Awards & Reviews


By Ben East

30th November, 2011

Essential sports books to give you inspiration over the Christmas period

Christmas is just around the corner, so browse our bookshelf of gift ideas and take inspiration from stories of achievement, recovery and redemption.

Many would argue that bullfighting isn’t a sport either – including, famously, Ernest Hemingway – but that didn’t prevent Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight by Alexander Fiske-Harrison (Profile, £15.99) making it on to the William Hill shortlist this year.

A few years ago, there was a spate of books by writers detailing their own attempts to break into professional sport – and Fiske-Harrison’s book is a fantastic addition.

He started out wanting to study bullfighting from a neutral perspective and ended up admiring the strange beauty of the torero, before venturing into the ring himself.

Whatever you think about the ethics of the bullfight, it’s a fascinating insight into a world we know little about but are quick to judge.

November 27th, 2011

Books for Christmas

Sport books

Oliver Brown

INTO THE ARENA: The World of the Spanish Bullfight BY ALEXANDER FISKE-HARRISON Profile Books, £15.99

Bullfighting was banned in Catalonia last year and yet has continued to capture both the quintessence of Spain and the extremes of sporting heroism. It exerted a fascination early upon Alexander Fiske-Harrison, who watched his first bullfight as a 23-year-old philosophy postgraduate student in Seville and embarked a decade later on a quest to understand the spectacle in all its cultural complexity. This is no passive work, however: he undertakes months of training with one of the top matadors, Eduardo Dávila Miura, to steel himself for the final act of his own corrida de toros. Uneasy ethical dilemmas abound, not least how much suffering the animals are put through. But this remains a compelling read, unusual for its genre, exalting the bullfight as pure theatre.

July 8th 2011

The best summer holiday reads

Want to immerse yourself in local culture and history while soaking up the good life? Follow our guide on what to read in the world’s top holiday destinations.

By Michael Kerr


In Into the Arena: the World of the Spanish Bullfight by Alexander Fiske-Harrison (Profile), an Englishman is introduced – literally as well as metaphorically – to el toro.

June 19th 2011

Summer reads for travellers:

What books should travel addicts be packing this year?

by Brian Schofield and Anthony Sattin

Colin Thubron, Carl Hiaasen, Alexander Fiske-Harrison, Ian Thomson, Jasper Winn, Olivia Laing and Patrick Leigh Fermor make up the essential travel book list.

January 28th 2011

Death in the afternoon revisited by a beginner bullfighter

by Mathew Clayfield 

Bullfighter Juan Jose Padilla is gored

Spanish bullfighter Juan Jose Padilla is badly gored by a bull. Source: Supplied

“AT the first bullfight I ever went to,” Hemingway writes at the beginning of his 1932 nonfiction work Death in the Afternoon, “I expected to be horrified and perhaps sickened by what I had been told would happen to the horses.”

By the time I attended my first bullfight, in Mexico City in September 2010, the horses were not my concern. Coming to bullfighting nearly 80 years after Hemingway’s apology was written, I expected to be horrified and perhaps sickened by what I had been told would happen to the bulls.

Where Hemingway was writing of a time in which the horses were not protected with padding – a change that was made in 1928, and one he complained about bitterly – I was attending my first fight in a time in which the popularity of bullfighting was reported to be waning, in which the province of Catalonia had recently voted to ban it, and in which animal rights groups were baying, not for the bull’s blood, but for that of anyone who dare shed it. And what they had told me about what would happen to the animals, while mostly incorrect, was quite something.

Of course, Hemingway’s paean to the corrida de toros was out of date long before animal rights groups started picketing outside la Plaza de toros de la Real Maestranza de Sevilla or les Arenes de Nimes. And yet it would be impossible to discuss Alexander Fiske-Harrison’s Into the Arena: The World of the Spanish Bullfight without reference to the earlier book or its author. Death in the Afternoon remains the model for the English-language book on bullfighting and Hemingway the model of the English-speaking aficionado. As Orson Welles, who trained as a torero, told Michael Parkinson in 1974: “He thought he invented it, you know. He really did think he invented it. Maybe he did.”

Fiske-Harrison, who spent the greater part of 2009 and 2010 living in Spain and training as a torero himself, is well aware of this fact and dedicates nearly half a chapter to the writer to whom, inevitably, he will be most compared.

