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

My article on newspaper horseracing tipsters for The Times (full length)

Who to back in the Grand National? Not the tipsters

Alexander Fiske-Harrison

April 12, 2012

Alexander Fiske Harrison checks out the racing tips in the various newspapers before placing a bet (Photo: Times Photographer Matt Lloyd)

The “Sport of Kings” is not something I have ever wanted to know a lot about. I’ve had the odd flutter on the Grand National or the Ascot Gold Cup, but that no more makes me an aficionado of racing than the odd game of poker makes me a card sharp. Also, when I bet, I tend to lose, which – luckily for me – is something I really don’t like. Gambling is not in my blood.

Which is why it is ironic that the most dangerous thing I have ever done – to fight a bull in the Spanish style – resulted in my having to take up betting.

The short version is this: in 2008 I went to Spain to take a proper look at their bizarre national pastime of fighting bulls. I went with what I thought was an open, balanced mind – half full of doubts about what the animal rights groups were saying, half with doubts about pro-bullfighting authors like Ernest Hemingway.

After a year watching from the stands I decided I was for it (with serious reservations) and the matadors I met all said that if I really wanted to describe their world, I had to see it from the sand. I did, I survived, and I wrote the whole two years as a book which was shortlisted for the William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award, the “Bookie” Prize. I didn’t win, but what I did end up with was a thousand pounds at William Hill which I had to bet.

You might think that someone crazy enough to become a bullfighter would just go hell for leather (excuse the pun) and put it all on the nose of a horse chosen with a pin and The Times’s racing section. However, bullfighting, for the survivors at least, is actually about risk management. The trick is to keep your cool and remain rational.

Now, I know a bit about horses, but this was clearly no help as people who have devoted their lives to studying them usually lose. That said, clearly some people make a living at it and they are called bookies. Or racing journalists.

Alexander Fiske-Harrison with an Andalusian (Photo: Nicolás Haro)

Continue reading

Capote y Toros, 157 Old Brompton Road, London, SW5

Back when my book, Into The Arena, was published last year the Reuter’s editor Angus MacSwan decided to interview me at a new, bullfighting-themed tapas bar in South Kensington called Capote y Toros (‘cape and bulls’).

All the food was excellent, especially the gambas al ajillo – sizzling prawns in garlic. It also has the largest selection of sherries in London: not only the standard finos, olorosos and amontillados of Jerez de la Frontera and Puerto de Santa María, but also the manzanillas of Sanlucar de Barrameda. CyT is also the only place I have found in London with proper jamón ibérico de bellota – the pata negra name you sometimes hear refers to the distinctive black hooves of the ibérico breed. They import the 5J from the town synonymous with jamón: Jabugo.

So when a production company asked for a good venue in which to talk about bulls, this is where we ended up, under the photos of all the great matadors alive today from Curro Romero to Morante de la Puebla (its name is capote after all.)

While I was there, the restauranteuraficionado Abel Lusa came along to say hello. He recently opened CyT and also owns the more formal tapas restaurant Tendido Cero across the road, and the justly famed Cambio de Tercio a few doors down, a favourite of the likes of Rafa Nadal when he’s in town and most recently graced by the Duchess of Cambridge.

Abel Lusa

(I was meant to eat there with Giles Coren so he could review it along with my book as as follow up to his piece on my training as a bullfighter, but they don’t do lunch, so we went to 34 instead.)

Alexander Fiske-Harrison

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

 

YouTube video below:

Alexander Fiske-Harrison

My interview on BBC Radio Oxford

As the Oxford Mail reported, my talk at Blackwell’s bookshop in Oxford on my book Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight was finally cancelled following a debacle involving purported death-threats and postponements for security reasons which all seemed deeply dubious.

However, as a result, I was invited to talk instead on Bille Heine’s Sunday morning show on BBC Radio Oxford. The other guests were a hunt saboteur, a representative of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals – PETA – and the secretary of the Club Taurino of London – CTL.

You can find the interview by clicking here. It begins one hour into the show and lasts for an hour.
Alexander Fiske-Harrison

Oxford Mail: Bullfighting author’s talk called off

News

Bullfighting author’s talk called off

9:30am Thursday 9th February 2012

A TALK tonight by Oxford bullfighter Alexander Fiske-Harrison has been cancelled.

Mr Fiske-Harrison mounted a fierce attack on Blackwell’s for cancelling the event, rescheduled to today after the Broad Street bookshop postponed the original talk because of security fears.

Mr Fiske-Harrison, 35, angered animal rights extremists after training to become a bullfighter and killing a bull in a ring in Spain, later describing his experiences in a book. The writer said the original lunchtime meeting two weeks ago was postponed after Blackwell’s informed him that they had received “a credible threat.”

But he has now accused Blackwell’s of overstating the threat, scaring people away from tonight’s rearranged talk.

Tony Cooper, manager of Blackwell’s, said: “After several conversations with Alexander Fiske-Harrison we decided to cancel the event due to the small number of tickets taken up. Despite initial interest in the lunchtime talk this did not carry forward into a full evening talk by the author.

“We are obviously disappointed that this is the case as we never like to cancel an event unless absolutely necessary.”

Mr Fiske-Harrison, 35, spent two years in Spain’s heartland of bullfighting with matadors and breeders, talking with fans and training to fight bulls himself.


Alexander Fiske-Harrison with a 3-year-old Saltillo bull.

