Spain is a country often divided by two sharp horns, a sparkly suit and a swollen pair of taurine testicles. Bullfighting is a contentious issue all year round but the spotlight shines most heavily on it during the new heat of May, for the San Isidro festival: a month-long celebration of all things bull. Everyday, bullfights, corridas, are held in the Las Ventas bullring, the home of the fight. Although it hails primarily from Andalucia, the 'sport' has found its home in Madrid. Every May little dusty shops - their walls covered with old fight calendars - flutter open and offer tickets to see the bullfight. The little old men inside gargle out instructions as to which are the best seats in the house. Its opponents denounce it as nothing more than bloody torture. Hemingway loved it. Hemingway and taurine art brought me to the bulls. It was a snowball effect and it all started in a bar.
Matadors toast before the kill; toast a friend, toast another torero. Hemingway was toasted. Hemingway loved the bulls. Hemingway also loved a drink. A few traces of him are scattered over the city: the Cerveceria Alemana, the little Central ticket office and, where I drink sherry and eat cheese bathing in an unchanged wooden enclave, La Venencia bar. A bar where I decided to learn about the bulls.
Hemingway once wrote:
As to all arts the enjoyment increases with the knowledge of the art, but people will know the first time they go, if they go open-mindedly and only feel those things they actually feel and not the things they think they should feel, whether they will care for the bullfights or not.
The Bullfight/La Corrida
Wet, broiling black sky, lightning, ominous, arena sand dark and wet. 'Es como una pradera.' Sat shivering in the heavy lines of rain. Sea of multi-coloured raincoats and umbrellas. Plastic water bottles, emptied, filled with red wine. Cigars hiding ready in metal tubes. Little hired cushions to protect the buttocks. Fifteen minutes delay as the dark storm rips the sky. Two men on horseback. Frilly and silly, the alguacils, saluting the president and taking the key for the corral where the bulls are waiting and snorting in the calmness.
A little man in blue waves to someone, perhaps the first matador, across the ring. He opens a gate. Out trots a huge, muscular, black shadow, head flicking left and right. Learning the land. The first part of any bullfight is testing the animal. Testing its bravery and ferocity, seeing which horn it favours (his ear which flicks the same side as his preferred horn), checking for cowardice. The first matador (for there are three) and his cuadrilla - team of four - all stand in the ring with large capes, the capote, and let the bull charge them. Next, a gate opens and two horses, blindfolded, covered in golden fabric padding, come out. On top a yellow man holding a long pole ending in a spike. These are the picadores. This part was not as appealing to the eye. After a couple of cape passes the bull is coaxed near the picador whereupon it launches an attack. The bull, intensely powerful, slams into the padded right flank of the horse. The horse is protected from penetration but I would be shocked if it wasn't winded or at the very least terrified. All the same the animal, instead, looked begrudgingly patient. The horses were punched off the ground but were saved by the rider. At the first impact the picador drives his spike into the bulls neck. A good picador will spìke the necessary area and then, with the help of a nearby cape-wielding torero, disconnect the bull from the horse's side and return it to the ring. The picador is usually attacked twice or more.
Next is a stage that is frankly impressive from a spectacle point of view, but still is queried in the stomach. The banderilleros. The men from the cuadrilñla. They have to run towards the bull, arms outstretched, holding in each a decorated spear called a banderilla (translated as little flags). Within striking distance of the beast's headgear the toreros straighten their bodies and their arms rigid and bring them down straight so they puncture the hide and stick. When the bull has been stuck and the four bullfighters have no more spears another trumpet call signifies the third and final stage.
The ring clears and all that is left is the bullfighter, the matador, and the hot bulk; blood shining down his back. The first hour passed like some Hadean surrealist nightmare. Sat shivering on the little cushion, wet to the marrow, drinking good wine with frozen hands, saving the cigar, the sky, dark with electric flashes and growling thunder; the stands, a colour spattered wall of rain-protectors; the muddy lagoon, hooves sloshing around while one man, all alone, attempts to pass the bull around him. He stands proud and straight and brings the now smaller cape, muleta, out in front of him by his front leg. The bull twitches and has enough energy to snort. The man flicks the cape and it ripples. The bull charges. The man shouts and leads the beast round his chest trying to have the animal come as close to him as possible and have the pass, the veronica, last as long as possible. He will do a few of these.
He then walks to the barrier, head held up, and swaps his show sword for the killing sword. This second one is metal, sharp, tipped downwards at the end so it finds a home in the heart, and has channels along it that allow air to enter, killing the bull quicker. He lines up the animal after another couple of passes, cocks his forward leg and brings the sword up to his face and aims it at the stationary, heaving mass of sinew and anger in front of him, its head lowered by the viciously sharp banderillas sticking in it. He steps at the bull and after a small flick of the cape releases and drives his flimsy looking weapon into him, through the spine and to the beating heart within.
