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Robert Elms: End bullfighting and you give in to the neutering forces of accepted taste

Our squeamishness means that we prefer death which is mechanical and invisible, while the Spanish understand that it is part of a cycle

Saturday 31 July 2010 00:00 BST
(Darren Diss)

I saw my first ever corrida – it's not really a bullfight, anybody foolhardy enough to fight a bull would be a goner within minutes – in the arena in Barcelona back in 1983 and was immediately smitten. I lived there for 18 months and took my seat in the ring every Sunday, the start of a life-long love affair with the bulls.

Twenty-six years and some 300 or so bloody Iberian afternoons later, I was back in that city's handsome bullring, "The Monumental", to watch Jose Tomas, Spain's greatest and most charismatic matador, strut his deadly stuff in front of a packed and enthralled plaza, for what it now turns out was the last ever corrida held in the Catalan capital.

The vote this week by the Catalan parliament to ban bullfights in the region has excited great interest in the world's media, where it's been largely trumpeted as both a triumph for animal rights and the death knell of this ancient tradition. The fact that it's a long way from either of those shouldn't disguise the genuine sadness felt by those of us who love the bulls and the men who dance with them, and also love Barcelona.

The real reason for Catalunya to ban the killing of bulls in its one functioning ring is much more to do with the sometimes petty politics of Catalan separatism than it is to do with animal welfare. There's a deep and intensifying hatred of all things "Spanish" in the region, where speaking the Spanish language is now frowned upon and even the all-conquering national football team is regularly jeered. Banning bulls is just one more way of sticking two metaphorical fingers up at Madrid.

Of course there are genuine anti-taurine activists whose convictions are real and valid. About a hundred of them protested outside the plaza on that final day last year, but then again 19,000 fans of the corrida were inside. The fact that the historic arena will no longer ring with olés is just one more sign of Catalunya's retreat into insularity.

In real terms,the absence of Spain's matadors from the one remaining ring in the north-eastern region will matter very little. The taurine heartland lies further south, in Castille and Andalucia, up in the Basque lands (who also harbour separatist ambitions but flock to the bulls), and also in the south of France where the Spanish fiesta is booming.

Reports that the corrida is dying out are well wide of the mark, as you would discover to your considerable cost if you tried to buy tickets for any one of the 32 consecutive sold-out days of the Madrid fair or one of the great afternoons in Seville or Bilbao, where tickets on the black market can change hands for many hundreds of pounds.

The oft-repeated claim that such rings are kept alive by tourists is ludicrous. Despite the economic recession, which has hit Spain especially hard, the corrida is still thriving. Its top practitioners are huge stars, and its fans, among them a prominent group of British aficionados, intensely devoted, because it is still the very soul of this dark and complex country. As the poet Lorca said back in the 1930s, the corrida is "the last serious thing in the modern world". And in this even more modern age it is just as serious and just as poetic.

Much of the Aglo antipathy to the corrida comes from the misconception that it is a sport, and a deeply unfair one at that. But this unique event, which is reviewed in the culture section of Spanish newspapers alongside opera, cannot be considered a sport; the end is pre-ordained, the pattern deeply repetitive and the element of competition almost entirely absent.

This always potent and sometimes beautiful spectacle is the ritual slaughter of six truly wild animals for your entertainment. Matador just means killer. It is a public celebration of death (a subject we prefer to hide from in Britain) which, when it is done well, becomes a celebration of life. The man charged with the task of delivering a fine end to this fierce and powerful creature will dance with it along the way, laying his own life on the line to create a swirling symbiosis. On the frustratingly rare afternoons when it all comes together, the bulls are strong and noble, the men honest and smooth, the crowd totally engaged. It is the most captivating expression of man's mastery of the elemental power of nature that I have ever witnessed and the most complete art form in the world. That is why I and many thousands of rational, decent people are drawn back time and again. But no longer to Barcelona.

Those who see bullfighting as cruel are, of course, right. It is cruel that man should breed and kill animals for his enjoyment whether as a dinner or a dance. But to my mind the life of an Iberian fighting bull, a thoroughbred animal which lives to a minimum age of four, roaming wild, feasting on Spain's finest pasture, never even seeing a man on foot, is far superior to that of the many thousands of British bulls whose far shorter lives are spent entirely in factory conditions and killed in grim abattoirs so that we can eat beefburgers.

Our squeamishness means that we prefer death which is mechanical and invisible, while the Spanish, a people still much closer to the land and much more in tune with nature, understand that death is part of a cycle. The Spanish say, "We are going to see the bulls." But now, in Barcelona, which prides itself on being so sophisticated and "European", so un-Spanish, they are closing their bullring and their eyes.

The real danger of all this is that it will begin to convince those Spaniards who are agnostic about the bulls – which may well be the majority, in the same way that most English people don't much care for cricket but aren't remotely opposed to it – that the corrida is doomed to die a slow death, that inevitably it will fade away as Spain becomes more like everywhere else, dominated by gaudy globalism and neutered by the homogenising forces of technology and accepted taste.

If the young start to believe that it is somehow terminally old-fashioned and moribund because those cool Catalans no longer like it, then the future of this vibrant and vivid culture really could be threatened. Of course it is an anachronism, a unique echo of more visceral and yet sensitive times, kept alive by the afició*of those who understand its tragic and compelling metaphorical power, including the many Spanish writers and intellectuals who railed against the ban. All the more reason for the Catalan separatists to gleefully annoy them.

I am about to start packing my bags to head for a date with a man in a suit of lights and a ferocious animal about to die beneath an unforgiving blue sky. For as long as Spain sends its young men out to risk their lives in order to dance on the sand and create beauty with the beast, I and many others will go to see them. I can no longer imagine why I would want to go to Barcelona.

Robert Elms is a writer and broadcaster whose books include 'Spain: A Portrait After the General'

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