Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Matador matters

Ferdinand the Bull by Pants (oil and acrylic on canvas, 80cms x 100cms)

When you live in Spain, bullfighting is difficult to ignore. When you live next door to a couple of mad matadors, as I did, it's impossible. It wasn't a particularly pleasant experience because these guys made Tony Soprano look like Aled Jones. But like all experiences, once you've swallowed the meat, cast aside the gristle and are left with the bones, you find they're useful for something.

The above picture is one I painted at art school in response to a typical pointless imperative to weave an idea out of nothing in five minutes and churn it through various tickbox processes that mean a great deal to art teachers but nothing to real people. Under the circumstances, it turned out rather well and sits in No. 1 guest bedroom as a memo to visitors that bad things can happen to good people, or indeed, bulls.

The narrative concerns a children's story called Ferdinand the Bull. Ferdinand is an atypical toro de lidia who shuns the ambitions of his cohort to fight in the great Plaza de Toros in Madrid in favour of sniffing flowers. One day as he bends over to savour a floral fragrance, a bee bites him on the arse and he ups and uncharacteristically charges through the fields. As luck would have it, some toro talent scouts are in from Madrid and spot him, declaring him the meanest bull they've ever seen. Ferdinand is sent into the ring with orders to fight to the death but when he smells all the flowers in the hair of the ladies in the audience, he sits down and flatly refuses to charge. His handlers capitulate and he is returned to the fields he loves.

I never did go to a bullfight, despite regular invitations. I couldn't bring myself to do it. I faint at the sight of a bruise. Bullfighting is, however, a central theme in my novel, The Full English. Ben, the narrator, is made of much sterner stuff than I. One scene takes place at a corrida. My references were Hemingway, Canal + and lots of conversations I could have done without. There's also a scene in a bullfighters' bar after the corrida, where the patrons eat rabo de toro, the tail of the killed bull. I did do that. Ben gets involved in a conversation with a bullfighter about the morality of bullfighting versus fox hunting. He believes both are wrong but concedes that the Spanish national sport is slightly less reprehensible than the English because at least the slain flesh isn't wasted.

Cut to the present day and the arguments about torturing animals as a national sport continue. Fox hunting has been banned in Britain for the last five years. This doesn't seem to stop people from doing it and, in any case, if the Tories are elected, they say they'll lift the ban. In Spain opinion about bullfighting is polarised. The Catalan parliament is debating imposing a ban while Madrid's regional government has called on UNESCO to declare bullfighting worthy of world cultural heritage status. Views don't get much more split than that, or indeed, emotional. Reuters reports that Spanish philosopher Jesus Mosterin, speaking in the Catalan parliament, compared it to 'the primitive and abominable custom' of female circumcision.

The Spanish are not sentimental when it comes to animals, save a late middle-aged weakness for small, fluffy dogs. Bullfighting is a popular arena spectacle and bullfighters tend not to come from the wealthy classes, although there have been exceptions. The English, on the other hand, are positively schismatic when it comes to animals. In the land that pioneered animal protection laws, fox hunting continues, despite a legal ban as a private pursuit of the gentry who haven't ever relinquished their chattel mentality, claiming nominal dominion over all the eye can perceive. Fox hunting takes place on private land where spectators are most definitely not welcome. Both are as barbaric as whale hunting as they involve terrorising and brutally killing an animal that is no threat and for no good reason.

Despite their differences, bullfighting and fox hunting have certain things in common. They have both constructed over the centuries powerful, protective superstructures of breeding and local employment with foundations firmly planted in tradition and ritual. These are very old and well-established cultural identifiers whereas compassion for animal welfare is the new kid on the philosophical block. Animals invariably lose out in this conflict because humans are able to suspend their compassion in favour of a pursuit they believe to be of greater importance. If the Catalans succeed in achieving this ban, it will be a great victory but it will have as much to do with the Catalonian desire to secede morally from the rest of Spain, in lieu of being able to physically secede. I wish them luck with it. I'll be putting on my thinking montera and making a list of uses for redundant bullrings. I turn out to be pretty good at recycling where bullfighting is concerned...