On this day only once did the sword enter a bull first time – young Ruben Pinar, during the estocada. The others suffered through multiple matador-led attempts. When time runs out the rest of the cuadrilla come out to disorientate the dying bull, wheezing blood from its lungs, by standing either side and twirling their capes alternatively to ruin its neck. Another heavier sword is brought out – the verdugo – to kill the animal and bring it down, and then a dagger, a puntillero, is brought down on the head to kill the brain.
Trumpet.Horses drag out the now eerily vacant looking corpse. One bull lived. Weak on his knees but still charging the cuadrilla. El Fundi couldn’t kill him. The bull is brave. He is ‘free’. Other non-fighting bulls enter the sloppy arena with a shepherd and the toro bravo, after half-charging these new entities in a blood-confused stupor, leaves. The fighters are done. The bulls are dead. The blood, dark, has twirled sanguine marble in the water or pooled scarlet in the hoof-prints. Much of the crowd has left, the rest applauds. No ears and no tails are awarded. The veteran fans know which bulls did well and when the bullfighters succeeded and failed. They whistled the bad and cheered the good, shaking white tissues. A dance of death and not a bloody scrap. The bulls, whether cowardly or brave, will be made into meat or cooked. Nothing is wasted. The matadores salute the president and public with their hats, monteras the day is done.
Hemingway also wrote:
You went to a bullfight? How was it?...
How did it seem to you? I was simply bored to death. All right. You get the hell out of here.
It is a tricky business and not a simple issue. I don’t like to deal in black and white. There are parameters and other concepts in play. Many lump bullfighting in with fox hunting as nothing more than a simple blood sport. This is folly and stupid. It is not the same. The only similarity is that something beautiful and alive dies. Fox hunting is a sport. A blood sport. Bullfighting is a bloody tragedy.
Fox hunting leaves a nasty taste in the mouth for two reasons. One: it is a cruel hobby of a select few members of the countryside pompous elite. Two: statistically the fox hasn’t got a chance unless its little orange legs speed it to safety. Bullfighting opposes both of these ideas. One: bullfighting – though less popular with the current young generation – is tightly woven into the social fabric of Spain. From the hooray-Enriques to the teacher and the street cleaner, bullfighting is a largely classless pursuit. Two: despite the pummelling and unfair intrusions from the cuadrilla, the bull still has its chance to ‘win’. It will die anyway. All cows and bulls in the civilized world are bred to die, through slaughterhouse or fight.
This is not pro-bullfighting. It is an attempt to recognise that, despite the black and white brigade’s protests, the bullfight is not just some frivolous game. It has existed since the Romans. I wrestle with my own opinions. Of course I wince at the stabbings and I loathed the actions the picadors - I love animals for God's sake, but everything else was, it must be said, beautiful and highly artistic. Not a cruel, crazed blood sport, but a highly tortuous but practised art.
I was asked ‘did you like it?’ It’s a more difficult verb that it seems, ‘like’. I would say it was supremely fascinating and undeniably impressive and impacting. It was as terrible as it was glorious and as insightful as it was cruel. I may go again and I’ll still turn away. It helps me understand the country more.
The defenders say that one way or another the male bovine will be killed, either in a gruesome abattoir – some of them are truly devilish – or a heroic fight. Better the second option no? They say. More honourable. Maybe. It is also true that up to the final tragic day the bulls live the proverbial life of Riley. Across Spain the bulls’ land covers thousands and thousands of hectares of grazing ground. They have women too. Plenty. They are left undisturbed also. Near to no human contact – so that in the ring the bull hasn’t learned the real target is the humanoid shape. I was told by an anti-bullfighting Spaniard that despite his disgust at his country’s bloody tradition it was true that so much land is protected, like the English Green Belt, because of the bulls. And also, that if the bulls went, so would a fair chunk of the beloved Spanish countryside.
All this being said I still have no black or white final view. No ultimate opinion for the casual questioner. For the moment, for me, I must remain the bullfighting agnostic. The complexity is so great. I would have some parts banned by royal decree, yet some I would feel sad to have lost. The taurine posters on my bedroom walls and all those old little bull bars in the city would become strange vigils of some hokey old tradition. But the animals suffer and this is harsh and cruel. My decision will have to wait. Maybe bullfighting will slowly evolve like Portugal where the bulls aren't stabbed and killed, or maybe it'll receive a full ban like in Barcelona. Who knows? Time will test that. All I can say is that you must see one if you can. This is not to support it. This is to learn about it and help validate or confirm your opinion. Or not, in my case.