British writer Alexander Fiske-Harrison first entered the ring as a wannabe bullfighter, but has found his niche following in Hemingway’s footsteps — quite literally.
At eight o’clock on Monday morning, Alexander Fiske-Harrison (@fiskeharrison) will once again take to the streets of Pamplona to take part in the city’s famous encierro, what we know in English as the running of the bulls. He will be hard to miss: the author of Into the Arena: The World of the Spanish Bullfight, which saw him train as a torero and kill a bull in the ring, runs in an Eton athletics jacket conveniently coloured the traditional red and white of fiesta. To the madness, he adds a touch of class. He told Crikey why he continues to run.
“When I was bullfighting, which was basically throughout 2010, the appeal of running was non-existent for me,” Fiske-Harrison said. “However, as I spend less and less time in the ring, running grows on me. Sometimes I talk too much to the wrong people and they put me off with their competitive or sports-based approach. But after a boozy dinner swapping stories with Joe Distler, the greatest American runner, or chatting to someone like Victor Lombardi, who describes the encierro in terms of Beethoven, I get seduced by the idea again.”
The idea’s allure is palpable in Fiske-Harrison’s latest effort, Fiesta: How to Survive the Bulls of Pamplona, which he edited and which features articles by Ernest Hemingway’s grandson, Orson Welles’ daughter and some of the best runners in the world.
“It was originally Bill Hillmann, a Chicago Golden Gloves boxing champion and the best young American bull-runner, who came up with the idea of a book with chapters by John Hemingway and others, and photos by Jim Hollander from EPA, who has been coming to fiesta for fifty-something years,” Fiske-Harrison said. “I suggested we add Joe Distler, because no one who speaks English has run as many times, and that we do it as an e-book to begin with. Bill ended up handing the project over to me.
“Then I got the four greatest ever Spanish and Basque runners on board, then a prize-winning Spanish photographer, then Orson Welles’ daughter, Beatrice, then the mayor of Pamplona and we had a complete set,” he said.
While a couple of the chapters in the book have been published previously, the majority of them are appearing in print for the first time. “John Hemingway’s piece is completely new, as are mine on bullfighting,” Fiske-Harrison said. “The chapter about my first run comes straight from Into the Arena, but that’s because it was written at the time. I’d write it differently today, and that would be wrong, less real.”
Then there are the chapters by the Spanish and Basque runners. These represent one of the greatest things about the book: its willingness to get beyond English-speakers’ experience of the encierro and to acknowledge the people to whom the tradition more properly belongs.
“All other books and articles about the bulls are written from what I’d call the periphery,” Fiske-Harrison said, “which is fine in small doses, but ludicrous as the majority perspective. Aside from Joe Distler, no one has come close to running as much as these guys. They have over 2000 encierros between them. And, more generally, it is their fiesta!”
The Spanish and Basque runners were chosen for the excellence of their running rather than their writing, Fiske-Harrison said.
“Julen Madina is a legend throughout the encierros of Castile, Navarre and the Basque country, as are his great friend and running partner Miguel Angel Eguiluz, a Pamplona native, and the slightly younger Jokin Zuasti, also a Pamplonica. Josechu Lopez I met in Cuéllar, and although his running style is different, it is no less formidable: my favourite photo of Josechu shows him running into the callejon [the entry into the arena] with the flat of a bull’s horn pressed full length against the small of his back. You can’t get closer than contact.
“They are not writers and speak no English, so I merely asked them what they would say if they a couple of minutes to address the crowd of first-time runners and translated it,” Fiske-Harrison said. “They gave great advice, sometimes repeating what others have said — which was fine, as it was always the most important things, like ‘Never touch a bull’ and ‘If you go down, stay down and the animals will leave you alone’ — and sometimes things I hadn’t really thought about, such as the importance of not giving everything and leaving yourself winded, because there might be another bull loose on the street. You don’t want to find yourself face to face with him with no gas in the tank.”
Fiske-Harrison’s first came to Pamplona in 2009 when he was writing Into the Arena, but his first impression was not a favourable one.
“The encierro was an interesting rush, but once the adrenaline faded, I realised the first-timers I found myself talking to were idiots, or else made so by the booze and after-effects of the rush,” he said. “I realised that that bullfighting was more attuned to my artistic instincts as participant than running and that the bullfights themselves in Pamplona did nothing for my artistic instincts as audience. But then the Reuters journalist Angus MacSwan told me the one flaw in my book was my judgment of Pamplona, so I came back with him in 2011, met everyone, and fell head over heels in love with the place,” he said.
“It has been a troublesome relationship at times, but I can’t deny that this year I am looking forward to going more than ever.”
“I am an intermittent Twitter user,” Fiske-Harrison said. “I am more inclined to the long-form status updates of Facebook which is why I linked my primary Twitter account to my Facebook status updates.”
“I set up my first Twitter account, @toreritor, when I was researching Into the Arena, and I kept it with the idea of creating some sort of taurine alter-ego. However, it hasn’t quite worked out like that.”
Read more on Alexander’s thoughts about bullfighting on the website… On the ethics of the bullfighting and the encierro…
Arguing the ethics of bullfighting has simply become repetitive. It is nauseating listening to people claim that killing 30 million cattle a year in the US, 78% of them factory-farmed, for meat which is eaten solely for taste, and is of nutritionally negative value, is in any way ethically different to killing an animal in a bullfight. Meat cattle are killed for the entertainment of our palates. Fighting bulls also serve that purpose — they also enter the food chain — but the manner of their death provides a spectacle on top of that. And I’d rather die fighting and enraged, even if I knew I was going to lose — which they don’t, being cattle — than queuing and afraid. Oh, and they live three times as long as meat cows. Yeah, it gets boring, but people have drunk the Kool-Aid that the animal rights lobby has been selling so well for so long. Few people stop to think that maybe PETA, who freely admit they prefer veganism, are perhaps not the best source of unbiased information to inform your average moral code.
Ideally, I’d like to make everyone read a book on the subject before opening their mouths. My book, Hemingway’s, I don’t mind. I would never offer an opinion on, for example, Hinduism or the Korean War, because I know so little about them. But I know infinitely more about them than most people do about bullfighting. I don’t understand the urge to be outraged when you don’t know the facts. If you personally have never been responsible for the death of a mammal directly or by purchasing an animal product, I guess I could go with some sort of blanket disapproval of all such activities without research, but otherwise read before you remark.
On being “the bull guy”…
I’m the bull guy, insofar as some sort of non-conspiratorial concatenation of circumstances has led to the Spanishmundo taurino asking me to speak for them — and sometimes to them, like when I lectured in Seville two years ago at the university, and will again at La Maestranza in November — while the English-speaking media have asked me to explain it all to them. I have no objection to that. It’s an honour. But it would be terribly limiting if that was all I did. I’m moving on — next to a book about wolves, and maybe one about horses, a novel, perhaps a play in which I’ll also act. I’m also booked to help out on a feature film in Spain, in which I am finally acting again, playing a Spanish aristocrat and breeder of bulls.