THE LAST ARENA: For The Love Of ‘Toreo’ – article in ‘Boisdale Life’ on bullfighting

FOR THE LOVE OF TOREO

When Englishman, Old Etonian and Boisdale regular Alexander Fiske-Harrison travelled to Spain to write a book on bullfighting, he never imagined that he’d be stepping into the ring himself. But after he picked up the red muleta for the first time, everything changed

Anyone who speaks of their first time in the ring in terms of the sweat or the heat, the overwhelming fatigue or the numbing fear, the grittiness of the sand under foot, or the particular odour the Spanish fighting bull brings with it from the corrals, is either lying, misremembering or deranged. For such detailed cognition is not how such massive levels of acute stress work in the normal human mind.

When you are first faced with a bull your world consists of two things: the animal’s eyes and where they are looking, and the animal’s horns and where they are going. As the saying goes of war: there are far too many things to be afraid of to have time to be scared.

By the time I was facing a big animal – three years old and weighing a third of a ton – I had learned how to control that adrenal flow so that I could devote time to reading the animal. For example, seeing which horn he preferred to lead with (like boxers, bulls are either southpaw or orthodox), and noticing whether he wanted to break into a canter in a close-range charge or preferred merely to extend his trot. Then there was the choice of pass I’d make with the muleta – the red cloth with a wooden stick for a spine – extended wider with the sword in its folds when used for a derechazo on the right, or on its own on the more risky, but more elegant, left for a pase natural.

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Xander’s Blog – Unpopular Truths: Bullfighting & Sufism, Beauty & Wisdom

Click here to go to the page for a very different sort of interview on bullfighting…

The Editor

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‘The Other Runs…’ from the New York City Club Taurino magazine

The Other Runs…

By Alexander Fiske-Harrison

First published in the New City Club Taurino magazine, summer issue 2018

Last year there were 17,920 “spectacles or popular celebrations, in which they play or run cattle according to the traditional uses of the locality”, in the Ministry of Culture’s ever elegant phrasing. These ranged from the grand encierros – which count as 8 events in this type of census – of Pamplona in honour of San Fermín, to the little sueltas – release of three year old vacas, one at a time one, down the high street into a fenced circle where the local young braves practice their cortes and recortes – in the village of Funes, population 2,000, in honour of San Isidro.

AFH in his red and white stripd jacket – left – running the goat path down the mountain of El Pilón into Falces, Navarra, 2017 during the Feria de Virgen de Nieva

(I visited there last year at the invitation of Matt Doswett and I elected to join the three or four people sprinting the ‘straight’ in the after-dinner suelta, each time letting the vaca – and one torito – get closer and closer to my coat-tails before I dived behind a burladero at full tilt. This culminated in the only time I’ve ever been – or ever seen – a runner summoned into the street to receive a round of applause, rotating on joined feet, hand half-raised al matador, from a particularly excitable post-prandial populace.)

Unlike every other number in the world of the bulls, the number of these festejos populares is growing, up every year from 13,815 in 2013 – when reliable records begin – onwards. For comparison the number of bullfights – of all varieties – was 1,553 last year, down from 3,651 ten years before, with a mere 387 corridas,  down from 953 during the same period (although at least there was one more in 2017 than in 2016!)

What is also interesting is the distribution: almost 80% of bullfights were held in a mere four of Spain’s nineteen regions – the Community of Madrid, the two Castiles and in Andalusia – over 80% of these popular festivals are also held in four, although these are – also in order – the Community of Valencia, the two Castiles and Navarre (interestingly on an internal political note, Navarre has ten times the number of such festejos as the Basque Country, and double the number of corridas.)

These numbers are extraordinary, with El Pais estimating in an article last year that 1 in 4 of Spain’s towns and cities hold an event with a res brava, an example of ‘fierce cattle’, of some description.

While it is easy to see the empirical evidence, what is far harder to understand is why. What change has occurred among the peoples of the Spanish Kingdom that getting up close and personal with a wild horned thing, or watching some other amateur do it, has become so much more popular while paying to watch trained professionals do something far more interesting with the largest and most fierce examplars of the breed has become less so?

A true corrida with a solitary man, here El Fundi, standing in front of a full-size bull, here a 607kg, 5-year-four-month old Miura, is infinitely more impressive than an encierro, even if the thrill is more vicarious, the difficulty and risk less visible, in such expert hands
(Photo: Alexander Fiske-Harrison, Seville, 2009)

I remember reading one taurine critic at the beginning of the decade suggesting that the excess of cheap cattle of the fighting breed may have had something to do with it, the rise of the so-called “red-brick fincas”, ganaderias founded in an attempt to gentrify new money earned during the most recent economic bubble. However, while that may explain the initial upsurge, the growth since 2013 has been during a period which the number ganaderias has decreased each year (admittedly only by 12 in total, still leaving a vast oversupply at 1,329.)

Is it the fact that these events are mainly bloodless? Has the modern mind turned away from injury and death in front of an audience – whatever else the corrida contains, it undeniably contains that – so much so that it can no longer bear to witness it? Well, in a way yes, but the real answer is subtler and more profound than this.

