News & Gossip

November 26th, 2011

To the Spanish bullfighting is much more than a sport

By Alexander Fiske-Harrison
6:34PM GMT 25 Nov 2011

When my publisher told me that my book had been longlisted for a sports writing prize sponsored by William Hill – the Bookie Prize as it is known – I smiled cynically. The announcement came less than a week after Catalonia banned bullfighting and the Barcelona bullring hosted its last ever fight. This was reported here as “Bullfighting Dies In Spain” – even though of the thousand bullfights a year, less than a dozen were held in Barcelona.

In Spain bullfighting is written about in the cultural pages of newspapers, not the sports section. This year in France it was placed on a list of “cultural patrimonies” making it effectively unbannable. (French bullfights are mainly in the south, most notably in the restored Roman colisea of Arles and Nîmes.) Even Hemingway in Death In The Afternoon wrote that “the bullfight is not a sport”.

While I’m grateful for the nod from the judges, when I found myself on the shortlist, I wondered what I would say if I received the prize and was asked the inevitable question: “is it even a sport?”

Bullfighting is so much more than a sport. Even the dubious phrase “field” or “blood” sport is inapplicable (whatever the League Against Cruel Sports say.) I can say this with authority because I spent two years in Spain studying it, not just from the stands, but also from the sand. Cape in hand a bull tried to kill me, though in the end it was I who killed it.

Originally, my plan was quite different. I wanted to study this strange Spanish pursuit from an impartial perspective.

However, I came to understand that the fighting bulls’ lot of five years on free-release followed by 25 minutes in the arena is equal if not better than the meat cow’s 18 months corralled in prison followed by a “humane” death.

The same applies to the argument that killing for food is not the same as killing for entertainment. We eat meat because we like the taste – ie to entertain our palates.

As for the argument that watching a living creature’s death is somehow a sin: is anyone seriously claiming the astonishing success of the BBC’s Natural History Unit is because we all want to learn a little more biology rather than replicate the thrills of the Circus Maximus?

It was not long before I started to see the beauty of toreo – bullfighting as a word does not exist in Spanish, and in English comes from our artless, riskless and brutal hobby of bull-baiting. It is for beauty that the real aficionados attend the corrida, not for pomp, not for thrill and certainly not for blood. In my adopted city of Seville the bullring is silent until beauty appears. This is usually in the final and most famous of the three acts of the fight, the “Third of Death”, in which the matador passes the bull with a red cape, as closely and as elegantly as he can. The only chant you will hear is that of “olé” at each pass.

Don’t take my word for this. Here is what Orson Welles had to say on the matter: “What is the essence of this art? That the man carry himself with grace and that he move the bull slowly and with a certain majesty. That is, he must allow the inherent quality of the bull to manifest itself.”

The theatre critic Kenneth Tynan wrote of the “slow, sad fury of a perfect bullfight,” comparing it to Othello in its dark majesty and gravity.

In Spain, I became friends with some of the matadors, like the larger than life figure of Juan José Padilla, who fought the most dangerous bulls of all, the Miuras. This breed has killed more matadors than any other. Today, Padilla is in hospital, a bull having taken away the sight in his left eye, and paralysed that side of his face, in a goring so gruesome the image circulated round the world.

Another friend who stills fights is Cayetano Rivera Ordóñez, grandson of the great Antonio Ordóñez about whom Hemingway wrote the book, The Dangerous Summer, and at whose house Welles’s ashes are interred. Cayetano’s father, Paquirri, had a less fortunate career; he was killed by a bull in 1984.

It was these two who encouraged me to venture into the ring so I could write about their world with an understanding that transcended the appreciation of the beauty. Instead of just watching, I came to know the tension, the fear and the injuries suffered by these artists.

Looking at the other books on the shortlist – a young rugby player tragically paralysed, a goalkeeper driven to suicide by depression – one can see there is much in common with the troubled life of toreros.

However, bullfighting is the only art form that both represents something and is that thing at the same time: the matador’s elegant immobility in the face of the bull not only represents man’s defiance of death, it is a man defying death (and there are women who do it too, such as the rising star Conchi Rios).

Love it or hate it, bullfighting is not a sport. To devotees and opponents alike, it is much more important than that.

*Into the Arena(Profile) is available from Telegraph Books at £15.99.*The William Hill Sports Book of the Year is announced on Monday November 28.

November 21st, 2011

Biographies dominate William Hill Sports Book of the Year shortlist

Patrick Kidd

This time next week the winner will be announced of the world’s oldest and most valuable literary sportswriting accolade when the William Hill Sports Book of the Year, affectionately known as the Bookie Prize, is presented for the 23rd time.

The competition began in 1989 when Dan Topolski and Patrick Robinson won for True Blue: the Oxford Boat Race mutiny. Among the winning books have been Fever Pitch, by Nick Hornby, It’s Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life, by Lance Armstrong, and Peter Oborne’s biography of Basil D’Oliveira, who died on Saturday.

For the first time, a book has been shortlisted despite not being submitted for the award. Engage! The Fall and Rise of Matt Hampson, by Paul Kimmage, was added after it was brought to the attention of the judges, who comprise John Inverdale, Hugh McIlvanney, Danny Kelly, John Gaustad and Alyson Rudd, of The Times.

The shortlist

Into the Arena: the World of the Spanish Bullfight Alexander Fiske-Harrison (Profile Books)

Fiske-Harrison did not expect to fall in love with bullfighting when he saw it for the first time in 2000. A philosophy student and member of the World Wildlife Fund and Greenpeace, he would argue with his brother about animal cruelty. But then he travelled to Seville and had his eyes opened by the beauty, dignity and art of the sport. Fiske-Harrison recounts his two years spent studying the matadors, breeders, fans and the bulls themselves – including getting in the ring himself – set against the backdrop of the campaign to ban bullfighting in Catalonia.

October 31st, 2011

‘Into the Arena’ shortlisted for the William Hill Sports Book of the Year 2011

Alexander Fiske-Harrison spent two years studying the matadors and breeders of famous ‘fighting bulls’ in Spain. What developed was a personal quest to understand the bullfight at its deepest levels. Now he has been shortlisted for the prestigious William Hill Sports Book of the Year 2011.

After running with the bulls in Pamplona, Fiske-Harrison undertook months of damaging and dangerous training with one of the greatest matadors of all, Eduardo Dávila Miura, to prepare himself to experience the bullfight in its true essence: that of man against bull in a life or death struggle from which only one can emerge alive.

Fiske-Harrison offers a memorable portrait of bull-fighters and bulls, of owners, trainers and fans – of a whole country, of an art as performed for centuries and of the arguments that dog it today.

The William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award is the world’s longest established and most valuable literary sports-writing prize. As well as a £23,000 cash prize, the winning author will receive a £2,000 William Hill bet, a hand-bound copy of their book, and a day at the races.

The shortlist in full:

1. Among The Fans: From Ashes to the Arrows, a Year of  Watching the Watchers by Patrick Collins (Wisden Sports Writing)

2. Into The Arena: The World of the Spanish Bullfight by Alexander Fiske-Harrison (Profile Books)

3. The Ghost Runner: The Tragedy of the Man They Couldn’t Stop by Bill Jones (Mainstream Publishing)

4. Engage: The Fall and Rise of Matt Hampson by Paul Kimmage (Simon & Schuster)

5. Racing Through The Dark: The Fall and Rise of David Millar by David Millar (Orion)

6. A Life Too Short: The Tragedy of Robert Enke by Ronald Reng (Yellow Jersey Press)

7. 32 Programmes by Dave Roberts (Bantam Press)

October 24th, 2011


It’s wolf v bull as philosophers bare their teeth

Warring in blogland: Mark Rowlands and Alexander Fiske-Harrison

It’s the latest literary spat. Mark Rowlands, a British philosophy professor who spent a decade living with a wolf, gave a savage review to Alexander Fiske-Harrison’s book Into The Arena on the art of the matador in the Times Literary Supplement in September. Now Fiske-Harrison is as wounded as a bull lanced by a picador — and the men are locked in a battle of letters and blog posts against each other. Fiske-Harrison’s complaint is that Rowlands, who concerns himself with animal welfare, would be naturally indisposed to his love of bull-fighting, not to mention that Fiske-Harrison has previously given him a bad review. “Mark Rowlands is a proponent of vegetarianism and once tried to make his pet wolf into one, as described in The Philosopher and the Wolf,” says Fiske-Harrison.Professor Rowlands, who teaches at the University of Miami, had described Fiske-Harrison’s writing as being infected with “vainglory” and “startling arrogance” in his love of bull-fighting.The red rag in this feud was first waved two years when Fiske-Harrison reviewed Mark Rowlands’s wolf book for Prospect magazine. “If you combine misanthropy and lycophilia,” he wrote, “the resulting hybrid, lycanthropy, is indeed interesting but philosophically quite sterile.” Over to Rowlands. “I felt rather guilty that I was dispensing such a negative review,” he tells me. “I did, of course, inform the TLS of the fact that he had previously reviewed a book of mine. I resent the suggestion that my negative review was the result of personal animus … [it] was the result of the book not being very good.” Rowlands has also called Fiske-Harrison “thin-skinned”. The blog argument now runs to several thousands words, with still no victor in sight.

Click the ‘Controversy in the TLS’ tab, top-right to judge for yourself.

Longlist For William Hill Sports Book Of Year Revealed

OLYMPIC HERO MICHAEL JOHNSON IN THE RUNNING FOR WORLD’S RICHEST SPORTS BOOK PRIZE LONGLIST OF ‘BOOKIE PRIZE’ REVEALED

Michael Johnson, one of the most iconic athletes and Olympians of recent times, has been longlisted for the William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award 2011, the richest award of its type anywhere in the world.

Competition for Johnson, longlisted for Gold Rush, an exploration of the psychological and personal qualities that create an Olympic champion, includes cyclist David Millar, for his autobiography Racing Through The Dark, and award-winning sportswriter Patrick Collins, for Among The Fans, which charts his year observing a range of different sports and their many and varied supporters.

Books about football dominate the list, with titles about the beautiful game including: A Life Too Short by Ronald Reng, which tells the tragic story of German national goalkeeper Robert Enke, who took his own life at just 32 years of age; “Get In There!”, the biography of one of England’s greatest goal-scorers Tommy Lawton; the autobiography of Carlo Ancelotti; and Babysitting George by Celia Walden, wife of Piers Morgan, an account of the months she spent with George Best and the unlikely friendship that ensued.

Now in its 23rd year, and with a prize worth £27,500 for the winner, the William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award 2011 longlist covers a range of sports, including football, cycling, running, cricket and – rather more unusually – bullfighting.

The Longlist In Full:

Carlo Ancelotti: The Beautiful Games of an Ordinary Genius by Carlo Ancelotti with Alessandro Alciato (Rizzoli International Publications)
The Bicycle Book by Bella Bathurst (HarperPress)
Among The Fans: From Ashes to the Arrows, a Year of Watching the Watchers by Patrick Collins (Wisden Sports Writing)
Into The Arena: The World of the Spanish Bullfight by Alexander Fiske-Harrison (Profile Books)
Gold Rush: What Makes An Olympic Champion? by Michael Johnson (HarperSport)
The Ghost Runner: The Tragedy of the Man They Couldn’t Stop by Bill Jones (Mainstream Publishing)
Racing Through The Dark: The Fall and Rise of David Millar by David Millar (Orion)
The Smell of Football  by Mick Rathbone (Vision Sports Publishing)
A Life Too Short: The Tragedy of Robert Enke by Ronald Reng (Yellow Jersey Press)
32 Programmes by Dave Roberts (Bantam Press)
The Following Game by Jonathan Smith (Peridot Press)
Babysitting George by Celia Walden (Bloomsbury)
“Get In There!” Tommy Lawton – My Friend, My Father by Barrie Williams and Tommy Lawton Junior (Vision Sports Publishing)
Behind The Boundary: Cricket at a Crossroads by Graeme Wright (A & C Black)

“As befits the world’s richest sporting book prize, this year’s longlist boasts a rich variety of subject matter: ancient and modern; tragic and triumphant; mainstream and controversial”, said William Hill’s spokesman Graham Sharpe.

The William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award is the world’s longest established and most valuable literary sports-writing prize. As well as a £23,000 cash prize, the winning author will receive a £2,000 William Hill bet, a hand-bound copy of their book, and a day at the races.

The judging panel for this year’s award consists of broadcaster and writer John Inverdale; award-winning journalist Hugh McIlvanney; broadcaster Danny Kelly; and columnist and author, Alyson Rudd. Chairman of the judging panel is John Gaustad, co-creator of the award and founder of the Sportspages bookshop.

The shortlist will be announced on 28th October. The winner will be announced at a lunchtime reception at Waterstone’s Piccadilly (London), Europe’s largest bookstore, on Monday 28th November.

August 28th, 2011

Into The Arena in the Spanish press (translated into English).

