Alexander Fiske-Harrison’s book on bullfighting has been nominated for the William Hill Sports Book Of The Year Award, announced on Monday. But can it even be called a sport and is it as cruel as we assume?
By Alexander Fiske-Harrison – The Telegraph
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 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.