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Less than a week after the last bullfight was held in
Barcelona following”>Catalonia‘s
vote to ban it last year, I went to one in Madrid on Sunday. The 25,000 people
cramming Las Ventas bullring, the most prestigious in”>Spain, were in festive
mood, and their excitement was shared in the royal box by Princess Elena,
daughter of King Juan Carlos, and her two children, Victoria, 11, and Felipe,
13. Five years ago Spanish state TV stopped showing bullfights to spare
children the gore, but here were youngsters witnessing in person the bloody
slaughter of six bulls in a row. They were perhaps doing their royal duty by
showing their contempt for the decision by the parliament of Catalonia to
for ever.

This was by no means the first time that Spain’s “national
fiesta” had been at risk. The Vatican ordered its abolition nearly 500
years ago, threatening both bullfighters and spectators with excommunication
unless they obeyed, but the king took no notice. He realised that the Spanish
people would never put up with it. The Vatican’s reason for wanting it stopped
was the danger it caused to bullfighters, not to bulls. Now, of course, it is
the other way round. The Catalan parliament, responding to a petition signed by
180,000 people, abolished it on grounds of animal cruelty, but not even this is
accepted as the real reason. Most Spaniards blame it on Catalonia’s yearning
for greater independence from the rest of Spain.

There are parallels between Catalonia’s attitude to bullfighting
and Scotland’s to foxhunting. The Scottish parliament banned foxhunting before
England to demonstrate its cultural independence. Catalonia, flaunting its
sophistication, modernity and greater proximity to northern”>Europe, portrayed
bullfighting as a primitive old Spanish practice and somehow un-Catalan,
ignoring the fact that the first recorded bullfight in Barcelona took place in
1387. Understandably, other Spaniards find this irritating.

A consequence has been a revival of interest in bullfighting in
the rest of the country. Recent opinion polls have shown that more than 60% of
Spaniards don’t like it, and the number of bullfights taking place has
drastically declined. The young have been losing interest, with polls showing
that the sport is most popular among the over-45s. Spain’s economic problems
haven’t helped, as tickets to bullfights are expensive. But the Catalan ban has
aroused bullfighting’s supporters, just as the campaign against foxhunting
galvanised the supporters of this old English tradition. They are appealing to
the Spanish constitutional court for the ban to be overturned and are
campaigning for bullfighting to be given cultural heritage status, which would
protect it against any future bans in other parts of the country.

The same kind of arguments are used in its defence as those that
were cited for foxhunting. The main one is the loss of jobs that its abolition
would involve, but there is also the damage to the countryside that would be
caused by the loss of the ranches on which the bulls are reared. I even heard
someone warn that the breed of bull used in bullfights might face extinction,
but since these bulls are only bred to be killed, I didn’t find that a powerful
argument. It is difficult to see any way in which bullfighting may be portrayed
as being to the bull’s advantage.

I have only once seen a bullfight before, and that was
some 50 years ago at Arles in the south of France when the matador was Luis Miguel
Dominguín, famous not only as a great bullfighter but also for having had a
tempestuous affair with Ava Gardner. I did not wildly enjoy it, and it was the
same last Sunday. Forget the tradition, ritual, costumes, music and the
balletic nature of the spectacle; forget the symbolism and Spanish fascination
with death; forget Ernest Hemingway and all that: it is difficult not to feel
some revulsion at the manner in which the bulls are put to death.

There is no doubt that the bullfighters are putting themselves
in grave danger by confronting these enormous horned”>animals, but I still can’t
help feeling sorrier for the bulls. The bulls haven’t asked for the fight, and
they don’t appear to derive any pleasure from it, whereas the matadors are
colossal show-offs, who long for the adoration of the crowd. The stages before
the final showdown are the least appealing. The lancing of the bull by a
picador on horseback is followed by the planting by the banderilleros of barbed
sticks into his shoulders, from which they hang limply, oozing blood.

When the bull is thus weakened, the matador takes it on at close
quarters, making elegant passes at him with his red cape. This is dangerous. A
matador fell twice and was nearly trampled in Sunday’s corrida. But the bull
does not seem to be aggressive unless it feels threatened. After a successful
encounter, the matador turns his back on it and walks away to the applause of
the crowd. But the bull doesn’t do as I would do in its shoes – charge him from
behind and gore his perky little sequin-encased bottom. It just stands there
patiently, waiting for him to return to the fray.

At the bullring’s entrance there is a bronze figure of a matador
saluting a bust of Sir Alexander Fleming, the discoverer of penicillin, which
saved so many bullfighters’ lives. But no bull is ever allowed to live.

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