Almería is a pretty little town of extreme heat at the eastern end of the Andalusian coastline. I first came here last year during their feria of the Virgin of the Sea, in order to meet with the greatest American bull-runner Joe Distler. I,came to ask for some advice about the encierros, ‘bull-runs’ of Cuéllar. Less famous, and less spoiled, less drunken and less glorious than Pamplona – all in all, less ‘Hemingway’ – I wrote it up for the Financial Times, using photos by my old friend Nicolás Haro (who took the black and white photos for my book on my time as a torero, ‘bullfighter’, the William Hill Sports Book of the Year 2011 shortlisted Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight.)
As a result of our writing and running… well… if I’m honest, as a result of their need for tourism, Nicolás and I have been awarded a prize by the town which, of course, we have to go and collect in person. So, I thought I’d recreate my pilgrimage, coming to sit at the feet of Don José Distler once again. Not least because he didn’t come to Pamplona this year, breaking a tradition of running all eight daily encierros there every year for 45 years straight! (My own adventures in Pamplona this year were of minor interest, the crowds being so thick that the only day I got truly close to the bulls I was so surprised and admiring of the pulse and surge of jet black toro bravo beside me that I failed to see the man in front of me trip and fall, bringing me down. So I was trampled by man an animal alike until I rolled clear to the side of the street and was yanked to my feet by none other than John Hemingway. I was also pulled up by our friend Graeme Galloway, who runs the Pamplona Posse, but that is not quite so serendipitous a namedrop as the man whose grandfather brought the crowds who trampled me in the first place.)
Joe is, like all truly wild men, also a creature of traditions and habits. He has his querencias – his lairs – as they say in toreo (the word so badly translated into English as ‘bullfighting’: it is not a fight, nor a sport: it is a tragic drama for an audience constructed around a ritual sacrifice.) The back row on the sunny side of the plaza de toros of Almería is one of Joe’s dens, where we have sat for the past two nights and watched two exquisite performances by two formidable toreros, José Mari Manzanares hijo and Julian Lopéz, ‘El Juli’.
Wednesday night’s corrida of bulls from the ranches of Juan Pedro Domecq and ‘Toros de Parladé’, was dominated by the return to form – although not full form – of the matador Manzanares whose corridas in Seville last year were so exceptional. The second-string critic writing in the Spanish newspaper ABC say that Manzanares seems to have lost heart, and there is some truth in this – it is hard, I should imagine, to fully invest in the dance with death the torero performs with his toro when you have recently had your first child as José Mari has. He certainly prayed longer and harder before his first bull than I have seen him do before. And when it came out, it was an ugly black and white brute with a foul temper and unreliable charges. However, after some neat passes with the large cape, and the picador had cut it down to manageable size – this is a second category plaza, with smaller bulls, so only one pic was given – and then the banderilleros had returned it to vigour, Manzanares reminded us of what he can do.
The aesthetics of his toreo is hard to describe. It is all in the roll of the wrist, while leaning into the path of the charge which he is simultaneously directing. His feet are firmly planted in the sand at first, ankles rolling to mirror the wrists, ending in a slight elevation of the foot onto its side of the toes. Meanwhile the face is solemn, the aggression of the cite – the summoning calls to the bull – fades back to the statue. It is the very essence of will, a man directing death to pass him by, close enough to touch, to feel the ground move and bounce beneath his feet, smell and sound – the sonorous roll of the bull’s breath echoing in this amphitheatre of horror and delight, triumph and destruction.
However, the metaphors at play in toreo of Life dancing with Death, Man with Beast, Order with Chaos… these overarching themes are only true when the detail is also true. Only to the illiterate eye can the amateur, the novice or the journeyman-torero transmit and transcend to the levels required (which the other two toreros, Ruiz Manuel and Ivan Fandiño did not.) The aficionados eyes quickly become jaded, our palates clotted with the frustration, blood and pain of toreros who cannot make the two dancers become one statue.
Manzanares managed all of this, although some would say he still seemed not to be fully within himself. One senses that he is not currently living life all the way up, to use Papa’s phrase from The Sun Also Rises, at least in the plaza. It certainly seemed that both bulls had at least one more tanda, one more series of those beautiful flowing passes within it. However, he killed both bulls cleanly, well quickly and bravely, the first with his trademark suerte de recibir, the most dangerous and least seen method of killing in which the bulls charges the man’s sword, rather than vice versa. He took three ears from his two bulls and was carried out of the main gate on the shoulders of the crowd.
