(The CTL: A dispute of authority)

In the May/June issue of La Divisa, the magazine of the Club Taurino of London, there appears the following apology by one of the editors, Jock Richardson (which I have edited for brevity):


In my editorial in La Divisa… I spelled out my updated editorial policy. In it I wrote… “Every Member of the CTL has the right to space in the pages of La Divisa to express their views on the Fiesta and the Club and to report their taurine experiences in the manner that they feel suitable with the sole proviso that nothing will be published in the magazine that has the potential to offend members of the CTL, the afición as a whole or members of el mundillo taurino…”

Judging from [a] letter… from [BBC Broadcaster, writer and CTL member] Robert Elms and discussions I have had with Alexander Fiske-Harrison, and on reflection upon them, it becomes clear that I very soon departed from my own policy in the article I wrote on Into the Arena by making remarks that were offensive to each of them. In Alexander’s case, I suggested he had lack of respect for the Fiesta and its protagonists and that he might have intentionally used information that was wrong to make a point. I am now persuaded that it is possible to respect the Fiesta greatly and at the same time to make errors in statements about it, and that it is possible to use faulty information inadvertently. These are things that I should have realised before I wrote the article. I am very sorry that I broke my own policy on this matter and promise that I will endeavour never to do so again.

I intend to make a full apology to Alexander in the next issue of La Divisa and to give him space to express his views on my article.

As he says, in the issue of La Divisa that will follow, there will be another, longer apology, and my rebuttal of the article concerned. Here is that rebuttal:

A rebuttal of Jock Richardson’s article ‘Into the Arena by Alexander Fiske-Harrison – a blood anorak’s view’

Alexander Fiske-Harrison

I fully acknowledge that there are a fair few errors in my book, Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight (website here), although it is a long way from having one on “nearly every page.” There are several causes for those that there are, but no excuses.

Some of the errors were introduced as I was writing ‘on the hoof’, and – as I say in the book – I began by only having seen a half dozen bullfights and read a handful of taurine authors in English like Hemingway, Tynan and Conrad. My ignorance and the weak attachment to accuracy by those authors – and sometimes the taurinos who were my guides – are the original source of certain errors, which then remained in the manuscript due to the rush to publication and improper fact-checking by myself and my publishers.

Obviously, towards the end of this project, my focus was more on training in order to fight and kill a three year old toro bravo than spellchecking my manuscript, but that is not an excuse either.

However, these errors were not merely highlighted as unfortunate and unintentional false statements in Jock Richardson’s article, but were inflated into falsifications – termed “bullshit” and “bunkum” and, more seriously, “a lie” – and described as indicative of a lack of respect for the Fiesta Brava, the people I describe and the readers of the book itself.

Personally, I see this as an abuse of power by an editor of a magazine in an article that was, ironically, not exactly error free itself. That I have taken this no further than demanding a written apology and space for this refutation is a mark of my affection for certain members of the club of which I am no longer myself a member, having had it made clear to me by certain ‘senior’ members last year I was not welcome. I think this can be taken as sufficient proof of the falsity of Richardson’s first claim: that there are only two English aficionados that I have “found to be reasonable and likeable.”

Taking his criticisms in order – although I shall end long before Richardson does – I will also pass over his opinion-stated-as-fact that Madrid is not the head of the world of bullfighting, nor Seville the heart. As for where it was born, it is clear that we define differently the abstract notion “modern bullfight”.

My first actual mistake was to say in chapter one:

“La Maestranza was begun in 1759, when the gently Borbón Carlos III inherited a solid Imperial throne and a growing economy and population… Las Ventas, by contrast, came a century and a half later. It was opened as part of the Great Exposition of 1929 by Alfonso XIII.”

In fact, La Maestranza was not “begun” 1759, although that was indeed the year Carlos III took the throne and lifted the ban on bullfights, leading to the construction of the plaza de toros in 1761. I was misled by reading of the master architect Vicente San Martín’s completing the design for the building in 1758, and then corridas in the old Plaza del Arenal in November 1759 (rather contradicting Richardson’s claim that “there was no need for a bullring in Seville that year.”)

