A Spanish love affair

As a child, Wendy Salisbury was seduced by the excitement of the Costa Brava. As a teenager, she fell for a star bullfighter. Here, she explains her lifelong romance with all things Español

How do you explain to someone you haven't seen for 44 years the depth of the footprint they left on your life? Especially when you have only 15 seconds in which to do it and they haven't the faintest idea who you are?

This happened to me recently... but first, let me fill in the gaps.

My grandparents were Russian Jewish immigrants. My father was born in Buenos Aires and my mother studied art in Paris before the Second World War broke out. They met and married in London, had my sister and me, then emigrated to New York. And it was into this melting pot that they so readily dissolved and their love affair with Spain began: watching their first flamenco show.

We returned to London in 1950. The bombed-out city was a drab and sepia place, all post-war gloom and pea-soup fogs. My parents worked hard and as soon as they could afford it, they took us on holiday to the Costa Brava. It was 1955 and the package price for two weeks was £39. Dad decreed, "in order to fully absorb the culture", that we see a corrida de toros. I was nine years old.

The trumpet sounded, the gates swung open and a vivid swagger of masculinity stepped on to the sand. I was instantly mesmerised. The sights! The sounds! The smells! Resplendent in their satin suits of lights, three demigods performed an ancient art: unprotected save for a piece of cloth, they danced a bloody ballet with a high-horned raging bull. The raw courage and savage beauty took my breath away. And when they strutted round the ring victorious, catching eyes and flowers, my pre-pubescent heart stirred with a passion yet unknown.

On returning home, I delved more deeply into Spain's rich history. I'd browse the bookshops of Charing Cross Road seeking tales of bullfighting. I learnt Spanish at school and took flamenco classes at the local institute.

By the time I was 14, my parents had built a villa in Marbella costing £2,000. My sister married a Spaniard in 1962 and when I reached 19, having saved up all my wages, they allowed me a three-month trip to Spain. I longed to see more bullfights. My grandmother muttered darkly: "Be careful what you wish for."

I explored the great Moorish cities of Andalusia but my money soon ran out. Back on the coast, I got talking to an American journalist one afternoon. He'd just been commissioned to write the biography of Manuel Benitez, "El Cordobes" (I'll Dress You in Mourning by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre, which went on to become a best-seller). He needed an interpreter to start immediately! We agreed terms and set off next morning for Cordoba.

It was the summer of 1965. Manolo – as he was known – was at the top of his game. Aged 29, wildly charismatic, his was the quintessential "rags to riches" story: illiterate Gypsy orphan rises, through sheer bravura, to status of global idol – the highest-paid, most theatrical matador in the history of la tauromaquia. Women of all ages swooned at his feet. He was a rock star – with the added twist: he faced death every afternoon.

My boss placed me in his path to find out the inside story. On fight days, we'd buzz from town to city in his Piper Aztec aircraft, or travel across country in his Mercedes limousine. He'd clamber in straight from the arena, elated or deflated, depending how the bulls had run. Once free of clamouring fans, he'd wriggle into less restrictive clothing, then fall asleep exhausted in my lap. I'd brush the sweat-soaked hair from his face and keep vigil with the chauffeur on the long road through the night.

On rest days, we'd ride out on his ranch, across the peaceful pastures to check the breeding herd, lunching under the trees, then partying with friends beneath the stars.

The international press soon picked up our story: the incongruity of a "little English girl" – who must love animals, surely! – and a man who killed livestock for a living.

 

They wrote about "the Wendy with her personal Peter Pan" and that El Cordobes was learning the language of Shakespeare for his English fiancée. In truth, he was still illiterate, but his priest travelled with us, teaching him to read and write.

Brian Epstein, The Beatles' manager, flew out from Liverpool to meet the man they called the "Spanish Beatle". Alan Whicker's team filmed Matador for BBC TV and later interviewed the "little English girl" for an episode of Late Night Line-up.

At one fight, he dedicated his bull to me – a high accolade considering Audrey Hepburn, Ava Gardner and Orson Welles were in the crowd. The animal did not share his sentiments and tossed him mercilessly until his pants were ripped, exposing his buttocks. Bruised and battered, down but not out, he bellowed for a pair of jeans and went back out there to face his foe. He won the trophies of two ears that day. He threw me one, which I still have.

When the Spanish season ends, toreros, like swallows, fly south for the winter. Latin America awaits its idols in the flesh. He invited me to join him but my father said no, and so ended my summer in the sun .

I packed away my photos, press cuttings, diaries and the precious trophy ear and returned home to marry the first man who asked me. I stored my memories away in an old shoe box.

Four decades, two marriages, two daughters and five grandchildren later, my sister called me one morning from her home in Marbella.

"Manolo's receiving a lifetime achievement award next Saturday in our bullring..." I was on the airline website before she'd finished talking.

I was flustered and nervous, no longer 19, yet still feeling it. We waited backstage for his car to draw up, and then I saw him through the glass: 73 years old yet still fit and handsome.

I approached quickly and explained – in the short time before the press pounced – exactly who I was. At first he looked confused but then he beamed: that sunshine smile that still lit up my world. He kissed me warmly on both cheeks, exclaiming: "You're still so pretty!" My heart felt fit to burst – pretty good for 64, maybe! Bullfighting has been banned in Catalonia now in a move more political than cultural. Aficion still reigns in Spain and still reigns in me. My book, Blood on the Sand, imagines what may have happened had the English girl wed her torero.

 

'Blood on the Sand', £1.49, is available on Kindle now

Suggested Topics
Voices
There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm tomorrow
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special
tv
News
Claudia Winkleman and co-host Tess Daly at the Strictly Come Dancing final
people
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
Elton John and David Furnish will marry on 21 December 2014
people
Sport
SPORT
News
people
Life and Style
A still from the 1939 film version of Margaret Mitchell's 'Gone with the Wind'
life
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Sport
Amir Khan is engaged in a broader battle than attempting to win a fight with Floyd Mayweather
boxing Exclusive: Amir Khan reveals plans to travel to Pakistan
News
Stacey Dooley was the only woman to be nominated in last month’s Grierson awards
mediaClare Balding and Davina McCall among those overlooked for Grierson awards
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
News
Twitchers see things differently, depending on their gender
scienceNew study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer
film
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Biggins as Mrs Smee in Peter Pan
theatreHow do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
News
i100
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Investigo: Finance Analyst

    £240 - £275 per day: Investigo: Support the global business through in-depth a...

    Ashdown Group: Data Manager - £Market Rate

    Negotiable: Ashdown Group: Data Manager - MySQL, Shell Scripts, Java, VB Scrip...

    Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - Bedfordshire/Cambs border - £32k

    £27000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - near S...

    Recruitment Genius: Class 1 HGV Driver

    £23000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This successful group of compan...

    Day In a Page

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
    Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

    Marian Keyes

    The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

    Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

    Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
    Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

    Rodgers fights for his reputation

    Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
    Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

    Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

    'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
    Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick