Joe Distler, known as the “Iron Man” of Pamplona, has run every Pamplona bull-run for 44 years and been the subject of countless articles and documentaries. He is without doubt, question or challenge the greatest American runner of the bulls.
The latest issue of La Busca, the journal of the association “Taurine Bibliophiles of America” contains this review.
In 1967, in the Strand Bookstore in Manhattan, I walked down the wrong isle heading for the fiction section and that brief misstep would change my life forever. There, lying in wait, was a copy of Robert Daley’s book, The Swords of Spain. Since Spain was always a place I had desired to visit, I picked up the book and the very first page I turned to had photographs of men running in front of Bulls. I was enraptured. Reading Hemingway had never really interested me in Pamplona’s “encierro” but Daley’s book completely freaked me out. It was, being a used copy, the best five dollar investment I have ever made! Not only did it convince me I must go to Pamplona immediately, it led to my friendships with Matt Carney, John Fulton, Muriel Feiner, Barnaby Conrad, Bill Lyon and a host of other fabulous characters who would go on to fill my life with wonder and joy.
Every year, before going to Spain, I still go back to Daley. The book is as fresh today as it was when I first read it standing in the stacks so many years ago. His vignette ‘Spanish Springtime’ still brings tears to my eyes and I wonder what magic made me find such a book?
Over the years, like so many aficionados, I have amassed a large library of taurine books but none ever affected me the way The Swords of Spain did. Not, at least, until recently.
This past summer during the Feria of San Fermin (my 44th), I came to meet a young kid from the UK who was full of, as the great Matt Carney would put it, “fight and fury”. He came to my table decked out in a red and white striped blazer torn up the middle and gallantly exclaimed it was torn by a Bull that very morn. Well, only Charles Patrick Scanlan, Warren Parker and I wear such jackets during Feria and I know a little something about running Bulls, so I waited and was regaled with his recent encounter with los toros. His enthusiasm was such that I was taken aback. Rarely, in all the years of running, had I met someone so taken with what has become one of the great passions of my own life.
Over the week that followed we became fast friends and shared stories of books and faraway places and , most of all, Bulls. It was then that I learned he had written a book about Spain. I ordered two copies sight unseen.
What a revelation his book was. Alexander Fiske-Harrison has penned one of the most engaging books on the Bulls I have ever read. I went through it at one sitting and jotted down many things I thought I knew about the world of the Bulls but didn’t. Not only is his book the story of a man obsessed with learning to fight a Bull but it is filled with Spanish lore and wonderful stories I am sure many of you have never heard before. (Did you know Frank Sinatra and a couple of Mafia types confronted Luis Miguel Dominguín?)
Alexander comes to Spain, meets several young toreros including Juan José Padilla and Cayetano, and Eduardo Dávila Miura, befriends them and they help him on his Quixote-like quest to fight a Bull. The story is riviting as one feels every failure, every success, every thrill as he heads toward a confrontation with a three-year-old toro bravo.
But the book is so much more; like The Swords of Spain, it brings you into the world of the Bulls in such an intimate way you feel you must book a ticket on the next plane to Spain. I am not a traditional book reviewer and this is a rare outing for me in this genre so forgive a rather hackneyed presentation of a book that deserves so much more.
When my wife, Nancy, arrived at our house on the Med for her summer vacation, I had a stack of books, as I always do, piled high for her summer reads. She chanced upon Alexander’s and, like me, read it cover to cover. “This kid has really got it,” she said. He sure has and I advise any and all aficionados to get a copy of Into The Arena as quickly as you can, open a bottle of Rioja, sit back and traverse with pleasure the world we so love.
Club Taurino of London
Number 202 September/October 2011
INTO THE ARENA
Alexander Fiske-Harrison (Profile Books, ISBN 978-1-84668-335-0 £15.99)
As mentioned in the last issue of La Divisa, [former; see note at end – Ed.] CTL member Alexander Fiske-Harrison’s writing on the bulls first came to prominence when he wrote for the influential magazine Prospect which carries in-depth articles on current affairs. His six page article entitled A Noble Death was prompted by his attending a corrida during the Feria de Abril in Sevilla in 2007. In it he examined whether aesthetics can justify the suffering of the animal. But we do not learn what the author himself believes. He concludes by writing “Whether or not that artistic quality does outweigh the moral question of the animal’s suffering is something that each person must decide for themselves – as they must decide whether the taste of a steak justifies the death of a cow.” The article prompted more comment on the magazine’s website than any other in its history. And it led to Profile Books commissioning him to write this book and get to the bottom of the moral dilemma that he faced. Armed with an advance and a useful contact or two he set off for Andalucia to immerse himself in the world of bulls including learning how to torear sufficiently well to kill a novillo himself.
