End Of Story

At the start of chapter seven of Death in the Afternoon, Ernest Hemingway's discursive book about the Spanish bullfight, he says: "At this point it is necessary that you see a bullfight." Because the book seemed to me to be an exceptionally honest attempt to explain why people other than sadists enjoy going to bullfights, I thought I'd meet old Hemingway half-way and do just that. So last week I went to Pamplona to see a fight.

When I told the mechanic at the local garage that I was going, he said: "Whatever you do, Jel, don't buy sol tickets. It gets too hot in sol, and everyone throws things at you. Get sombre."

I made it to the Plaza del Toros at six o'clock, half an hour before the action was due to start. Everyone in the vicinity of the bullring, except the green-shirted policemen, was decked out in the red and white colours of San Firmin and at least slightly drunk. It was still unbearably hot, but cooler under the trees near the entrance, where the ticket touts were said to mingle with the crowd. Also under the trees was the big black sculpted head and shoulders of Papa Hemingway himself. He was gazing sternly over the heads of the crowd. The sculptor had managed to capture his chronic alcoholism very well, I thought.

While I was trying to spot the touts, a succession of brass bands went by, adding significantly to the commotion and congestion. Under Papa's stare, I dodged between the marching bandsmen and then picked my way through the dense crowds. The noise and the glare and the drunkenness of the people were exhilarating.

I was alarmed, however, to see Spanish people clamouring for tickets for the fight. This wasn't good. If the locals were having trouble getting them, what hope was there for an ignorant tourist? But soon a small brown Spanish man wearing a black beret and down to the last third of his cigar came up to me and said would I like a ticket for 10,000 pesetas - about forty quid.

"Sol or sombre?" I said, bearing in mind the mechanic's advice. "Sombre," he said, gesturing low. I indicated that I'd like one very much. He gave me a ticket and I paid him. Then he led me by the arm into a nearby bar where everyone was dancing and singing at the same time, and where we had to be careful not to tread on those who were asleep on the floor, and he bought me a stiff gin and bitter lemon.

"Beefeater gin," he said, touching my glass with his.

If the ticket I'd bought had turned out to be for the sol side, or a forgery, or for a seat with an obscured view, or one so high up in the gods that I couldn't see a thing, I wouldn't have been surprised. But when I went in and showed my ticket to a steward, he led me to one of the best seats in the house. It was low down, near the barrier, in shadow, right in the thick of the nobs and the aficionados and the abonos, which means season-ticket holders. I could not believe my good luck.

I greeted those on either side, also those behind me. To the man on my right I said, in Spanish, that I was sorry but I didn't speak Spanish. It is a phrase I feel comfortable with, and I am currently working on the accent. In reply, the man made a dismissive gesture with the back of his hand, then passed me a tall glass which he carefully filled to the brim with ice-cold champagne. Later on, when I looked at his feet, I noticed he was wearing bullfighter's slippers with red, criss-crossed laces in them. On the other side of me I had a senorita. She was sitting bolt upright and fanning her face in time to the music. Her lovely brown arms felt cool and smooth against mine.

Until the matadors came out, we fanned ourselves and watched the antics of the punters in the sol section, which was by far the noisiest and the rowdiest. To a man they were up on their feet and singing and dancing to the music of two very loud brass bands, and spraying red wine over each other to keep cool.

And bang on time, the matadors came sauntering into the ring, arrogant and magnificent in their suits of lights. Right then, Mr Hemingway, I thought, let's see what it is that excites you so very much.