I am not a blood-sports person. I have never shot a pheasant or a deer. Or a gun. I don’t ride to hounds. I did not grow up thinking of the word “sport” as having to do with the killing of animals. But I flew to Spain expressly to watch my first bullfight in 1995, as excited about the watching of a paid spectacle as I have ever been.
I had a friend living out there who had been banging on about the corrida for years, and he had called to say he was in Seville, and if I was ever going to come to a bullfight, I might as well come now.
English lovers of the bullfight are almost without exception, I have found, financially independent, work-shy and disaffected with Britain. Disaffected in the way that all people are who develop a late and all-conquering love of a foreign country. It’s the same with people who go nuts for Russia or South America or the Middle East (never France or Italy, which are too easy and bourgeois) – they are always fleeing something, some failure, some terrible family burden or sexual disappointment. They ostentatiously straddle their two cultures, and make you feel less of a person for having only one.
And just as the Russianistas had their prime under communism, which enabled them to confront you with your own middle-class apathy, so the Hispanophiles were happiest under Franco, when it was all drought and donkeys and polio and their love of the nation could be seen to be noble and hard and visceral.
But now, with Spain so enthusiastically modernised, so heavily immigrated, so increasingly secularised and the very model of a new European state, the Hispanophiles have it harder, and the bullfight – which, paradoxically, is thriving more than at any time since the Sixties – is absolutely crucial to their belief in noble, ancient, hardcore Spain.
And I’ll admit, that’s one of the reasons I love it. I am depressed by modern travel. By the fact that everywhere I go seems the same. The bullfight, I anticipated, would throw me instantly into the ancient, terrifying Spain I knew from Laurie Lee, Orwell and Hemingway, and one or two sherry adverts with scary jumping horses.
I fell for it totally. I was shocked by the blood at first, as everyone is, and as Hemingway predicts that you will be, especially if you are a lady. But it’s less nightmarish now they don’t kill the horses. I was very much with Federico García Lorca, who considered the corrida “the last serious thing left in the world today”.
I fell in with some aficionados of a type that is ubiquitous in Spain, who go to the fights just to complain. They go specifically not to enjoy it. The bulls are not good. The bullfighter is old. He is not honest. He is faking it. He is not in danger. He is showing off. He is too artistic. He is not artistic enough. They spit. They boo. They wave their handkerchiefs and demand the removal of the bull.
In the mind of every serious bullfight fan, it seemed, was some Platonic ideal of a bullfight, some distilled essence of the Golden Age of Spain, which the real thing could only fail to imitate. And for this sort of fan, that endless failure seems to be the glory of it.
But I thought it was all just marvellous, and every fight more exciting than the one before. I went to see fights in the rings of Ronda, Jerez, Seville, Granada, Barcelona, Valladolid? I couldn’t get enough of it. Couldn’t believe that something this good, this different, loud and beautiful still went on.
There is no doubt that it is a brutal thing. And its brutality is ancient and grim, and every new generation of Spaniards struggles to accommodate it in his own Spanishness. And it has always been ancient, always been out of date, always been a struggle. As long ago as 1846, the British travel writer Richard Ford wrote, in his Gatherings from Spain, of, “These sports? where the present clashes with the past.”
And it clashes still today. But no more nor less. There are antis. But no more nor fewer than before. I’ve only ever seen them protesting in any numbers in Barcelona – and there it’s all bound up in Catalonian distaste for anything egregiously Spanish, which bullfighting most certainly is.
The bullfight, like blood sports in Britain (and, to a degree, horse racing), unites the top and bottom of society. The toffs own the land and the animals, the working man makes a living from it and/or enjoys the spectacle. Each finds a use for himself, high and low. It is largely the urban middle class that protests, in Spain as in Britain. For it is the middle class that is left out.
Full Article from The Times, 2009, here.