(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 tries to cape a calf of Saltillo in the presence of matadors Finito de Córdoba and Juan José Padilla (Photo: Nicolás Haro)

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.

Read on the Spanish language version of my blog, La Última Arena by clicking here.

August 16th, 2011

The Edinburgh International Book Festival

Al Senter with Fiske-Harrison in Edinburgh (Photo: Antalya Nall-Cain)

Yesterday evening I immensely enjoyed giving a talk to the sizeable audience at the 300-seat Scottish Power Theatre at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on my book Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bulllfight. It was followed by a discussion with the chair, Al Senter, and the Q&A session with the audience that (along with brief personal chats with about half of those present who came to have their books signed by me in the London Review of Books tent afterwards.) The questions were all well-informed and interesting, not least because, as many of the audience members said to me in person, I’d answered most of their more general questions in my opening talk. So, here is the transcript of what I said:

I was going to read from my book Into The Arena, but it seems that the most important topic in the United Kingdom in the 21st Century – when discussing bullfighting – are the ethical issues surrounding the harm and killing of animals for a public spectacle. So I will instead read something that addresses this head on.

Matador Morante de la Puebla (Photo: Alexander Fiske-Harrison)

Read on at my blog, The Last Arena by clicking here.

July 8th, 2011

A not “as bad as I thought it would be” review from Britain’s leading anti-bullfighting organisation, once again highlighting that the balance struck in Into The Arena is probably the right one.

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.

July 7th, 2011

Meanwhile, the main newspaper in Pamplona published the following photo of me running with the bulls. As did the Daily Telegraph in the UK, the Toronto Sun in Canada, Die Welt in Germany and ABC across Spain.

June 4th, 2011

The Spanish national newspaper ABC published the following interview with me:

There is much hypocrisy in England about bullfighting

After three years of visits to Spain, has just published the book “Into the Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight” – which is sold on the Amazon website, where he reflects on his experiences in the world of bullfighting.

Andrés González-Barba / Sevilla

Read on the Spanish language version of my blog, La Última Arena by clicking here.

December 26th, 2009

From Hemingway onwards, writers and travellers have been drawn to the drama and romance of the bullfight. Giles Coren is no exception, so when he was contacted out of the blue by the younger brother of his dead best friend, now training to be a matador in Spain, Giles was intrigued. Here he describes his journey into a unique culture of noblemen, peasants and swindlers, all driven by deadly serious dreams of death and glory

I am in a bullring. Not in the seats, in the ring. On the sand. From the relative safety of a wooden barrier with a small room behind it, built into the stone wall, I have seen four vaquillas, young cows, “caped” by one of Spain’s most famous matadors, the son of the first post-Franco prime minister of Spain, Adolfo Suárez Illana, and by Alexander Fiske-Harrison, the younger brother of my best friend at school, who died in an accident the year we left, three months before his 19th birthday.

As Xander walks off from working with his animal, I scuttle from my hiding place and bolt across the hot sand to another, flimsier fence, behind which is my photographer, Nicolás Haro, to see if he got the shots we need.

I feel exposed, out on the sand. The red iron door which they open to let the wild beasts out is bolted shut. But all the same, they are there. This ring is a fighting pit where men and animals meet and bodies are carried out. Two thousand years of brutal history, from the Colosseum onwards, look down upon my scuttling shadow.

I arrive at the fence and squeeze hurriedly in between it and the peeling wall, rubbing white flakes of rotted plaster into my shirt and jeans. Nicolás shuffles up to make room. There is no stone room behind us here. Just the wall, an 18in man-gap, and the barrier, about two metres wide with the stability of a good garden fence. There’s no way out, except into the ring.

“Hola,” says Nicolás.

“Did you get it properly when he was hit?” I ask.

“Possibly,” says Nicolás. “It is hard to know. I hope.”

“Did you get the blood on his jeans?”

“I tried. I hope.”

I’m wondering what will happen if he didn’t get the shot. The whole thing will have been pointless. This whole trip to Spain. The weeks of planning and organisation. And then the iron door swings open, and there is a pause, and all eyes are on the door. And then out comes the bull.

I knew there was going to be a bull this afternoon, and that Adolfo Suárez would kill it, in preparation for the one he will kill on Tuesday at Castellón in front of thousands of people. But I had not thought that it would be now. I had not been planning to be in the ring when he came. I had been planning, specifically, not to be.

He is around 600 kilos. Too heavy, really. He comes out quick, turns left towards us, covers the 30 or 40 feet in the blink of an eye (I know because, boy, do I blink) and hits the barrier hard, just as I’m ducking beneath it. It shakes. It splinters. He hits at it a couple of times, and I watch the plank joins, waiting for the horn to come through and open me up to my sweetbreads.

He scrapes a couple more times, and then stops. And I slowly raise my head above the fence and he turns one great eye towards me, and I look him in it.

I am at home at my parents’ house in suburban North London. It is mid-afternoon in the April after my A levels and before I go to university. I am at home because I have only two friends in the world, one of whom is in Thailand but didn’t invite me along, and the other of whom, Jules, is in Zermatt, skiing. I hate skiing. It’s dangerous.

The house phone rings. I know it’s not for me because I have my own phone line. For talking to my two friends. Then my mother calls up the stairs.

“There’s someone called Clive Harrison on the phone for you.”

Clive Harrison? Who’s Clive Harrison?

“Hello, this is Jules’s father. There’s been a terrible accident. Jules has been killed.”

Well, obviously.

It’s 21 years later, and I’ve just written a piece for The Times on the death by skiing of Natasha Richardson, which happens to fall very close to the anniversary of Jules’s death, about which I also write.

I get an e-mail from his little brother, Xander, who is now 32, to say that he enjoyed the piece, and so did his parents. I am delighted. I had worried. It’s 20 years since I spoke to them. Xander says he is living in Seville, and training to become a bullfighter.

I say that sounds dangerous. I’ll come out and see him before he dies.

So, the baby brother of my dead friend – dead from his passion for a dangerous sport – is training to be a bullfighter.

What is he thinking?

What does his mother think?

Who in the world ever heard of an English bullfighter?

Does he want to die?

Why does he want to die?

How much does it have to do with his dead brother?

Do they let Englishmen fight the bulls?

Do they really still have bullfights in modern Spain?

Do they have many?

Who the hell goes to them?

Why?

I’m being a bit disingenuous. I do know something about bullfighting. I’ve been to watch it quite a number of times. The phrase “I’m training to be a bullfighter” does not fall on my ears with quite the clattering alien hullabaloo that it would for a lot of Northern Europeans, to whom it mightn’t sound any different from “I’m joining the French Foreign Legion”. Perhaps, because I have a good idea of what it entails, it staggers me even more.

