Spain's roadside bulls live to fight another day

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The Independent Online
SPAIN'S most famous bull has been pardoned. After public outcry, a campaign by intellectuals and a political row, the gigantic black metal bulls that tower over Spanish highways will be allowed to stay put.

The government last week backtracked on a decision to remove the 97 so-called Osborne Veterano bulls - which are named after the fiery Spanish brandy they were erected to advertise - under a law that bars advertising hoardings on national highways.

For a nation where goading and killing bulls is known as la fiesta nacional, the decision to kill off the Osborne bulls - which have decorated the Spanish landscape since 1957 - raised a storm of protest. The bulls used to be inscribed with the words ``Osborne Veterano brandy'', but they were painted over after a 1988 law barred advertising on national highways outside built-up areas. To some, it remained a perfect example of suggestive advertising. Everybody still knew it was the Veterano brandy bull.

Without the inscription, it seemed bigger, blacker, stronger, nobler. It is the perfect fighting bull, its horns held high, its head in a pose of inquisitive readiness. It turned into something of a myth, a symbol of Spain itself. To some, it symbolises virility, to others fertility. Legend has it that barren couples made love in the shadow of its giant cojones (testicles) after all else failed.

Catalan film director Bigas Luna used the Osborne bull as a key prop and symbol in his celebrated film Jamon, Jamon, in which actor Jordi Molla climbs its scaffolding and shatters its testicles.

Osborne sponsored a big, glossy book called An Enormous Black Bull, in which leading artists gave their impressions of what the Osborne bull meant to them.

Now, instead of facing the transport minister's sword, the Osborne bull has effectively been declared part of the nation's ``cultural and artistic heritage'', cojones and all.

``The bull has not broken the panorama of the countryside. On the contrary, it forms part of it. It does not distract, it contemplates,'' wrote journalist Alfonso Ussia during the ``Pardon the Osborne Bull'' campaign. ``It is at one with the countryside, in communion with the space it occupies,'' wrote industrialist Jose Maria Cuevas. ``It is the protective shadow over the fields of Spain,'' wrote another journalist.

A leading member of the brandy-producing family, Rafael Osborne Macpherson - with a name like that, it is perhaps surprising that he didn't get into whisky - began looking for an advertising gimmick for Veterano in the mid-1950s. Graphic artist Manolo Prieto came up with the bull idea, and the first one, which was made of wood, was erected on the Burgos highway 33 miles north of Madrid in 1957.

Once there were 500, but recession and the ravages of time have cut the herd to 97. Each metal bull weighs four tons, has a surface area of more than 150 square yards and stands 38 feet high. Scaffolding and the concrete base take the weight of the contraption to 50 tons.

The most outstanding sites were chosen all over Spain, with landowners being paid in cash or in cases of brandy. Often, the bull is visible from many miles off. Drivers use them as landmarks. Airline pilots joke about lining up their landings using the Osborne bull near Jerez airport. Parents like to keep their children busy on long journeys by having them count the number of bulls they pass.

Carmen Alborch, the Minister of Culture, was one of the first to stand up to her cabinet colleague, Transport Minister Jose Borrell, when he announced in September that the bulls would have to go. As the campaign for a pardon grew, Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez hinted that a way might be found to bend the law.

Congress's environment committee ruled last week that the bull should be spared. But there could still be problems. Also dotting Spanish highways, though in lesser numbers, is the silhouette of a figure in an Andalucian sombrero. He used to advertise Sandeman's port. Sandeman is unlikely to remove its symbol. If camels and other trademarks start popping up by the roadsides, pressure could mount once more for the law to be enforced.

Last week a cartoon in the daily Diario 16 summed up the row. It showed a ``real'' bull, bleeding from banderillas, the matador's sword protruding from its shoulder blades, gazing longingly at the black bull hoarding on a hill. ``Wish I was cardboard,'' it said.

(Photograph omitted)