But it is worth pointing out that the similarities between the two works are mostly superficial. Both consist of 20 chapters that roughly follow the highly regulated structure of the bullfight: Fiske-Harrison’s by naming his chapters, somewhat arbitrarily until the last two or three, after the bullfight’s various suertes, or interactions between man and bull, in the order in which they tend to unfold, and Hemingway’s by devoting the content of each chapter to a discussion of each stage in its turn.

Both devote their final passages to what they might have written if they had written something else. “If I could have made this enough of a book,” Hemingway wrote, “it would have had everything in it.”

He proceeds to list, in muscular yet nostalgic prose that looks forward to The Snows of Kilimanjaro and A Moveable Feast, everything he could have written about but failed to: the landscape and the train rides through it, the drunken nights, the quiet moments with matadors before the fights. This is what makes Fiske-Harrison’s book so different to Hemingway’s and its subtitle so important: the writer recognises that “the world of the Spanish bullfight”, with its characters and its tragic tales, its poetry and its flamenco music, is often as interesting to read about as the bullfight itself, and often even more so.

Which is not to say his descriptions of the corrida aren’t at times incredibly engaging. But the quality that makes Hemingway’s final chapter the most intoxicating pervades Fiske-Harrison’s in its entirety: less a handbook than a memoir, less Death in the Afternoon than The Sun Also Rises, Into the Arena pulses with the writer’s love of the world and the people he has found himself among.

These people include the matadors Juan Jose Padilla, who lost his left eye in a near-fatal goring a short time after the book was published, and Cayetano Rivera Ordonez, whose great-grandfather was the model for the matador in The Sun Also Rises and whose grandfather Antonio was celebrated in Hemingway’s The Dangerous Summer.

In the film Almost Famous, rock critic Lester Bangs warns a fledgling music journalist: “You can not make friends with the rock stars.” While Fiske-Harrison occasionally chides himself for failing this test, especially when he returns to Britain to write and finds his two worlds are increasingly incompatible, he allows himself to succumb to that failure. He takes up the cape, encouraged by his new friends, and begins training to fight and kill his own bull.

Not that Fiske-Harrison is unaware of the ethical problems. He writes that:

this thing, whatever it was, seemed balanced on a perfect moral borderline. When it was done well, it seemed a good thing; when done badly it was an unmitigated sin. How could anything straddle an ethical boundary like this?

For despite what its proponents and opponents may say, he argues, bullfighting does straddle such a boundary. In two well-researched chapters that look at the ethics of bullfighting from the perspectives of animal rights and evolutionary biology, Fiske-Harrison goes to lengths demonstrate how most of the arguments for and against the bullfight are as good – or, more commonly, as bad – as each other.

Observing that Spain’s fighting bulls live a far better life than Britain’s meat cattle, and offended by what he sees as the hypocritical and borderline xenophobic dissimulations of the animal rights movement, the author attempts to demonstrate how banning the bullfight would in fact result in a reduction of animal rights across the board.

Despite a passage in which the author dismisses animal rights gurus Peter Singer and Marc Bekoff in a manner that even supporters of the bullfight might find rather too cursory to be satisfactory, these demonstrations are mostly successful.

While Fiske-Harrison eventually dismisses his qualms, it is difficult to read his final chapter, “La escotada” – the thrust of the matador’s sword – without getting a sense that his year with the bulls has only deepened their mystery. It certainly hasn’t put an end to his concerns. Or, one suspects, his searching for an answer.

It is also hard to read this final chapter, or the postscript that follows it, without wondering what philosopher Mark Rowlands was on about when he called Fiske-Harrison vainglorious in a review of the book in the Times Literary Supplement. Hemingway was the target of similar criticisms when Death in the Afternoon was published, too, with that book and its reception sparking its fair share of literary feuds.

It only makes sense that a new English-language book about bullfighting should do the same, though it seems to me that only the earlier work seems unequivocal in its support of the spectacle. (Hemingway was also itching for a fight, going after everyone from Virginia Woolf and Aldous Huxley to William Faulkner and, more bizarrely, El Greco.)

