When I was young my mother would embarrass me by playing the piano and singing. I decided that what had made me squirm was her flamboyant singing and playing style. Then there was her repertoire, mostly the works of Sigmund Romberg and Victor Herbert, coupled with the fact that she was out of character, engaged outside her usual activities of cooking, cleaning, shopping and gardening. Apart from launching me straight into the adult passion and drama of The Merry Widow and The Desert Song, she was forever repeating the same pieces of advice – ‘Never argue with a man in a peaked cap’, ‘You can always trust a man who smokes a pipe’, ‘ Never hit a woman, even with a feather’ and, each day before she released me into the arms of the kindergarten staff, ‘Never take anything that’s not yours, not even another boy’s pencil’. Another repeated instruction, ‘Look both ways’ was clearly related to road safety but as time passed I found a deeper meaning. This is how homes, rather than schools, make us what we are. Observance of my mother’s aphorisms, coupled with an absence of tattoos and facial hair, could get you a long way in those times. My father’s regular instruction – ‘Keep your head down’, turned out to be merely a golfing tip.

In 1956, when I was fifteen, my mother caused me further embarrassment by taking me to Spain. A boy alone on holiday with his mother was an unthinkable situation, one that could subject him to all sorts of unmerciful mockery by his schoolfellows, even though my own excuse was solid enough, for my sister had married and flown the nest and my father had moved into digs where he could drink in peace. ‘He’s been called to the Bar’, my mother informed me.

Our destination was Sitges, an unspoilt fishing village near Barcelona in a Spain still firmly under Franco’s fist, where divorce, abortion, contraception and homosexuality were forbidden. Spanish wives would have to wait until Franco’s death in 1975 before the law of permiso marital, whereby a wife required her husband’s permission to work, own property and travel, was revoked. A visit by President Eisenhower in 1953 and admission to the United Nations two years later had lightened the place up a bit with a trickle of tourism, but in 1956 even the quiet beaches of Sitges were patrolled regularly by grim-faced members of the Guardia Civil carrying rifles and wearing those silly hats that looked like patent leather ladies’ handbags.

You may think that the age of exploration came to an end when John Hanning Speke stumbled across the source of the Nile in 1858, but a hundred years later Spain was relatively unknown to tourism. The last, large group of foreign visitors had been members of the Foreign Brigade fighting for the Republican cause during the Civil War. That’s all changed. I doubt that today Heinrich Schliemann and a team of archaeologists could find any remnants of the Sitges I visited in 1956. Perhaps someday an old fisherman’s hut will be uncovered as they drill the foundations of a new multi-storey car park.

My mother was an efficient tour guide; we watched some flamenco and visited the Benedictine Abbey at Monserrat and the Cistercian Abbey of Santa Maria at Poblet, where the elaborately carved effigies of the Kings of Aragon have a lion at their feet and those of their Queens, a dog. That’s all changed. Alone one evening, I came across a capea. In a village square, in a makeshift wooden corral, young men were teasing a young bull, risking death or at least a goring to impress a girl or perhaps as the beginning of an apprenticeship on the way to becoming one of the 800 or so licenced matadors. Rather like Go-Karting before stepping up to Formula I.

One morning we took the train into Barcelona. Sitting opposite was a young woman with a babe in arms. Without a glance at the gaping jaw of the schoolboy facing her, the young mother casually unbuttoned her blouse and bared a single breast for her child’s mid-morning suckle. This was the first time I had seen a live breast and it was nothing like the pale, roseate-tipped, entertainment tits displayed by Marilyn in the centrefold of the Playboy magazine hidden under the floorboards in my bedroom. This was a working tit, olive and opulent, bursting with nourishment and covered with a road map of blue veins. The invisible mechanism that inscribes events into our cerebellum etched that breast deep and it still remains in my eternal catalogue of notable breasts, along with the tragic dugs of Van Gogh’s Sorrow and the aforementioned calendar tits belonging to Marilyn Monroe.

After some shopping and lunching, at five in the afternoon, when the sun had lost much its intensity, we joined the crowds at La Monumental, the principal arena of Barcelona. It was my first bullfight and like the breast, I never forgot it. The sand, the red wooden barriers, the boxes and galleries draped with shawls, the matadors in their traje de luces (suits of light)entering the ring, the brass band playing the pasodoble, and then what I have seen described as ‘A dance with death before killing a bull in a ritual sacrifice that appeared before language’. As is the custom for a full corrida, six bulls were killed by three matadors. I remember their names because I took home a poster of the event and it stayed on my school study wall for two years. They were Luis Miguel Dominguin, Antonio Ordoñez and Paco Camino.