I am not a blood-sports person. I have never shot a pheasant or a deer. Or a gun. I don’t ride to hounds. I did not grow up thinking of the word “sport” as having to do with the killing of animals. But I flew to Spain expressly to watch my first bullfight in 1995, as excited about the watching of a paid spectacle as I have ever been.

I had a friend living out there who had been banging on about the corrida for years, and he had called to say he was in Seville, and if I was ever going to come to a bullfight, I might as well come now.

English lovers of the bullfight are almost without exception, I have found, financially independent, work-shy and disaffected with Britain. Disaffected in the way that all people are who develop a late and all-conquering love of a foreign country. It’s the same with people who go nuts for Russia or South America or the Middle East (never France or Italy, which are too easy and bourgeois) – they are always fleeing something, some failure, some terrible family burden or sexual disappointment. They ostentatiously straddle their two cultures, and make you feel less of a person for having only one.

And just as the Russianistas had their prime under communism, which enabled them to confront you with your own middle-class apathy, so the Hispanophiles were happiest under Franco, when it was all drought and donkeys and polio and their love of the nation could be seen to be noble and hard and visceral.

But now, with Spain so enthusiastically modernised, so heavily immigrated, so increasingly secularised and the very model of a new European state, the Hispanophiles have it harder, and the bullfight – which, paradoxically, is thriving more than at any time since the Sixties – is absolutely crucial to their belief in noble, ancient, hardcore Spain.

And I’ll admit, that’s one of the reasons I love it. I am depressed by modern travel. By the fact that everywhere I go seems the same. The bullfight, I anticipated, would throw me instantly into the ancient, terrifying Spain I knew from Laurie Lee, Orwell and Hemingway, and one or two sherry adverts with scary jumping horses.

I fell for it totally. I was shocked by the blood at first, as everyone is, and as Hemingway predicts that you will be, especially if you are a lady. But it’s less nightmarish now they don’t kill the horses. I was very much with Federico García Lorca, who considered the corrida “the last serious thing left in the world today”.

I fell in with some aficionados of a type that is ubiquitous in Spain, who go to the fights just to complain. They go specifically not to enjoy it. The bulls are not good. The bullfighter is old. He is not honest. He is faking it. He is not in danger. He is showing off. He is too artistic. He is not artistic enough. They spit. They boo. They wave their handkerchiefs and demand the removal of the bull.

In the mind of every serious bullfight fan, it seemed, was some Platonic ideal of a bullfight, some distilled essence of the Golden Age of Spain, which the real thing could only fail to imitate. And for this sort of fan, that endless failure seems to be the glory of it.

But I thought it was all just marvellous, and every fight more exciting than the one before. I went to see fights in the rings of Ronda, Jerez, Seville, Granada, Barcelona, Valladolid? I couldn’t get enough of it. Couldn’t believe that something this good, this different, loud and beautiful still went on.

There is no doubt that it is a brutal thing. And its brutality is ancient and grim, and every new generation of Spaniards struggles to accommodate it in his own Spanishness. And it has always been ancient, always been out of date, always been a struggle. As long ago as 1846, the British travel writer Richard Ford wrote, in his Gatherings from Spain, of, “These sports? where the present clashes with the past.”

And it clashes still today. But no more nor less. There are antis. But no more nor fewer than before. I’ve only ever seen them protesting in any numbers in Barcelona – and there it’s all bound up in Catalonian distaste for anything egregiously Spanish, which bullfighting most certainly is.

The bullfight, like blood sports in Britain (and, to a degree, horse racing), unites the top and bottom of society. The toffs own the land and the animals, the working man makes a living from it and/or enjoys the spectacle. Each finds a use for himself, high and low. It is largely the urban middle class that protests, in Spain as in Britain. For it is the middle class that is left out.

In 2002, I spent a month in Madrid watching bullfights every day during the Feria de San Isidro. One afternoon, I hooked up with my old secretary from The Times Diary, Ana Ureña, fashion flibbertigibbet and daughter of an Iberia executive, and invited her to a bullfight. “Eeooo,” she squealed. “That’s just for stinky old men and stag parties.”

Just a minute ago I e-mailed her. Now a fashion writer for the national newspaper ABC, she says: “Look, sons of bullfighters like Francisco Rivera Ordóñez and his brother Cayetano are treated like celebrities, or football players. They date models and beauty pageant winners. They model for designers like Giorgio Armani. But only because they are handsome and popular. People dress up and pictures appear in the next day’s social columns. But it’s mostly old people, the type who get excited when someone from the Royal Family attends.

“To my mind, it’s a cruelty sport. My family has permanent seats in the front row in Madrid. Seats worth €3,000 each [£2,700] but I never go. I promise you that the hip young crowd – ie, me – would much rather spend that sort of money on a Chanel bag.”

A few weeks after I received Xander’s e-mail telling me of his plans to become a bullfighter, I found myself in Jerez, at the feria, and so we hooked up for a drink, to see the bulls, and to talk about just what in the world he thought he was doing.

Turns out he’s writing a book on the back of a blog which began as a diary of the bullfighting year from the point of view of the spectator, but soon developed into something more unusual.

“I was very aware that the bullfight has been well covered by writers,” he says. “But always from the point of view of someone watching fights from the stands. I wanted to get in front of the horns. There is a moment when the torero leans his body over the horns to place the sword above the shoulders, so that it will breach the heart or sever the aorta, when he is totally exposed. I need to experience this to make it complete.”

And his mother is happy with this?

“I couldn’t say I truly know. I think she thinks the book is important, and trusts my judgment that the bull part is necessary. If anything, my father is the more concerned of the two.”

It’s very strange to meet Jules’s little brother now, aged 32. He was 11 when I last saw him, standing rigidly next to his parents and surviving brother at the entrance to Westminster Abbey as hundreds of people filed into Jules’s memorial service.

He’s turned out a bit too handsome. Enough to be almost a handicap, I think, as big breasts can be for a woman who wants to be taken seriously. In the old days, bullfighters were most often ugly, stunted peasants. These days pretty boys are more in demand.

Jules would be relieved that his brother is handsome. That sort of thing was important to Jules. And also that he went to Eton. Jules and I were at Westminster and he was very down on it as a place. Barely more than a fee-paying local school, he felt. He always wished he’d gone to Eton himself.

Thereafter, we have no idea what Jules would have done. He wanted to go to Oxford, but frazzed his A levels and was retaking when he died. Then he wanted to write. But who didn’t?