I will not say too much about the more recent spat between the philosopher and the torero, except to point out that, while Fiske-Harrison perhaps mentions how many push-ups he can do one too many times, and while one gets a little tired of having to hear about his trips to Argentina to perfect his horseback skills or to Kruger National Park to observe the kudu, his tendency is towards self-deprecation as often as it is towards self-aggrandisement.

And he brings to the polarised discussion of bullfighting a level of nuance where his opponent – who once attempted to train his pet wolf to be a vegetarian – brings only more dissimulation.

Into the Arena: The World of the Spanish Bullfight
By Alexander Fiske-Harrison
Profile Books, 256pp, $35

Matthew Clayfield has worked as a freelance foreign correspondent in the US, Mexico and Cuba.

September 16 2011

No. 5659

(Due to the ensuing dispute over poor research, dishonest argument and reviewer bias, I have decided not to reprint this review – the only one which I do so – and ask readers to click on the “Controversy in the TLS” tab top-right. AFH)




By Alexander Fiske-Harrison
(Profile Books 284pp £15.99)

YOU MIGHT THINK that Ernest Hemingway had bulls and Spain all wrapped up, but it is fifty years now since The Dangerous Summer, his study of two bullfighting brothers-in- law, was first published and more than eighty since his novel Fiesta, about a group of friends who go to watch the running of the bulls in Pamplona. Spain has changed immeasurably since then, shaking off the ‘black legend’ that for centuries branded it as a backward, fervid, superstitious and cruel society.

Yet some elements of superstition, fervour and cruelty still shape Spanish culture and none more so than bullfighting. The question of whether a modern society should endorse animal suffering as entertainment is bound to cross the mind of any casual visitor to a bullfight.

Alexander Fiske-Harrison first tussled with the issue in his early twenties and, as a student of both philosophy and biology, has perhaps tussled with it more lengthily and cogently than most of us. The germ of this book was an essay in Prospect (a ‘rather longwinded’ one, by his own admission). Into the Arena is an attempt to take the bull more firmly by the horns. In researching it, Fiske-Harrison spent nearly two years following a clutch of toreros, several of whom became his friends. He studied their art and learned some of it himself, all the while trying to come to a decision about the morality of a sport that is also an art form.

Writing: a dangerous profession (Photo: Tristán Ybarra)

His eye-witness reports of bullfights are particularly good. He transposes the spectacle into words with great success, conveying the drama of the corrida while explaining individual moves and techniques with eloquence and precision. One bull is ‘a paranoia of horn and muscle’. He is also knowledgeable about the different breeds of bull, some more deadly than others, and the great families whose names are synonymous with breeding bulls and fighting them. I didn’t know that bulls bred to fight never see a person on foot – only ever mounted – until they are in the arena. Bullfights in Seville are preceded by an announcement: ‘Silence! A man risks his life here today.’ I didn’t know that Orson Welles had trained as a bullfighter in Seville for four months under the name El Americano, or that the sport nowadays turns over 2.5 billion euros a year and employs 200,000 people for 1,000 fights. That’s a threefold increase since Hemingway’s time. And it’s strangely heartening to know that if you walk past a policeman in Seville carrying a half-concealed sword he will just smile and cry ‘torero!’.

Outside the arena Fiske-Harrison is less sure-footed. His conversations with off-duty bullfighters rarely get further than the ‘why do you do it?’ stage and seem to take place at social functions where it is hard to establish any intimacy. I wanted to know about these men’s homes, their families, their priests and the surgeons who patch them up time and again (many bullfighters have only one testicle apparently). We learn that a Madrid psychiatrist has found that the brains of bullfighters exhibit a similar neurochemical balance to those of prisoners classified as clinical psychopaths. Are bullfighters psychopaths then? It would be interesting to learn more.

I liked Fiske-Harrison much more in the final chapter, where he questions himself and his project. ‘As a spectator, I was always afraid I was missing something. As a protagonist, I was always … well, just afraid.’ Suddenly I felt I understood why Alexander Fiske-Harrison had wanted to learn to be a bullfighter, and to fight a young bull in front of his parents in Spain. He did it as a tribute to his brother, who was killed while practising another dangerous sport, skiing. I think he wanted to confront danger and survive, as his brother had not. It makes the final sentences of the book all the more poignant: ‘[If] your heart goes out to the bull, as it should, let it also go to the matador. For it is he who is your brother.’

