Homage to Catalonia

I illustrate this blog entry with an awe-inspiring painting by Spanish master Diego Velázquez, because otherwise, I would have to illustrate it with a picture of some bullfighting, and there’s no such thing as an awe-inspiring picture of some bullfighting. As you may have read, the autonomous Spanish region of Catalonia staged its last ever legal bullfight over the weekend. The regional ban comes in on January 1, but since that’s the end of the bullfighting season for this year, apparently, it’s adiós to a tradition that stretches back at least three centuries, if not back to Ancient Rome. We have petitioning and lobbying by animal welfare groups to thank for the ban, although some commentators in Spain say that it’s a bid for nationalism by the Catalan parliament, a ban further separating Catalonia from the rest of the country, where bullfighting continues, albeit in a much reduced form as its popularity everywhere shrinks. (At the beginning of the last century, Barcelona had three bullrings; since the 70s, it has had just the one, although its popularity has waned at a faster rate than in the rest of Spain.)

I love Spain, and I love Barcelona, the Catalan capital where the final corrida de toros took place on Sunday before a stadium packed with 20,000 enthusiastic fans of spectacle, colour, tradition, ritual and animal abuse. You may or may not be astonished to learn that I’ve always had a problem with bullfighting. On our first trip to the glorious if touristy city of Barcelona (a picture only spoiled by the dogs in tiny cages on sale on main drag La Rambla), I remember buying the Time Out Guide, which contained a rhapsodic essay in support of bullfighting by none other than Robert Elms, who seemed to have bought into the 1920s-forged Hemingway myth that it represented an “authenticity” that runs counter to more trendy bohemianism and given it the thumbs-up. I have no doubt that the bullring was a vital social and familial hub at its height, and just as I went to the circus as a boy and accepted its rituals – despite the evident displacement, humiliation and confinement of the lions, the elephants and, once, some clearly sedated crocodiles – I’m sure many Spanish kids were brought up on the bullfight, and thought little of the prolonged cruelty involved.

But you formulate your ideals as you grow up. And mine coalesced around a respect for animals that, in my early 20s, drove me to join pro-welfare organisations like the Whale & Dolphin Conservation Society and BUAV, and, later, in my 30s, to support the RSPCA, Greenpeace, the WWF, Cats Protection, Blue Cross and the PDSA. (I actually withdrew my support for the RSPCA when they endorsed Freedom Food, a farm assurance and food labelling scheme which, though a move in the right direction, seemed at what was a more militant time for me, to be a dilution of meaningful animal welfare standards in farming. I have calmed down a bit, but still cleave to basic animal welfare principles – and 19 birds per square metre of floor space, as set out by Freedom Food, still seems like a lot to me.) Yes, I used to be a vegetarian, but since the proliferation of organic standards and availability of organic produce in the 90s, especially meat reared to the standards set down by the Soil Association, I find it easier to eat meat with a conscience. Needless to say, vegans have my utmost respect for their more extreme lifestyle choice. (Apparently, the meat of fighting bulls is excellent, as these bulls are, ironically, raised free-range: looked after like prize fighters and then made to dance and suffer before they die.)

Prompted by the last Catalan bullfight, a deliberately inflammatory pro-bullfighting blog was published by a man called Brendan O’Neill in the online Telegraph – which, in the interests of balance, I’ll link to here. To use his phrase, I am one of his “Bambi-influenced animal rights activists.” I have no time to refute the simplistic idiocy of this generalistic smear. I am not an activist, anyway; I just call animal cruelty when I see it. And no amount of bullshit about – to use O’Neill’s imagery – the “ennoblement” of the bull, as it is ritually humiliated, injured and killed to cheering crowds (elevating it “from being a grubby and dumb beast into a performer in a piece of beautiful, arcane theatre”), will convince me otherwise.

I heard an item on the Today programme this morning about the British Horseracing Authority bringing in a new ruling that limits the amount of times a jockey can whip its horse during a race – seven in flat races, eight in ones where the horses have to jump. I don’t follow the sport, and I am prepared to believe those who insist that simply riding a horse is not cruel, and indeed that a horse may love being ridden, but jabbing it or hitting it to make it go faster so that a man can win at a sport is, to my “Bambi-influenced” eyes, cruel. Dog-fighting, bear-baiting and cock-fighting are banned – as now, is fox hunting – so the reduction of officially sanctioned whipping is reduced to eight times a race is surely just one legal sport dragging itself into the 21st century. (To a hand-wringing animal lover like myself, eight times seems like, I don’t know, eight times too many? These owners and riders profess to love their horses. I would not whip my cat. Nor, as a Telegraph website user suggests, would Brendan O’Neill like to see his pet “ennobled” like a bull.) A full ban on horse-whipping seems to be predicted after this latest rule-tightening by BHA, which comes into effect next month, after which nine or more whippings will lead to suspensions and penalties. A jockey called Jason Maguire was suspended for five days for using his whip with “excessive frequency” on a horse called Ballabriggs at this year’s Grand National; his punishment would run to £40,000 if he did it again.

