Bullfighting: A Writer’s Dilemma

Puerta del Principe

Puerta del Principe


By Fiona Flores Watson

There are many topics which cause heated debate in Spain: where the best jamón comes from (Jabugo in Aracena, apparently; I don’t eat meat myself); whether singer Isabel Pantoja will, or should, go to prison for her alleged involvement in the Malaya affair – bribery and corruption in the Marbella town hall; whether Spain will, or should, leave the euro.

Some of these discussions are extremely relevant for those of us who have chosen to live in Spain, while others are less gripping. One moral issue which ignites the passions of those who don’t live here, more than those who do (in my experience, at least), is bullfighting.

As someone who detests all bloodsports (a sentiment born from experience, in childhood), and as a ‘fishetarian’, I have always found it abhorrent. I’ve read Fiesta and Death in the Afternoon, Hemingway’s books about la corrida (bullfights); interviewed a torero (bullfighter); and been to a bullfight. Having deliberated for years – I arrived in 2003, but it was 2010 before I took a seat in the Maestranza – and endlessly justified my reasons for not going, I realised that, as a journalist, seeing it for myself was unavoidable. So when a friend offered me some unwanted tickets for free, I took them gratefully, at least escaping having to pay to sit through something I didn’t even want to see.

It was a rainy day in Semana Santa and the toreros on show were novilleros (novices); I only managed to watch one of the three – seeing two (of six) bulls killed, messily, was enough, so perhaps it wasn’t the best introduction. There wasn’t much art to it; it didn’t take an expert eye to see that. Getting stern, disapproving looks from aficionados (fans) seated nearby, I marched out declaiming loudly as the second bloodied beast was dragged away by mules after a slow, agonizing death.

Curve of Ring, Brollies Up - Fiona

Curve of Ring

But my interest has been rekindled (perhaps now the memories have faded) by a book called Into The Arena: The World of the Spanish Bullfight, by the English writer Alexander Fiske-Harrison. He underwent training and spoke to many fighters, breeders and others involved in the taurine world, as well as those in the opposite camp. While his arrogance and sense of entitlement grate, you have to hand it to him: Fiske-Harrison has gained access where few non-Spanish authors have managed – to the heart of the fiesta, fighting (and killing) bulls himself, and writing about it compellingly and with fascinating, colourful descriptions and entertaining anecdotes (my personal favourite: full-on drinking sessions and nights of madness with a famous bullfighter).

So here lies the moral dilemma: is it OK to be interested in something you find physically repellent and morally indefensible? In the book, he goes into detail about strategy: why the bullfighter moves his cape in a certain way, at a certain point in the carefully structured stages of the fight, to make the bull perform certain actions. You can’t deny that it’s fascinating to learn about the bull’s psyche, and how the torero has to read the animal from the moment the beast enters the ring – (does he use his left or right horn?); on the farm, bulls never see a person on foot, only on horseback – until they come face to face with the bullfighter. The whole sorry spectacle began to make a lot more sense once I read this, but should I enjoy being better informed about something I don’t approve of? As a journalist who wants to learn as much as I can about every aspect of Spain, its culture, and especially what makes Seville and Andalucia – my (adopted) parish – tick, can I justify it?

Most people who are against the art, sport, whatever you prefer to call it, don’t want to know – or if they do, it’s to support their views of its barbarity, rather than out of curiosity. I found the stabbing, bleeding and killing of the bull – badly botched for both animals at the event I attended – excessively cruel and shockingly gory. Bullfighting is brutal, and personally I’d support a nationwide ban (it’s already been made illegal in Catalonia and the Canary Islands). But it’s also part of Spanish culture, so is it wrong to read about it how it’s done? Especially the psychological aspect, of both bull and man.

Discussions inspired by blog posts about the topic make fascinating reading – in one comment, a reader said that she had been enjoying the writer’s work, until she saw he’d “actually killed a bull” himself, which made her “really angry”. What are the degrees of moral responsibility between supporting bullfighting, attending a bullfight and sticking the sword in yourself? Is it that much worse to be involved, than to watch? Is the audience as much to blame as the bullfighter? When a well-known newspaper columnist came out to Spain to write an article about Fiske-Harrison’s exploits, the trainee bullfighter refused to be photographed with a dead bull (not killed by him) for fear of middle England’s reaction – the stigma is too great, whatever your own personal beliefs. Acceptable to read an animal that’s been killed for sport about over Saturday breakfast? Yes. Acceptable to look at the photos over Saturday breakfast? No.

Bull Charging at Cape

Bull Charging at Cape

Personal and professional clash (less) violently in my interest in this oh-so-Spanish pursuit, which turns “a violent death into a public spectacle”, as Fiske-Harrison describes it, making it sound like something from the Inquisition – which, coincidentally, started in Seville. Death, (religious) passion, brutality, danger: all integral to Spanish life. Am I a hypocrite for wanting to delve deeper? Especially since I’m keen never to see another bull die in the ring?