10 July 2011

Where Hemingway feared to tread

Into The Arena by Alexander Fiske-Harrison

James Owen

* * * * *

Whatever you think of Alexander Fiske-Harrison’s account of his quest to become a bullfighter, you have to admire his guts. Not literally, happily, but there are times in his year as an amateur matador in Spain in which he seems likely to learn first-hand how cruel the arena can be.

Which perhaps is as it should be. For all his writing about it, Ernest Hemingway never went into the bullring. For Fiske-Harrison, the only way to justify bullfighting is by fully understanding the risks involved.

It is a far fairer contest than fox-hunting. The bulls weigh more than a ton, turn nimbly as ice-skaters and can lift a horse and rider up on the point of a horn. When the greatest current fighter, Jose Tomas, was gored at a bullfight in Mexico, he lost a total of 17 pints of blood.

No wonder studies show that psychopaths and bullfighters have the same unnatural calm body chemistry. In Spain, bullfighters are bigger celebrities than footballers.

But do the artistry and spectacle justify the suffering? Fiske-Harrison’s argument that the interplay between man and bull, when done with the highest skill, merits the tragedy will not convince many readers.

But his descriptions of the fights are compelling and lyrical, and his explanation of different uses of the matador’s capes is illuminating. One begins to understand what has captivated Spaniards for centuries.

This complex and ambitious book examines not only life in the bullring but also Spain’s cultural identity and modern ideas of masculinity.

Fiske-Harrison admits that with each of his fights he knows more, not less fear. When he kills his first and only bull he feels not triumph but overwhelming sadness for a life taken.

His point that the matador’s disregard for his own life in the ring makes him respect it more keenly outside appears incontestable. One only wishes that our own discredited sports stars were as wise.

(This review is not available online, a PDF of the print version is viewable here.)

26th May 2011

The Old Etonian Matador dancing with death

By Mark Palmer

A THIRTYSOMETHING Old Etonian sidled into a Spanish bullring and stared at a snorting bull weighing more than 70 stone.

‘I was living entirely in the placement of the bull’s horns, the direction of the blackness of his eyes  . . .  nothing else in the world existed for me, not pain, not fear, nothing.’

No, but most of us would still have made our excuses and left. For Alexander Fiske-Harrison that in itself would have felt like some kind of ritual death.

He’d spent two years waiting for this moment. His parents were among the spectators. His best friend from school was there. He’d trained hard. He’d drunk hard. He’d hung out with some of the greatest matadors of the modern era. All he had to do was slow the bull down with some crafty waving of his red cape and plunge the ‘killing sword’ between the sixth and seventh vertebrae.

Fiske-Harrison (right) is a writer and actor. He penned and starred in The Pendulum in London’s West End in 2008.

In 2000, at the age of 23, he attended his first bullfight while on holiday with his parents and immediately found himself agreeing with the poet Garcia Lorca, who said ‘the bullfight is the last serious thing left in the world today’. Eight years later he was lured into the extraordinary and rarefied world of Spanish bullfighting, ostensibly to see whether or not he agreed with those who want the sport banned.

But also because he couldn’t resist the adrenaline rush.

Others have been there before, not least Ernest Hemingway, the 50th anniversary of whose death neatly coincides with this travelogue. Hemingway concluded that bullfighting was ‘moral’ as it gave him a ‘feeling of life, death and mortality’.

Fiske-Harrison comes to much the same conclusion, albeit after considerable soul-searching, a couple of failed romances and endless Rioja-induced hangovers. Along the way, he persuades bullfighting’s head honchos – including the great Eduardo Dávila Miura – not just to let him sit in the expensive seats in Ronda and Seville but to enter the ring himself and put into practice everything he’s been taught and witnessed on his travels.

He develops a taste for the whole gruesome spectacle, but what makes the book work is that he never loses his disgust for it.‘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, because it is already contained in the very facts of life itself. All you can do is turn away’.

Or go headlong into it, embracing the pomp, the artistry, the arrogance, the absorbing cultural and historical links that define what Fiske-Harrison calls ‘the dance with death’. He’s so committed to his task that he even takes himself to Pamplona to run with the bulls, where he avoids a goring but still ends up with a bloody shirt. He unearths some interesting facts. A crucial premise of bullfighting is that the bull has never seen a man on the ground before – he is herded entirely by mounted farmhands, who he won’t attack, unlike men on foot, who he will.

