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.

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