Here’s a quote from the BHA defending the whip: “If you are on a half-tonne of horse going at nearly 40mph over a jump and there are 20 other horses around you, you need a tool to steer, correct its stride, and balance a horse. It’s a very risky sport and we’ve got to look after jockeys’ safety.” The more I read that, the more surreal it becomes as a defence.

Another related item: on Sunday night’s Planet Word with Stephen Fry, he chatted amiably to a reassuringly white-coated man in Munich who experiments on mice in order to find out why humans developed language and, say, chimpanzees never have. Fry basically concludes that the only way we’d ever find out for sure would be to experiment on chimps, but that this would be ethically frowned upon. The implication as I read it was that Fry would be against experimentation on primates, but that mice were fair game. I realise my “Bambi-influenced” views are far too namby-pamby for the likes of Stephen Fry, but I find it hard to draw lines between which animals can be mistreated and which ones cannot, just as I find it hard to draw a line between how many beatings an animal may legally endure before the man dishing out the beatings may be fined for doing so.

So, back to bullfighting. It’s a long time since Ernest Hemingway wrote The Sun Also Rises and Death In The Afternoon. It’s quite a long time since early British holidaymakers on package tours to Spain in the 60s and 70s came home with their names printed on bullfighting posters, along with figurines of matadors and bulls. (I remember a relative had these, and as a small child failed to see any problem with it, although the souvenir manufacturer hadn’t painted blood on the bull.) I expect a number of my favourite Spaniards, from Velázquez to Almodóvar, approved or approve of bullfighting – the latter made a female matador one of the tragic protagonists in Talk To Her and included a goring scene that was meant to make you sympathetic for the human. But, like fox hunting, some traditions are simply outrun by progress. If a bull really is a “dumb” beast, as O’Neill confidently states, does that remove its rights?

The beguiling painting by Velazquez, by the way, easily his most famous, and one which I was lucky to see up close on a trip to Madrid, is Las Meninas, painted in 1656, and – hey! – it’s got a nice dog in it.

Sorry, I’ll go back to typing out what I think about films and telly programmes for the next entry, I promise.


16 thoughts on “Homage to Catalonia

  1. Nice read, thanks for that.

    It’s a big topic isn’t it. I struggle with the notion that human life is more valuable than animal life, and don’t like the idea of animals being bred soley for human consumption, as if they’re in some kind of production line. Yet I still eat meat from the supermarket, so I’m a complete hypocrite.

    • Not a hypocrite, Matt, just a realist. Better-bred meat costs loads more. To struggle at all with notions is better than not to consider them.

  2. I live in Catalonia and most people here seem to be in favour of the ban (unless I only know Bambi-eyed liberals). I was passing what appeared to be some old farm buildings only yesterday and I saw a faded sign: ‘Escola Taurina’, a bull-fighting school, probably abandoned after the death of Franco, when this region became less Spanish and more Catalan (apart from the sea-front souvenir shops which sell the usual flamenco-dancing dolls and other Andalusian ephemera).

    • Hey, as a tourist, I find it hard to be critical of souvenirs! I’m glad that the ban didn’t run totally counter to local public opinion – if that is the case – as one of the dangers of running down the tradition of another culture is to be accused of jackboot diplomacy. I am perfectly able to despise fox hunting without having a problem with people who live in the country, for instance.

  3. Well I am glad it’s finally over but in Catalunya we were never into bullfighting. It was there because the immigrants (by immigrants I mean the people from south of Spain that were very poor back in the mid 60 and 70’s) came to live in Catalunya and lived there, mainly in surrounding cities of Barna. Those were the ones that came with that culture. But us , catalans, never liked it, nor agreed with it . The only thing I remember as a child when Franco was the Dictator we had only 2 TV channels and were all about Madrid FC and Bullfighting. Those used to run for the whole afternoon, it was worse than a cricket match on TV (with the length I mean) and if you were not into it tough.

    I can see that is a very picturesque and artistic motive for some , like you said Hemingway or Picasso (when in exile became more *spanish* that when he was home, Ava Gardner dated one and still now in Spain the bullfighters still in the glossy magazines like a footballer is here in UK and the WAGS in Spain don’t have that staus, yet the misses of the Bullfighters are always on the press. Catalonia is different in that respect (than god for that).

