Out of Spain: Bulls that the Spanish will fight for

MADRID - Is it a work of art, a national treasure, an eyesore or simply a load of old bull? Those who may have driven through Spain in the past 30 years will be acquainted with what is known here as the Osborne, or Veterano bull: a gigantic black creature, eerily life-like, its head and horns silhouetted against the light sky.

It used to carry the words 'Osborne Veterano brandy' to advertise the Andalucian spirit of that name. However, in 1988, a law barred advertising within sight of the highways in non-urban areas, thereby forcing Osborne to delete the name: but the big black bulls remain dotted across the country's most prominent roadside sites.

At first it remained an advert by suggestion. Everyone knew it was the Veterano bull. But freed of its label, it took on a life of its own, became a mythical symbol of Spain itself, gathered a cult following, and is now at the heart of a passionate national debate over whether to 'kill' them off or not.

It is considered as Spanish as paella and flamenco, but with an added nobility. 'It is the protective shadow of the fields of Spain,' wrote one journalist. 'It is in communion with the space it occupies,' said another.

Recession and the ravages of Iberia's climactic extremes have already turned the Veterano bull into an endangered species. Of the original 500, only 97 remain.

I first encountered the bull in the late Sixties, when Spaniards were buzzing around in little Fiat 600s and Francisco Franco was destroying the Mediterranean coast with concrete monstrosities he called resorts.

The road-side bull was only the first part of the tender advertising trap. A bull's head on top of the Veterano bottle, through which the fiery liquid spewed, ensured, unless the taste were not enough, that you could not mistake Veterano for over-priced imitations from north of the Pyrenees.

Now, the unmarked black bull has become part of my life. Driving, for example, from Madrid to Marbella, I know there are nine. Often, you can see them miles off, admire the silhouette of the perfect toro bravo, the well- formed horns, the inquisitively alert head. From hoof to horn, the bull measures 12.5 metres (38ft), its one- dimensional steel body weighs four tons, but the whole contraption, including scaffolding and foundations, totals 50 tons.

They are terrific landmarks - 'take the second exit after the bull'. Even pilots using the airport at Jerez will tell you they have been known to use the local Veterano bull to line up the runway.

If those of you who despise bullfighting were preparing to write yet another angry letter, pocket your pen. This is not a story about killing bulls, but saving and revering them. Here is the well-bred fighting bull at its best, proud and free, master of its domain, vigilante of the highway, unshackled and unthreatened by man. Except, that is, for Spain's Transport Minister Jose Borrell, the man who ruled last month that the bull must go. Mr Borrell is now being billed as a cowardly matador, moving in with the sword against a brave and noble beast unable to defend itself.

'Pardon the Osborne bull' is the new war cry here, taken up by artists, intellectuals, journalists and others. Even the cabinet of Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez is split, after the flamboyant red-headed Minister of Culture, Carmen Alborch, said 'the bull has gained an aura only exuded by works of art' and should be allowed to stay.

In what threatens to turn people against each other, many local mayors have warned they will not obey Mr Borrell's law. The regional government of Andalucia, home to the brandy and the bull, has already declared the Osborne bulls a public treasure and says it will prevent their removal.

Many Spaniards, who liken the Veterano bull to the Tower of London or the Eiffel tower in terms of national importance, have offered to put the bulls in their gardens or on the roofs of their houses. Bigas Luna, the Catalan film director who used the Veterano bull as backdrop and silent observer of some hot-blooded scenes in his film Jamon, Jamon, has offered to set up a 'Taurus Park' to house some of them as museum pieces.

The director owes it to Osborne. In the film, actor Jordi Molla, upset by his girlfriend, climbs the scaffolding and pounds at the bull's testicles until they collapse. But Bigas Luna had swapped the original steel for a distinctly more-punchable wooden set.

Osborne is proud of the fact that the bull's testicles have survived decades with little worse than rust, although they have been known to sprout graffiti such as 'Europe's cowardice is to blame for the deaths of Bosnians'.

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