Xander did go to Oxford, moved from biology to PPE when it turned out he’d have to spend all his time in a lab, did postgraduate work in philosophy and science at LSE and then went to New York to study acting. In summer 2008, he performed in a play he had written at the Jermyn Street Theatre in London’s West End.

He smokes like Jules, pursing his lips and exhaling the smoke upwards, towards an imaginary air vent. He also walks like Jules did, only more so. Swaggers with his head held very high, his chest out and his shoulders back. He walks like a bullfighter, even if he isn’t one yet. I wondered where the idea to become one started, if not with the walk.

“I came to Seville when I was 23,” he says, “and we ended up with excellent seats watching a novillada [bullfight for novices] in which one novillero [apprentice bullfighter] did a portagayola, kneeling at the ‘gates of fear’ as the bull explodes out into the ring, and turning the cape around his head, to usher the animal past him. I knew then I was watching something remarkable.

“I left with the usual first-time reaction that it was very exciting, but also that this was a morally borderline pursuit. A good bullfight with an aggressive, charging bull, who died in accordance with his own atavistic nature, seemed to make up for the morally questionable activity of turning a violent death into a public spectacle. But a bad fight, with a bull that was merely defending itself, that clearly had insufficient adrenaline and so was in actual pain, was an ugly, cruel and vicious thing.

“I can’t think of many spectacles in the world which are evil when done badly but good when done well. That sense of existing on the boundary between right and wrong made me realise that it is a very important thing.”

Now, Xander is not planning to “become” a bullfighter in the sense that he will end up performing all over Spain in a traje de luces (“suit of lights”) in front of tens of thousands of people in vast arenas. That takes years. What he is hoping to do is to learn enough and practise enough to make it possible (though far from easy and far from safe) for him to kill a bull.

This isn’t like killing a pheasant, which a certain type of Englishman does without thinking several times in an hour on a misty autumn morning. Nor even like stalking and killing a deer, which many Englishmen think is such a drama (“We were out practically all day?”). To kill a single bull will take months and months of preparation.

“To make it happen, I needed the world of the Spanish bullfight to open its doors to me,” he explains. “And to open those doors, I was given some great introductions. One was to Adolfo Suárez Illana, the son of Adolfo Suárez González, the prime minister who, post-Franco, took the country through the transición to modern statehood.

“Adolfo Jnr, a lawyer and published poet, briefly followed his father into politics, but then chose to follow his footsteps in another way, becoming an aficionado práctico of the bullfight, killing big bulls, 500-600kg, and putting his life absolutely on the line.”

And so this Adolfo character takes Xander under his wing, and introduces him to the great Juan José Padilla (reputedly the bravest living matador, killer of the most dangerous bulls) and Xander also befriends the matador Cayetano (great-grandson of Cayetano Ordóñez, one of the inspirations for Hemingway’s Fiesta) and to scores of other people, all with a dozen names each.

At the time of our meeting in Jerez in May, Xander has already been in a ring once or twice. He has “caped” vaquillas in what are called tentaderos – non-lethal private bullfights in which young females of fighting bloodlines are tested to see if they will make good mothers of fighting bulls: to see if they are brave, if they charge straight, if they are responsive to the cape.

The young females Xander has worked with are much smaller than full-grown bulls, perhaps a third of the weight, but they are much faster, and carry their own dangers. They have killed matadors.

Ultimately, he will be given the chance to kill a three-year-old novillo weighing 350kg (three quarters of the average weight of a full-sized bull) by his friend Enrique Moreno de la Cova, who breeds the Saltillo bloodline. It will happen, he thinks, in late October or early November. But he’ll have to do a lot more practice before then. I say I’d like to see some of that. Maybe I’ll see about doing a piece.

E-mails go back and forwards. It is not a straightforward thing to arrange. At the same time as coming out to see Xander I’d like to see some other bullfights. Specifically, I want to see José Tomás, the sensation of the moment. He is, they say, the greatest ever. He is so still, passes the bull so close, it can only be a matter of time before he is killed. He was very nearly killed a few years ago, retired, but has come back and is now, they say, better than ever. Each time he fights, crowds flock to see him for fear that it is their last chance.

Tomás is fighting at the Monumental in Barcelona. Instead of fighting two bulls, as is usual, he will fight six, as a thank you to his home crowd who were so supportive in his time of need.

It’s a tear-jerking story. But I hear also that he first offered the six bulls to Seville and Madrid, but that neither was prepared to stump up his asking price of €1 million (£900,000) for the afternoon’s work. Only Barcelona was prepared to do that. So maybe it’s a thank you for that, too.

On the morning of July 5, I fly to Barcelona and meet up with Xander for a long lunch. We talk about what we expect from Tomás, from the bulls, from the crowd. We may be about to see the greatest fight in the history of Spain. Obviously, I do not want Toá?s to be killed. The whole thing is that you don’t want the matador to be killed. But it would be damn handy for the article.

Tomás is not killed. And he fights poorly. Maybe he’s having an off day. Maybe he was just banking the money. But to me, there was no heightened sense of danger, nor of purity, nor of poetry. Just 500 quid in flights, tickets and hotel bills down the Swanee.

But that is the thing about bullfighting. Death and glory are promised, but disappointment is most often delivered. Hemingway made it very clear that you should hope the first bullfight you see is not a good one, or you will be disappointed for the rest of your life.

And then, finally, the tentadero comes together. Adolfo Suárez Illana, Juan José Padilla, Alexander Rupert Fiske-Harrison and Giles Robin Patrick Coren have their date with destiny: Saturday, September 26, 2009, at the El Chaparral finca (estate) of María José Barral, in Las Pajanosas, near Seville.

Xander will fight vaquillas with a cape. Adolfo will kill a bull. That’s been arranged specially for The Times. All these years I have dropped into the bullfight, one of many thousands, made my moral decisions, but only spectated. The bull would have died that day anyway. Not this one. This one is being killed for me.

And not just for me. For you, too.

My few days in Seville are very bizarre indeed. Very high and low, suspended in the strange air between scavenging touts, scarred bullfighting paysanos and toffs with so many names I don’t have enough ears to get through the introductions.

I’m staying at a hotel owned by the Duke of Segorbe, who knows Xander for some reason, and on the first night am introduced to his tertulia (a sort of salon) in one of the drawing rooms there. We shake hands and I have half an idea that he is called Ignacio, and is the husband of Princess Gloria de Orléans-Braganza, who is the cousin of Princess Gerarda de Orléans-Borb?n (Nicolás Haro’s mother-in-law; her cousin, Jean d’Orléans, the Duke of Vendôme, laid claim to the throne of France in October this year), at whose home in Sanlúcar de Barrameda we will be staying the following night, and whose son-in-law will be taking our photos.

