Originally posted on my more serious taurine blog, The Last Arena – http://www.thelastarena.com
(This is a translation of: “Un espontáneo inglés salta en defensa de los toros.” An espontáneo is a member of the audience at a bullfight who jumps, illegally, into the ring to cape the animal with which the matador is fighting. Expansión is the Spanish language equivalent of the Financial Times)
26.08.2011| London| Roberto Casado
In a year of pessimism among aficionados of bullfighting, because of the effect of the economic crisis on the bullfights and the ban on bullfighting in Catalonia, a book published in England provides a dose of hope for the future of the spectacle by giving a sturdy defense of the ‘fiesta nacional’ from a new international perspective.
Alexander Fiske-Harrison, a 35-year old Englishman, who studied biology and philosophy, a member of environmental organizations, who made began his career as an actor in London, recounts his two years of immersion in the world of bullfighting in the book Into the Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight.
The author, not even trying to compete with the literary qualities of Ernest Hemingway in his books on bullfighting, decides to go further than the legendary American writer and not just to see the bullfights from the sidelines and share a table and tablecloth with the bullfighters of the day. Fiske-Harrison participates in testing heifers on the ranches, running the bulls in Pamplona, takes classes in bullfighting and ends up killing a bull.
His conclusion is that “In that ring are all the tragic and brutal truths of the world unadorned. It is for that reason, above all, that you cannot ban the bullfight, because it is already contained in the very facts of life itself. All you can do is turn away. And convince others to do so as well.”
The defence that Fiske-Harrison makes for the bulls after his experiences is mounted on two pillars. The first is a common argument among the Spanish aficionados: Fighting cattle live and die in a much more free environment, and one much more respectful of their true nature, that that suffered by cattle dedicated to human consumption, furthermore this facilitates the upkeep of the dehesas, the Spanish forests, habitats of high ecological value.
The second argument comes from a liberal perspective, one which is traditionally Anglo-Saxon. “How can people stand to see a animal wounded and killed, no matter how beautiful the dance that leads to it?” Asks the author. “This definitely questions the virtue of the audience. And liberal democracies do not pass new laws on virtue. In the words of the first Queen Elizabeth, who taught tolerance to England, “I would not make windows onto men’s souls.”
But Fiske-Harrison’s bullfighting adventure begins with many doubts. In 2000, his family went to a bullfight in Seville in which he left the arena after the fourth bull, “I could not stand so much blood.” But that afternoon left a mark on Fiske-Harrison. “That was something important. Whatever it was, was on a moral borderline. When done well, it seemed good thing, when done badly, it seemed an unpardonable sin.”
After attending several more bullfights and writing some articles on the subject, Alexander Fiske-Harrison confirms that the spectacle is “on the edge of a ethical precipice. Each person must decide for himself, as he must decide whether the taste of a steak justifies the killing of a cow.”
To give a personal response to this dilemma, the author began his adventure in 2008 of two years “by the skin of the bull”, that forms the foundation of the book. Fiske-Harrison travels to Madrid and Pamplona, but his base is, “Andalusia. Seville. Where the bullfight was born.” On parade in the story are the bullfighters, breeders and aficionados… and dozens of steers and bulls, each with his own particular characteristics.
In the end, the author refutes the critics from outside the fiesta. But not fully addressed are the internal wrongs, which some say, are its greatest danger: the lack of strength, breeding and bravery of the bulls today, making many bullfights into, in Fiske Harrison’s phrase, an “unpardonable sin”.
Faced with the pessimists, this Englishman concludes that “the bullfights does not need saving. It is an industry of 2,500 million euros with a thousand bullfights a year, compared to 300 in the Golden Age of the 1930s. The main matadors are making millions per year.”
The book has received excellent reviews in British newspapers. Various magazines and television programmes producing articles and reports on the fiesta brava have called on the author. Now he has become an international ambassador of the bulls.
Suárez ‘bullfighter’ and 23-F
Adolfo Suárez Illana, son of former Spanish Prime Minister, is portrayed in the book as an excellent amateur matador. In addition to sharing several fights with Alexander Fiske-Harrison, Suárez Illana recounts in the book his father’s love for bullfighting, who also killed bulls in his youth.
He explains how that experience influenced the stoic attitude of the then president when a group of National Police stormed Congress in the coup of February 23, 1981. “How did my father remain calmly seated? He’d never been a soldier. However, when you have faced a bull, you know that a gun is just another thing that can kill you, and not the worst. ” According to Suárez Illana, “the dance of death with a bull, the fight itself, has an incontestable truth behind it: Death. But the essence is not Death, but Art: man’s ability to create feelings in the ring. ”
“I am a Tomasista”
Alexander Fiske-Harrison says still doubts about the morality of the runs when he sees a bad bull kill or a bull without ferocity or strength. And is even bored some evenings. But that does not happen with the bullfighter José Tomás, whom he discovered in Jerez in 2009. “That was art. The cruelty was forgotten, my doubts were blown away. I was bewitched.”
From Sanlúcar to Pamplona
Fiske-Harrison admits Madrid and Seville are “the cathedrals of bullfighting”. However, he extols the ambience of Sanlúcar, “where people combine the excitement of the feria with a knowledge of the bulls.” Despite running the bulls in Pamplona, the bullfights in this city are simply too rowdy for him and for the bulls as well.
The ban in Catalonia
“As a liberal, I do not believe in banning things,” says Fiske-Harrison about the decision of the Catalan Parliament to abolish bullfighting in this province. However, the author does not see only nationalist separatism behind this decision. “When I was in Barcelona, I heard how people spoke against bullfighting, just as they were against smoking in bars (it was curious, though, for people who smoke cannabis and play bongos all night in the streets.)”
Friendship with Cayetano
During immersion in the world of bullfighting, Fiske-Harrison strikes up a friendship with several bullfighters of the day, among them matadors with very different styles such as Juan José Padilla and Cayetano Rivera Ordóñez (with whom the author is pictured below). In a passage from the book, the English writer Cayetano ask yourself how you feel after a fight. The bullfighter responded, “have you ever done anything with so much adrenaline that leaves you totally overwhelmed?”
The original spread from the centre of the newspaper can be viewed as a PDF below.