My column for Taki’s Magazine: ‘Among the Gold and the Gore’

Last night I filed my copy – and I fear as a result missed the birthday party of Don Tristán Ybarra n the feria – about bullfighting and reality television, the corrida and Made In Chelsea for my column in Taki’s magazine. It has been edited, as is always the case. However, this time I prefer the long version, not least as is is not quite so savage to Ollie Locke, whom I know, and his amusing little book, Laid in Chelsea.

Alexander Fiske-Harrison

image

Last night, while seated in the La Maestranza bullring of Seville to watch the great matador José Marí Manzanares dance with and dispatch six bulls, I was reminded once again why I became so fascinated by the spectacle we ‘Anglo-Saxons’ incorrectly call bullfighting. (It is not a fight, but a highly structured drama centring on a ritual sacrifice. Nor is it a sport, but is conceived of as an art-form, unique in having a risk of death for the practitioner, but reviewed between the ballet and theatre in the newspapers and spoken of in terms of its aesthetics rather than its athletics.)

My girlfriend, a recent convert but still possessed of strong and valid doubts about the activity, asked what it was amongst the gold and the gore that draws me back to the plaza de toros time and time again. The answer I gave was the absolute reality of the corrida. As an art-form, it represents man’s struggle with death, and how it should be best faced, which is with a striking and elegant defiance. However, it is the only art-form that also is what it represents, which is a man standing alone on the sand with an animal intent on killing him. And kill they do: 533 noted professional toreros have died in the past three centuries, and a far greater number number of less famous ones and amateurs. My first instructor in how to torear, the matador Juan José Padilla, almost joined their ranks two years ago when a bull removed his eye and a chunk of his skull. Needless to say he was back in the ring five months later, sans depth perception, a triumphant return which I covered for GQ magazine here.

I come to Seville whenever I can to see these exceptionally brave men stand in front of these beautiful bulls, the best time of year being now as the town prepares for its annual celebration of the death of winter, the feria de abril, ‘April Fair’. This year I am not here on holiday, but have come to meet with another matador, Cayetano Rivera Ordóñez, about whom I am co-producing and writing a documentary. Cayetano has risen to fame and riches through risking his life in this way, a risk he knows all too well. His father, the matador Paquirri, was killed by a bull when Cayetano was just seven years old.

Whatever one thinks of the ethics of injuring and killing an animal as part of a public spectacle – personally I find it no less reprehensible than killing one at a third the age and after a far worse life for meat I do not medically need to eat – there is an undeniable honour and glamour in earning your status and fortune by dancing with death.

Which is why it stands in such stark contrast to what passes for honour and glamour in my home country of Great Britain. I say this having just attended the book launch of an acquaintance who had brought out his memoirs at the ripe old age of 26. I say memoirs, it is more accurately described as a travelogue of his sexual adventures, something made clear by its title Laid In Chelsea. It is currently at number three in the Sunday Times bestseller list. The reason for this literary success is because the author, Ollie Locke, is famous for being in a reality television show called Made In Chelsea.

Now, I must admit up front my envy at his book sales. My own travelogue Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight didn’t make it onto the bestseller lists, even after it was erroneously but flatteringly shortlisted for the William Hill Sports Book Of The Year Award. (See earlier comments about the corrida not being a sport.)

The fact that having your life filmed and broadcast, and then writing about your carnal exploits, can bring wealth and glory neatly sums up so much that is wrong with modern Britain, a generalisation that extends to our Saxon cousins in the US. Spain may be financially bankrupt, but at least it isn’t morally so.

I should add here that the book is actually quite readable, although that is helped by the fact that I know some of the people in it. Indeed, I’m even related to one of them. The author himself, Ollie Locke, is a witty and charming young man, with the bizarrely marketable talent of being good at being himself. However, he is also the sort of person – I’m sure he won’t mind me remarking on this – that had to have explained to him for an hour why the girl to whom he lost his virginity might not like that event written up and published.

