First let me state my position, I am a vegetarian of about 20 years standing, and terribly queasy about blood.
I'm not a great animal lover, but provided they don't do me any harm, I've got no reason to do any harm to them. I've lived in Spain for about 15 years and never attended a bull-fight. This might sound a bit negligent to some people, but (as I'm forever droning on about) Spain is a very varied country, and the particular area on the north Atlantic coast where I used to live does not have much of a bull-fighting tradition. That doesn't mean to say you don't get it on the telly the whole time. In fact one of my most memorable experiences of this was having just given birth at the general hospital in Santander. About one hour after the event I was wheeled into a ward and placed in front of a television showing a bullfight. I felt I'd seen enough gore for one day and let out a groan. The nurse looked at me in some surprise: "No te gustan los toros?", "Don't you like bullfighting?" The girl in the neighbouring bed was quite apologetic – "It's just that my mother-in-law likes to watch – but I'll switch it off if you want." "No, don't worry." I mumbled. "I'll just look at the wall!"
So that's about as far as me and bull-fighting go, apart from all the gossip you read about bull-fighters in Spanish magazines. The most famous ones form a kind of aristocracy of their own, I mean in a "Posh and Becks" sort of way, and their doings in and out of the bullring are of great national interest. Basically, if you can get to go out with a top bullfighter, or better still stay married to one for a year or two, you've got it made – now there's a challenge for somebody. Anyway, bullfighting has not been a particular issue for me since I've lived in Spain, but as I would never take pleasure in the humiliation and slaughter of a fellow being on this earth, I've never wanted to go to one.
Why then did I attend my first bull-fight last Sunday evening at San Pedro del Pinatar? Well, I thought that the time had at last come when I should witness the thing for myself. Obviously, there's a lot more of it round these parts, and also it often comes up as a topic of discussion amongst the British, most of whom seem to fall between two extremes. Some are totally against it, to the point of being abusive towards people who do go to a fight, whilst others are totally in favour, subscribing to the idea that if you love Spain you should take on board everything that Spain seems to represent, namely bullfighting, flamenco dancing, and presumably eating snails to boot. Of the two arguments I find the second one most ludicrous – a bit like saying that you can't call yourself British unless you wave a Union Jack everytime the Queen appears, follow Morris dancing, support fox-hunting and eat roast beef and Yorkshire pudding every Sunday.
Anyway, back to the bullfight. I reasoned that once the date had been announced the fate of those poor old bulls was sealed. It would be of no account to them whether I was in the crowd to see their demise or not, so I decided to go just this once to witness the whole spectacle for myself and then never ever have to go again. Well, I'm not Ernest Hemmingway or any of the other writers who have researched the phenomenon of bull-fighting and described it in impeccable detail and lurid prose, so I will just limit myself to the things that most drew my attention and made me react in various ways.
The first impression is of tremendously bright colour – an almost childlike array of reds, fuchsias, yellows and blues intensified in the early evening sunlight. There is a shock as the first bull appears, it looks a lot bigger and more dangerous in real life and the animal is at first excited and disorientated, making it bound around unpredictably. The bullfight follows a highly stylised series of steps which quickly become familiar, each participant having his task aimed at subduing, enraging, disorientating and debilitating the bull until it becomes practically mesmorised before the matador – the main fighter who strikes the final fatal blow.
A lot of attention is paid to the nature of the beast itself. If a bull is aggressive and lively, the fight is more dangerous and skilful, and therefore more exciting for the spectators. On the other hand, when one bull seemed unwilling to play the game and for all the world looked as though he just wanted to go back to his field and chew a bit of grass, the crowd expressed their disappointment with whistles and jeers of "fuera" "get him off!" or "mátalo ya" "kill him off and get it over with!"
There are moments of relative silence and moments when the local brass band breaks into a loud pasodoble, lending a curiously circus-like atmosphere to the scene. To one particularly strident tune, at the appropriate moment in each fight, the picador enters the ring mounted on horseback, lance in hand. Nowadays these horses are heavily protected, to the point where they progress with difficulty, and they are blindfolded to prevent them from panicking. The horse I saw had obviously been there, done that and got the t-shirt a thousand times before. He calmly held his ground as his side was rammed by the angry bull and ambled off till the next time, with almost pantomime awkwardness. The figure of the bullfighter is a curious one. He is lithe, almost balletic and walks with dainty footsteps in slipper-like shoes. However, this is combined with an incredibly arrogant kind of posturing to the cries of "macho", "torero", "guapo" from the crowd, all admiring his display of manly fearlessness before the bull.
The moment of truth for me as an outsider was the point of the final insertion of the sword into the heart of the bull. That was when I had to look away, wimp that I am, but everyone around me reacted in exactly the opposite way. A huge cry went up, only to increase as the bull finally fell to its knees and keeled over. At that point people rose cheering to their feet and there was an air of elation and excitement which I found incomprehensible and frankly rather scary. Whilst I was witnessing the final bloody humiliation of a living being, the rest of the crowd seemed to be witnessing some glorious assertion of the supremacy of man over beast. I managed to sit through all six of these moments as the six bulls of the evening fell, before beating a hasty retreat through the exit and into the normality of the street outside.
My conclusion? Well, I've been and I've seen and as everyone endlessly says, managed to appreciate the art, and probably also science, of what was performed before me. Yes there was a tremendous atmosphere, yes it was thrilling to see men so bold in the face of danger and yes, there's a certain pleasure in the repetition of stylised movements and all the flourishes and bravado of the individual fighters. But I certainly won't be going again. I suppose it all comes down to questions of personal taste and values, but my desire to appreciate the culture of my chosen country of residence does not stretch as far as sharing its bloodlust against the bull.
This article is published courtesy of CB Friday in association with thinkspain.com