    I am glad you wrote this blog and I am proud to be Catalan, the thing is all this has taken far too long to be done, there are many more issues that need to e resolved like the Language but little by little we will get there

    Thank you Andrew

  4. I’m convinced that what really bothers people about bullfighting isn’t the act of cruelty per se but its use as a spectacle. It’s a classic case of “What The Eye Doesn’t See…”, because far more distressing scenes occur on practically every modern livestock farm and at every abattoir – a handy euphemism to replace the uncomfortably accurate “slaughterhouse” – every day in every developed country. But, as far as I know, Catalonia’s politicians are yet to announce any plans to ban the Big Mac.

    And once you start on animal rights, where do you stop? Andrew here takes Stephen Fry to task for suggesting that, although he can live with lab mice, lab chimps are beyond the pale. Yet presumably some kind of line must be drawn somewhere. Doesn’t every hedgehog have the right to cross from one hedge to another without being squidged by a sixteen-wheeler? Doesn’t every bird have the right to build a nest in a tree using traditional materials instead of having to make do with one cobbled together with shredded plastic bags, exposed to predators and the elements on the top of a telegraph pole? And, more to the point, doesn’t every head of cattle have the right to spend four years grazing, shagging and sleeping in the shade of a cork-oak grove – even if the payback at the end of those four years is to be taken off for 20 minutes of being bewildered, goaded with barbed objects and finally stabbed to death? Given the choice, I suspect most of us would rather come back as a fighting bull than a beef bullock or battery chicken.

    Very few animals ever get to live their lives free from human interference in some form, ranging from the mildly inconvenient to the horribly cruel. This ban is not only largely politically rather than ethically driven; it’s cosmetic, designed to make us feel good about ourselves and our “progress” while leaving the important parts of that progress intact – a lifestyle that requires millions of animals of all species to suffer at our hands, and under the wheels of our cars as we drive the ever-shorter distance between one non-wildlife-friendly urban sprawl and the next.

    Bullfighting is just the rather quaint, picturesque icing on a very grubby, unpleasant cake for the world’s animals.

    A couple of points of information:

    * It’s corrida de toros, not torros.
    * Barcelona only had three bullrings for a period of twenty years ending in 1926. There’s only been one bullring in the city for the last 35 years. (Even Madrid has only had one fully functioning bullring for decades now, and there’s always been just the one in Seville: the ultimate bullfight-friendly city.)
    * Yes, it’s a long time since Hemingway wrote The Sun Also Rises (again, 1926), but not that long since he wrote his book of reportage The Dangerous Summer (1961).
    *Catalonia has always been the part of the country with the least interest in bullfighting. It’s easy to ban something when people have never had much interest in it.

    • I stand corrected on the points of information at the end of your comment, Archie. Thank you for these. (And I hope you won’t mind if I go back in and correct the text where factually incorrect or misleading, for reasons of pedantry that I think you will approve of.) As for your third point, I meant that it’s a long time since Hemingway launched his romantic, myth-making view on bullfighting, so that’s still true even with anything he wrote more recently.

      The best anyone can do who cares about animal welfare at all is to avoid eating broiler chickens and battery eggs wherever possible (very difficult if you eat pre-packed sandwiches for instance). Unfortunately, the better an animal is raised and the least stressful its final hours, the more we have to pay. It shouldn’t be a prohibitive lifestyle choice, but I accept that it is. Caring shouldn’t be a bourgeois luxury.

      It’s a fair point that animal rights is a sliding scale. Where does anybody stop on any principle? I am against privatised railways, but I still travel on the trains and give the private train operators money. If I was really serious about it, I would travel everywhere by car, but that’s giving more money to the oil companies, who want to tear the arse out of the planet. Eek. Surely it’s about making compromises and doing what you can? It’s far easier to do nothing, and care not. Life would be a lot simpler if nothing mattered.

      You present a doomy, nihilistic view of our current, “first world” situation. The question is navigating the world we find ourselves in.

  5. What I like best about Las Meninas is that Velazquez did nothing to prettify the child second from right. (Unless of course he did, in which case you have to wonder about the extent of royal interbreeding).

    The thing about bullfighting I objected to most was that it was not a fair fight – the bull is chased around by a load of blokes on horsebacks (picadors?) with lances who spear the bulls neck and shoulders so it can’t rear its head. Then it is chased around and taunted by a team of men. Then finally, when it is knackered and wonded, the main bullfighter comes in, tants it some more and, when the bull is utterly exhausted and suffering from the pain, the toreador gets a long sword and thrusts it into the back of the bull’s neck before a team of fancypants-on-horses tie up the fresh corpse and drag it out of the arena. Well it’s not what I call bravery.

    Oh, and if, despite the odds, the bull should “win” the fight and (understandably given the provocation) gore one or more of its tormenters, do you think they let it go off and live peacefully in a big field somewhere with plenty of nice heifers to look after? No, that’s right; they kill it anyway.

    It’s enough to make an old tyrant hopping mad.