Having the sexual ethics of an alley cat to one side, the reason I cannot watch Made In Chelsea, despite having grown up there and knowing some of the cast, is that no one on it ever does, or has ever done, anything worthy of note. It is a parade of moderately good looking people having rather stilted conversations about one another’s utterly irrelevant and pedestrian personal lives. I know these people and find it unspeakably dull; God knows what anyone else sees in it. Fiction was invented to get away from exactly this sort of tedium.

However, when people use that oxymoronic and false phrase ‘Reality Television’, it is not Made In Chelsea, or Big Brother, or any of those other monstrosities that spring to mind. It is the television footage of Cayetano’s father, being tossed by that bull in 1984, and then the footage afterwards of him in the hospital, fully conscious, reassuring and calming the panicking surgeons as they struggle in vain to stop his life from haemorrhaging out onto the bed sheets where he lay. That was how Paquirri justified his salary and his celebrity, by paying the ultimate price, and facing it with a courage and grace at the end that beggers belief.

That his son – both sons in fact – should follow in his shoes, makes him truly deserving of having his life told as a story, on film and in print. Something Ernest Hemingway felt similarly about when he wrote the articles about Cayetano’s grandfather Antonio Ordóñez that were posthumously published as the book The Dangerous Summer. And when he fictionalised his 1924 encounter with Cayetano’s great grandfather, also called Cayetano, in Pamplona as The Sun Also Rises. Some people are deserving of recognition and others not. The British and American inability to distinguish between them is at the heart of our ethical, and aesthetic decline.

“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.

* * *
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.

Continue reading

Vocento: “A Gentleman In The Ring”

(Versión original en español aquí.)

A couple of weeks ago the eleven newspapers of the Vocento Group in Spain – El Correo, El Diario Vasco, El Diario Montañés, La Verdad, Ideal, Hoy, Sur, La Rioja, El Norte de Castilla, El Comercio, La Voz de Cádiz, Las Provincias – ran the following interview with me. The only exception was ABC which ran this one a few weeks before.

Alexander Fiske-Harrison

A Gentleman In The Ring

by Francisco Apaolaza

Having crossed through a dimensional portal, suddenly he appears in the bull-run of Cuéllar (Segovia), in an out-and-out race with Spanish fighting bulls, a copy of the Financial Times rolled up in his hand. With each stride, Alexander Fiske-Harrison, English gentleman, writer, actor and reporter for the British press spans the huge distance between his world of the cultural and economic elite of London and the bull-run of Cuéllar with its dust, hooves, horns and shoe leather. This is the story of how one man crossed through the door of these parallel universes and then relayed it in the first person to the most anciest newspaper in the City.

Now, perhaps, the Financial Times will give a respite to the workhorse of Spanish debt and point instead to Spain’s oldest bull-run. Perhaps the best part of the story is the signature on the article. Fiske-Harrison is not the type of tourist who cannot distinguish a cart-ox from a fighting bull, but is an amateur bullfighter whose curious journey began many years ago while search of new cultures and strong sensations. What he found was very far from his life in a grand English family – a line of bankers – with its studies at Oxford, its games of rugby, horses, shooting and the exclusive red and white athletics blazer of Eton College, where Prince William and David Cameron also studied. Continue reading

Alexander Fiske-Harrison in ‘ABC’: “Many foreigners would not spend a cent in Spain without the bulls.”

The Spanish national newspaper ABC ran the following interview with me last week (with photos by Nicolás Haro).

The online version is available here. The beginning translates in a way you would only find in Spain:

Alexander Fiske-Harrison at his book launch in Seville (ABC)

Alexander Fiske-Harrison: “Many foreigners would not spend a cent in Spain without the bulls.”

Interview by Anna Grau

A British Gentleman passionate about the Fiesta, he is an amateur matador (the “bullfighter-philosopher” they call him) and has published a book on the art of bullfighting.