Furthermore, the first attempt to ban bullfighting was by Pope Pius V in 1567 and bulls are not the slightest bit exercised by red rags – it’s the movement of the cloth that enrages them.

Fiske-Harrison is guilty of occasionally sloppy writing. His use of the word ‘rather’ (‘I must admit to feeling rather humbled by the whole thing’) and the phrase ‘the fact that’ can grate, but this is an informed piece of work on a subject about which we are all expected to have a view.

But what I really enjoyed about Into The Arena is that after nearly 300 pages I still couldn’t quite decide whether bullfighting should be banned or allowed to flourish.

29th May 2011

Into the Arena by Alexander Fiske-Harrison

Bullfighting in Spain is more popular now than in its golden age, finds this study of its drama, and its morality

By Brian Schofield

“Silence! A man risks his life here today!” For the past 30 years, Manolo Artero has stood before the crowd in La Plaza de Toros in Seville and uttered these words, before opening the doors to the bull pen. Then, from out of the darkness beneath the packed terraces, “a half-ton of pulsing muscle” will emerge, moving at 25 miles an hour and desperate for something, anything, to destroy. As Alexander Fiske-Harrison pithily puts it, you can debate the morality of the matador standing before this furious, doomed beast, but before you question his bravery, “You try fighting an effing bull.”

The unexpected backdrop to Into the Arena, Fiske-Harrison’s memoir of more than a year spent following Spain’s “national spectacle”, is the rude health of such an apparently controversial pastime. The self-governing Catalan region may have outlawed the sport recently, and Spanish national television may have dropped it on ethical grounds, but across the country there were 1,345 fights in 2009 (resulting in roughly 6,000 fatally skewered bulls), more than three times the number held during the supposed golden age of toreo (bullfighting) during the 1930s. The leading matadors earn salaries comparable to the football stars of Barcelona and Real Madrid, have giant entourages of security and management, and seem preordained to marry a former Miss Spain and be featured in Hola! magazine.

But they earn their riches, no question — their bodies are covered with the scars of their trade: punctured thighs, torn scrotums, pierced cheeks, severed arteries. When the banderillero Manolo Montiliu died in that very Seville arena in 1992 (banderilleros place the barbed spears in the bull’s back to slow him for the matador), the beast’s horn had plunged so deep, doctors lamented, that “his heart was opened like a book”.

It is this world of glamour, fame and death that Fiske-Harrison penetrates in search of a solution to the “terrible quandary” of bullfighting: “When done well, it seemed a good thing; when done badly it was an unmitigated sin.” The outcome is a debut that, despite some flaws, provides an engrossing introduction to Spain’s “great feast of art and danger”.

The book is sketchy on history, but the fighting of bulls is thought to have come to Spain (with the Moors or the Goths) in the early Middle Ages — as a pursuit in which knights would joust the beasts from horseback, but would delegate the dispatch of the bull to a commoner, known as a matador or “killer”, who distracted the beast by waving a piece of cloth. By the 18th century, the riders (picadors) had joined the supporting cast and it was the matador who had become the bejewelled star, his cloth now a colourful cape. In the 20th century, General Franco heavily promoted toreo as Spain’s “national spectacle” and Ernest Hemingway made it a world-famous symbol of “grace under pressure”.

The stars of this book are, inevitably, the matadors the author watches from the stands and frequently befriends. There is José Tomás, “the Phenomenon”, often called the greatest torero — but still mortal: during one fight he is gored in the thigh and loses so much blood (17 pints) that the arena’s infirmary runs out, so the crowd fight to donate towards their hero’s salvation.

Then there’s Cayetano Rivera Ordóñez (one of a pair of matador brothers who are mobbed like rock stars wherever they go), who quietly admits to the exhausting drudgery of death he has to endure, “a dozen fights a month for month after month”.