As we leave the tertulia and head off for a drink in town, Xander hands me a scrap of paper on which he has drawn a sort of family tree to help me negotiate the social intricacies of the coming days.

The next morning I call on Xander at his apartment, to take him for breakfast. It is a ground-floor set of rooms in a large house owned by Nicolás the photographer’s mother, Consuela Fernandez de Córdoba. There is a central courtyard, full of sun and painted white and yellow, like everything in Seville.

Xander’s rooms are lightless and cool, with a view out of huge windows to the white and yellow courtyard. Dark furniture, very Moorish.

“Nice,” I say.

“Yes,” he says. “I walked in here the first time and said to myself, ‘Here, I can write.’” And then, luckily, he laughs.

On the way to breakfast, I ask him some questions I ought to get out of the way. For example, this year of dossing around Spain, hanging out with toffs, caping bulls, eating, drinking? How is he paying for it? His advance for the book, he says.

We chat about the state of the bullfight in Spain and the effect of the recession. Xander says takings are down by 30 per cent this year, which will have quite a knock-on effect on an industry that employs 200,000 people, kills around 10,000 bulls a year and has annual revenues of more than €1 billion (£900 million).

“Still, more people go to bullfights now than at any time in history,” says Xander. “Which is a function of tourism, population increase and a general increase in wealth. Although there is a generation gap. A 2002 Gallup poll found that 50 per cent of over-65s were ‘interested’ in the bullfight, compared to less than a quarter in the 25-35 bracket. But then that percentage goes up rapidly when a big new figura like José Tomás or Cayetano emerges.”

And it remains this popular because Spain is keen to keep in some sort of touch with its brooding, mythic past?

“Well, yes,” says Xander. “But it’s also because the Spanish are bloodthirsty bastards, and love to see animals killed.”

After breakfast we think about trying to razz up some sort of pass into the callejón for Nicolás (the callejón is the circular runway between the ring and the front row of the seats which can be entered only by certain authorised personnel), so that when we go to watch the big bullfight on Sunday he can get some decent pictures. It’s one of those Andalusian days where nothing is happening because it’s all happening “mañana”. And there’s not much to do except sit in bars.

Xander’s favourite bar is a small, dark little place with a scattering of bullfight posters, which was found for him, he says, by his old school friend, the English actor, Hugh Dancy. And indeed, we bump into Dancy there a couple of days later with his wife, the American actress Claire Danes. They are on honeymoon in Spain and have just been to their first bullfight, a wedding present from Xander.

But today there are no sexy American actresses tossing their golden hair around and constantly crossing and uncrossing their naked legs (what was I going to do, not notice?). There is just Mani, a scabrous old ticket tout, maybe 53 or 54, with a barrel chest and thinning, slicked-back hair, who looks just like Bob Hoskins and comes very much from the Hoskins school of character, Spanish-style.

He remembers that Xander owes him money, and some large notes are handed over. Maybe he can sort us out, maybe he can’t. Some more money will be needed. It’s bizarre that we depend on this porky old chancer to get the princess’s son-in-law into the callejón. But the bullfight is his livelihood. His daughter’s boyfriend is a novillero. Mani has the “bottom” end sewn up. But he is desperate to come with us to the tentadero tomorrow, to meet Adolfo Suárez, to get in with the toff crowd.

I ask Mani, through Xander, what he thinks of an Englishman training to kill bulls. He says, apparently: “It is important when bravery is declining in the bullfight that Alejandro does this brave thing in the ring.”

Yes, I say, but would a Spanish crowd pay to watch? Mani demurs. “Listen,” he says. “The only interesting thing is the ability, not the nationality.” But Xander says he is being especially liberal for our sake. And he’s not kidding. What Mani would say about it to his amigos is, I suspect, very different.

Later that night, we arrive at La Botánica, a vast botanical garden occupying a huge chunk of the town of Sanlúcar de Barrameda. A palace. A cab driver reluctant to go in through the iron gates. Very good tortilla left for us by the princess’s cook. An octagonal drawing room. Cool bottles of the family manzanilla, bearing the Orléans-Borbón coat of arms.

Our hostess, Carla, daughter of the princess, arrives with Nicolas, her husband and our photographer. And Xander’s old schoolfriend Dominic Elliot comes a little later, who’s going to film the tentadero. We drink some of the family’s brandy and, with an early start tomorrow, we retire early.

Or rather, I retire early. Xander, it transpires in the morning, has trouble sleeping. He finally nods off about 6am. He dreams that Adolfo is telling him, “Be ready to be ready” (in fact it was Mani, the old tout, who very helpfully spent two hours haranguing Xander about the importance of being prepared). He also dreams that Padilla was asleep in his father’s bed., Adolfo in Jules’s.

When my phone alarm goes to wake me for breakfast at 7.30, Xander is up, washed, dressed and smoking. It has rained very heavily in the night. If the ring is waterlogged the fight won’t happen. If it is just a bit wet, then it will. But it will be even more dangerous. Xander seems a bit different this morning. More self-possessed. A bit haughtier.

Matadors do not eat on the day of a fight in case they are gored and require a general anaesthetic. I do not ask Xander if he plans to have breakfast. He might as well; at the remote ranch where we are going, there will be no surgeons. But anyway, he doesn’t look hungry.

We drive out in Nicolás’s car in quite good spirits, past endless miles of wind and solar farms. Xander points out the window into the rolling plains and says, “Look, a cow. I think maybe it’s a Saltillo. She’s a beauty.”

“Quick, Xander,” says Dominic. “Kill it!”

Xander laughs. “It’s true they have to be eradicated.”

“Vermin?” Dominic mutters

And then the car is quiet again.

When we’re about ten minutes away from the farm, Xander puts on a CD of the music from Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, as he apparently always does before a fight. It is very sombre. And also faintly ridiculous. Dominic and I, from the backseat, cannot help but take the piss.

Xander suddenly turns round in the front and stares at us, his face like thunder. And in a very fair imitation of Russell Crowe, he says: “My name is Maximus Decimus Meridius, commander of the Armies of the North, General of the Felix Legions, loyal servant to the true emperor, Marcus Aurelius. Father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife. And I will have my vengeance, in this life or the next.”

