Monday, 31 May 2010

They don't like it up 'em

"A Madrid hospital says Spanish bullfighter Julio Aparicio has returned to intensive care and is fighting an infection after a horrific goring in the throat by a bull.

Aparicio had left the unit and was recovering well on Monday following surgery to reconstruct his throat, mouth and palate, but outbreak of an infection forced a return to the unit where doctors placed him on mechanically assisted breathing."

In 1953'ish I was living in Gibraltar. I had a young Spanish girl who - er - did my washing. She was a maid for a Gibraltarian family and collected my dhobi as she passed my unit en-route home to Spain. I was generally able to arrange to swap my duties so that we could spend the week-end together at her flat in La Linea; the Spanish town just across the border.

When the corrida season started she suggested we visit the bull ring. I had no convictions either way about the national spectator sport so off we went. The atmosphere surrounding the ring was festive. Whole families were there with picnic and wine in those leather bota with very rough wine. Choice of tickets was sun or shade; I soon learned that sun and contents of the leather bottle did not mix.

The first couple of bouts man vs bloody big bull did little for me. In those days the bulls were ginormus compared to today but it all seemed a foregone conclusion. The bull was tried out to see how he charged and moved his head. Then men on horseback moved in with hollow-ended lances and took plugs out of the main neck muscles so as to ensure the animal kept its head low. Then came men on foot who ran at the bull and planted barbed spears near the main injury so as to liven the animal up. Then came to man in the glittery suit who made some - to me - very dangerous passes with the bull. That part was very theatrical but the kill was widely signalled. All the while, an off-key brass band played; changing tune as directed by the President when stage one had to move to stage two.

When the third bull came in I was losing interest. All a foregone conclusion. The overall thing was OK - much as a Premier league football match might be enjoyed. However, as I watched, the whole thing went tits up. The matador was the top attraction and this was the first time he had faced a bull that afternoon. He came in on the assessment stage and made a pass or two in a languid - almost bored - manner. As this is where the bull is still on top form and quite dangerous, there are not many attendants in the ring. As I watched, the bull caught his beautifully garbed tormentor amidships and tossed him high in the air. The bull then seemed to sink back and watch the man as he flew upwards and, as he descended, caught him like a close in-fielder on one horn. This entered close under the diaphragm on the left side and came out on the man's shoulder blade. He shook his catch once or twice and then dropped him.

The bit players ran in and distracted the killer; the bull-fighter would never fight again. The body was removed and one of the other matadors came out, put on a very abbreviated show and the bull was dispatched. Those few seconds changed my perspective for ever and I became a fight fan. Just a few miles inland from La Linea was San Roque which had the smallest ring in Spain. It also lacked the small retreats at the side of the ring where humans could escape beast. The fights were much more evenly contested there.

I never saw another death in the ring. Some wounding. I do not think I would bother visiting a corrida if I were to go back there; football has replaced it in the national profile. Back in '53 we were all a lot less aware of the issues that now centre on cruelty to animals. I became friends with a farmer who operated one of the biggest ranches devoted to breeding fighting bulls and it was a major source of income to the area. The slaughtered animals were sold off cheaply to local butchers and eaten by people who might not otherwise have seen a lot of expensive meat.

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