Each person in the Western world is responsible for dealing out far more suffering – in the form of fear in the slaughterhouse – and death through their consumption of meat than any of their far cruder and coarser ancestors. They just don’t want to see it happen.
That said, a great deal of the arguments that are used against bullfighting are also used against bull-running by animal rights groups (although many explicitly say that on the grounds of pragmatism they will happily start by getting the corrida banned, and only then go to work on the encierro that leads to it – the slippery slope of illiberalism is steeper and better greased than many realise.)

As with all tragic drama and all ritual – and bullfighting has one foot in both camps – it ends in a sacrificial death. The last pass of the toro and torero above (Photo: Alexander Fiske-Harrison)

However, there is also a social and generational shift going on which in some ways is eternal, but in others is a child of the 1960s. A decade that marked the rest of Europe and the US, but took Spain a while to catch up to and which is a rebellion of youth against the deference-requiring triumvirate of tradition, ritual and status.

And what could embody that these than the world of matador, their cuadrillas – teams – and their bulls: a world of of gold, silver and leather. It was Orson Welles who first saw it when describing El Cordobés to Kenneth Tynan as the ‘Beatnik bullfighter’, and that has happened with various toreros since.

The present example of this is José Tomás’s rebellions on all fronts – not only against the normal canons of a taurine career (see Michael Wigram’s excellent and surprisingly balanced essay Tirar Del Caro, ‘Pulling The Cart’, to feel his anger on this), but also bowing to either king, God, or even the people’s modern religion, television. His combination of these defiances with his extraordinarily moving toreo, and an utter contempt for risk, mean that he makes other matadors look like mere journeymen and their choices like a form of complicity with the something old school, aka The Establishment. This heady cocktail of greater ability with his own sense of his superiority to this highly structured institution runs the risk of not only not saving the modern bullfight, as many short-sighted commentators thought, but overseeing and even hastening its demise – he comes, without Mark Antony’s sarcasm, not to praise Caesar but to bury him.

José Tomás (Photo: Carlos Cazalis, from his book Sangre De Reyes, ‘Blood Of Kings’)

However, even these sociological musings do not exhaustively explain the increase in bull-running. One wonders in more metaphysical moments if it was Spain’s reaction to modern thinking itself. The French and Germans answered the problems of a universe in which Death exists but God does not with Existentialism, with Sartre and Heidegger. Perhaps the Spanish answer is turn their backs on all temples, even the plaza, and invite Death directly into the streets in order to play with him themselves…

Whatever the reasons, a comprehensive afición, and thus a complete aficionado, should know something of the smaller runs, just as a true lover of horses will know not just the English Grand National and the American Kentucky Derby, but all races down to village point-to-points (as well as polo, dressage and show-jumping as well.)

And where better to start than Cuéllar, the oldest of them all – suitably set in Old Castile – whose Feria of Nuestra Señora del Rosario begins on the last Saturday of every August.

Fighting bulls from the ranch of Luis Terron are herded by hundred of horse riders down a slope leading to the town of Cuéllar, in the second ‘encierro’ or running-with-the-bulls in this town’s fiesta. Horsemen and women herd the bulls through forests and open fields into the town where runners then test their bravery in a stampede to the bullring on the town’s paved streets. The ‘encierro’ in Cuéllar is the oldest in Spain. (Photo: Jim Hollander / EPA)

Now, there is a long-standing tradition that Cuéllar’s encierro existed before the letter from Pope Innocent III, dated 1215 A.D., banning priests from running. However, this was unlikely to be an encierro as we know them today, and the particular phrasing actually refers to something more like a capea, an informal bullfight, than an encierro.

Nicolás Osorio, eldest son of the current Duke of Alburquerque, whose ancestors’ castle forms the old boundary of the town, in 2013 when he joined AFH

That said, they do definitely predate those of Pamplona and may well have led to them, since the Dukes of Alberquerque – 3rd to 5th –  whose castle and court were in Cuéllar, were made Viceroys of Navarre in the mid-16th century, and the first records of encierros in Pamplona were at the end of the 16th, which would indicate at least circumstantially that the Duke or his men brought the tradition with them.

I first arrived in Cuéllar in 2012 and have run every year since, usually taking part in – subject to the vagaries of mood, wine and broken ribs – between one and all of five of the encierros (three with three-year-old novillos, two with full toros of four to six.)

From a runner’s perspective, it is, in the words of Texan rodeo champion and 40-year veteran of the encierros of Pamplona, Larry Belcher, “a PhD in bull-running”, one with a thesis titled, ‘Surviving The Suelto’. [Note: A suelto is a loose bull outside the herd that reacts aggressively, charging everything, as in the ring, rather than calmly trying to stay with the herd – Ed.]

It is a rare enough thing that the bulls all enter the town – guided by the 300 horses, this run includes an encierro del campo – at the embudo as a herd, and even rarer that they make it round the various corners and slopes that comprise the encierro de la calle as one. On the Avenida Toros, the straight leading to the plaza, it is not at all rare to find oneself running one suelto up the street only to find another coming back in the opposite direction.

Of course, the most impressive spectacle of all is to run the embudo itself, facing not only whatever segment of the herd of toros and cabestros is coming first, but also the escorting brigade of lancers thundering alongside them. Many is the time I’ve stood there with Jordan Tipples, Angus Ritchie and Bill Hillmann, which has been fun given the vagaries of friendship among our group of elite egos (ahem.)

