AS perhaps the only Oxford-educated bullfighter in history, Alexander Fiske-Harrison is not a man easily scared.
As reported in yesterday’s Oxford Mail his talk at Blackwell’s in Broad Street scheduled this week had to be postponed following “a credible threat” from an animal rights extremist.
But facing death threats, he insists, are nothing compared to facing a bull in a ring.
The 35-year-old Oxford-based writer spent two years in Spain’s heartland of bullfighting, hanging out with matadors and breeders, talking with fans – and ultimately training to fight bulls himself.
His book Into The Arena: The World of the Spanish Bullfight was hailed as the most engaging study of bullfighting since Hemingway’s Death In the Afternoon.
Arguably, he took his passion for blood and sand significantly further than the Nobel-winning novelist. For his book ends with Mr Fiske-Harrison plunging a sword into a three-year-old bull, killing the animal at the third attempt, watched by 100 people.
He may have emerged from the ring without injury but his bid “to understand the bullfight at its deepest levels” is presenting new dangers back home in Oxford, where he has received nearly 30 death threats.
But he is showing no inclination to step out of the ring, having already accepted an invitation to attend a conference at Easter on the future of bullfighting in Seville.
Ironically, Mr Fiske-Harrison says he first came to Oxford University to study zoology because of his love of animals.
But a family outing to a bullfight at the age of 23 on his first trip to Spain changed everything, turning him into an obsessive fan of the blood sport and one of its most articulate English defenders.
His dislike of laboratories had led Mr Fiske-Harrison, a student at St Peter’s College, to switch to PPE. As well as working as a journalist, he wrote a play The Pendulum.
Mr Fiske-Harrison needed little persuading when his literary agent suggested a book on bullfighting.
He accepts that his research into the experience of the matador simply went further than he expected. “The world of the bullfight had drawn me into its heart. I decided that I must represent the world of the bullfight as it is. And the only way to do that, I decided, was to go over the horns, sword in hand.”
The training, the passes, the aching muscles are described in detail but it is the chilling account of the bullfight, staged in a ring on a farm, that lingers in the memory.
The bull was younger and lighter than the animals fought by professional matadors. Its end is not swift with the sword point twice striking bone. When the sword is plunged in behind the proper killing spot, the writer is convulsed with dread that he has injured the bull horribly but not killed it. He describes what happens next: “The people in the crowd were calling me to gesture as the matadors gesture for victory. For the bull was dying. I could see his legs shaking now. However, the idea of bouncing on my toes and gesturing outwards with my hands, to demand that the bull die on my command as real matadors do, I simply could not bring myself to enact. It seemed to me it would be crowing over a fallen enemy.
“All I could do was watch his slow and inexorable descent into darkness. He fell, first to his fore-knees, then to the floor. He never let out a cry, nor any signal of despair, just the slow shutting down of control.”
So how did he feel afterwards? “I was washed over with the feeling of what I had done. It was a thousand things at once. Guilt, shame happiness, elation, pride, vanity, and a profound grief and loneliness. I felt that I knew him, that I had got to know him in the moments before his death. ”
Robert Pittam, a life-long opponent of bullfighting, believes the Oxford writer’s philosophical journey “is nothing more than a monumental ego trip”.
“Regardless of the cunning sophistry of the bullfight apologists, one single moral question persists,” says Mr Pittam. “Can it ever be right to torment, mutilate and torture a captive animal for human pleasure? “ But it seems Mr Fiske-Harrison is considering fighting more bulls, with another nine needed to secure a novices’ licence.
“I don’t know if I can do that,” he said. “It will take a lot of time and it is terribly dangerous. But it feels unfinished. It is a subject that does not easily let go. Everyone has a limit to what they can do in the ring. I don’t know what mine is.”