First, what the book is not. It is not a book of reference, although there is plenty of information in it, and it is probably not for the serious-minded seasoned aficionado. There are errors, eg Las Fallas, rather than the Feria de Abril, is the first serious feria of the year: and the ring at the Miura ranch, Zahariche, is not the only rectangular bull ring left in Spain – indeed there are several including the beautiful one at Ermita de Nuestra Sra Belén just outside Puebla de Sancho Peréz near Zafra where they hold a novillada every September. What the book does provide is a highly personal account, aimed at the general public, of one man’s adventures over a year and a bit in “the world of the Spanish bullfight.” And what adventures he has. He has been described as a 21st century Flashman and we learn of his drinking sessions long into the night with matadors such as J J Padilla and Cayetano, now his “good friends”, of visits to ganaderias for tientas, running with the bulls in Pamplona, and of the ups and downs of his love life. He comes over as a larger than life character which makes for a hugely enjoyable and easy read.
But it is not all Boys’ Own Paper stuff. Through it all runs the thread of his moral dilemma. He is sickened by some of the fights he sees to the point of sometimes walking out, but is then lyrical about others to the point of ecstasy in a lengthy description of José Tomás’s 2009 performance in Jerez de la Frontera. To all this he brings to bear what he learned in gaining his degrees in biological science and philosophy. But he is still searching, so he reads more and goes to meet people involved in the ethics of how humans treat animals. While on this intellectual journey, he is finding it difficult to get sufficient practice and experience to be able to achieve his own kill. But then another introduction leads him to retired matador Eduardo Dávila Miura with whom he arranges to have intensive coaching. Thus, by dint of much hard work and fitness training, progress is finally made.
When he finally meets and kills his novillo before an invited audience it is a highly emotional occasion. His account is moving and instructive. He concludes “…despite the adulation of the crowd and my victorious killing, I couldn’t bring myself to revel in it. And sure enough, when I looked closely at the photos afterwards there was nothing in my eyes, only emptimess.” As so many matadors do, he felt respect for and a feeling of identity with the animal as it died. Finally he has resolved his moral dilemma and concludes with the statement that “And 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.”
The book has received excellent reviews in the mainstream UK press and hopefully people will buy it and decide to see for themselves. As he writes in the postscript “I have given you everything you need in order to decide whether or not you want to see a bullfight and hopefully something to help you understand a little better the glittering confusion of emotion and danger and gold that will unfold before you if you do.” I believe he has succeeded in this objective, albeit with a degree of hyperbole. But why not? After all, he has gone out there and done it.
Letters to the Editors
For various reasons I was unable to go the feria of San Isidro and attend the CTL lunch this year, not to mention witness Juan Mora’s triumphant afternoon in Cáceres, at which Ivan [Moseley] had the good fortune to be present. This enforced absence did give me some “me time”, and the great luxury of sitting at home undisturbed for a few hours, with a book. What a great read I found Alexander Fiske-Harrison’s Into The Arena!
I count myself an aficionada – probably one of those middle-aged aficionados of blood-anoraks Fiske-Harrison is rather condescending about; but that doesn’t bother me. I thoroughly enjoyed the book. I felt that the author gave a truly balanced view of toreo, involved himself in several branches of el mundillo, and finally killed a bull, if not, as he spontaneously confesseed at the CTL meeting in May, a very big one. How many of us can claim that?
Into The Arena is generally well written; it’s been well researched and includes references to history, art, philosophy and literature, as well as toreo. Furthermore, it’s a page-turner, an easy read.
When I look back on my own experiences in the world of the bulls, since I was introduced in 1965, I realise that I too have met amazing people, have been invited to equally stunning places and have had wonderful times with a number of matadors, ganaderos and other members of the taurine great and good. I’ve even put together five passes and a pase de pecho with a vaquilla, and have an MA in moral philosophy (although not from Oxford!), but I could never have written a book that is so accessible and entertaining.
I say all this as someone who, like several members of the Club, has known the author for a perhaps a couple of years, without being able to count him among my close friends. No doubt other people will find fault with the details or be put off by the name-dropping, but I loved it. As our good friend Victor Mendes would say: “Chapeau!” – ¡Ehorabuena, Alejandro!
[Following the publication of this review and letter, I was sent various emails from a senior member of the CTL – which included remarks from other senior members – which led to my resignation from the club at the end of 2011. Then, at the beginning of the 2012, the editor of La Divisa, Jock Richardson, published an almost 5,000-word attack on Into The Arena, despite having printed this earlier good review. He has since withdrawn that attack, apologised in print, and published my rebuttal in which I systematically prove the level of his error and venom. It is reprinted in the post ‘The Club Taurino of London: A dispute of authority’ on this website here. Ed.]