A low quality video screenshot put up by Anthony Fizer, running in front of the bulls. AFH bottom right, Jordan Tipples black and white horizontal stripes (Barbarians Rugby Team), Angus Ritchie in yellow far left, and Bill Hillman alone in white. Mr Fizer uploaded the image to Facebook as the only person who – for reasons of mutual blocking – could tag everyone present. Brothers of the Bulls indeed…

It is not hard to see why the bulls so often come out of this broken down (if not outright lost, as has happened more than once.) However, when they get it right, it can produce serviceable bulls in the ring.

In 2016 I sat with Jim Hollander in that plaza and saw his – and note not only are Jim’s 50 sanfermines being celebrated in Pamplona this year, but that he grew up in Spain – first indulto, ‘pardoned’ bull.

There is no denying the matador responsible, David Mora, performed excellently – as did Curro Diáz – but also the bulls were good. So good in fact, the head of the House of Domecq – in seniority if not profit margins – the former rejoneador Álvaro came and said hello. It turns out that the bulls were descended from his own ganadería of Torrestrella, a favourite of Pamplona. Such bulls took the encierro well within their stride, did not separate and thus could not be lured to exhaust themselves on the barriers, and so came back in to the ring that evening with sufficient spirit to dance and die well, albeit with fewer tandas, ‘series’, of passes than you would find in their home town of Jerez de la Frontera.

Plenty of space and difficult bulls, a grown up run. AFH above, right

The finest corridas to be found after encierros are – from the point of view of bullfighting – in San Sebastián de los Reyes, ‘Sanse’, whose Feria de Cristo de los Remedios often partially overlaps with Cuéllar.

AFH & Castander

Paco & AFH

On the outskirts of Madrid, Sanse has long been a post-Pamplona favourite among the Anglo-American crowd. It even has its own Foreigner of the Year celebrations – last year it was our American friend Stephen Ibarra, this year our British friend Gareth Cooper – hosted by the ‘pastor’, herdsman, Paco Sanz, who is himself Personality of the Year this year, and whose bars and restaurants are the centre of the fiesta there, Taberna El Foro and El Foro Real 52. (The other great pastor there, and a great recortador is Miguel Ángel Castander, who went one further by actually putting on my jacket first. One day, he said, the jacket will run the encierros on its own.)

Sanse is a good fast encierro around the 800 yard mark, which, although crowded by other encierro’s standards, never reaches the crowds of Pamplona, and has two other great advantages: almost everyone knows how to run, and the bulls are not required to be Pamplona size. These two facts tend produce uninjured bulls of manageable size and charge for toreros like José Maria Manzanares to turn at command and die on request with something approaching the artistic merit and beauty of the Andalusian rings.

It looks crowded as the bulls hit the corner (AFH circled among the herd)

However, there is space to be found (AFH circled in front of final bull)

(Speaking of toreros de arte and Andalusia, the great matador José Antonio Morante de la Puebla’s town, La Puebla del Río – a satellite of Seville – has for four years now had an encierro of novillos on the feast of San Sebastían –January 20th – with a rocket lit by the Maestro himself, ending in a portatíl – temporary bull-ring – where later a novillada is held. Next year I shall be found there without fail.)

However, for those who think the encierro is synonymous with Navarran red and white and piping and drumming, there are the encierros of Tafalla a couple of weeks earlier. A peaceful little town 25 minutes by train down the line from Pamplona, I was first brought there – with Deirdre Carney – by Victor Lombardi and Erik Whiteway on their great trip around the smaller runs of 2013. (There’s a story involving the three of us, some cattle and a phone booth in a village called Santacara which I will recount another time – needless to say the advice is don’t hide from bulls in phone booths. They have no problem with ripping them out of the ground.)

Again, Tafalla is a simple tarmac affair comparable to Pamplona but with smaller toros, there are also far fewer people than in Sanse, and all know what they are doing. However, this dearth of people and Navarran location result in crowds turning up to see recortadores but not matadores, and the smaller box-office thus pulls smaller names, and I’ve never seen a corrida there worth a damn or a dime. (This year David Mora dropped out due to injury, and his replacement, Miguel Abellán and the other matador of some note, Daniel Luque, were described by one local taurine critic as looking as though they were on a visit to the dentist when they entered the ring.)

However, what it does have right next door is a second encierro which must have the highest ratio of spectators to runners I have ever witnessed. Falces is famous for having the “run of runs”, El Pilón, a mountain goat-path down which they stampede up to a dozen full grown vacas of the now relict Navarran encaste with their long twisting horns – including those of famed Pamplona pastor Miguel Reta – accompanied by a few dozen hardy runners.

AFH, left in striped jacket, checking for the approaching herd over his shoulder then trying to keep his balance on the steep uneven path as they catch up

This is a run which no one in the car in which I first travelled to it – at speed, directly following the encierro in Tafalla – was willing to run, neither were any of the noted runners whose hands I shook on my way up the goat-path. The very top is where a group of older runners – a dozen maybe – who have the marks of generations in this place written upon them run the flat, escaping up-slope.

Antonio Miura & AFH in Pamplona this year (Photo: Carlos Manriquez)

The lower section is vertiginously steep and run mainly by men far younger than my own forty years when I last joined them, trusting to their ankles not their eyes on the steep slope, no more than fifty in total, with a sheer, broken glass-sharp stonewall on their right, a hundred foot drop down the gorge on their left, and hell-in-leather running hell-for-leather behind them. It remains the only encierro that makes me feel like I did on July 12th, 2009, on my first ever encierro (with my friends the Miuras, as it happens.)

