Las Ventas

Lots of people have been inspired by bullfighting.  I’m not a hundred percent certain I’m one of them.

Over twenty years ago, I read Hemmingway.  Recently – because bullfighting is now so politically incorrect and anachronistic in the modern world – I have come across all sorts of commentary on how Hemmingway’s accounts gave a wrong impression and have romanticised something horrible.  Or is it that he made it seem more grotesque and heartless than it really is?  Depends which websites you read.

I think it’s one of those issues where you have to find out about it – experience it maybe – and then make up your own mind.

With regard to my opinion – well, when I was younger it was all part of the travel bug and the joie de vivre thing, and there was no doubt I came down on the ‘pro’ side.  It’s tradition, it’s art – it’s ballet, even.  It’s integral to Spanish culture.  It’s something that’s exhilarating and interesting and should be preserved.  The world would be poorer without it.

Now I’m older, and especially whilst anticipating returning to Madrid and seeing some bullfights again after an absence of around twenty four years, I have found myself feeling more ambivalent.  As with many issues, a more mature outlook makes you see both sides of the argument and be more likely to come down somewhere in the middle.

And emotionally, I wondered whether I would find it too gory (no pun intended), and more unsettling this time, and get upset by the plight of the poor bulls.

So, bullfighting – what’s it all about and what happens?

The bulls are bred specially for the purpose.  They are never supposed to see a human on foot, only on horseback, so that when they see the matador in the bullring they will perceive him as invading their territory and charge him bravely.

It is always emphasised that they have a wonderful life before their one day of pain and death.

Six bulls are fought and killed during a bullfight.  They get eaten afterwards, same as any other beef at the end of the day.

The matadors or toreadors are young men with a passion, driven towards the challenge of showing their bravery and gaining acclaim.

There is a traditional sequence of events during each fight – the bull first being tested with larger capes to see how it moves and reacts, then having its shoulder muscles weakened by the mounted picadors, then having coloured banderillas inserted in its neck, then finally being worn down with passes by the matador using a smaller cape.  In these final stages he gets the best opportunity to exhibit his bravery and impress the crowd, before finally killing the bull, as cleanly as possible, by severing its spinal cord with a special sword.

The ‘pro’ argument includes the fact that, although yes, an animal suffers, one should make an exception to objecting to this, because the bullfighter puts his life on the line every time.  He’s risking his very life for this art, or sport, or whatever you want to call it.  Which is sort of somehow supposed to even things out.

I believe about ten men have been killed whilst bullfighting over the last fifty or so years.

On the ‘con’ side is the simple principle of whether it is animal cruelty – well you can’t really argue with the fact that it is, to some extent at least – and whether humans can ever be justified in killing animals for sport or amusement.  The Romans used to set animals against human beings in the arena, and of course such spectacles would today be considered barbaric.  Similarly, we don’t generally watch and cheer whilst animals are killed for our entertainment – bullfighting seems to be the only remaining legal example.  Dog fighting is banned in most places, even foxhunting has been banned recently in the UK.

So anyway, I have had the bullfighting experience recently.  I bought tickets online through a local website, and they had to be collected from an address in Madrid – they wouldn’t send them to the UK.  A whole long weekend got planned around two events on consecutive days, and I even booked a hotel very near by, so we didn’t have to get a cab back to our hotel afterwards.

Las Ventas – the Madrid bullring – is such a beautiful and interesting piece of architecture.  None of the tourist bus tours go anywhere near it, and the bullring is hardly mentioned in tourist guidebooks.  It’s certainly untrue that bullfighting remains in existence only to please tourists – it seemed very much like a local interest to me.

We weren’t shunned as foreigners though, rather we were welcomed.  When I found, rather unexpectedly, that I had to climb down into my ‘seat’ (short stretch of stone slab!) in the front row, I was kindly offered a supporting arm by one of the staff.  (It was a good thing that there was no interval – rather events continued for just over two hours without a break – because I would never have got out of there, I was so tightly packed in amongst other people!)

I loved the atmosphere as you arrived – the corridor around the edge of the building, reminiscent of a football stadium or entertainment venue, like the ex-‘Dome’ in London.  Lots of little bars with seating, people hiring out cushions to sit on (thank goodness we got some!), stalls selling bullfighting memorabilia (I spent loads in a similar shop outside, later), and toilets which were surprisingly numerous, clean and modern.

On both nights the place was packed.  We had ‘sombra’ (shade) tickets on one night, and ‘sol/sombra’ (sun/shade) the other.  I was definitely excited to see the opening parades, the beautiful horses and the costumes of the people involved, and to hear the band playing.

It was good to be close to the action – to see people’s faces.  So young, the bullfighters!  Early 20s, only 19 one of them!  What passion and drive and commitment they must have to be involved in something so, well, unusual.  Especially in the modern world!  Young men, keeping alive a tradition.  (And very occasionally, a young woman, I understand.)

