An article in favour of bullfighting, they said. It’s not going to persuade anyone who hates it to open their minds, or to give it a chance, I answered. Those who have their ideas made up about ‘animal cruelty’ or ‘Spanish stone-age traditions’ aren’t going to be swayed by me talking loftily about ‘art’, ‘culture’ or that fruity word ‘catharsis’.
Many of the British residents in Spain have been got at by their diet of white-bread satellite television and entertainers of the standard of Ricky Gervais, who makes his name by publicly playing with puppies and repeatedly announcing that anyone who doesn’t follow his wholesome lead is an utter shit.
In Spain, we have those who like the toros, those who don’t like the toros, and those who don’t like those who do like the toros. Members of this last group are known as ‘antitaurinos’. They feel a pious pressure to inflict their arguments – sometimes violently – on everyone else.
So, what’s the point of rolling out artists who loved the bullfight – Picasso, Goya, Dalí, Hemingway, the poet Lorca and the author García Márquez (the man who wrote 100 Years of Solitude and who famously said ‘I’m a Nobel Literature Prize Winner and I love the toros. You: you who fancy yourself an antitaurino... what do you know of culture and tradition?’). When you have already made up your mind – or had it made up for you?
Joaquín Sabina, Spain’s premier folk singer, said just last week, ‘I think that there is a lot of ignorance among the antitaurinos and a lot of scorn over a thing which has lasted for centuries and which can be absolutely supreme: a metaphor for life and death’.
Perhaps that is part of the antitaurino problem – they can’t accept the profound truth that, without death, there can be no life.
So: to the Bullfight. I go sometimes with my friends and my companions, all Spaniards. I am a part of this culture and spend much of my time speaking Spanish, reading, watching, living the vida española. Thus, I do Spanish things and, naturally enough, enjoy this wonderful country and its people to the full. In my own province, Almería, there are sixteen bullrings. Some are modern or large city rings, others are small and a couple, I am sure, are no longer in use.
I might join a group of friends to see a novillada – free to the public, where the young and inexperienced (sometimes as young as fourteen) will buy a bull, hire a cuadrilla (the crew) and rent the bullring. All for one expensive shot at getting the magic right. Another time, we might go to see some of the stars of the bullfight: the matadores. There are people who treat them the same way as we used to treat The Beatles. With adulation. One young woman of my acquaintance knows all of the bullfighters: their names, colours, favourite pases and so on. She keeps photographs of herself posing with some of these heroes of hers.
The crowd alone is worth a trip to the corrida. They are friendly, enthusiastic, vocal and generous. You will be lent a cushion to sit on, given a beer or a sandwich, or a squirt of warm red wine from a goatskin bota. You will see, together with a few thousand others, astonishing acts of bravery, of skill and an indifference to danger, to injury. This is Life, because Death is nearby. Do the onlookers like to see the bull suffer, and die? No. Many turn away from the moment. Are they cruel? No again. Death accompanies us all – I think that the Spanish are tolerant of this finality.
The crowd, so noisy during the spectacle, leaves quietly, and goes home. There is no truculence or fighting or drunkenness, like after a football match. A corrida is a social affair. The whole family came, from small and noisy children to gouty old grandparents dressed in black.
There is an industry behind bullfighting. Many jobs and much money are involved. The raw material, the fighting bulls, known as los toros bravos, are extraordinarily well looked after – if you like – because they are expensive. They will have free range on giant farms and will be bought to their destiny when they are four or sometimes five years old. Contrast this with a bullock taken from a small pen and killed by an electric bolt to the head at eighteen months or less just to make you a nice sandwich.
Will bullfighting ever be stopped in Spain by the well-meant interference of those with shrunken souls? Not in our lifetimes.