Larry Belcher, AFH and Chapu Apaolaza of the FTL (Photo: Ana Cerón)

There are many other runs: I could personally speak of Estella, the encierro I ran whilst not officially even being there (a story for another time), or Medina del Campo, which also has a horseback cross-country element, and is shaped like a horseshoe so you can cut across and run twice, where I ran with the great taurine journalist, Chapu Apalaoza, the voice of the Fundacíon Toro de Lidia, ‘Fighting Bull Foundation’, with whom I am currently working in an attempt to roll back the tide of anti-taurine propaganda which one day will not just take the corridas from us, but the encierros and eventually the toros themselves as well.

Soon, I hope, I will be able to invite people to join Foundation as a friend or members in support of the bulls, but in the meantime, I can only point you to buy a copy of The Bulls Of Pamplona the book I co-wrote and edited. My co-authors include the Mayor of Pamplona, John Hemingway, grandson of Ernest, Beatrice Welles, daughter of Orson – great aficionados of both the bulls and the city – along with the great American runner Joe Distler who has run there since 1968, the Texan rodeo champion Larry Belcher who also ran there for forty years, a tactical and strategic breakdown of the run today by Captain Dennis Clancey of the 101st Airborne Division, as well as tips and pointers by the great Basque and Spanish runners like Julen Madina, Miguel Ángel Eguiluz and Jokin Zuasti, and photos by the European Pressphoto Agency – and before that Reuters – senior photographer Jim Hollander, who when not embedded in half the wars around the world ran the bulls in the ’60s and ’70s until he was put in hospital by two Miura bulls in 1977 and returned to photograph every Fiesta since.

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Open Letter to the Mayor of Pamplona from the FTL


Below is a link to our Editor’s translation of Chapu Apaolaza’s excellent open letter to the (current) Mayor of Pamplona about bullfighting. This is written in Chapu’s guise as spokesman for the Fundación del Toro de Lidia, ‘Foundation of the Fighting Bull’, with whom he has also been working. He add that in Chapu’s guise as author, he will be signing copies of his seminal book on Pamplona, 7 del Julio, in a new translation by Larry Belcher, who will also be reading from it – as will the Editor and Joe Distler and others – at the iconic Pamplona Café Iruña at midday on July 9th.


Two days before that, Larry, Joe, Dennis Clancey and John Hemingway and the Editor’s new book, The Bulls Of Pamplona, will be being sold and signed in front of Maceliano’s at 1pm (July 7th.)

https://thelastarena.wordpress.com/2018/07/04/an-open-letter-to-the-new-mayor-of-pamplona/

Lucy Gould
Deputy Editor

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THE LAST ARENA: 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 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)

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Feliz Navidad

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The Editor

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The Hemingway Prize 2016

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ob_6d47c2_hemingwayOur Editor’s short story ‘The Unbroken’ was a finalist of Le Prix Hemingway 2016, run by the French publishers Au Diable Vauvert, the first English finalist since the prize was founded. Of 260 entries in this, the prize’s 12th year, 30 were chosen as finalists and, of them, the 16 best were chosen for publication in this year’s anthology, which is out today.

Obviously, all the stories have been translated into French, ‘The Unbroken’ as ‘Les Invincibles’, so for those who are not fluent in the language of Molière and Descartes, Maupassant and Dumas, here it is in the language of Milton and Dickens, Maugham and Dryden.

L. G. (Dep. Ed.)

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The Unbroken by Alexander Fiske-Harrison

Nothing in life is so exhilarating as to be shot at without result.

Winston Churchill, 1898

le-select-1955

Le Select, Paris, 1955

L’Anglais est ici.”

Robert Gough’s head jerked up at that. He’d been wrapped around a glass of whisky trying to look as inconspicuous as he could. He saw his mistake: the bartender wasn’t referring to him but was nodding towards a dark-haired young man carrying a stack of newspapers. Robert hunched back over the polished oak of the bar.

“New York Herald Tribune!”

While his eyes studied the etchings on his glass, he noted the young Englishman’s accent: the clean diction of a private education which seemed out of place for a newspaper hawker. Robert had developed the introvert’s habit of listening to people rather than looking at them. Although today he had other reasons to hide.

He pushed his drink with the painful fingers of his left hand into the unfeeling clasp of his right, lifted the glass to his lips and let the liquid burn down into him, scalding away one more sliver of the pain.

“Laddie! Over here!”

This voice, booming down from the other end of the bar, was a completely different beast: loud, West Coast American, but most of all it pitched and rolled from syllable to syllable like a theatre actor trying to be heard over a storm at sea.

“Forty francs,” said the seller.

“I’ll buy two copies if you settle a bet between myself and this here buddy of mine, m’boy.”

The man’s voice was absurd, Robert thought to himself, although he envied it its vigour. He just hoped it wouldn’t draw too much attention. The police had been very determined in their pursuit, following him over the river and into the Latin Quarter until he’d lost them among the twists and turns of the narrow streets. He could still run at least.

“Matt here doesn’t believe the police raided the ’Trib’s offices yesterday,” another voice said.

“The offices of an American newspaper are sacred, it’s practically a United States Embassy.”

“Without diplomatic immunity or a Security Battalion.”