Fiona Flores Watson is a journalist and blogger who lives in Seville and writes for various websites, magazines and newspapers, as well as her own blog, Scribbler in Seville. After nine years, with two bilingual children and an andaluz husband under her belt, she’s still keen to try everything Andalucian, from fiestas to flamenco, but draws the line at bullfighting (in practice, anyway).

16 Responses

  1. robin says:

    An interesting article. I’m in the against camp myself, being a softy. I’m not vegetarian but I am very fussy about my meat and its sourcing from well-cared for animals. I live mostly on vegetables and fish.

    Although against, what I don’t like about much of the debate is the apparent willingness on behalf of activists to describe supporters of the “art” as animals, or sick, or murderous. It doesn’t help. The language should be measured. Accelerating change is about hearts and minds, not accusation or condemnation.

    When the Romans arrived in Spain, they described their encounter with a people who were obsessed with bulls. The Romans. So although modern bullfighting is a more recent development, this goes back a long way.

    There are and have been awful bloodsports in just about every country. I want bullfighting to go and I believe it will, but I also believe we should promote its cessation without demonising Andalucians and other interested Spaniards with insulting or patronising condemnations.

    The justifications for bullfighting, however misguided, are sincere and often follow the usual urban vs rural divide. It should be noted that not all that many Spanish people have any interest in bullfighting – it’s an interest of a minority. Among that minority, the belief that toros bravos are adrenalin-fuelled killing machines who are glorified in the ring and die a noble death would appear to be sincere.

    For any that give this particular justification any credence, I would strongly urge you to take a look at the following link, or any other of the short films on youtube that involve Fadjen, the bull.


  2. A ‘neat’ piece, yes, but a couple of points:

    “Arrogance and entitlement”? Obviously I don’t think so. However, I have heard it argued, convincingly, that to publish at all is to presume that your view is far enough above others that it should receive a wider audience – which is, in a sense, arrogance and entitlement.

    However, before you publish, you should first get your facts in order. When you say,

    “When a well-known newspaper columnist came out to Spain to write an article about Fiske-Harrison’s exploits, the trainee bullfighter refused to be photographed with a dead bull (not killed by him) for fear of middle England’s reaction.”

    You are wildly misrepresenting what happened there and what the columnist, Giles Coren said. The article is in full on my blog, ‘The Last Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight’ and what it says is this:

    “I remember that I need a photo of Xander and the dead bull…He is desperately uneasy about it. I know he does not want to be seen to be claiming another man’s kill. ”

    Coren wanted the photo of a dead bull – the reverse of what you say – while I didn’t want it to look like I was claiming to have killed that animal. (The man who had killed it didn’t want the photos to happen at all as they were disrespectful of the bull.)

    As for the overall thrust of the piece: last night I watched Ralph Fiennes’ film version of the William Shakespeare play ‘Coriolanus’. At the centre of this play, both in what it depicts and what it analyses, is war. The vast majority of people who have watched this story in the past four centuries, including myself, deplore ‘war’. Ask yourself this, “Are they hypocrites for wanting to delve deeper?” No. Would they be hypocrites for denying there is a fundamental, hard-wired neurological attraction for a species with a predatory past? Yes. Should someone arrogant and entitled enough to broadcast there views in public delve even deeper than others into this trait? Of course…

  3. My understanding was very much that Coren did want the photo of the bull, and you didn’t. Am I wrong? Apologies if I misunderstood the motives. It is, as always, a deeply sensitive subject.

  4. Mad Dog says:

    Great writing Fiona and very impressive that you went to see the Corrida before writing about it.

    As someone who’s loves nearly all things Spanish and as someone who’s happy to kill things in order to eat them, I don’t find bullfighting in the least bit attractive or clever. The bull has been tortured and half killed by the time it faces a matador, so I don’t see it as a fair fight.

    I believe that the Emperor Claudius introduced Bull-leaping to the Roman arena (from Crete), when the coffers were bare, to cut back on the expense of lions and tigers. Since Bull-leaping is still practiced in Spain as href=”http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bullfighting#Recortes” target=”_blank”>Recortes I find it easy to believe that bull-leaping/bullfighting most likely came from Rome. In Recortes, the skill is in an athlete’s ability to leap over a healthy bull – there’s no blood, cruelty or death for the animals involved.

    Whilst bullfighting is not to my liking, Spain is not my country or culture and I would not presume to tell tell the Spanish how to live. Similarly, I don’t not expect others to necessarily agree with my opinion. Personally I’d love to see bullfighting go out of fashion as the result of a big surge in the popularity of bull-leaping.

  5. Mad Dog says:

    Sorry, I screwed up my
    Recortes link above.

  6. Well, this is a tricky one.

    I count myself a good friend of both Fiona and Xander, and I can see why you have different views.

    One thing you have in common, that I applaud, is a willingness to look closely into something that others, out of understandable fear and loathing, turn away from… Well done both.

  7. Bob Newhart says:

    Well Fiona you clearly love Bullfighting in as much as you sense the wicked and immoral primal rush it brings. I suggest you don’t delve too deep you might not like what you find.