To Alexander Fiske-Harrison in his own country, which is the UK, some call him the “bullfighter-philosopher.” While others send him death threats, since he has gone from being active supporter of animal rights and a student of philosophy and piology in London and Oxford to being a matador in Spain. He is the author of Into the Arena (Profile Books), treatise on Spanish bullfighting for non-believers and foreigners. Many of which, he notes, come to our country intensely attracted to the fiesta nacional… and would swiftly back from where they came if this disappeared.

How to ask this man what he thinks of bullfighting ban in Barcelona? “Since then, the only money I’ve spent there has been to take a taxi from the airport to the train station to go to run with the bulls in Pamplona, a city that invests 4 million Euros each year in the Feria de San Fermín, and gets in return 60 million Euros from tourism.” Clear cut. Continue reading

The Spectator: A Good Run by Alexander Fiske-Harrison

My article from The Spectator, written largely on the breakfast tables of Pamplona, half cut on vanilla and cognac, having just run with the bulls. (With thanks to Joe Distler.)

AFH

A good run

14 July 2012

Why I risk my life among the bulls of Pamplona

I have just finished running — with a thousand like-minded souls from around the world — down a half-mile of medieval city streets while being pursued by a half-dozen half-ton wild Spanish fighting bulls. They were accompanied by an equal number of three-quarter-ton galloping oxen, but we didn’t worry about them: they know the course as well as anyone and keep the bulls in a herd. This is good, because when fighting bulls are on their own they become the beast of solitary splendour and ferocity you may see in bullrings across Spain, France, Portugal, Mexico and much of Latin America. However, every second week in July, during the festival of Saint Fermín, they are run together as a herd from the corrals to the bullring. Continue reading

GQ magazine on the comeback of the bravest bullfighter in Spain: Juan José Padilla

My British GQ article on the comeback of the now one-eyed bullfighter Juan José Padilla is online here. The US edition of GQ sent there own author to interview him afterwards, which was silly, as she hadn’t the first idea about bullfighting – whereas I’ve been doing it since 2009 – nor Padilla and his place in that world – whereas as I had the man as my first teacher. The photo below is of the two of us during one of those lessons. We were both very different men then. He had two eyes…

Fiske-Harrison and Padilla training with a young fighting bull in 2009.

By coincidence, Claire Danes, the beautiful actress on the cover of the issue on which the article appeared is a dear friend whom I thanked in the acknowledgments to the book that came out of those two years in Spain Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight in the first five chapters of which Padilla is so central. So I must thank her once again in the acknowledgments to this article, this time for providing such glamorous packaging.

Padilla is a man of great dignity, aesthetically and internally, but he isn’t exactly pretty. And, as Zed Nelon’s wonderful spread which opens the physical edition of the article shows, he ain’t no cover girl. The photo is in his house, which we went to the day before his comeback ‘fight.’

Please note, should you read the article, that, GQ holds the view, in common with many other publications, that when you pay a writer for his words, you have also bought the right to put words in his mouth.

I, personally, could not write a phrase like “my dread boiled.” (What I actually wrote was “I was worried.”) My dread just doesn’t boil (anymore).

Nor could I have written that the Spanish financial bailout was £80m. I used to work for the Financial Times and know a million from a billion.

Nor did I write the paragraph below, which appeared twice, once as a pull quote. I don’t even really agree with it.

Just so you know. (Bullfighters do not compare bull’s horns to “a Louboutin stilleto”. Ever.)

Anyway, much of the article is mine, and all of Padilla’s words are his own, which on their own would make it worth reading. However, if you come across something in the article that feels wrong, then it probably is, and probably didn’t come from me.

Anyway, if you want to know Padilla’s whole story, and much, much more, read my book Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight. You can purchase it as an eBook via GQ on their website where it tops their recommendation list here. (It was also shortlisted for the William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award, “the world’s richest sports’ writing prize”.)