However, there is no denying that 1759 will not be the date in the next edition of the book and I regret that it is there in the first. I missed this error and I take full responsibility. It is ill-fitting that my book, a copy of which was housed at the invitation of the Teniente de Hermano Mayor in the famous library of tauromachy of La Real Maestranza de Caballería de Sevilla on their 250th anniversary should have their birthday wrong. (You can see this confirmed here.)

As for saying Las Ventas was “opened” in 1929, that was similarly wrong. I was misled by the bloody great big sign above the main gate that reads: “Año 1929, Plaza de Toros.” (See photo below.) Richardson is quite right to point out that it was not inaugurated until 1931 (although, as the sign suggests, it was completed in 1929.) Richardson goes on to correctly point out that the time between the dates of the deaths of the matadors Paquirri and El Yiyo was 11 months and 3 days, not 12 months and 6 days.

I would like to point out here, however, that fumbled dates are not “bullshit”, defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “nonsense, rubbish.” They are errors, and minor ones at that.

Next in his list, Richardson takes the first half of chapter two and quite wrongly dismisses it as out of hand as “bumkum”, which the OED defines as, “empty clap-trap oratory; ‘tall talk’; humbug.”

Perhaps my prose is unclear but in the passage in question I describe a vet treating a recent indulto at the finca El Grullo in November 2008. I asked if this bull was Idílico, a bull famously fought by José Tomás in Barcelona earlier that year and then pardoned. The mayoral said it was not, and pointed to a field of calves saying Idílico was in there. I could not see him at first, and then some farmhands went in on horseback and singled him out so the vet could take a look at him.

I took a photo – reproduced below – clearly showing that contrary to what Richardson says, I did “meet” Idílico. Richardson also questions the very existence of the other pardoned bull whose pic wound was still open as, the “other recently pardoned Núñez del Cuvillo bull was Mirón, pardoned on 18 August 2007 by Jesulín de Ubrique,” and his wounds would have healed by then.

Again, this is not true. A Núñez del Cuvillo bull called Lanzafuegos was pardoned in Tarifa in Cádiz province on August 8th, 2008, after being fought by Javier Conde. This is the bull I saw (compare the photo below by Nicolás Haro of the unnamed pardoned bull being treated the day I was at the ranch, and the footage of the vet photographed above treating Lanzafuegos. They are clearly the same bull. The footage is at the bottom of the web page here.)

I am not saying I am faultless. I did note down the wrong stretch of road on my way to meet those bulls as the Route of the Bull, wrote Alfonso IX where it should be X, and how I managed to write “100 years earlier” about Longshanks’s expulsion of the Jews from England rather than “200 years earlier” I will never know. As for my not noticing the countryside of Aragon on my train from Barcelona to Pamplona to run the bulls, well, I had other things on my mind. However, this is no reason for Richardson to indulge in misleading hyperbole and say:

But this is the work of a man who can… place Enrique Morena de la Cova’s palace in the non-existent Palmas del Río.

To imply that the insertion of an unnecessary “s” makes Palma del Río, birthplace of El Cordobés, “non-existent” is to mistake the difference between misspelling and making things up.

However, what I cannot forgive is to come to the end of this catalogue of minor errors by me – and far graver ones by Richardson himself – and write the following:

It should be clear by now that Fiske-Harrison has precious little respect for his readers. He does not much respect the Fiesta about which he writes or the people about whom he is writing.

How the hell can anyone deduce from those mistakes – only a percentage of which actually are mistakes– that I lack respect for the Fiesta Brava? If errors in an impressionistic travelogue are evidence of a disrespect, then, a fortiori, what are errors in an article of correction if not a sign of contempt?

Pedantry and sophistry aside, I think that anyone who has read my book, or my articles and interviews in newspapers from The Times to The New York Times to Emirates inflight magazine, or heard me on radio stations from the BBC to Talk Radio Europe to US National Public Radio, or seen me on television channels from CNN to Al-Jazeera to Channel 5 – I think anyone who has encountered me on any medium or even in any bar, knows the depth of my respect for the Fiesta Brava, whether or not they disagree with my views, my background or my tone of voice. I have, and this is no exaggeration, sweated and bled for bullfighting. I still limp for my first few steps every morning from a Miura becerra that caught me in Zahariche as I attempted to better understand this world so I could do it justice in my book.