Most compelling of all is Juan José Padilla, the embodiment of an ageing fighter who can’t settle for the financial security he’s already earned, so he ploughs on, tackling the dangerous bulls his more celebrated rivals refuse. In the book’s best set piece, Padilla fights in his home town, Jerez, but with the stellar Tomás also on the bill. Stung by the rapturous acclaim heaped on “the Phenomenon”, Padilla undertakes a madly risky duel with a bull, “giving it an even chance, tearing the fabric of his jacket in a dozen places, blood running from cuts on his legs and torso”. The crowd, realising they could soon see a man die of jealousy, bellow “Basta!” (Enough!). To which he shouts helplessly into the night: “Soy Padilla!” (I am Padilla!)

As Fiske-Harrison watches the matadors train and relax, and even tries a few “passes” himself, the other stars (or perhaps fall guys) of the show slowly emerge: the bulls. Bred for aggression, speed and grace, they are prevented from ever seeing a man on foot until “match day”, to ensure that no memories of the human form dissuade them from charging that distracting, fluttering cape. (The most dangerous bulls are the quickest learners).

The bulls vary enormously in their nature — some refuse to dance their way to death, and get booed off; others are so “brave” that the crowd, and often the matador, plead for the president of the bout to deliver a reprieve. In another startling scene, Fiske-Harrison watches a matador “fighting to save the bull’s life” after the crowd have called for a pardon, making the creature dance and spin with sufficient vigour to warm the presiding judge’s heart. As the terraces chant “Toro! Toro!” the dignitary finally yields and signals for the gates to be reopened, liberating the heroic bovine to a long life of rest and breeding. As Ordóñez puts it, there’s a fraternity between matador and creature, both spilling blood for the mob: “It is like a friend. You do not want to kill it, but you have to, and that is your tragedy.”

Where the book begins to unravel is in Fiske-Harrison’s conversion, over the year, from moral agnostic to defender of the toreo. Bullfighting may have been sanitised — largely thanks to modern medicine’s ability to keep wounded matadors alive (the last one died in 1985) — into a €2 billion-a-year branch of Spain’s celebrity-entertainment industry, but it still has giant ethical questions to answer. Fiske-Harrison’s responses to those questions never quite convince. His claim that banning the fight would mean the stunning dehesa (meadow) landscape of the breeding ranches “would be turned into farms for beef cattle” is a supposition (75% of Spain’s dehesa is already being conserved without bulls), and his stance that taunting a bull to death is ethically similar to eating a hamburger smacks of desperation.

The worst argument is Fiske-Harrison himself. He resolves to understand bullfighting by trying it, and his book swerves from a fine piece of journalism into a “personal quest” to prepare for a fight. It’s a journey many readers will struggle to stick with. As the author, a bit too self-regarding to be an entirely likeable narrator, races against time to be ready to fight and kill a bull “within the projected publication date of the book”, it is hard not to pray that he’ll fail, sparing an animal a pointless death for one man’s ends. While Into the Arena begins by brilliantly capturing a fascinating, intoxicating culture, it ends by unwittingly exposing its fundamental truth — bullfighting is in part about young men killing animals to show off.

4th June 2011

Into the Arena

By Dan Eltringham

Alexander Fiske-Harrison watched his first bullfight in Seville in 2000. Ten years later he found himself drawn to the sport and Into the Arena is the result, moving adeptly between matador-training, social history and a sometimes thrilling, sometimes tedious series of bloody fights and sherry-fuelled fiestas.

It’s to Fiske-Harrison’s credit that he never quite gets over his moral qualms about bullfighting; the book is at its strongest when he uses his degree in biology to investigate the cruelty question. “Wildlife conservation,” he writes, “is financially underwritten by the bullfights.”

Although Into the Arena is full of intriguing detail – a fighting bull will never get to see a man on foot before it enters the ring – at times its subject encourages a sense of writerly importance. However, the essential incongruity of an Englishman in the ring makes this book an engrossing introduction to bullfighting.

21 May 2011

by Alastair Mabbott

Plagued by conflicting feelings about bullfighting, writer and actor Alexander Fiske-Harrison decided the only way to resolve the issue was to spend a year in Spain immersing himself in bullfighting culture and training alongside professionals, then taking to the ring himself. Before he could conclude the spectacle of the fight might not be worth the life of an innocent creature, he felt he had to understand bullfighting at the deepest level. With Hemingway’s Death In The Afternoon a constantly looming presence, Fiske-Harrison comes across as the kind of devil-may-care Englishman who built an Empire. But is he a man out of time? Does he really have to get into the ring with one of these creatures to decide whether or not it’s barbaric? An informative and breathtaking volume of gonzo journalism.