When you are young life is a series of love affairs. Back at school my new loves, distinct but inseparable, were Spain, bullfighting, Ava Gardner and Ernest Hemingway. Whatever I read about Spain at the time, only For Whom the Bell Tolls and the Civil War memoirs of George Orwell (Homage to Catalonia) remain fresh. In those pre-internet times bullfighting and the careers of my new heroes were hard to follow. Interestingly, if I was so lucky to find a Spanish newspaper, it was not in the sports but in the arts section, among theatre and opera, that I would find news of fights or matadors. If there had been a Religious section the reports might well have been there.

Ava was a Hemingway woman, even before she met him – a drinker and brawler, feisty, insecure and highly intelligent. Her mere presence caused men to drink too much and fight. Not someone you would choose to mind the kids. She was witty too. Arriving in Sydney in 1959 she announced that she was there to make a film (On the Beach) about the end of the world, adding ‘and this sure is the place for it’.

After filming The Sun Also Rises with Tyrone Power and Errol Flynn and divorcing Frank in 1957, Ava continued to carve some illustrious names on her bedposts: David Niven, Robert Mitchum, Clark Gable, Steve McQueen, Marlon Brando to name a few. President John F Kennedy, (how did he have time to run the country??), managed to fit her in to his conga line of extra marital conquests. Claude Terrail, owner of La Tour d’Argent pulled out after a year claiming ‘she was too dangerous’. It was inevitable that she and Hemingway would become friends. The author was smitten. After witnessing her swimming naked in the pool of his Cuban villa he ordered that the water never be changed.

Hemingway, with DH Lawrence and Lord Byron, is one of the few writers whose personal lives matched the gravitas and reach of their own novels and poetry. Hemingway was also the ‘go to’ guy for bullfighting. His second novel, ‘The Sun Also Rises’, written while he was living in Paris and published in 1926, was about American and British ex-pats travelling to the Festival of San Fermin in Pamplona. ‘Death in the Afternoon’, published in 1932, was and still is, the ultimate guide to bullfighting.  

And it’s author  invented a cocktail to go with it:

‘Pour one jigger of absinthe into a champagne glass. Add iced champagne until an opalescent milkiness is obtained. Drink three or four slowly’.

You need to read Hemingway’s guide to understand the ritual and to be able to judge the degree of skill and bravery required in the performance of the various passes with cape or muleta – including the natural, the de pecho, the remate and of course the veronica, named after the Saint who wiped Christ’s face with a cloth. The passes are designed to turn the bull and stop him dead in his tracks, to lame and tire him and to bring down the carriage of his head for the moment of truth. You need to be Spanish to understand how pride, the strongest characteristic of the race, and pundonor (honour) take precedence over a fighter’s technical and balletic brilliance when evaluating his performance. Failing to kill the bull is more easily accepted than a show of cowardice.

If you are thinking that Hemingway was oblivious to the brutality, then read this statement from the first page of the book. ‘I suppose, from a modern moral point of view, that is a Christian point of view, the whole bullfight is indefensible; there is certainly much cruelty, there is always danger, either sought or unlooked for, and there is always death, and I should not try to defend it now, only to tell honestly the things I have found to be true about it’.
If you are thinking that Hemingway’s guide is some ‘Bullfighting for Dummies’, let his brief description of Ronda tell you it is not. ‘The bullring is at the end of a hot, wide dusty street that runs into the heat from the cool forest shade of the town, and the professional cripples and horror and pity inspirers that follow the fairs of Spain line this road, wagging stumps, exposing sores, waving monstrosities and holding out their caps in their mouths when they have nothing left to hold them with, so that you walk a dusty gauntlet between two rows of horrors to the ring. The town is Velasquez to the edge and then straight Goya to the bull ring’.

In 1959 a now aging Dominguin emerged from retirement to reclaim his former glory as the greatest matador in Spain by entering into a series of mano a mano duels with his brother in law Antonio Ordoñez. Their rivalry was recorded by Hemingway in a series of articles for Life magazine, later published in book form as The Dangerous Summer in 1985. James Michener wrote the foreword. ‘This is a book about death written by a lusty, sixty year old man who had reason to fear that his own death was imminent. It is also a loving account of his return to those heroic days when he was young and learning about life in the bull rings of Spain.’