I have to say I enjoyed both evenings immensely.  It was intriguing, especially trying to understand the audience reaction, which seemed to respond with such subtlety, it was difficult to work out, sometimes, what had happened.

With one of our bulls, for example, after some waving of green hankies, a herd of cows was brought into the ring and the bull taken out, to be replaced by one of the ‘substitute’ bulls waiting in the wings!  It had been judged not to be fit for fighting, we understood – either too weak or not brave enough.  But what exactly had happened to make people believe this to be the case was unclear.  It had appeared much like any of the others in its behaviour, to me.

It’s like when you watch a football match, the audience reacts to things like players passing the ball back to their own goalkeeper rather than attacking.  As you watched the bullfight progress, you realised people liked it when the bull charged the picadors quickly and repeatedly, didn’t like it when the bull ran back towards the gate it had come in through, definitely didn’t like it when the kill was not cleanly done and the bull lingered and had to be dispatched with a back-up sword.

There was little applause on one of the evenings particularly, and we rather gathered from some press coverage we saw later, that the audience had not been impressed by the matadors’ performance.

Twenty four years ago, I remember seeing white hankies being waved, I remember far more cheers and ‘ole’s, I remember bulls’ ears being awarded, and parade laps being made.  Maybe bullfighting has gone downhill, because none of that happened this time.

I must admit it rather became a photographic experience for me.  I tried a couple of different lenses and was clicking away throughout both events, and managed to get several quite decent bullfighting images.

But I certainly experienced what I had seen described – that at a certain point, when the matador is working the bull close, towards the end, the matador and the bull and the audience achieve a sort of rapport.  The audience is as mesmerised by the passes and by the action as the bull is.  It is quite hypnotic and never boring.

So where do I stand now on the issue of bullfighting?  Well, more towards the centre than in my romantic youth, but I’m afraid still just over the line on the ‘pro’ side.

I did feel sympathy for the bulls, I did find it questionable that animals should be killed as part of an entertainment – but ultimately it’s a matter of degree.  One shrugs off the sympathy with a ‘so what?’

Compared to the likely suffering of all the animals farmed and killed for meat worldwide – is it really that significant, does it really matter that much?

And more than that – compared to all the human suffering, all the more significant and pressing issues relating to our own species, is it an issue worth getting unduly concerned about?

I think I feel the same about bullfighting and foxhunting – on balance, it’s not such a significant or dreadful thing compared to all the horrors in the world today, so let it continue so as to preserve tradition and to enrich life experience.

And yet – would I go to a dog-fight or a cock-fight or a bear-baiting (or a wild animal fight in a Roman Colosseum), where animals are set against each other and savage each other for our amusement?  No, that seems a step too far.

So maybe, if I had to, I would vote on the side of the bulls after all.

But what more can I say about the place, Las Ventas?

It’s the biggest bullring in Spain, seating 25,000.

It is built with red brick and looks decorative, with open arched windows around the upper levels, through which one can see the gathering crowds before the event.

There’s no getting away from it, it does remind you of the Colosseum in Rome.

There is a statue of a bullfighter and a bull outside, and another by the wall of a bullfighter, which people stand next to, to have their photograph taken.

There are stalls around the exit from the Metro station in the corner of the square, selling overpriced drinks and sweets and ice creams.

The plaza and the bullring are decorated with hanging baskets of pink and purple flowers.

Inside, as the stone seats fill up with people, a vista is created of different coloured clothing.  It is summer, so the colours are bright.  Lots of people wear red – clearly there is no issue with wearing red tops or jackets to a bullfight, after all these people must know that bulls are actually colour-blind, and it is apparently the movement of the cape and muleta that the bull reacts to.

I have read that there is a superstition against wearing yellow, which is seen as bad luck, but I’m sure there are yellow tops in the crowd also.

The sense of evening and the movement of the sun is a key factor in the atmosphere of a bullfight.  At first, half of the arena is lit brightly by the sun, and the wonderful different colours of the bulls show up clearly in the sunlight.  Gradually, the bullring passes into shade and right at the end some lights might be turned on.

There’s a slight echo and also a sense of intimacy created by the sound quality, as if you’re strangely close to the people seated on the other side.  Certainly everyone gets a brilliant view.  But as I’ve said, the seats are tight and uncomfortable, even the best ones.

There are musicians in two different places, one rank at a lower level, who sound the different stages of the fight, and higher up, the brass band proper, with a conductor and a man standing next to him watching events, who touches the conductor’s shoulder periodically to indicate when the band should stop playing.

A large clock presides over the bullring, measuring out the evening.

And as the sun retreats, swallows circle and call high above the arena, a feature of Europe in summer, somehow always poignant and romantic to me.

The swallows circle, the spectators murmur, the capes swirl – the bulls die.

But oh – life is here!

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