If you live outside the UK or want it as a physcial book, other options are here.

Alexander Fiske-Harrison

Bullfighting and the Gallup Polls: “Lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

I was recently interviewed on the BBC and one of the people also interviewed, a representative from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), brought up an opinion poll “by Gallup” in 2006, which said that 72% of the people in Spain were “against bullfighting.”

Now, putting to one side the fact that PETA’s claim was not true – the poll actually said that 72% said they had “no interest” in bullfighting – this got me thinking. There was another “Gallup poll” I read about from four years before which said that 69% of Spanish people polled had no interest, and the most recent one, from 2008, gave the same figure. These are big swings: millions of people.

So I looked into it further, and what I found was fascinating. Continue reading

Perhaps bullfighting is not a moral wrong: My talk at the Edinburgh International Book Festival

Yesterday evening I immensely enjoyed giving a talk to the sold out audience at the 500-seat Scottish Power Theatre at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on my award-winning book Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bulllfight. It was followed by a discussion with the chair, Al Senter, and the Q&A session with the audience that (along with brief personal chats with about half of those present who came to have their books signed by me in the London Review of Books tent afterwards.) The questions were all well-informed and interesting, not least because, as many of the audience members said to me in person, I’d answered most of the more controversial questions in my opening talk. Here is the transcript of what I said:

* * *

I was going to read from my book, but it seems that the most important topic in the United Kingdom in the 21st Century, indeed in the English-speaking world – when discussing bullfighting – are the ethical issues surrounding the injuring and killing of animals as part of a public spectacle. So I want to address these head on.

As a liberal – in the classical, John Suart Mill sense – it is not my intention, or my place, to tell people whether or not they should approve of or enjoy bullfighting anymore than it is whether they should approve of or enjoy opera. However, when people seek to ban an art form from existing, so that other people may not enjoy it, whatever claims have been made by other people who have never witnessed it, then certain questions have to be raised.

Whatever the motivations behind the ban on bullfighting on Catalonia – and there have been accusations of underhand dealings, thumbing of noses at Madrid to gain votes, which has some circumstantial evidence for it as the popular Catalan regional hobby of attaching burning tar balls and fireworks onto bulls’ horns and letting them into the streets is unaffected by the legislation – anyway, the stated reason is the ethics, or rather lack of ethics, of bullfighting. So, that is what I should like to discuss here.

However, before I can do that, I have to dispel some myths that have long surrounded the bullfight, pieces of propaganda that have been propagated by the anti-bullfight lobby such as CAS International, the League Against Cruel Sports and PETA.

The one I most often hear is the complaint that the matador faces a broken down and destroyed animal. Take a close look at this bull in these photos and tell me how broken down it looks.

Morante de la Puebla performs a ‘veronica’ (Photo: Author)

Continue reading

Rest In Peace Bomber: Friend, Adventurer, Traveller, Warrior

On February 24th, 2013, my friend Bomber died. I thought it fitting to write a little tribute of my own to him here and translate the one from the website of the regional newspaper of one of his favourite cities on Earth, Pamplona.

20130226-112713.jpg Breakfast on Sunday of the Miuras, Pamplona, July 8th, 2012, among good friends. We had both just run with the bulls, I in my striped jacket, Bomber in his black one. The great bull-runner Joe Distler on Bomber’s left had removed his white tuxedo in case of spillages. (Photo: Jack Denault)

I first met Bomber properly in Pamplona in 2011, when I returned at the insistence of Angus MacSwan who told me I had got the city wrong in my book when he interviewed me for Reuters. That year, when I was flushed with the novelty of the feria de San Fermín, the wonders of running bulls properly, and the sheer excess of Fiesta properly lived, I can not remember how much we spoke, or what about. However, in the months that followed, he was a frequent commenter on this blog, and would often drop me notes congratulating me on the success of my book or my defence of los toros in various pieces of journalism.

