The most important review of my book from an anti-bullfighting activist was, unfortunately, in the pages of The Times Literary Supplement and is dealt with on the page ‘The TLS: A dispute of animal rights’. I say unfortunate because the TLS is the first place I published, aged 21, in a letter titled ‘Hume and Kant’, defending my one time lecturer at Oxford on political philosophy, the late Sir Isaiah Berlin, against Professor Peter Gay, the Yale historian. It saddened me greatly that a literary magazine which I had written essays of philosophy for since that letter, and which counts among its contributors Henry James, Virginia Woolf and T. S. Eliot, should hire a reviewer for a book on bullfighting who is so against the death of animals that he tried to force his pet wolf to become a vegetarian, something which he had written about in a book which I had previously negatively reviewed myself in Prospect magazine, a review which he had attacked on his blog. All in all, a very poor choice indeed.
The second most important review was from the League Against Cruel Sports. Although it was negative overall, they still had some nice things to say:
Alexander Fiske-Harrison spent a year immersing himself in the bullfighting culture of Spain, with the seemingly noble aim of trying to gain a greater understanding of it.
Animal welfare issues are sporadically raised, but are always dismissed as being subordinate to the “art form” of bullfighting. In Fiske-Harrison’s mind, the prolonged suffering of an animal for human entertainment is acceptable because it stirs emotion in an audience.
To his credit, Fiske-Harrison does at least acknowledge the morally questionable nature of the bullfight. And the book does contain some interesting explorations of concepts such as fear, bravery and drive.
Finally, I have found another example which falls into what I would call the “lone nut” category: Paul Hurt on his website ‘Linkages’. I call him a nut advisedly: in the almost 80,000 words on his anti-bullfighting page at last count, there were over 180 mentions of my name. Flattering, but crazy. Obviously, most of it is a combination of the obscure and obtuse – e.g. picking me up on calling a magazine quarterly when it is bi-monthly, while saying bullfighters aren’t that brave because the bullring is not as bad as the siege of Stalingrad. However, even he has some nice things to say. Here they are:
The only strength to have emerged so far at this early stage in the book is a strength, a comparative strength, which has nothing to do with the ethics of bullfighting, the rendering of sights and sounds. These descriptive powers have nothing to do with the ethics of bullfighting. A moral case isn’t won if one side has superior skills in writing. As for Alexander Fiske-Harrison’s skills, he’s obviously a stylist…
Alexander Fiske-Harrison’s abilities as a stylist are evident throughout the book, sometimes intermittently, sometimes for long stretches – these have to be considered separately from what he’s trying to express. It has to be acknowledged that bad causes sometimes have personable advocates, that bad causes may be supported by gifted organizers, notable intellectuals, good or great writers and artists, and other people of note.
After running with the bulls, Alexander Fiske-Harrison attended a bullfight in Pamplona, vowing never to attend another there. It’s cause for great regret and cause for moral condemnation of Alexander Fiske-Harrison that he didn’t decide never to attend another bullfight anywhere. This is the most heartfelt and most sustained description of the plight of a bull in ‘Into the Arena’ by far:
‘It was a strangely moving experience running side-by-side with a bull, close enough to touch, although I have been warned that that was frowned upon … he was pure brown in colour and apparently totally ignorant of my existence at his flank, his whole being determined only to keep with his herd and get clear of this mass of humanity. The kinship I felt with him was purely physical, locomotory, experience, but it was still more than superficial.
‘Later that evening I watched the one and only bullfight I will ever see in Pamplona. The party atmosphere from the streets was magnified in the ring. Not one, but six bands were in operation, each one from a different fan club celebrating. The fans themselves danced and shouted and swore and drank, half the time with their backs to the sand. The matadors valiantly tried to get their attention by fighting, but the bulls were so distracted by the noise – and being run through the streets that morning – that they were almost impossible to make charge. It was an ugly, barbaric thing. And then the bull I had run beside came in, and although he was fought well, he refused to die, despite the sword being within him. As the crowd cheered and booed, swayed and screamed, he walked over to the planks and began a long slow march around the ring, holding on to life as though with some internal clenched fist, refusing to give up, refusing to die. I had run next to this great animal, had matched myself to him as best I could, and in doing so felt some form of connection to the powers that propelled him. Now I watched them all turned inwards in an attempt to defy the tiny, rigid ribbon of steel within his chest, and having been blinded by no beauty, tricked by no displays of courage or prowess by the matadors, I just saw an animal trying to stay on its feet against the insuperable reality of death. I left the plaza de toros with tears in my eyes after that.’
This is far from being the only instance of confusion in the book, but here the confusion is particularly acute: heartening and not in the least heartening at the same time. The plight of the animal is memorably shown, but at variance with this is the implied criticism of the crowd for disregarding the bullfight, for ignoring the matadors ‘valiantly’ trying to gain their attention, and the drawing of attention to the ‘failure’ of the bulls to charge.
Finally, he even had something nice to say about a radio interview I did on the BBC on bullfighting:
[As for] the ‘arguments’ used by Alexander Fiske-Harrison in the radio programme… Presentation was at a much higher level. The arguments were presented with great fluency. It was quite something to hear him in full flow. This was the triumph of presentation over substance. The sophists of ancient Greece could make the worse case appear better. Alexander Fiske-Harrison can be regarded as a contemporary sophist.
I’ll take that as a compliment