadmap, and valuable testimonies from people who have, over decades, learned how participate in the Encierro with aplomb.

In this sense, I want to take the opportunity afforded to me in this foreword to congratulate Alexander Fiske-Harrison for this story, and all those who took part in this project. I am sure that this work will become a great reference for all lovers of the Encierro beyond our borders, and serve as a source of information for people who want to find out the details that have defined, for centuries, the most famous bull-run in the world.

And finally, a tip. If you have the opportunity to visit, do not hesitate. Pamplona awaits you with open arms and with only two conditions: the desire to have a good time and respect for the city and its traditions.

¡Viva San Fermín!

Don Enrique Maya

Mayor of Pamplona – 2011 to present day

With thanks to Doña Yolanda Barcina, President of the Government of Navarre.
Govenment of Navarra
And to His Excellency, Federico Trillo-Figueroa Martínez-Conde, Ambassador from the Kingdom of Spain to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and El Señor Fidel López Álvarez, Minister-Counsellor for Cultural Affairs.

Government of Spain

 

Back to School

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A fortnight ago I accepted, a prize from the most ancient encierros, ‘bull-runs’, in all of Spain, those of the town of Cuéllar in Old Castille.

Earlier that same day I nearly died while running with those bulls. The bull in the photo-detail below was suelto – ‘loose’, alone – and had come to halt facing away from me. So I seized what I thought was a chance and tried to pass it in the narrow street.

At the exact same moment another runner tried the same thing, coming from the opposite direction. When we collided, both of us with eyes only for the bull, he was bounced clear to safety while I lost my footing on the slippery street at the very instant the bull caught sight of our movement in its peripheral vision and charged across the street. It ground to a halt on its hooves as I struggled to get upright, my back against the fence that protects the spectators on the pavement.

In this moment – which lasted as infinitely long as all the novelists, journalists and diarists of near-death say it does – I stood so still as to render myself invisible to the bull whose horn points were paused either side of my chest.

Continue reading

The Pamplona Post: A Paean to Pamplona

This is the full version of what I submitted for my regular column ‘By The Sword’ in Taki’s Magazine. As you can see here, about half was cut, leaving only a narcissistic skeleton, rather than the other people, which is what Fiesta is all about. (I forget whether it was Stephen Ibarra or Rick Musica, those pillars of Pamplona, who said that if they took the bulls away from the feria, but kept the people, they’d still come, but if they took away the people, it wouldn’t be worth it for the bulls alone. Which is why so many of them are mentioned. Those that I could not fit even in this are mentioned in the post-script.)

Noel Chandler & Alexander Fiske-Harrison by David Penton

Noel Chandler & Alexander Fiske-Harrison, Pamplona 2012 (Photo: David Penton)

The great thing is to last and get your work done and see and hear and learn and understand; and write when there is something that you know; and not before; and not too damned much after.
Ernest Hemingway, Death In the Afternoon 1932

In 2009 I first came to Pamplona to run with the bulls to give a first-person perspective to that chapter of my book on the “world of the Spanish bullfight.” I was terrified in that complete and overwhelming way that total ignorance brings, standing on a street corner where a friend had stood for his first time the day before – that was the sum total of advice I had been given – and waiting for death to come.

I comported myself honourably but not brilliantly and did so again two days later before boarding a train to Barcelona and vowing never to come to the city again. The relentless loud, bad music, the all-day drinking by people who clearly hadn’t washed in some time, and the fact that the corridas, ‘the bullfights’ (as I’ve said in this column before, it’s neither a fight nor a sport) were made abysmal by even worse music played by multiple bands in the audience in apparent competition with one another, all combined to set me firmly against in this Navarran Fiesta. The place seemed crude, cruel and uncouth compared to the sun-blasted, deathless dignity of Andalusia where my aficion for the bulls was formed.

Then, two years later, after the book came out, a Reuters journalist called Angus MacSwan asked to interview me. By then I had been worn smooth and glib by endlessly justifying the ritual injuring and killing of animals in the ring and so was surprised when he told me outright that he liked the book but that I was wrong about one thing: Pamplona… Read on at The Pamplona Post by clicking here.