Funnily enough, there was always a soundtrack when Jules and I went out driving, aged 16 or 17. We’d neck a bottle of Smirnoff and Jules would take the keys to whichever of his father’s cars had been left at home that weekend, and he would drive us, unlicensed and underage, to a party. Or if not a party, then just around, listening to music. Xander, who was 8 or 9, was always there, asking what we were doing. And Jules always told him the truth. And then told him what to say if his parents rang.

We’d cruise the streets with the windows down, smoking. We’d look at girls, and they’d look back and not understand what two spotty kids were doing in a company chairman’s car. Then we’d race back through London at 80 or 90mph with pop music blaring, with very little idea of road signs, or where we were going. Jules’s favourite trick was to bomb the wrong way up Baker Street at midnight, watching the other drivers scatter. One night, in Hampstead, we hit a parked car at about 70mph, bounced, spun round and round and round, lights flashing, horns blasting, and finally came to a stop in the middle of the street, pointing the wrong way back down the road.

There was no sound then except the gruesome Austrian electropop of Rock Me Amadeus by Falco booming out of the stereo. And we looked at each other and laughed.

A year or so later, the police action on the accident still pending as far as I remember, Jules went out on his skis after lunch in Zermatt, hit a woman who had come out of her bindings, and was killed when something freakish happened with a broken ski or a pole, which I’ve never quite understood and don’t really want to.

The farm looms up in the distance, and then the ring, surrounded by ochre fields full of black bulls. I meet Adolfo and Padilla and they go off with Xander to change.

I go into the changing room with Nicolas, to maybe get some cool, black and white behind-the-scenes shots of matadors changing.

When I walk in, Padilla, with his massive sideburns, is already naked, sitting on a bench. He has a long scar running down his chest and the biggest balls I have ever seen. It seems an odd thing to mention, but it’s true. Like a pair of pineapples, they are. The bravest killer of bulls in all Spain has truly massive testicles.

I didn’t get a look at Xander’s.

Out on the sand, I pull Xander and Adolfo over for a quick interview. What are they expecting? What are the dangers? Etc.

Xander does not seem scared, just worried about looking foolish, about disappointing his friends, about not making any attractive passes with the cape.

I ask Adolfo if what Xander is about to do is dangerous.

“Of course,” he says, as if I am a moron. “It is very dangerous.”

How dangerous?

“He can die.”

Oh. Is he a good bullfighter?

“He is one of the bravest men that I have seen in the ring,” says Adolfo. “Because when you have the technique, you know you have that to fall back on. And he does not have this.”

Wow, brave because essentially clueless. Very British. Very Charge of the Light Brigade. Very trenches. Very scary.

I take a position behind a barrier in the ring, on the sand, in front of a little stone room, into which I plan to duck if anything comes for me.

No sooner am I tucked in there than the big, red, iron doors open and out comes the first vaquilla. Nobody would argue that this is the same thing as a bull. It is smaller, lighter, faster, bouncier, the ground does not shake when it comes bounding in. But it runs fast, straight for Padilla, who is out now in the ring, he passes it round him a few times with his cape (the big pink and yellow one, not the red muleta). As it passes, it leaps, all four feet off the ground, its horns passing close to his face. Bulls do not do this.

Now I understand how the tentadero works. Like a real bullfight, there is a process in place to tire the vaquilla until it charges more circumspectly and can be trained to the muleta, to drop its head, expose the back of its neck and be killed by a sword going in directly over the horns (as all bulls in Spain must be killed, by law). The difference here is that no stabbing or bleeding is involved in the tiring-out process and the “kill” is not a kill, just a slap on the hump in the place where the sword would have gone.

This happens with two, perhaps three animals. Nicolás, Dominic and I begin to wonder if Xander is going to be called. Xander looks worried. Whether at the prospect of fighting or of not fighting is hard to say. I doubt he could have told you himself.

But then comes the moment, when a suitable bull has been caped and tired and is ready for the muleta, when Xander is called. He walks out into the middle. And almost immediately the vaquilla is upon him (I can’t call it a “cow” – the bathos is too terrible). It bounds out of the shadow into the light. Xander stays still, moves the cape, the bull goes past.

Not bad.

It turns, it comes again, Xander passes again, motioning away from his body in a sweeping gesture, his right hand moving in a smooth arc from his left hip outwards, like a proud host presenting a lavish spread of hors d’oeuvre to his guests. Except that he’s holding a red cape in it, and a horned animal is going by.

Quite stylish.

The vaquilla comes again, Xander shuffles nervously (which you mustn’t do), he backs away (which you mustn’t do) and so the bull sees him (which is what will always happen) and it comes for him, and he’s in a bit of a mess now, tangled behind the cape, and the vaquilla charges him and he sort of pushes it away and scampers and Adolfo and a couple of others run on and entice it away with cape-swinging.

Less good. Less stylish. But still. You wouldn’t catch me doing it.

The rest is a mix of good and bad. Amazing that he can do it at all. Some passes are really very good, and then sometimes he quite naturally dances away from the bull (which you mustn’t do) and it sees him and hits him. He’s seen a thousand bullfights, he knows that’s not what you do. But instinct is instinct: a horned thing comes for you, you back off.

Once, he ends up sitting on the thing. That’s how he gets the blood on his jeans which I hope Nicolás has captured. Though an apparently bleeding arse is not perhaps the image Xander had most had in mind when we began all this.

Another time, Xander miscalculates and ends up holding both horns, physically pushing the animal off himself, and seeming to laugh at himself, or the situation. And, of course, that rather defuses the death-tension. And without the death-tension, even in a tentadero, it’s all sort of over.

The bull is different. The bull really is terrifying. After eyeballing me at the barrier it heads out into the middle of the ring to meet Adolfo, and its maker.

But this is not a great fight either. The bull is too big and it has been injured in transit, making it all the more difficult to contain – although the on-site vet has passed it fit to die, a very Spanish legal paradox.

When it charges the armoured horse of the picador right in front of my nose it is like dinosaurs fighting. Sometimes, when it charges the cape, it catches a horn in the sand and somersaults, turning over in the air in slow motion and hitting the ground like a grand piano dropped from a helicopter. If this happens in the professional arena, crowds get very upset.

But Adolfo fights it very bravely and elegantly. He has trouble killing it (you try killing an elephant with a toothpick) but eventually does, jointly with Padilla, both placing a sword, going a little round the side (which is legal if an attempt has first been made to go over the horns), taking fewer risks, choosing not to die here, in front of nobody, in the middle of nowhere.

The dying bull totters over towards Nicolás and collapses at the edge of the ring, where a tattered tree overhangs the wall and gives a small square of speckled shade. It twitches. A farmhand comes in to finish it off with a dagger strike at the top of the spinal chord where it joins the neck. He needs a couple of stabs at it. There is plenty of blood and twitching.