  6. I didn’t mean to be doomy or nihilistic. My main point probably got lost in the ramble: if the political and social will to uphold animal rights truly existed, then bullfighting would be very low on the list of priorities for things to ban or change. So meat would cost double what it does? If we’re truly ethical, then so what?

    We’re still not quite there with the corrections, but this time you’ve gone too far rather than not far enough! There were two bullrings in Barcelona between 1926 and 1977(ish, I think). But the main point is that you seem to suggest that bullfighting’s popularity in Catalonia has declined as people’s awareness of animal rights has increased. That’s not really true, because, as a couple of commenters who live there have pointed out, it’s never been particularly popular among Catalans. The blip in its popularity was due to the large number of immigrants from other parts of Spain, particularly Andalusia, throughout most of the 20th century. Interestingly enough, the closure of that second bullring coincided with the drop in the number of new internal immigrants and the assimilation of earlier ones into Catalan culture, which had next to no interest in bullfighting.

    On Hemingway, yes, he may have popularised some aspects of it (mostly the testosterone-fuelled ones), but it first captured the world’s attention during the Romantic period (Merimée’s Carmen, etc.). Lorca wrote poems about it 80 years ago, and Picasso also used it as a recurring motif in his work right up until his death. I mention this because no operas weren’t written or etchings made about the vivisection of mice, and for good reason. Reducing bullfighting to just the “doing nasty things to animals” level ignores its significant role in Spanish – and, more widely, European – culture. We may or may not care for it, but culture it is.

    • I hope if you read my piece back you will agree that I do not “ignore” its cultural role. (I think I use the words “social” and “familial”, too!) If it wasn’t cruel I and others wouldn’t be able to “reduce” it to cruelty.

      But culture can be a fig leaf. I read about that recent theatrical performance – was it at the National? – where the performers invaded the auditorium and shook their uncovered genitals in the faces of audience members. That was culture, like it or not. It sounded revolting and sadistic to me, but I accept it as part of culture’s rich tapestry as both performer and audience were there willingly. The bull doesn’t get a say in it.

      Bullfighting has only been banned in one region where, as you and other have pointed out, it had little leverage. It’s a modest victory for Bambi. But like the horse-whipping reduction, it’s a move in what I consider to be the right direction.

  7. Great blog.

    I have mixed feelngs on this one. There is no doubt that it is a cruel and uneccesary “sport” and probably best consigned to the dark ages but it is also fundementally part of spanish culture.

    Having lived in Spain for a few years many of the regional fiestas culminate in a corrida of some description, and although Catalunya may be forward thinking I think this is more of an exercise in distancing itself from the rest of Spain rather then a sudden compassion for bulls.

    Spain is not an animal rights friendly country. If it exists spaniards will eat it.

    Regarding your animal testing aside are you tellng us you don’t believe in animal testing with regard to life saving drugs? If so I believe Disney are releasing Bambi on Blu-Ray and you might want to upgrade your collection.

    • I thought it was clear that I was saying it strikes me as inconsistent to deem one animal – indeed, one mammal – suitable for testing, while another is implicitly not. That really is Bambi-influenced thinking: mice – small, live in cages – expendable; chimps – a bit like us, elbows, smiles and that – worth treating with respect.

  8. Found these stats in a report on Sunday’s bullfight in the Chicago Sun-Times:

    In an article headlined “The Fiesta is Ending,” leading newspaper El Pais highlighted that changing tastes and economic difficulties, particularly in small towns, have led to a 34 percent drop in the number of bull-related festival events from 2,622 to 1,724 between 2007 and 2010.

  9. I’m remembering a letter in the paper a few years back. I might be wrong in the detail but the general gist of thing is right. He and his partner needed to get to a weekend wedding in Italy. To do it by train would have eaten into their working week and – gosh – cost more. So they flew. Yes, yes, all that stuff about carbon footprints. Yada yada. But what choice did they have as long as these train operators couldn’t get their trains to go as fast as planes? I mean, what choice did they have?

    I guess this comment isn’t about bullfighting, though it might be about eating meat. And it might be about animal testing. And how could it not be about flying to weekend weddings in Italy? Or getting to them by train? Or just celebrating the marriage by staying at home and burning a barrel of oil in the garden?

    When we make decisions we all start from the wrong place, which is essentially, one way or another: what suits me best? I suppose it’s what *doesn’t* separate us from the animals. And maybe that’s sufficient excuse. But Christ we’re stupid, aren’t we?

  10. ‘Sentimentalists’ have been proven more right by science, than the Victorian-minded who conveniently thought/think that animals don’t know suffering.

    That O’Neill blog really is amazingly poor isn’t it – reassuringly so (obviously a deer is at its most beautiful adorning one’s wall, with just its head remaining). Clarkson, Gill, this guy, they’re all in character aren’t they?

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