WHEN I was first taken to a bullfight in Spain, it was against my will.
I had stopped by Sevilla in 1998 and returned with my parents in 2000 to show them the wonders of the city.
They had seen El Cordobes in the 1970s and believed, given it was part of Spain’s culture, one should view it before passing judgment.
As a zoologist doing a philosophy postgrad at the university of London, with memberships cards for the WWF and Greenpeace, it was not an easy sell.
However, what I saw that day changed the course of my life and while I don’t expect many readers to agree with me, they should at least take a moment, as I did, to consider the millions of cattle killed for meat as they watch documentaries by David Attenborough on the likes of lions killing buffalo.
We are not so different, and certainly not so morally superior, as we might like to think.
Years later, I developed a more serious interest in bullfighting: things that exist on moral borderlines often attract writers.
Speaking no Spanish, my first teacher was Ernest Hemingway, who knew more than most (if not as much as he claimed.) He himself first attended a bullfight a century ago, on May 27, 1923, in the old ring in Madrid, and soon after went to his first ‘Fiesta’ in Pamplona.
His bestselling novel, The Sun Also Rises, was published two years later and gave most English speakers their first taste of that esoteric, arcane and violent world.
I have actually celebrated that centenary by bringing out a special edition of my own book, The Bulls Of Pamplona, co-authored with his grandson John Hemingway.
As a result, I currently find myself running under the absurd Andalucian sun in training for this year’s Feria de San Fermín, that begins this weekend. I’ll be up there from Sunday.
Nowadays, I no longer run for the sheer alegría, ‘joy’, as I have seen too many men injured or killed in my 200 or so runs in Pamplona and a dozen other towns – there are around 15,000 such events each year in Spain.
My American paymasters, Running Of The Bulls, Inc., fly in my team, including matador Eduardo Davila Miura – whose uncles breed bulls so famously dangerous they named the first Lamborghini after them – and also Sergeant Connor Quinn of the 101st Airborne whose experience as a medic in Afghanistan also has its uses.
Our clients are equally varied, from wealthy heart surgeons to the board of directors of NASCAR.
I have always been impressed by my clients’ courage.
I myself have done this so many times that fear has become an old friend and I can still light a cigarette when the bulls are a wall of horns a mere ten yards away at a 40 kph gallop.
However, I am still stuck with the memory of the one famous client, Evgeny Lebedev, who never showed up, and this time not for six half ton bulls, but a single 12 stone calf in a private ring on a ranch.
Instead, his assistant attended in his place, a charming Belgian lady in her early twenties.
At the time I thought nothing of it, but when my invoices went unpaid, I made something of a fuss in the press, including the Olive Press.
Eventually I was paid, and the story has been written various times, but one part never has which I have always thought should see the light of day.
Lebedev had recently purchased two British newspapers and one, the Independent, I had written for in the past.
The editor of that newspaper, newly promoted to that august role telephoned me in person to say, in what I can only imagine he thought was his most threatening demeanour, “I am X, the editor, and I want you to tell me that your problem with him is over. Over! Do you understand me?”
After I had done the mathematics – the circulation of the newspaper was already so low as to be laughable and has since gone out of print. All I could think of was the threat was reminiscent of what great parliamentarian Dennis Healey once said about being attacked in the House of Commons by Geoffrey Howe. “It was like being savaged by a dead sheep.”
The editor in question still has a fairly senior role in broadcast journalism – but surely it’s not wise to threaten a man who not not only regularly runs with three tonnes of horned beasts intent on killing him, but does so shoulder to shoulder with pupils who range from the American Special Forces to the French Foreign Legion.
And so I return to my running in the burning sun, preparing to deal with genuine threats in the days ahead.
Xander has written two books on bullfighting, Into The Arena, and The Bulls Of Pamplona, with John Hemingway.