It has been one hell of a Feria de San Fermín here in Pamplona, with highs and lows, screams and laughter, which, given that this Fiesta above all others is known to its devotees as a microcosm of life itself, should not be surprising.
The world’s press likes a good story and didn’t they just like the one about ‘Buffalo’ Bill Hillmann, bull-runner and author, being gored having published the eBook Fiesta: How To Survive The Bulls Of Pamplona. Hillmann’s co-author and the book’s editor, Alexander Fiske-Harrison, interviewed on his behalf – he was running with the same bull that day – and a small sample of the press includes Fiske-Harrison’s sometime employers The Times and Daily Telegraph, as well as The Guardian and The Independent in the UK making a complete sweep of broadsheets (it made all the tabloids too), Hillmann’s sometime employer the Chicago Tribune as well as the The New York Times, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times in the US, The Huffington Post and Esquire magazine, El Mundo, ABC and El Pais in Spain, Midi Libre in France, The Spiegel in Germany, The Globe And Mail in Canada, The Australian, NPR, BBC, CNN, Fox, CBS, Sky, and NBC (the last includes Hillmann who is quite clearly on morphine.)
The most important new is that Hillmann is recovering well, despite having a two inch wide, eight inch long hole punched through his hamstring by a 600kg (1,323 lbs / 94 stone) bull from Madrid. He is now walking around his hospital room, so all’s well that ends well. (The bull himself, Brevito, from the ranch of Victoriano del Río, ended honourably on the sword of the one-eyed matador Juan José Padilla, by coincidence Fiske-Harrison’s first teacher of bullfighting during his time as a torero – the bull entered the ring with my Hillmann’s blood still on its horn.)
As journalists we well know the allure of “man bites dog” stories, and the “expert bull-runner gets gored on bull-run” story fits the formula remarkably neatly and, with several hundred photographers already on site, it also neatly fills the empty column inches created by empty desks as the press goes on its July holiday.
However, as a story, it has about as much irony as the famous Alanis Morissette song. Bull-running involves moving in the vicinity of Spanish fighting bulls, and doing it in Pamplona involves doing it in half a mile of street along with three or so thousand people who have never done it before.
However, for a bull-runner not to run Pamplona and to stick to smaller towns like Tafalla or Alcala de Henares would be like a jockey turning down the Grand National because it was dangerous and he was unlikely to win. We’d suggest the journalists commenting otherwise actually read the book. Otherwise they run the risk of looking more than a little foolish themselves (like the BBC interviewer who claimed Fiske-Harrison that the difference between bullfighting and killing cattle for meat was that one was for entertainment, the other of necessity. We don’t need to eat meat, the cattle die because we like the taste, and the fighting bulls are eaten anyway as Fiske-Harrison tersely responded.)
Joe Distler, another co-author of Fiesta whoran every bull-run from 1967 to 2012, once answered a question as to why he did it thus:
‘Have you heard of Karl Wallenda? He was a great high-wire walker, and when asked why he still dared fate after being seriously hurt he calmly replied, “Walking the wire is life, everything else is just waiting around.” That’s why I run.’
Wallenda was killed walking the wire. Would anyone question his ability to give advice on it as a result?
For ten years Hillmann has been coming to Pamplona from the US, and for the past two he also went to the oldest encierro – bull-run – in Spain, Cuéllar, along with other smaller towns. As Americans go, that’s pretty damned knowledgeable.
However, the true magicians on the encierros like Miguel Ángel Castander have been running all their lives, in hundreds of encierros, as well as being a professional recortador and pastor, ‘herdsman’, in the encierro of San Sebastián de los Reyes (you can see him here with the bull which gored Hillmann and nearly caught Fiske-Harrison a few second before – he is pulling the tail, then later distracting it with his body as the lure. This is what Hillmann was attempting when the bull caught him a few moments laters. Note the men in green shirts, Pamplona’s pastores like the Fran Itarte, the man losing his hair.)
This is why in the book includes four Spanish and Basque runners among its contributors. It also point out that you don’t run for competition or to impress, there is no keeping score or ‘experts': running is for the alegría, for the sheer ‘joy’ of putting it on the line. This is the reason the guide book is the only one in any language with a foreword from the Mayor of Pamplona himself.
There are other things in the encierro as well, like history and camaraderie. The first of the serious American bull-runners Matt Carney is the father of this tradition – and was Joe Distler’s great mentor. So, to see two of his children – Allen and Deirdre – standing together in a doorway awaiting the bulls on calle Mercaderes near the famous ‘curve’ onto calle Estafeta, was a moving sight. As moving still was Fiske-Harrison’s father Clive in the next doorway along with Joe Distler and former Texan rodeo champion Larry Belcher.
However, that was also the same day another runner lauded in the book, El cohete escocés, ‘The Scottish Rocket’ Angus Ritchie, was trampled. Apparently he protested that being taken was hospital unnecessary, although we’re sure the rumours that, (1) they were worried about a head wound which had in fact been self-inflicted the night before and (2) when they checked for concussion by asking him to say his name they inferred from his thick Paisley burr he had a subdural haematoma, simply can’t be true.
However, what is true is that the view from Noel Chandler’s balcony during the encierro included Charlie Sheen who has been in town for a few days. We’ve yet to see him in the streets.
Alexander Fiske-Harrison & Bill Hillmann plan their run in Cuéllar in 2013 (Photo: Nicolás Haro )