Tuesday 24 April 2018

Review: How to watch a bullfight by Tristan Wood

Karen McCall on the controversial new book that she commissioned

It is a misunderstood, important subject that needs airing, but I don't expect it will please everyone.

This year in Spain alone, 40 million tickets will be sold to bullfighting enthusiasts, and I will be among them. I do not consider myself to be a cruel person, yet I love bullfighting. How can this be? I like animals (although I prefer to give to charities which help people) and I have encouraged our four daughters to keep and love the usual series of guinea-pigs, cats, lame pigeons and chickens.

My introduction to bullfighting was, I suppose, the same as that of most non-Spanish Europeans: I saw it on television in a Spanish bar while I was on holiday.

I was shocked and intrigued: the costumes seemed ridiculous, the 'teasing' of the bull relentless, the killing gratuitous.

A few days later, another TV bullfight was being screened in a different bar: it must have been July and Pamplona was in full swing. My initial shock was fading and this time I noticed a few different details: the emotional intensity on the bullfighter's face as he stilled himself to administer the coup de grace (I was later to learn that it's the most dangerous moment of a bullfight), the elegant line made by his body as he lifted the cape causing the bull to pass him by mere centimetres.

Over the years I saw dozens of televised bullfights in various Spanish bars. Five o'clock became an important time to stop sightseeing and enter some cool and dark drinking den with its TV perched on a high shelf.

I began to read about bullfights as best I could: Hemingway (rather dated), and in the newspapers and magazines. There was a lot to it, I realised. Still, it was quite a step, after about eight years of this, to actually attend my first bullfight and I was instantly, and irrevocably, knocked out by the spectacle.

If you are interested in trying it first-hand, make sure that the first bullfight you see is a good one. Go to one of the big arenas such as Madrid, Cordoba, Seville, Malaga, Santander.

If your experience is like mine, you might fall in love. You might be overwhelmed with the sheer exuberance: the animated crowds, the colour, the costumes, the pageantry, the music, the ritual, but most of all, the sheer danger, excitement and grace of the movements.

When people say that the odds are so unfairly stacked against the bull, I say: see the risks the man takes for yourself. His job is to make it look easy, taming more than 500 kilos of pure fury in a dangerous dance between man and beast.

The crowd will be quick to berate him for any instinctive flinch. The sweat on his brow, the effort to control face and body, are testimony to the terror imparted by these toros bravos, a breed of aggressive, fighting bull evolved for the purpose over 700 years, which would otherwise be extinct if they were not kept and bred today for the corrida.

The bull enters the arena to die. After four years ranging freely in the open countryside, it will die as surely as one of the three million cattle raised each year to have a quieter, bleaker death in a clinical abbatoir (some of them destined for pet food).

Half the crowd in the arena is as interested in the performance of the bull as of the man: the Spanish applaud the bull's determination, courage, character and nobleza.

It is essential to understand that the Spanish do not view all this as a sport. It is the culmination of a week or a weekend's religious festival celebrating the patron saint of a town or village.

How to Watch a Bullfight shows, through words and pictures, the step-by-step events of the 15 or so minutes that make up each bullfight.

The author Tristan Wood summarises bullfighting thus: 'In a world that may seem increasingly concerned with celebrity and other trivialities, the action between man and bull in the arena stands out as a spectacle that encourages us to consider the more serious matters of our existence: life and death, sacrifice, hardship and triumph'.

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