It has been one hell of a Feria de San Fermín so far 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 Bill Hillmann, bull-runner and writer, being gored soon after the publication of the eBook Fiesta: How To Survive The Bulls Of Pamplona to which he contributed.
The anthology’s editor, Alexander Fiske-Harrison – also a contributor and a former bullfighter – was interviewed on Hillmann’s behalf while he was in surgery. (Fiske-Harrison had been running with the same bull moments before but escaped uninjured.) A small sample of the press coverage includes The Times, Daily Telegraph, The Guardian and The Independent in the UK, The New York Times, Washington Post , Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune 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.
Bill Hillmann being gored by a bull of Victoriano del Rio
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. (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 as recounted in his book Into The Arena – the bull entered the ring with 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 or Kentucky Derby 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.
Joe Distler, another co-author of Fiesta who ran every bull-run in Pamplona 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 knowledgeable, hence his contribution to the book.
However, the true magicians on the encierros like Miguel Ángel Castander have been running all their lives, in thousands 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. He is pulling the tail, then later distracting it with his body as the lure. This is what Hillmann was – perhaps foolhardily – attempting when the bull caught him a few moments later. Note the men in green shirts with sticks. They are Pamplona’s pastores – ‘herdsman’ – like the Fran Irarte, the man losing his hair.)
This is why in the book also includes advice from four of the most experienced Spanish and Basque runners with over 10,000 runs between them. It also worth pointing 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 – he was Joe Distler’s great mentor. So, to see two of his children – Allen and Deirdre – in the street together awaiting the bulls on calle Mercaderes, near the famous ‘curve’ onto calle Estafeta, was a moving sight this morning; as moving still was seeing Clive Fiske Harrison in the street with the bulls alongside Joe Distler and former Texan rodeo champion Larry Belcher.
Left hand side of the table, from bottom: Joe Distler, Carlos Manriquez, Clive Fiske Harrison, J-J Centurion, Bunny Centurion, Rick Musica (tongue out), Erik Whiteway, Craig McPherson (standing), Victor Lombardi (opposite), Jack Denault (sunglasses on head) – Pamplona bull-runners post-encierro breakfast 2014
That was also the same day another ‘Anglo-Saxon’ – as all English-speakers are referred to in Spain – runner mentioned in the book, El cohete escocés, ‘The Scottish Rocket’, Angus Ritchie, was trampled. Apparently he protested to paramedics that being taken to hospital was unnecessary. However, since his reasoning was that his bleeding head-wound was not from a bull, but from the night before, and self-inflicted at that, maybe they sensibly ignored his protests. That or they took his thick Paisley burr for a symptom of a subdural haematoma. Pamplona takes all sorts. We even had Charlie Sheen staying in the Hemingway suite at Hotel La Perla providing light entertainment to those watching the encierro from Noel Chandler’s balcony opposite.