Yesterday evening, with similarly mediocre bulls of Hernández Martín and Garcigrande – although they were larger, all being over 500kg – El Juli showed what a matador can do when he is fully present. I saw him badly gored – his femoral artery spraying blood on the sand – in Seville in April, collapsing into the arms of Manzanares who ran to his brother matador’s aid faster than Juli’s own team. And then I saw him through the alcoholic haze and riotous noise of Pamplona in July doing nothing of interest. However, yesterday from the very first bull he seemed to know exactly what he could do, putting in a series of deep, solemn, slow and moving veronicas, performed with perfect ‘temple’, rhythm, so the cloth never once brushed the bull’s face as the cloth of the passes namesake, Saint Veronica, did Christ’s on his way to Golgotha. His combinations of classical passes with the red cloth, the muleta, and adornments such as the molinete which wraps the fabric and the animal following it around the body of the man, were exquisite. His kill was perfect, leading the President to award him both ears of the bull without a moment of hesitation. (Too often the President of the plaza seems to feel that some form of performance is required from him, refusing to yield to the sea of white handkerchiefs being waved by the crowd, as though it were not always clear what artistic value a performance has.)
After some toreo of merit, but not fascination, from Enrique Ponce – a man I once called the Rolex of bullfighters, which you can take to mean many things, and I mean and meant all of them – and Miguel Angél Perera, the first matador with whom I ‘shared the sand’ (Manzanares was the last), Juli went in with a more difficult bull and tried all the harder, even using the cape pass named after him, the lopecina, in which the bull is summoned half the width of the ring by turning the vast cape into a flowing butterfly, which is pulled sharply into and around the body when the bull arrives at a gallop at the man. The great aficionado Noel Chandler – with whom I am having dinner in Madrid tonight – once called Juli ‘the encylopaedia of toreo’. I have always agreed with this judgment, but before I found him a bullfighter who lacked ‘transmission’, who failed to move me. Now I am moved by his passion for his toreo, even after a decade and a half as a matador de toros. He confronts the bull like a fascinating problem to be solved, and draws from it every last drop of performance spectacle that it has, before killing it with speed and elegance. He showed us – Joe Distler, that other noted American bull-runner Art Duff and the most scholarly aficionado who speaks English Michael Wigram – why we go to the bulls. No better there is none. (Which is not in anyway to belie my love of those profound and duende-filled artists, the Hidden God José Tomás, and the unreliable and irregular flamencista Morante de la Puebla, both recuperating from gorings.)
Now, Cuéllar beckons, by way of Madrid, where I go to meet the mayor and see the bulls unloaded, with the taurine sculptor Dyango Velasco, the former Texan rodeo rider turned university professor, Larry Belcher (with his wonderful wife Dr Ana Cerón), the great photographer of bulls and warzones Jim Hollander, Graeme Galloway, ‘The Scottish Rocket’ Angus Ritchie and the documentary maker – ‘Chasing Red’ – Dennis Clancey. Every single one being a bull-runner of note, although none of the casta of Josechu, the star of the encierros of Cuéllar, who takes running on the horns to a new level, as the photo below shows.
A final word on bull-running.
I was talking the other day to one of Britain’s foremost psychiatrists, Dr William Shanahan, and I asked him about bull-running.
“Why do I run?”
“You are a daredevil. If there was an unexplored trench at the depths of the ocean, you would be one of the first to dive to it.”
He is the most perceptive of men, and knows me well, but on this he is wrong. Or at least partly so. There are many reasons to run with the bulls, and vanity, pride and competition are necessary, but not sufficient, parts of it.
To come close to these Dark Gods, the bulls, before better men than us may slay them, is an honour which is worth the risk. This is the Cult of the Bull. And the initiates have between them a secret brotherhood which is almost as important as the proximity of the gods themselves. Among the foreign runners, other forces are at work, and recklessness rather than courage is often the order of the day (although having toreado bulls up close myself, I feel no such need to prove myself.) However, among the Spanish who truly own this, it is about the animals and the other men. In the encierro as in the corrida, there is no winner. There is only those who were there.