    Its one of the world’s worst kept secrets that many humans are drawn to the spectacle by the very sadism and cruelty of it, the very same sadism and cruelty which is dressed up and sometimes mistaken for aesthetic pleasure.

    Bullfighting. Res ipsa locquitur.

  8. Bob Newhart says:

    Oops did I touch a chord there?

    I have looked at your other work accross the web. Nowhere do you condemn Bullfighting infact you are most helpful to would be attendees. I also would describe it as irresistible. I am a fan also!


  9. admin says:

    Bob, where did you get the impression that Fiona is into bullfighting? Not sure that’s what she was trying to convey. To each their own!



  10. Rob says:

    Fascinating article Fiona, and an particularly interesting comments board too.
    Doubt you should be worried about your dilemma. After all, Nazis are the no.1 topic for documentaries. . .
    Great comments above re: Fadjen the fighting bull. And re: not judging the Spanish too harshly – many of them were born into a culture with no concept that cruelty to animals is wrong.
    No such excuse for Fiske Harrison of course, coming from a country in which his treatment of his (tiny) bull would have earned him a prison sentence.
    Most revealing stuff from ‘Sideshow’ Bob Newhart above. Deeply creepy – but honest.
    MUST READ: This review of AFH’s book from the Times Literary Supplement:

  11. Rob says:

    I should clarify that the “honesty” of Bob Newhart I refer to is in his revealing his own loathsomeness. His accusation towards Fiona is of course fatuous.

  12. James Scott says:

    Well if you want to delve deeper into the world of bullfighting that’s great, but if you don’t want to see another bull die then it’s going to be difficult.

  13. Richard Wright says:

    I wanted to add a few thoughts of my own as an ethicist. Along time ago I saw my fist bull fight. I am English but then living in Spain. I was a child and it was 1965 and Franco was ruler. I love Spain and over the years been back many times. I have walked the Camino from the Pyrenees and luckily my Castilian is good. As to bull fighting it is part of the tradition, the culture, the milieu that make Spain not England not USA. It is up to the Spanish to determine their culture not for me to interfere. Yes it is cruel but there are far worse things to condemn. Americans go in for shooting people, which on balance seems to me worse. Yes I know killing there is illegal but if you give a man a gun he is going to use it and Ameicans do still stick people in chairs and watch them being fried to death legally. No one can preach moral rectitude. All societies have their weak spots. A blogger spoke of the Englishman being in prison if he was in a bull fight here. True but so what. We had fix hunting and I suspect Parliament will bring it back after the next election. We shoot and hunt animal legally. There isn’t take difference. Portugal has bull fighting but does not kill the bull well not in the ring but if you have ever seem the fight there you will know that the animal is so disturbed by the experience that death is inevitable.
    For my part I don’t believe in animal rights. It’s as meaningless as human rights. You draw up a list of inalianable rights such as the American Constitution and then you saw mmm this does not apply to x y and z. The USA has human rights but was one of the last western countries to ban slavery. What rights do the American prisoners have in chain gangs there or terrorists imprisoned without trial for a decade? As to animals we eat them and in before slaughtering them we keep them locked up. The bulls of Extremadura are not so badly treated. Look not in the speck in your brother’s eye but look at the plank in your own. I am reminded of Aristophanes play “The Birds”. There the main player gets birds to rebel against humans and to start there own city state free from human oppression. They do and then he gets married and goes off to his wedding feast – the menu of course birds in a creamy cheese sauce 5 th century BC style. I wonder what it tasted like. Human use animals and we misuse them. Lots of English people own dogs who are not designed to be kept in a flat or house all day. That is cruel but people do it. Every society has its blind spots but it is not for me as a foreigner to say stop. It is up to that society to decide its moral compass. As to journalists who go to a fight already against it this is poor journalism. A journalist is meant to reveal life without imposing his or her preconceived values. Bias is one of the problems of the press today. You are not a journalist if you do! You are a commentator and that is quite different. If a tin is marked tomatoes I hope it contains what it says. If it says tomato and has inside jamon I will not trust the label again. So Señora you are a commentator giving your opinion as you tuck into your jamon and I will listen and say mmm remove first the plank in your own and your nation’s eye before criticising your brother’s. I lived in Spain under Franco. I know what it was like. Times have changed because Spaniards have. If they want to abolish bullfighting they will do so in their own time. It needs no foreigner to tell them. It took a war in US to end slavery over 50 years after the slave trade was abolished in the British Empire despite the US being the land if the free where even today millions are locked in prison. I need no lectures. The Spanish need no lectures. Slavery was in the US for less than a hundred years and it took a war to end it. Bull fighting has been in Spain for 4000 years. Change may come or it may not but it is up to Spaniards to decide. I have a big enough plank to be getting on with.

  14. Very interesting article, Fiona. But as a vegetarian, I can only be against. Bullfighting’s abhorrent.
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  15. admin says:

    Thanks for your comments.

  16. Fiona says:

    Bob: better (two years) late than never. I wrote two blog posts on my Andalucia.com blog firmly against bullfighting a while before this article. Can’t seem to be able to post the links here.

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