Nicolas cries aloud his revulsion with a series of Spanish “Yuks”. I beg for him to be silent. We can’t show how revolted we are, even if we are Spanish. What will they think?

Now, suddenly, I remember that I need a photo of Xander and the dead bull. It could make or break the piece. I have prepared him for this earlier in the day and now, as Padilla and Adolfo leave the ring, I hurry across to where Xander is smoking and drag him over to pose by the bull.

He is desperately uneasy about it. I know he does not want to be seen to be claiming another man’s kill. A number of men are watching. I put Xander next to the bull and tell him to look at it, look at me, look at the camera, look back at the bull. Then a man comes over with a dagger and sticks it in the back of the bull’s neck and waggles it, and the bull twitches. So now it’s even more dead. The man has a slightly scornful look in his eye.

I ask Adolfo to join the pose, and he won’t. He is not happy with the photographing of the bull generally. He feels it is disrespectful. I think of all those dead bulls I have seen applauded out of the ring. And the ones I have seen booed (I hate it when they boo the corpse). We pack it in, and a forklift truck that has been hovering by the ring doors comes in and scoops up the dead animal, struggling to get its prongs under the huge carcass, and then staggers off with it.

I realise that Dominic has been filming this, and Nicolás has been photographing it. And I tell them to stop. This is the sort of thing you record if you want to discredit the bullfight.

I tell them both to get rid of any footage of the forklift before they send their stuff to The Times. I do not even want people in the office to see this. I sort of wish I hadn’t. When a bull is killed in the public ring, a team of plumed mules comes in and the body is dragged out in a bloody arc across the sand with muleteers cracking whips in the air. It’s a mini-funeral. But the forklift truck is just a forklift truck.

How does Xander think he did?

He thinks he could have done better. He is disappointed. He thinks he did some good passes but that he kept getting hit. He thinks this is the result of not having been in the ring for a while. He was meant to be killing a bull in six weeks’ time, but he sees now he is not ready. He will put it back to early next year, start training hard, maybe enrol in a bullfight school to learn a repertoire of passes. And also to learn how to cape his way out of danger when it goes wrong. He will also need to learn how to kill with the sword.

Washed and changed, Xander says he has to phone his father. “He knew I was doing this today, and I said I’d phone to tell him how it went.”

I watch him pacing backwards and forwards in the dust outside the ring, speaking to his father. And it occurs to me only now that if he had indeed been killed in the ring, as was apparently possible, it would have been me who had to phone. And it would have been on Xander’s phone, because that is where his father’s number would be stored.

And the moment his father answered the telephone and heard my voice instead of his son’s (saying, “Hello, is that Clive Harrison?”), he would have known.

Via a roadside tapas joint, where we lunch with Padilla, who signs autographs for a queue of diners, we return to Padilla’s home, a sort of celebrity mini-ranch called Puerta Gayola. In the dining room are the giant heads of six huge Miura bulls (the fearsome breed Padilla is famed for fighting). There are also antelope heads, and other things he has killed with more modern weapons.

Upstairs there is a trophy room: more bits of animals, ears, tails, swords – a thousand photos of Padilla in the ring and posing with celebrities and politicians. And, bizarrely, his wife’s wedding dress on a mannequin.

He apologises that he cannot carouse too hard because he fights in Granada tomorrow. “Padilla,” he says, “is not Padilla tonight.”

Nonetheless, we retire to Sin Problemas, the bar and hideaway that he built in the grounds of his house, next to the practice mini-ring and the children’s playground.

We smoke big Dominican cigars and drink rum, and try not to mention (assuming we all notice) the grim smell of Spanish plumbing. (Padilla certainly notices – for in a surreal glimpse through the doorway as we arrive, I see the great matador scurrying round the place with a can of air freshener, like the Shake ’n’ Vac woman.)

We turn on the TV and watch, over and over again, the death of Paquirri, the last great fighter to die in the ring (and father of Cayetano and Francisco Rivera Ordóñez), which is being shown because he was killed 25 years ago to the day, the very hour.

“Shhhh?” says Padilla at one point. “This is the very moment.”

Over and over we watch the death. Paquirri gored through the femoral artery, and carried aloft around the ring on the great horn in his thigh. Padilla grows angrier and angrier, furious that Paquirri should have let it happen, furious that he made such a novice’s mistake.

It seems that Paquirri moved, backed off from the bull, and allowed it to see him. Just like Xander.

“Was Paquirri any good?” I ask.

“He was one of the best of that time,” says Adolfo. “But he was only as good as the poorest today.”

So we are in a golden age of sorts. Tomorrow the great Tom?s will fight again in Barcelona. Padilla will fight in Granada in front of a TV audience of millions (and be gored very badly in two places, and not fight again for some time), and we ourselves will see Daniel Luque at the Maestranza in Seville, French-born and only 19 years old, throw away the rule book by giving up the sword and performing naturales with both his left and right hand, and being awarded two ears, and we’ll wave our hankies and throw things, and he’ll be the guy I follow next year, when I go back, like I always do, despite the horror and disappointment of it all.

But for now, drunk, we go out into Padilla’s yard, where he picks up one of his training tools, a papier-mâché bull’s head mounted on a bicycle wheel, with wheelbarrow handles.

He takes up a position at one end of the yard, and Adolfo lurks in the lengthening shadows with a banderilla (barbed flag) in each hand, stamping his feet, as he would in the ring, to attract the attention of the “bull”. And then Padilla charges in a straight line towards Adolfo, who swoops in an arc and places the banderillas, “Thwack!”, right in the bicycle-bull’s papier-mâché hump.

He does it again a couple of times, and then he takes his sword. He faces Padilla and his wheelie-bull, Padilla charges, and Adolfo “kills”, drilling his sword perfectly into the sheath in the back of its papier-mâch? neck.

And then Xander has a go, wobbling on half a bottle of rum and the tired legs of a day’s excitement and anxiety. Xander “kills” awkwardly. But he kills. He goes over the horns. It’s legal.

Dominic, Nicolás and I cheer wildly. And long-dead Jules’s little brother takes a bow, watched by Padilla, the great slaughterer of bulls, and by Adolfo, son of the first leader of democratic Spain.

He has succeeded in what he set out to do today, more or less: survived the lunging of an angry, fighting bull-mother and successfully driven a sword into a unicycle pushed by a great matador as his friends, sitting on the sand, rolled pissed and giggling in the twilight.

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