This other voice was also American but quieter and slightly thicker, a New Yorker with an adenoidal touch.

“They did sir. I was there reading the proofs when the chief printer came down into the presses with a pair of police nationale and they chiselled the plates off the rolls. See, front page, ‘Police Seize Copies Of European Edition Of Herald Tribune.’”

“I told you,” the New Yorker. “Goddamn it, look at that, ‘De Gaulle Starts For Paris.”

“And the navy has arrived in Algeria,” the Californian answered, “the paratroopers’ll be landing on the boulevards at any moment. Interesting times. Thanks kiddo, here’s a hundred for two, drink the change.”

As the newspaper seller moved past him, Robert gestured him over.

“Do you accept English money?” The seller was young and tall and well-built and Robert was ashamed at his resentment of this. “I’m out of francs.”

“Eight pence sir.”

“Here’s a shilling,” Robert clumsily pulled out the last of his money with his swollen left hand. “Where are you from in England? London?”

“Colchester.”

“You’re a bit young to be working abroad aren’t you?”

“I’m eighteen. I go up to Cambridge in the Autumn. I’m Clive.”

The young man put out his hand in greeting and Robert regretted beginning the conversation. He lifted his useless, right hand and showed it to the young man. The digits were half curled and rigid within a glove: it looked like a leathered claw.

“The war.”

The young man couldn’t hide his slight recoil at the sight, like a healthy animal from sickness.

“I’m sorry.”

Robert had to turn away from that.

“So am I.”

The young man, embarrassed, walked out of the café without trying to sell any more. Robert sat looking at his drink again: the bright lights of the café seemed a little less bright now, the grey sky out beyond the windows a little closer.

“What happened there Art?”

The Californian was talking loudly again, the voice pitched to be heard, although the words were directed at the New Yorker. Robert glanced in the mirror and saw the eyes of the man waiting for him there. They were blue, set in symmetrical features, with sandy hair on top like a matinee idol, but the eyes were hard.

“Leave it Matt,” said the New Yorker.

Robert looked across the bar at that. In the lights reflected on the shining bar the man’s eyes glittered and Robert could see he was drunk. The New Yorker wasn’t as drunk, but he wasn’t in command here. The Californian began to move down the bar sideways towards him, one arm sliding along for balance, but the feet still had a fighter’s gait.

Tu es une tapette?” the man asked, sliding to the colloquially crude to offend, to start something Robert was in no state to finish. “I said, are you a fag?”

Robert had almost finished his fourth whisky on an empty stomach and his good hand still throbbed through the haze. Despite pride and instincts welling up inside him, Robert knew he wouldn’t last a moment, nor did he want the police attention it would bring.

“No.”

“Then why did the kid walk out without selling the rest of his stock?”

“Because,” Robert said slowly, “he is embarrassed by deformity.”

“What are you talking about? Kid’s clean as a quarter back.”

“Not his deformity, mine.”

Saying that he peeled off his glove, showing the withered hand like the foot of a dead bird, thin in all the wrong places, the wrist just skin over bone.

Robert expected the usual response to that – the combination of pity and revulsion – and so the man’s laughter took him by surprise. It rolled around from hard the tiles of the floor to the dusty mouldings on the ceiling.

“Good God laddie I’m sorry,” the man said, still smiling, “you took one in the arm didn’t you?”

“Yes, you…”

“…severed the medial nerve, right?”

“How do you know that?”

“Saw a guy with the same problem in the Army hospital in Guam. Where were you?”

“Normandy.”

“On the beaches?”

“No, behind the lines holding on a bridge in Caen.”

“To stop the armour flanking us, right? Operation Deadstick?”

Robert nodded. This made it easier, at least, less shaming.

“You hear that Art? That’s irony for you. Laddie-boy here had his wings clipped on Pegasus Bridge.”

“Sorry son,” Art said. He said it with pity but it was of the right sort.

“Let me buy you another drink.” The man picked up Robert’s almost empty glass and tasted the last drops. “Joachim! Une autre Chivas pour le soldat!

The bartender took down a bottle from the glittering array.

“Why were you in hospital in Guam?”

“Took one in the knee on the beach at Iwo Jima. Nothing permanent, though. I’m Matt Carney, Lieutenant – formerly – of the United States Marines Corps, now of La Sorbonne. This is former Art Buchwald, formerly also a gyrene, now of the Herald Tribune. We came out on the G. I. Bill.”

Matt put out his left hand to shake his Robert’s and without rancour Robert raised his other hand for inspection. The swelling was so bad now it was clear something was broken.

“I’m afraid that’s not working today either. Robert Gough. Formerly Second Lieutenant in the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry. I came out on an invalid’s pension from His Majesty’s Government and whatever free drinks a Médaille de la France libérée can get you.”

He said the last in a voice that was meant to be a joke, but the truth of it stuck in the tone and the two men smiled and nodded.

“That’s no bullet, that’s a bad punch.” Matt said. “Who’d you hit? Anyone but a woman or a priest and the drink after this is on me as well.”

“A policeman.”

The laugh roared again.

“Even better than I’d hoped. Was there a reason?”

“He was murdering a man with his baton for shouting ‘Vive de Gaulle’ on the Champs-Elysée. I stepped in, he swung, I ducked, I swung, he went down and his friends chased me over the river. I lost them around the University. I came here as I think they’d be less likely to give me a thrashing in the Bar Americain.”