That is the homage I paid to the bulls, and the debt I paid to my readers as well. As for the toreros and ganaderos I wrote about: they are still my friends and I continue to see them regularly, like Cayetano Rivera Ordóñez (I was with him in April), Juan José Padilla (I was at his home the day before his reappearance at Olivenza this year), Eduardo Dávila Miura (I was at the Astolfi finca with him a fortnight before his CTL class went there) and the Núñez del Cuvillo family (I shared the sand with José Marí Manzanares at El Grullo in March). No greater evidence of mutual respect is needed than that.

Does it, in light of this, really matter that I put two “c”s in Ricardo Gallardo’s first name? Or that I spelled Curro Vázquez’s surname “Vásquez” (a valid variant spelling of this Galician surname)? As for using the Hispanized spelling of the Portugese surname “de Mendoça”, “de Mendoza”, so does Portal Taurino, ABC and El Mundo. Which is what makes the statement that follows these three examples – “One sometimes wonders who the taurinos are about whom Fiske-Harrison is writing” – seem, well, just wrong.

(Richardson himself misses the entire Rivera name out of “Francisco and Cayetano Ordóñez” and claims I “spent time” with Fran Rivera whom I had not even met. Bibilical phrases about beams and motes spring to mind.)

Moving on to a genuine mistake on my part: I did repeat an unverified claim that Eduardo Dávila Miura had usually been in the top ten on the escalafón taurino during his career. However, as I also said, “I regard it as meaningless” – believing toreo to be an art-form –I did not check what I was told by another torero (not Eduardo) as I should have done. Eduardo was actually only once in the top ten and “usually” the top thirty. I made a mistake. However, Richardson does not say that, but instead claims:

To make this one out to be anything other than a downright lie is to be generous indeed.

Let me be clear: Richardson’s statement is not true. Nor is it a reasonable false supposition given the evidence available to him. It is thus defamatory to the point of libellous.

My other statements about Eduardo I stand by, except the one from the cover blurb, which, following standard practice – as Richardson should know as an editor – I did not write. (I note that writing this did not prevent Richardson from availing himself of Eduardo’s classes on toreo and the chance to face a vaquilita under his supervision, on the second annual course which I originally arranged for the CTL.)

I could go on – I was right about Fandi’s indulto, which Richardson bizarrely admits after 230 wasted words– but that would be to fall into the same error as the article I am rebutting. I made mistakes, but 4,700-words were not required to demonstrate this, nor was inflammatory language needed to make the point that accuracy has its virtue and purpose.

I wrote a personal memoir of two years travelling through the world of the Spanish bullfight (this is where this subtitle derives from, not the book’s comprehensive nature.) Taking into account its shortlisting for Sports Book Of The Year, and almost universally excellent reviews across the majority of the national press and internationally as well, it has been nothing short of a triumph at increasing understanding of the Fiesta Brava, whatever its failings when viewed – erroneously, and against all my written warnings within – as an encyclopaedia of tauromachy.

I found it particularly ironic that this article should be brought to my attention while I was composing the lecture on my views on bullfighting I had been invited to give in the old Royal Tobacco Factory building of the University of Seville. You can imagine my thoughts on taking a break from writing that address to read: “Fiske Harrison should have known that the Spaniards who told him that he knew an amazing amount about los toros must have been… indulging in politeness or ego-boosting or both.”

I have never claimed to know an amazing amount about los toros, but I will happily accept another polite and ego-boosting accolade from a Spaniard, who is also a noted author and aficionado práctico from a great taurine family, Rafael Peralta Revuelta, who said the following in the Spanish national newspaper La Razón:

Alexander Fiske-Harrison is an English writer and actor, whom we welcome to the gate of the Plaza de Toros. Several years ago, he began to have contact with the fiesta de los toros, with the help of family and close friends. Little by little, he went deeper into the secrets of the world of the bulls… Last week he gave a lecture at the University of Seville, explaining his vision of bullfighting. Fiske-Harrison opens a new door, fundamental and necessary, to the Fiesta Brava in Anglo-Saxon culture.

I had always thought that that, in part, was what the CTL was there for. However, in his article about my book, Jock Richardson attempted to do quite the reverse.

(A transcript of my talk is available on my blog in English of that talk is available on this blog here, or in the original Spanish here.)

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