End of the fiesta?

Christopher North worries that lockdown has caused an extinction-level crisis

Sol y Sombra

This article is taken from the November issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

When I wrote the first Sol y Sombra column in February, I breezily averred that bullfighting was in trouble only in British fantasies. Back then, the coronavirus was the tiniest speck in the Eastern sky, something for China to worry about. The idea that an infection in Wuhan might wipe out Spain’s highest art form was too silly for words. In March, I travelled to Olivenza to cover the first feria of the season. Who could imagine that it would also be the last?

Spain’s lockdown, the strictest in Europe, became an extinction-level threat to bullfighting. Some events were televised without an audience, and one or two went ahead with reduced crowds. But all the great ferias — Valencia, Seville, Madrid, Pamplona, Bilbao — were cancelled.

Incredibly, Spain’s far-left government did not allow picadors and banderilleros (the teams that assist the matadors in the ring) to access the Spanish equivalent of our furlough scheme. Many smaller festivals have halted with no prospect of restarting. The weekly magazine 6Toros6, the taurine Torah, has printed its final issue.

For the breeders, who operate within tight profit margins, the calamity is near total

The larger ferias might resume next year, and some toreros will have savings to fall back on. But for the breeders, who operate within tight profit margins, the calamity is near total. Some aristocratic bloodlines will peter out, sold ignominiously for meat. Like Burke, I see the age of chivalry passing — almost literally, in that bullfighting elevates both equestrian combat and swordsmanship.

In the taurine world, as elsewhere, the coronavirus brutally exposed weaknesses and hastened trends. Just as the decline of high streets and offices has accelerated, so the hairline cracks in bullfighting have become yawning fissures.

Already in 2019, some matadors and bloodlines were being overexposed. In 2020, the few events that went ahead featured near-identical line-ups. Every poster advertised the same names — above all that of the veteran Valencian, Enrique Ponce.

France is not immune to the problems that beset the Spanish taurine world

Ponce is a brilliant technician but, now in his late forties and wearing what we’re all pretty sure is a hairpiece, he is understandably more ginger before the horns. The result can be cold, calculated, clinical. As the great philosopher José Ortega y Gasset put it, “The day that toreo ceases to be epic and becomes only aesthetic, its days will be numbered.” A century on, the countdown has started.

The worst thing about relying on a small number of renowned but spavined matadors is that they demand light, predictable, straight-charging bulls. The breeders of the tougher castes, who even in normal years sell only a few animals to satisfy the more exigent crowds, face ruin.

For Antonio Lorca, the taurine critic at El País, it is this aspect of the lost 2020 season that is the most catastrophic. Lorca enjoys a certain pre-eminence among taurine writers, as much for the beauty of his prose as for the perceptiveness of his vision. Even Spaniards who never set foot in a plaza know his name.

The closest British equivalent I can think of is Kenneth Tynan, who towered above other theatre critics in the 1950s. (Tynan, incidentally, was a keen aficionado, grasping that the dramas enacted on the sands were as pure and true as Shakespeare’s.) Lorca, it is fair to say, is rarely upbeat, but never has he been as pessimistic as now. Unable to point to a single decent corrida all season, he glimpses the end of the fiesta itself.

North of the pyrenees, things are slightly more cheerful. The main French festivals went ahead, albeit with limited attendance. I covered the Béziers feria in these pages in September. Last month, I went to Nîmes, the most Roman town outside Rome itself, whose bullfights are staged in a magnificent 2,000-year-old amphitheatre.

France is not immune to the problems that beset the Spanish taurine world. It also recycles too many of the same faces — including, naturally, Ponce’s. And, though you still get to see the fiercer breeds there, these tough fixtures are usually the first to be cut when Covid truncates a programme. French crowds, generally exacting, have been too ready to grant ears this season. Even the indulto, the sparing of an exceptional bull so that he can be put to stud, is being cheapened. An aficionado can go for several seasons without seeing one. This year, there was an indulto in both the French ferias I attended.

Still, bullfighting in the Midi pulses with a confidence that has suddenly faded in Spain. Indeed, one of the oddest consequences of the coronavirus is that the taurine centre of gravity has shifted north. Will the tender and tragic rite revive in its arid homeland? As the poet says, “Forward tho’ I canna see, I guess an’ fear.”

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