Photo: Paloma Gaytán de Ayala (Santa Coloma)

My talk on Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight at Blackwell’s of Oxford on Thursday at 7pm

On Thursday, February 9th, at 7pm I will be giving a talk on my book, Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight at Blackwell’s Bookshop on Broad Street, Oxford. Tickets are free and are available by calling 01865 333623.

Putting to one side the articles in the Oxford Times and Oxford Mail, which discuss an apparently needless postponement of the talk – Blackwell’s effectively caved into complaints and then misrepresented them to me as messages of a threatening nature so I would agree – it is still worth clarifying one point of fundamental importance. Into The Arena is not a piece of pro-bullfighting propaganda. And it’s not just me saying that. Here’s what the press said:

Shortlisted for

*****

Fiske-Harrison’s argument that the interplay between man and bull, when done with the highest skill, merits the tragedy will not convince many readers. But his descriptions of the fights are compelling and lyrical, and his explanation of different uses of the matador’s capes is illuminating. One begins to understand what has captivated Spaniards for centuries. This complex and ambitious book examines not only life in the bullring but also Spain’s cultural identity and modern ideas of masculinity. Fiske-Harrison admits that with each of his fights he knows more, not less fear. When he kills his first and only bull he feels not triumph but overwhelming sadness for a life take.

Provides an engrossing introduction to Spain’s “great feast of art and danger”…brilliantly capturing a fascinating, intoxicating culture.

Uneasy ethical dilemmas abound, not least the recurring question of how much suffering the animals are put through. But this remains a compelling read, unusual for its genre, exalting the bullfight as pure theatre.

Fiske-Harrison did not expect to fall in love with bullfighting when he saw it for the first time in 2000. A philosophy student and member of the World Wildlife Fund and Greenpeace, he would argue with his brother about animal cruelty. But then he travelled to Seville and had his eyes opened by the beauty, dignity and art of the sport. Fiske-Harrison recounts his year spent studying the matadors, breeders, fans and the bulls themselves, set against the backdrop of the campaign to ban bullfighting in Catalonia.

Others have been there before, not least Ernest Hemingway, the 50th anniversary of whose death neatly coincides with this travelogue. Hemingway concluded that bullfighting was ‘moral’ as it gave him a ‘feeling of life, death and mortality’. Fiske-Harrison comes to much the same conclusion, albeit after considerable soul-searching… He develops a taste for the whole gruesome spectacle, but what makes the book work is that he never loses his disgust for it…

This is an informed piece of work on a subject about which we are all expected to have a view. But what I really enjoyed about Into The Arena is that after nearly 300 pages I still couldn’t quite decide whether bullfighting should be banned or allowed to flourish.”

It’s to Fiske-Harrison’s credit that he never quite gets over his moral qualms about bullfighting; the book is at its strongest when he uses his degree in biology to investigate the cruelty question… Into the Arena is full of intriguing detail… an engrossing introduction to bullfighting. Continue reading

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

Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath on Bullfighting

Hughes & Plath

On Tuesday, the poet Ted Hughes was commemorated with a monument in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey, among the remains of Chaucer and Wordsworth, Dickens and Hardy (I have not visited myself since my brother’s memorial service there in ’88).

In the summer of 1956 Hughes married the poet Sylvia Plath and for their honeymoon they went to Spain and watched a bullfight. As she wrote in a letter to her mother:

I’d imagined that the matador danced around with the dangerous bull, then killed him instantly. Not so… The killing isn’t even neat, and with all the chances against it, we felt disgusted and sickened by such brutality.

I feel I would have had exactly the same response were it not for the fact that the first corrida I saw was headed by El Fandi, four days before his alternativa, in the Maestranza of Seville. Sheer chance.

Plath wrote a poem about her bullfight experience, in which a picador was injured by the bull. Continue reading

I didn’t win the Bookie Prize but as the latest Sunday Telegraph says, it’s “pure theatre” anyway…

FINALIST

Sadly, my book did not win the ‘Bookie Prize’ this year. That honour went to Ronald Reng’s A Life Too Short about the tragic suicide of his friend, Robert Enke, the German goalkeeper. Ronald gave a deeply moving impromptu speech, and then he, the champion cyclist David Millar (whose book Racing Through The Dark was also shortlisted) and I went for dinner. I would like to thank William Hill, Waterstones of Piccadilly, and all the other contestants (and my agent, publisher and girlfriend who were all present) for a great day. As I argued in my article in the Daily Telegraph on Saturday, I shouldn’t have won anyway. Here is the review their sister newspaper the Sunday Telegraph gave me the following day.

Alexander Fiske-Harrison

27.11.11

Books for Christmas

Sport books

Oliver Brown

INTO THE ARENA: The World of the Spanish Bullfight BY ALEXANDER FISKE-HARRISON Profile Books, £15.99

Bullfighting was banned in Catalonia last year and yet has continued to capture both the quintessence of Spain and the extremes of sporting heroism. It exerted a fascination early upon Alexander Fiske-Harrison, who watched his first bullfight as a 23-year-old philosophy student in Seville and embarked soon after on a quest to understand the spectacle in all its cultural complexity. This is no passive work, however: he undertakes months of training with one of the top matadors, Eduardo Dávila Miura, to steel himself for the final act of his own corrida de toros. Uneasy ethical dilemmas abound, not least how much suffering the animals are put through. But this remains a compelling read, unusual for its genre, exalting the bullfight as pure theatre.