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Alexander Fiske-Harrison

My Speech on the bulls before the Spanish Ambassador at the Reform Club

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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 actor, 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 will be present. His Excellency will be accompanied by Mr. Fidel López Álvarez, Minister for Cultural and Scientific Affairs.

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Embajada de España en Londres

Oficina de Asuntos Culturales y Científicos

INTRODUCTION OF THE SPEAKER ALEXANDER FISKE-HARRISON

(Reform Club May 16th 2013)

Mr. Chairman

Ambassador

Ladies and gentlemen

As you all know it is nearly impossible to resist Audri’s enthusiasm when she is on the march; so, I have no option but to go along and, i must confess, happily become another victim of her charm. Thanks to her initiative and the support of some others we all are here tonight enjoying a delicious Spanish dinner and prepared to listen to our speaker.

When Audry invited me to look for a speaker I was thinking on 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 decide to get someone living in the UK; at least it was much cheaper.

Tonight speaker, Alexander Fiske Harrison, is, first of all, son of a former Reform club member and very appropriate for tonight speech, because he loves his country and Spain too He’s an Oxford graduate in biology, actor, writer and journalist, runner before Pamplona’s bulls and even torero!

In the summer of 2008 Alexander Fiske Harrison was acting in a play two streets from this club, in the Jermyn street theatre. 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 never fought a bull (and he never made it beyond the second year of his doctorate in philosophy!)

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 Oxbridge British on his personal experience 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 Mr. Alexander Fiske Harrison.

Thank you.

Alexander Fiske-Harrison, Palma del Río, Spain, 2010 (Photo: Nicolás Haro)

Alexander Fiske-Harrison, Palma del Río, Spain, 2010 (Photo: Nicolás Haro)

Su Excelencia, my Lords, Ladies and Gentleman,

When I originally came up with this title, I thought I would be speaking for longer, so forgive me if this seems a little shorter and more anecdotal than you might have hoped.

So, for my first anecdote: the day after published my book Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight (http://www.intothearena.co.uk), I was in a taxi on my way to be interviewed on the BBC. The driver, hearing the address, asked what I was going there for. I said I was being interviewed about bullfighting.

“Oh, I can’t be having with that…”

“…I know,” I said, “it can seem terribly cruel…”

“…no, it’s not that.”

“What then?”

“My mother always told me never to play with my food.”

This anecdote is the 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 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 temperament almost, 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 lip 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 don’t always 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, 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 second son, Charles, would marry Philip’s second daughter, Maria Anna.

Plaza Mayor, Madrid

Plaza Mayor, Madrid

The short version of the story is that Charles’s 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 at the British Ambassador, Lord Bristol’s door in Madrid rather to his surprise.

The Spanish King was informed and so, in the way of Spain, immediately arranged a bullfight in the Plaza Mayor of Madrid. Here is a near-contemporary account which, for some reason, begins 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 faintJiearted 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.

Lord Byron by Richard Westall (Wikipedia)

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.

(1812)

Now, there is no denying that the bullfight was much bloodier then 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:

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].

(1876)

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 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.

Into The Arena portada

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)

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, or 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, our 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 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.

(1955)

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.

José Escobar

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.

Winston Churchill

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?

Thank you.

P.S. After His Excellency delivered his thanks as a response, The Right Honourable Nick Herbert, M.P., suggested to me the bull’s head and letter were both at Chartwell, Churchill’s home.

It is illegal to touch the bulls.

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El Juli, José Marí Manzanares, Curro Vázquez and, behind, the empresario Simon Casas, yesterday in the Congress. (Photo: Luis Sevillano/El País)

Yesterday, the lower chamber of the Spanish parliament voted on the matter brought before them by 590,000 signatures on a petition to make Los Toros Bien de Interés Cultural, protected cultural interest. Given that the vote was a landslide, 180 votes against 40, with the 107 socialist congressmen abstaining, it seems a given that the senate will nod it through, passing it into law, and, among other things, federally overturning the vastly, and distortingly, over-reported regional ban on corridas de toros, novilladas and rejoneo in the autonomous community of Catalonia which came into effect in 2011.

All I can say in this brief post, is that this is yet another step forward for animal welfare in Europe. And if you want to know why, read the post on this blog – you can find it on the list of posts on the right – about how bullfighting is not a moral wrong.

Alexander Fiske-Harrison