(This review is not available online, a PDF of the print version is viewable here.)

José Tomás

Art and the raging bull

25 June 2011

Simon Courtauld

In these days of growing concern at the methods of factory farming and the welfare of the animals which are raised and killed for our consumption, it is instructive to compare the life of domestic beef cattle with that of a Spanish fighting bull. The cattle may have less than two years of life in cramped conditions, while the toro bravo roams free and unmolested on pasture for five years. Alexander Fiske- Harrison makes the comparison succinctly: ‘Five years on free-release and then the arena, or 18 months in prison and then the electric chair’. He maintains (there is some evidence for this, to do with beta-endorphins) that the fighting bull’s suffering is reduced because, once in the ring, it feels no fear, only aggressive anger. Ban the bullfight and this magnificent breed of animal would cease to exist. It is not a good converter of grass into protein, and anyway far too dangerous to be bred only for meat and milk.

The case for what in Spain is called la corrida de toros is well made in this entertaining account of two years which the author spent in Spain — following the bulls, caping young cows himself, getting to know matadors, attending ferias and flamenco parties. An initially reluctant convert to this Spanish cultural tradition, he comes to accept that ‘part of the justification of the suffering is the art’. When- ever he sees a bad and bloody corrida, however, his doubts over the cruelty surface again. Every aficionado has seen fights which are both shameful and plain boring. But when everything goes right, the spectacle can be absorbing, uplifting, even emotional.

What Fiske-Harrison seeks, as someone wrote of the great torero Antonio Ordoñez, is ‘a demonstration of the values which distinguish bullfighting from butchery’. Those values are concerned with technique, artistry, grace under pressure from a highly dangerous animal which is doing its best to kill its adversaries. In conversation with one of Ordoñez’s matador grandsons, Cayetano, the author learns of ‘the warmth a great bull could inspire in him, of his sadness at killing’.

Having returned to Oxford and read books on animal rights, he decides, that he must go back to Spain and kill a bull himself. Coached by a former matador, Dávila Miura, Fiske-Harrison proves himself brave and competent enough to reach what the Spanish call la hora de la verdad, the moment of truth, when he puts his bull to the sword and gains some understanding of what Cayetano had told him.

The only disappointment of this book is that it has too much about the author rather than ‘the world of the Spanish bullfight’. He might have considered the significance of religion — almost all bullfighting ferias are held in honour of a saint, or a festival such as Pentecost or Corpus Christi — the effect of the economic recession on the future of la fiesta brava, and of the ban in Catalonia (probably minimal: the encouraging response of the socialist government in Madrid was to hand over responsibility for bullfighting to the Ministry of Culture). He might also have discussed the ever-growing popularity of the corrida in south-west France, where it is conducted precisely as in Spain, and exploded the myth that bullfighting survives for the entertainment of foreign tourists. (When I attended a fight last summer in Malaga — the centre of tourism on the Costa del Sol — with a capacity audience of 12,000, I saw no foreigners there, nor heard a word of English spoken.)

Among the principal toreros of today, Fiske-Harrison gives brief mention to the two — Enrique Ponce and El Juli — who have dominated the scene for the past decade, and the faintest praise to José Maria Manzanares, who has emerged recently as both a consummate artist and master swordsman. One of the book’s best passages — which bears comparison with Kenneth Tynan’s outstanding book, Bull Fever — is the description of a performance by the controversial José Tomás in Jerez. This so-called phenomenon, or suicidal lunatic, having lost 17 pints of blood from a horrible goring in Aguascalientes, Mexico last year, is due to make his comeback in Valencia next month.

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.

Matt Carney & Joe Distler by John Fulton

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.

Joe Distler, top right, running in Pamplona

Alexander Fiske-Harrison, top right, running in Pamplona

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.

Alexander Fiske-Harrison running on the horns of a bull

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.

Joe Distler in his apartment with Alexander Fiske-Harrison (Photo: AFH personal collection)

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.

Alexander Fiske-Harrison with his 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.

Joe Distler still running

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.

Into The Arena can be purchased at all major British bookshops or at Amazon UK by clicking here.

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