“Art, you know what we have here? A wounded warrior with the right politics and the right principles, quick on his feet and likes a drink. You need to come to Fiesta kid.”

“What’s fiesta?”

“Where they open your eyes to the experience of existence that shows humans how to go beyond themselves.” Robert caught Art rolling his eyes and quenched his answering smile. “The greatest of them all is the fair of San Fermín in Pamplona in Navarre. They have dark haired women so beautiful there they make you want to sing, and skins of wine so cheap you want to cry, and when you have your danced and drunk your fill, there is the jota, a song made of crying. And then there you have Los Toros.”

“Toros?” Robert was enjoying playing along now. He knew he had, as so rarely happened recently, fallen into good company.

“Los toros bravos, the great black fighting bulls of Spain, who bring rebirth, wildness and alegría – joy – to those who run with them every morning of Fiesta. Then they bring sorrow and beauty and Art to those who watch them die in the corrida in the evening. You need to come and let Saint Fermin give you your soul back.”

“My friend waxes poetical, but I’ve heard it is quite a place,” Art chimed in, “and they like foreigners there. They’re not fed up with us yet, unlike the French.”

“Did you just say ‘run with’ bulls.”

“You’ve never heard of the Encierro? Then what the hell are you doing in Bar Le Select? This is Papa Hemingway’s old joint: his first novel begins this very bar! It could be about you. It starts after the First War with an invalided soldier and then he goes to Pamplona. You need to get yourself up to the bookshop on rue de la Bûcherie and ask for The Sun Also Rises and Death In The Afternoon which’ll tell you all you need to know about the bulls. The feria is the second week of July. Let me tell you what it’s like.”

And then the stories began.

paris-1958

The Paris Riots of 1958

*                 *                      *

The weeks passed but Robert didn’t go back to Le Select, and so the two men drifted from his consciousness like so many things. Then, in the shimmering heart of July, he found himself in another Left Bank bar and the same newspaper seller walked in. The young man didn’t recognise him, and so Robert paid him silently – he had francs this time – and leafed through until he saw some words that jogged his memory, “Art Buchwald, writing from Pamplona,” and he read on:

“The most important event during the Fiesta of San Fermin is El Encierro, the running of the bulls through the streets of Pamplona at seven o’clock in the morning. This traditional fertility rite is considered to be one of the most dangerous methods of proving one’s manhood. Those who have rode the cresta at St. Mortiz, driven in the 24-hour race at Le Mans, and hunted lion in Africa shudder when Encierro is mentioned.“

Robert quickly regretted not following up on their invitation.

“A group of about eight of us sat up all night. Matt Carney, another runner shared his bota (wine skin) with us. Bottles of cognac kept being emptied as the group spun tales of other bull runnings, gorings, and tramplings. As dawn approached it became obvious, from the conversation, that no one had ever survived an encierro.” He smiled at that, able to visualise the veterans swapping ever-inflated stories of jeopardy and joy. “…the second rocket went off and somewhere behind us we knew the bulls had started to run. The crowds in the apartment houses cheered and the ones behind the barricades screamed. And off in the distance the steady sounds of hoofs could be heard…”

The line that lifted him from his seat and sent him off to find rue de la Bûcherie, ‘Butchery Row’, came further down the page: “We can’t deny there is a sense of achievement, a feeling of accomplishment for having run with the bulls.”

*                 *                      *

There followed a hard winter for Robert. Things had happened and he’d been forced to return to England. However, he’d still made the train from Paris to Toulouse on July 1st. His money had run out there, but he’d hitched and walked, climbed and hiked, until he was over the Pyrenees and fell in with some pilgrims on the Way of St. James.

It was dawn on the 12th of July when he reached Pamplona, and, once inside the old city walls, it had the chaotic feel of a city recently sacked. Debris littered the ground as on a battlefield, although the gutters ran red with wine rather anything more opaque. Among the dregs of the bacchanal, jarringly pristine marching bands blasted alien tunes into the air from gleaming brass.

Robert asked the first sober person he could find – an elderly woman sitting in a doorway – a single word question.

¿Toros?

She looked him up and down, laughed and pointed down a wide street; he half expected her to begin knitting black wool.

He reached a set of thick wooden barriers, constructed as though to constrain elephants rather than cattle, and he knew that he had come to the right place. He climbed through into what was obviously the town square, with a strikingly Baroque town hall, topped by a clock chiming a quarter to seven. He asked again after the bulls and a man point him down a street to the side of the building.

Robert walked down the slope. He’d taken Buchwald’s advice and dressed accordingly, from his white canvas plimsoles up, topped with a scarlet neckerchief. However, he also had his old Army rucksack which he needed to stow somewhere in the next fifteen minutes before the bulls came. He was wondering about that when a voice boomed out that brought his heart into this throat.

“Pegasus!”

He turned to see a tall blond man standing foursquare on the other side of the barriers in an alleyway. He was surrounded by several men of non-Spanish mien and in various states of sleeplessness and alcoholic disrepair. Robert approached.

“You’re a year late Pegasus. Whaddya you do, walk?”

He felt himself folded into a bear hug and then the conversation continued.

“This here Englishman boys,” Matt said turning to his companions, “took a bullet on D-Day through his right arm and broke his left punching Gendarmes. Pegasus, this is Mac, David Black, Dave Pierce, Cliff Fish and Hal Casteel, who was the first of us to run in ’50 and hasn’t done so since hence he’s looking after the booze. They are veterans to a man laddie-boy.”