“INTO THE ARENA” by ALEXANDER FISKE-HARRISON
01/11/2011. A BOOK REVIEW. By Tim Pinks.
Prescript: Just to let anyone know out there who cares, I had never met the writer of this book when first I read it. I had read a brief part of it in Graeme Galloways “No Bullshit” Pamplona fanzine of this year, and it was enough to persuade me to buy the book. (No mean feat…anyone who has read some of the stuff in “No Bullshit” will know that the quality is up there with the behaviour of some of the French in fiesta -merde- and I should know…I’ve written some bullshit for No Bullshit!). Sorry Graeme, I’ll try and do better next time…
But the small section that I read intrigued me, and because every year, post fiesta, I always buy a book about Spain as part of my rest and relaxation “come down” from the post Pamplona alcohol induced San Fermin fiesta fuelled hallucinations that I experience every year, I resolved that when, and if, I made it home, then this book would be the one I’d buy. And it was, and I did. So here’s the review.
“INTO THE ARENA” by ALEXANDER FISKE-HARRISON
This is an extraordinary book. It is about so much more than either I thought it was going to be about, or the blurb on the back cover says it’s about. There is a quote on the front of the book, “A hero from another age, a fearless Englishman touched by madness. His endeavour owes as much to Captain Oates as to Hemingway, as much to Flashman as to Don Quixote”. Or, put it this way, from the title of a song from the band, Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jewboys, “They don’t make Jews like Jesus anymore”. Well, they don’t make too many Englishmen like Alexander Fiske-Harrison any more, either.
To put it very, very simply, it’s a book about bullfighting, written by an Englishman. Although that’s rather like saying “Lord of the Rings” is about a bunch of dwarves looking for a ring. Because, of course, the story about the Hobbits invents a whole new world, and AFHs’ book goes into what for most of us is a whole new world… that of the bullfighters, their teams, the ranch owners, their friends, their families, the hangers on… I thought I knew a little about the world of bullfighting, and I do, but this book took me to a different planet.
And for those of you who love Spain, whatever your opinion about bullfighting, this book is a superb travelogue that transports you to the very core of that amazing, passionate country. And for centuries, one of the main things Spain has been defined by, of course, is bullfighting, and Fiske-Harrison manages to get to the very blood pumping and bull running, (because the Spanish word for bullfight, corrida, comes from “correr”, to run), heart of that beautiful country. The bullfight.
From the very first page, when you read the surgeons chilling description of a bullfighter (Manolo Montoliu), who was killed in the ring in Seville in 1992, “his heart was opened up like a book”, I was hooked, and throughout its 300 pages the prose never failed to thrill me, or chill me, or make me smile, laugh, cry or choke up. Fiske-Harrison manages to open up the closed world of bullfighting, yes, like a book, and it’s a fascinating ride.
By the end of it, and I must admit I never quite saw how it would end, I still didn’t know if he was for or against bullfighting, or was he a neutral? Having read it again, I’ve come to the conclusion he is neither for or against it, or maybe he is for and against it. I think! I’m confused… William Skakespeare, through the lips of Hamlet, would understand… Oh, and by the way, AFH used to be a member of both the World Wildlife Fund, and Greenpeace, so he is no bloodlusting, cruel animal sports fanatic or anything like that.
The book came about after an article he had written for a magazine called “Prospect”, which, as he says, went worldwide, “from Al Jazeera to the Dayton Daily News”. That led him to phoning a friend in Spain, who invited him to see a bullfight in Madrid. The very next day he was on a flight to Spain, and the seeds of this book were planted. It was October 2008.
He has a fascinating use of language, and a way of writing that describes exactly what you think you have just read and understood, (and you have), but then uses something else to reiterate the point. For example, he equates a bull “fighting” and what’s going on in it’s head at the time, to seeing one time at his home in England a hawk plummeting to the ground with a pheasant in it’s claws. It’s owner, the falconer, came over and gently removed the pheasant from the hawk, and slipped into its place a half eaten pigeon. The hawk, as you might say, didn’t miss a beat, or indeed a bite, and carried on eating. The point is, to quote from the book, “for the raptor, there is merely the idea of [prey], indivisible and pure. For the bull, likewise, there is the perceived threat at that moment and nothing else”.
For the bullfight aficionados the descriptions of the bullfights are what might be described as “painting a canvas”, i.e: you can see it, as if watching it on television, he writes about it that well. Now, talking about bullfight fans, especially the “foreign” ones, (by that I mean, generally speaking, the non Spanish or South American ones), there is no doubt some jealousy regarding the book and AFH himself. How dare a complete unknown waltz into the world of toreros and corridas and write a book about it less than 3 years later… well, let me just say to those aficionados… Fiske-Harrison has gone into the arena, put his feet on the sand and faced some of these animals. And as someone who has never done that (but has run with, and mostly away from, the bulls in Pamplona), that takes guts.
