Jason Webster: Bullfighting ban is more about Catalonia than cruelty

Few things ruffle an ordinary Spaniard's feathers more than the seeming airs adopted by some Catalans


Things are rarely black or white in Spain. That's not to say this is a country that revels in shades of grey. Simply that, after a while, you understand that life here is frequently both black and white at the same time.

Yesterday saw the last ever bullfight in Catalonia. This year's season has come to an end, Barcelona's Monumental bullring has closed its doors, and the regional ban on Los Toros comes into effect on 1 January. So no more bullfighting, then? That's right. And wrong.

For one thing the Catalan prohibition is being contested in Spain's Constitutional Court, which could, in theory, overturn it. That will take years and may not be successful, but meanwhile bull-running in towns and villages, which isn't covered in the ban, is still a highly popular Catalan pastime, particularly in the province of Tarragona, and is now a legally "protected" tradition. Nobody's killing them, but violence against bulls, including the placing of flaming torches on the animals' horns, is far from over in the region.

But it's a victory nonetheless, the animal rights activists say, however limited. Well, again, yes and no. Not very long ago the future of bullfighting looked anything but healthy: spectator numbers were down; more and more Spaniards were expressing a lack of interest in the spectacle; the bullfights themselves lacked sparkle. People were beginning to wonder if the national fiesta, what Lorca described as "the poetic and vital richness" of his country, might simply die out.

That has now changed, and bullfighting looks set to last for many years yet. One reason is the galvanising effect of a bullfighter named José Tomás, who has made the corrida once again the truly life-and-death struggle it is meant to be (ignore those who talk of the odds being stacked against the bull; that's an extremely powerful killing machine weighing over half a tonne). It was no coincidence that Tomás was one of the three matadors to perform at the Monumental on its last day as a bullring. Barcelona was his favourite venue and no torero campaigned harder against its closure.

The other reason is the Catalan ban itself. Few things ruffle an ordinary Spaniard's feathers more than the seeming airs adopted by some Catalans, with their hint of greater wealth, sophistication and proximity to the rest of Europe. And then Catalonia will insist on inching towards greater independence, threatening to break up the, admittedly troubled, Spanish family. The fact is that the ban may have been argued on moral grounds, but no one here, including the Catalans, is in any doubt that the main impulse was to distance Catalonia further from the rest of Spain – or at least to appear to do so.

At one time some tried to claim bullfighting had never been a Catalan thing at all, until it was pointed out that the first recorded instance of a bullfight in Barcelona dates back to 1387. "Imagine what would have happened if bullfighting had been renamed the 'Catalan Bull Fiesta'," one commentator said recently, his point being that no ban would have been contemplated if, in the creation of a Catalan national identity, bullfighting had been included.

No matter. After a petition, the bill was brought to the regional parliament and passed. And the immediate reaction? The regions of Madrid and Valencia began moves to give bullfighting cultural heritage status, to protect it against any possible future bans. Meanwhile a pro-bullfighting pressure group has started its own petition for parliament to pass a similar measure across the whole of Spain. Ironically, bullfighting hasn't looked in such good shape for years.

So what's really going on? Has anything changed at all? Who's to say? As the Spanish proverb says: "The wisest of wise men knows that he knows not; only the fool thinks he knows."

Jason Webster's crime novel set in the world of bullfighting, Or the Bull Kills You, is published by Chatto & Windus

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