Robert shook the left hands of the men who even through their disarray had a distinct air of purpose about them.

“You running?” Matt asked him.

“That’s the only reason I’m here. Is there somewhere safe I can drop my bergen?”

“Right here. Marceliano’s, the best joint in town. You know it’s good because Ernest Hemingway himself has breakfasts here every day now he’s back in town. We’ve thrown over that hack Buchwald for a Nobel prize winner.” Matt took Robert’s rucksack and pulled open a door. “Señor, a mi mesa, por favor!” then he turned back to Robert, “right, we’ve got less than five minutes Lieutenant so you’re gonna need to know the enemy’s composition, disposition and strength.”

“There are five steers, but they’re just the transport. Big and white, brown and bony, their horns are blunt and their minds are innocent of anger. The bulls, on the other hands, are low and beautiful and sleek and weigh about twelve hundred pounds but can shift direction as quick as a leopard and when they’re on their own they’re like a shark when there’s blood in the water.

“There’s normally six but today there are only four – number five got gored by the others unloading from the trucks and then they killed number six in the coral. If that’s what they do to their friends, imagine what they can do to their enemies. These are the bull of the sons of Don Eduardo Miura, the bulls of death.”

“These are black with foot and a half horns curved like scimitars. The corrals are at the bottom of calle Domingo – Sunday Street – here. They’re are usually together in a herd up here – especially Miuras – but there’s two spots they can separate: across the wide town hall square, or after the next street, Mercaderes, when they pile up at the ninety degree corner onto Estafeta. If you run with me, and I advise you do, they’ll catch us about halfway up the straight of Estafeta, and then we run with them down into the entry of the bullring and through onto the sand when you get out of the way and some ex-matadors lure them into the corrals there.”

“And if it goes wrong?”

Matt looked Robert up and down at that.

“When d’you last have a drink?”

Robert stood and lean and tanned from a fortnight of walking and hiking in the mountain sun.

“Two weeks ago.”

“Christ. Mac, pass that bottle.” Mac picked up a bottle that had been placed beside the door to the hotel. Robert had the impression these men might have been sitting with it for some time. “Now drink deep.” Robert did, nearly choking on the coarse spirit. “Spanish brandy is one half the answer to your question. The next is coming right up.”

With that they climbed into the street and walked down to where a group of men were standing around a figurine in a niche cut high into the wall.

“That is Saint Fermin. He’s the one this is all for. He’s the one who looks after you.”

The men gathered began a ritual chant in which the only words he could make out were ‘San Fermín’. Once they were done, Matt and Robert walked back up the street and as they did so, various people came up to him and shook his hand, saying a word which Robert couldn’t make out.

“What’re they saying?”

“Suerte. Luck. Right, last piece of advice. If you fall down, stay down: cattle are like horses and won’t tread on what they don’t know. If they want a fight, though, movement draws them to you, and on your knees your guts are horn height. Climbing is out for you with the hand, but you can drop and roll under the fences if you reach them and if you get in a doorway, stay still. There’s some good local boys out there who will help you.”

Robert looked around and saw there were more people than he’d thought – some in whites, some in suits as though going to church – all the faces were pale and serious though. Some were praying.

Robert realised his own fear was growing, and discovered how much he had missed that feeling. An old enemy was back but now it was dressed as an old friend. He began smiling and saw it echoed on Matt’s face, who bounced an elbow off his ribs.

“See, I told you. Let’s get going, nice and slow though.”

They jogged out of the square along another stretch of street. Everyone seemed to be fixing themselves now: some taking a stand, some like them running slow, others fast. Matt pointed to some of the last group.

“Los valientes. ‘The valiant ones’. They’ll be in the ring and out over the barreras long before the bulls get near ’em.”

Then what sounded like a gunshot exploded in the air and Robert flinched at the sound.

“What was that?”

“Gates of Hell?” Matt said. “They’ve opened the corrals. We’ve got a minute-thirty max, let’s get round the bend here.”

As he rounded the corner, Robert saw what he could only view as a killing field. It was a third of a mile of street straight, with a slight incline, and absolutely no exits.

“I know it looks bad son, but the plan is to be halfway up before the herd hits that corner back there, and there are fences up top before the entrance to the ring. If it gets tough, or someone shouts back at you the word montón, which means pile-up, get out through the fence. The entrance is narrow and downhill, so people lose their footing.”

They were going faster now and Robert began to worry. What was he doing? Did he really survive a World War to die with a herd of Spanish cattle because of some crazy Americans? He looked at Matt who was, if anything, smiling even more than before. Robert wondered if the man was actually insane. He started to run faster, trying to get to get to the fences in the distance. Seconds later he heard a voice shouting up the street behind him.

“They’re coming centre and left, your right is clear.”

Robert looked over his shoulder at a sight that would haunt his dreams: there were the fighting bulls, horns like blades of bone, bodies squat in their muscular bulk although rising head-high with the bounce of their gait. And running in the middle of the street with a few other men who seemed to possess the same confidence was Matt, still smiling.

Other runners were leaping out of the way, pinning themselves to the walls, throwing themselves on the floor, clawing over one another in a panic to get out of the way of Nature’s own great cavalry charge, fleeing the stampede. Robert saw the fences.

“Run!” Matt shouted, his words like those of a dying man in Robert’s imagination.

Robert knew not to look back, that it would only slow him down, and reckoned he only had twenty yards to the fences, if he could only get there. He dug into his reserves only to see a great dark shape draw up beside him. The gloss-black sphere of the bull’s eye, alien and alone, studied him as it blocked him from the exit route. He looked to his left and there were two steers, careening down the street helter-skelter, great hooves clacking on the cobbles and bells ringing round their necks like doom. They hemmed him in, cutting off all possibility of escape.

Robert chanced a look behind and saw two more bulls coming up directly behind him, the points of their horns aimed steady as rifles at the square of his back. He now lacked the breath to outrun the animals, and to drop back into that forest of swaying horns and pounding hooves was unthinkable. Between the last two animals, running at a flying sprint and laughing like a demon was Matt Carney.

“The herd’s accepted you. Fly Pegasus, fly with them.”

At that Robert realised the madman was right. The animals alongside him were not trying to hem him in, nor those behind to use their horns. They were in fact gathering around him, almost as though to protect him, and they were certainly clearing the street in front of him. His feet warned him of the downward gradient of the street as a great structure of concrete and stone loomed in front of him: he had arrived at the bull-ring. He focused on his footing and kept with the bulls as the last of his stamina flowed out of him into the cobbles. He entered a narrow tunnel and felt a hand on his shoulder as the great beasts glided past him, before the hand gripped his shirt and jerked him to the side.

“There’s one more behind and he’s not happy. We’re out Lieutenant,” said Matt.

They both ran over to the wooden barrier as a last bull entered with a runner in front and Robert could see the difference. It wasn’t running with the man, but after him, and it caught him, throwing him fifteen feet through the air with a careless shrug of its swollen shoulder muscles. The bull then turned and appeared to catch sight of Robert who had just reached the barrier. However, with only one arm, and legs as weak as a fresh foal’s, he could couldn’t climb over.

The animal’s own massive leg muscles bunched and exploded so it seemed almost to leap out of itself as it charged directly at him. Robert knew there was nothing he could do.

It was in that moment of recognition and resignation that two things happened at once: first, a voice in his ear shouted,

“Attention!”

The barked command kick-started old drill-reflexes, stiffening his slack muscles and allowing a pair of arms to grab his shoulders and literally pivot him head first over the planks. At the same time a lone man run out in front of the bull, with nothing but his red neckerchief in his hand, and caught its attention, drawing its charge away.

“Now that, laddie-boy, is the cape of Saint Fermin interceding with the Devil on your behalf!” said the madman who had pulled him out and was now standing over him. Matt was still laughing as he helped Robert to his feet.

Robert, unable to stop himself, and despite the fact that he was still panting from adrenaline and exertion, he began to laugh in response. It was over, and it had been beautiful, with none of the mixed feelings – the tainted moralities or tragic consequences – of war. He had not felt this good, and this much himself, in years.

ernest-hemingway-and-antonio-ordonez-in-1959

Ernest Hemingway and Antonio Ordonez, Pamplona, 1959

“And that, laddie-boy, is alegría. Now, what we need is to check on the rest of the cuadrilla and then head up to Bar Choko. I hear Hemingway has been up there signing autographs with Ordóñez every day.”

“Who’s Ordóñez?”

“Who’s Ordóñez? Jesus, you haven’t even seen a bullfight have you? Oh, you’ve got a hell of a day ahead of you.”

“And tomorrow?”

“Tomorrow we do it all over again. Welcome home.”

FIN

Matt Carney running in the centre of the street, on the horns of the bulls, in 1960

Matt Carney running in the very centre of the street, on the points of the horns of the bulls, Pamplona 1960

auteurBritish playwright, actor and journalist born in 1976, Alexander Fiske-Harrison, has written for a number of newspapers across the Channel like The Times. He has also corresponded from London for Spanish newspapers like ABC and El Norte de Castilla. He has authored in the language of Shakespeare several contributions on Pamplona, Hemingway and Orson Welles, and in 2011 published Into The Arena: The World of the Spanish Bullfight (Profile Books), the product of two years bullfighting in Spain. This is his first participation in the Hemingway Prize.

the-author-fight-flight

His essay on bullfighting can be found at the blog ‘The Last Arena’ online here. His personal blog is online here.

 

NOTE:

All characters who appear with the exception of Robert Gough are real.

Matt Carney’s encounter with Ernest Hemingway later that day is recounted in his book Peripheral American and also in James Michener’s Iberia, but not in Hemingway’s The Dangerous Summer.

The encierro is as described by Antonio Díaz Cañabate in ABC (our friend Rolf von Essen of the Peña Taurino Los Suecos was there.)

With thanks to Matt Carney’s children, Allen and Deirdre, and Joe Distler, to Ernest Hemingway’s grandson John, to my father Clive Fiske Harrison who did indeed sell the Herald Tribune on the Left Bank in ’58, and to Antonio and the staff of Le Select.

In memory of my dear friend Noel Chandler with whom I first visited Le Select as an adult – along with Larry Belcher and Ana Cerón – of David Pierce who appears in the story – and Art Buchwald’s article – who died while it was being written, of Julen Madina who died this month and all the other runners of the encierros of bulls, my brothers-in-arms.

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