As he writes in the book, “the number of times I have been interrogated, patronised and downright insulted by Englishmen who have [devoted their lives to bulls], I reckon goes into double figures. The number of times this has been done to me by a Spanish bullfighter, breeder or aficionado is much easier to estimate. Zero”.
Zero…remember, AFH came from almost nowhere, and entered, as a foreigner, into what is still a pretty much closed world for them, and gained not just the friendship of some of the most famous bullfighters and bull breeders on the planet…but also earned their respect. Think about that for a minute…he earned their respect. That is a hell of an accomplishment.
At one point he is talking to the bullfighter Cayetano, just 2 years qualified, who looks over the ring and says to him:
“That! That’s what I hate”.
AFH thinks he is looking at the Spanish flag, fluttering in the wind, and thinks he hates the flag of his country.
“No, the wind that makes it fly. The wind, that is what kills you”. (When the wind lifts the toreros cape, it can change the direction of the bull, and can be incredibly dangerous for a bullfighter). As he writes, “And this from a man whose father died in the ring”.
As mentioned earlier, this book is not just about bullfighting. It’s a wonderful travelogue through parts of Spain, that reminded me a little of what is probably one of my favourite books, “The Dangerous Summer” by Ernest Hemingway. And I mean “one of my favourite books”, period, as I am not a big fan of Hemingway, but I love Dangerous Summer because of the descriptions of travelling around Spain in the 1950’s. Well, this book also travels around Spain, a country that I love, but it also has history in it, as it is a superbly researched, historically fascinating read, but is also full of humour, and tears and laughter, and partying and Pamplona…and, literally, life and death.
There are heartbreaking moments in it too, not just of the bulls and their deaths (they are more or less brothers, after all), or of bullfighters, but of brotherly love also, not just amongst family, but amongst those in the taurine world who rsk their lives in the ring. Sometimes, completely unexpectedly, I read something that brought tears to my eyes. He has a way of giving you an “emotional punch”, if I can put it that way, but you never see it coming. Thanks to him, I finally understand what the word “never” can really mean. (You need to read the book).
For those of you who are just bull running fans, or are just hooked on the whole Fiesta of San Fermin thing, then that extraordinary town appears in the book too. I shant say too much about the Pamplona part, so as not to spoil your enjoyment and it’s only a small part of the book anyway, but there is a lovely, “put down” said to an English officer of the British Army, when AFH tells him briefly what he is up to. I have also used something similar a couple of times in the past, or just shown someone a couple of photos from my bull running days.
Also, any book which has this in it must be worth a look. It is from the wife of someone called Adolfo, a very good amateur bullfighter who occasionally appears on the main card with the professionals. The lady in question, Belen, asks Fiske-Harrison, “But why does an Englishman want to write about bullfighting? This is not what the English are interested in. They are polite and weak and rich and mainly homosexuals. Obviously not you, Alejandro…”
If I ever meet her, I hope I have one of my (very few, admittedly), bull running photos with me…
And thanks for the description of us English, Belen, as most people think we are just a bunch of fat, balding, foul mouthed, kebab eating, binge drinking, fightng, vomiting yobs. And that’s just the women…
I could go on and on, and I’m sure some of you think I have gone on enough already, but may I just say this: this is a beautiful, wonderfully written and hugely entertaining book, that is about so much more than just bullfighting. It’s about life, and death, by someone who knows, and I’d recommend it to anyone.
When I first read “Into the Arena”, I had never met Alexander Fiske-Harrison, but I knew of him, as the band of “international drunks” as Hemingway called them, the Pamplona crowd, is, although not small, connected by that one thing: San Fermin.
But since them I have met him, at a pub in London. I didn’t exactly expect him to arrive in an ambulance and be escorted out in a strait jacket, but I thought I might detect something, a streak of madness, a twitch…but no, he was just (or at least, appears to be!), an ordinary man, although an obviously talented one, who has written an extraordinary book. We had a couple of pints and talked a lot of bull, you might say, and he was, if I can steal something he inscribed to me in my copy of his book, “a man well met”.
Hasta la proxima pinta, Alejandro.
You can read too:
The Last Arena, Alexander Fiske-Harrison´s Blog
Alexander Fiske-Harrison Section in Prospect Magazine
The Pamplona Post, by AFH… News, Gossip, Rumour & Lies from the running of the bulls 2011
Into The Arena, AFH, The World Of The Spanish Bullfight