Bullfighting does not have a good press outside of its heartlands and I was interested to see what its fans found to enjoy. The detractors’ case seems pretty clear.
The handsome bullring was packed with an older crowd. We’d shelled out a wopping £70 to spend a couple of hours perched on a few inches of cement to watch livestock being slaughtered.
There was a lot of anticipation and excitement for this—the last event of the season and starred the celebrated José Tomas. The atmosphere was not dissimilar a Latin American version of corporate seats at Twickenham before an international, only with a lot more women and sherry.
Having belted out the national anthem, the freshly coiffered crowd returned to joking, blowing kisses to friends and arcing sherry into their mouths from suede gourds held an extravagant arm’s length away. So far, so good.
The arrival of the bullfighters into the amphitheatre was greeted with cheers. There was no doubting their courage. Not many men can carry off pink stockings into embroidered bib, shoulder pads complete with hanging baubles, and ballet shoes. And do it with machismo.
The first bull, Divinio, was released. Huge, pitch black and furious; he belted around—goaded in his search for something to clatter.
The first matador stepped out with only a pink and yellow cape to protect himself. To cries of “Olé!”, he encouraged the bull to charge at him and get as close as possible.
While the result of the fight may be forgone conclusion, the danger is real. The fighters really have balls—tights don’t allow a great deal of modesty. I couldn't fail to notice that they all ostentatiously dressed to the left. A wayward horn would spell reproductive disaster. Not to mention death.
Two horsemen “picadors” then entered the ring—the heavily padded rides with their eyes covered. To whistles of disapproval, one of the riders speared the bull between his shoulder blades.
Two more men entered the ring with short, brightly decorated harpoons. They eyeballed the bull from a few yards and then ran at it in an attempt to pierce between the bull’s shoulder blades. One of them, El Gourdo—the fat one—was roared with approval as he daintily leapt past the horns, hammered the harpoons home and then vaulted the wall surrounding the ring, with his feet high over his head.
All this was the introduction for the return of the bullfighter, now sporting red cape and sword. This was the time for bull and fighter to perform a peculiar stylized dance, with the fighter showing his control over a half-ton of aggressive bull.
The band broke into pasodobles and the crowd shouted encouragement for a good fight. I was in no position to judge the standard of the performance but there was no doubting the crowd’s infectious excitement.
Eventually, the fighter faced up to the weakened bull, holding the sword over his head, parallel to the sandy floor. We fell deathly silent, the fighter would run, leap over the horns and attempt to sink his sword.
I asked the friend next to me how bull fighting was defined. "Not as a sport but an art," he said. Now, I've been to Tate Britain and bull fighting is more complicated than that: it’s also living history, pantomime, Roman games and bloody slaughterhouse. Much more like Tate Modern.
The bulls’ jet-black hide disguises blood, they make no noise and show no signs of pain or fear. Bloody sand is quickly removed. As such, exposure to the reality of what must be really bloody excruciating is minimized, making the event more palatable to view. If bulls were white and squealed like boiling lobster it would be a much tougher spectacle to appreciate.
In some senses, the cruelty does appear to be limited: administering a clean kill is congratulated. Failure to do so leads to growing discontent from the rumbustious crowd. The result of really great fight is not the death of the bull, instead the crowd calls “Indulto!” If the president of the fight agrees, the bull sees out his days siring further celebrated animals for the ring.
And I assume the toreador must also occasionally come out second.
The penultimate fight built to a crescendo with the crowd shouting Ole and flapping white scarves. It was a truly incredible atmosphere as the kill approached.
Silence. The fighter soared, perfectly administering the coup de grace, the sword disappearing to the hilt. To a man, the roaring crowd rose to its feet.
This was it, the finale of the best fight of the season. Adrenalin ripped round the arena. Everyone seemed to be waving a white scarf. Flowers, hats and cushions were thrown in the ring. The bull stumbled and fell. I felt an overwhelmingly wave of sadness.
One of my group at the fight was a regular. I asked him why he went so often. “To see one like that,” he replied.