His favourite of these was when I went to visit a matador he had met, Juan José Padilla, and who had taught me back in ’09, after he lost his eye in the ring, but was making a come back despite the injury and lack of depth perception.

Bomber had a great fondness for Padilla as a man, a matador, and in one of Bomber’s favourite complimentary phrases, “as a warrior”. He sent me this photo of the two of them together with great pride.

20130226-113351.jpg

(When I visited Padilla at his house before his comeback, he looked like this. [Photo: Zed Nelson])
20130226-113532.jpg

On my first day in Pamplona last year, July 6th, I joined the High Table of American bull-runners for dinner – Joe Distler, Larry Belcher and Bomber – and there Bomber told me how much it meant to him that another generation were coming to Pamplona, were becoming involved with the fiesta de los toros, and – most importantly to a man who at heart was a traveller – were helping to defend the diversity of things and cultures in the world, most especially Spain.

As Bomber and I walked back from that down into the Plaza de Castillo – well, he walked, I staggered from wine, funny how he made the encierro, the ‘bull-run’ the next day and I didn’t – I was reminded of the tragic story I was told about how the love of his life, Goldie, had died prematurely on the operating table, and how the news was conveyed to him in the that very square as he stood among friends outside Bar Txoco, where we always stand after the 8am encierro to ‘talk’ off the adrenaline, and how Bomber had collapsed from grief.

20130226-111655.jpg From left to right, Bomber, Joe Distler, Larry Belcher and Me one morning outside Bar Txoco, 2012 (Photo: Jim Hollander)

I cannot claim that I got to know Bomber half as well as I would like, but anyone who knows Pamplona knows that the fortnight that makes up two Fiestas is like three months of normal time. The only consolation for his passing aged 65 is that when he spoke of Goldie, you knew that life was simply so much less bright for him without her. And I noticed in our communications that he spoke of her more and more often after the 2012 Fiesta ended, and then he moved out of their shared home in Garmisch in Germany, posting strangely prophetic photos on Facebook as he did so, saying goodbye and thank you not just to the place, but seemingly to all his friends as well.

I had planned on going to meet him in Germany in the Autumn, but I never did, and that will always be a sadness in my life. Even my father, who only met Bomber a few times, asks after him, just as Bomber made a point of sending me this photo of the three of us.

20130226-114855.jpg

No one could be better prepared for the final encierro which we all one day will run. In the words of Joe Distler upon reading this post, “Bless and keep you brother.”

Alexander Fiske-Harrison

And here is what the newspapers said… Continue reading

‘World’s Scariest Animal Attacks’ on Channel 5* (UK) & Discovery Channel (USA)

It is nice to see that the inteview I filmed at my favourite tapas bar in London, Capote y Toros on the Old Brompton Road, was broadcast again as narration for the fighting bull segment in ‘World’s Scariest Animal Attacks’ on both sides of the Atlantic last night.

If you missed it in the UK, on Channel 5* at 9pm BST last night, you can watch it again here. If you missed in the US at 10pm EDT last night on the Discovery Channel as part of ‘Shark Week’ (when is it not Shark Week on Discovery?), it can be seen again today, August 16th, at 12 am & 2:00 pm, and then again on Aug 18th at 11 am.

Alexander Fiske-Harrison is the expert witness on the toro bravo – Spanish fighting bull – segment of ‘World Scariest Animal Attacks’, first broadcast in the Spring on Channel 5 in the UK, re-broadcast on the Discovery Channel in the US…

In 2010, a fighting bull went on the rampage through the crowded audience at a bullring in Tafalla in north-eastern Spain. The event was not a bullfight, though, but a spectacle of acrobatic bull-leaping, in which the bull normally leaves the ring unharmed to be used again. However, this time, things ended very differently, and very badly, for the people in the audience and the bull…

Mentorn TV

You can read more about Alexander Fiske-Harrison’s account of his two years in Spain, Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight here, where there are also links to purchase or download from Amazon, iTunes etc.