Unlike the rivalry between the arrogant Ronaldo and the dribbling Messi, which is easily decided on goal count, picking the winner between Dominguin and Ordoñez was more difficult. Hemingway gave it to Ordoñez; other professional critics were divided. Dominguin was gored at Malaga and Bilbao; Ordoñez at Aranjuez. Being gored is not prejudicial like a knock down in boxing and when Ordoñez was carried, wounded, from the ring he took with him the bull’s tail, both ears and a hoof, all signs of public approval for his courage and artistry. Rather like a standing ovation at the opera or ladies throwing their undies at Tom Jones. Ms Ordoñez would probably have preferred a piece of fillet; after all, post-fight the bull is butchered and the meat given to the poor, which is why all arenas are registered as abattoirs under Spanish and EU law.

Many things we feel important and eternal at the time are most often short lived in retrospect. In 1968 Ava moved into 34 Ennismore Gardens, a quiet part of London’s Kensington, where she remained, alone, wheezing and pigeon-breasted from emphysema, until her death in 1990. She was sixty seven. “You can sum up my life in a sentence, honey. She made movies, she made out, she made a fucking mess of her life. But she never made jam”. In 1998 the mayor of Tossa unveiled a bronze sculpture of Ava in her Pandora role. What would the world be without women who don’t make jam? Two years after the dangerous summer, Hemingway took his own life. He was sixty one. Ronda, perhaps the true capital of bullfighting, has its Paseo E Hemingway. Dominguin retired but returned to the ring in 1971 when he was forty five. His comeback fight was at Las Palmas in the Canaries and he wore a traje de luces in pale viridian and gold, created for him by Picasso.

Picasso and Dominguin

It is 2018 and I am with Honeybee in the city of Nimes. Near the Arena, which still hosts bullfights, we visit the Musee des Cultures Taurines (Museum of Bull Culture) to see an exhibition entitled ‘Picasso Dominguin – Une Amitié – a friendship that Jean Cocteau initiated when he organised a meeting between the two in 1951. It was Dominguin who supplied the text for Picasso’s book ‘Toros y Toreros, Drawings and Paintings’ published in 1961. The exhibition included many of Picasso’s works inspired by the corrida as well as photographs of the artist and the matador, but the pièce de resistance is that viridian and gold ‘suit of lights’ designed by the artist for the matador. Picasso was born in Malaga and his father introduced him, at an early age, to the bullfights. His first drawing (at the age of eight) was of a picador. He also produced a series of drawings of bulls. Beginning with lifelike images, Picasso gradually reduces his bull to a few geometric strokes. Amazingly but unsurprisingly the final, purely linear works have an uncanny resemblance to the bulls drawn nineteen thousand years ago on the walls of caves at Lascaux and Roc de Sers in France. I left the museum with this thought, but what I had seen at the exhibition also reminded me of Sitges and my mother and Ernest Hemingway and Ava Gardner and the fights and that breast.




“The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things that you’d thought special, particular to you. And here it is, set down by someone else, a person you’ve never met, maybe even someone long dead. And it’s as if a hand has come out and taken yours.”
Hector in Alan Bennett’s play “The History Boys”

Not so long ago there lived a generation of children in a world without television and Playstations, without DVD-players, iPods or mobile ‘phones and, as a consequence, these children spent much of their time out of doors, playing in their backyards and gardens or in the parks and in the streets, for in those days not every male stranger was considered a possible pedophile, there was no fear of melanoma and the traffic was sparser and slower. In the evenings children would do their homework, build and paint airplanes from kits, stick postage stamps into albums, listen to the radio and read. Most of them developed their early reading skills from the bubble encapsulated words of the characters that featured in the vast selection of comics like Beano, Captain Marvel, Eagle or Girl, progressing to the weekly, story-only Hotspur or Wizard. After that there was Enid Blyton, even now, a half century after her death, the fifth most translated author in history after Disney, Agatha Christie, Jules Verne and Shakespeare. Enid, born in Lordship Lane, East Dulwich, a ten minute walk from my grandparent’s house in Court Lane was, even in the 1950’s, considered by some to be politically incorrect and a purveyor of trivia, but she was the children’s choice and the bookshelves in my bedroom carried not only my collection of The Famous Five but my sister’s hand me downs such as “The Children of Cherry Tree Farm.” There were other books, but Grimm’s dark and sinister “Fairy Tales”, Charles Kingsley’s “The Heroes” and R M Ballantyne’s “Martin Rattler” are those that stick in the mind.

Books bind us closer together. The right books enrich your life. Some books, especially those you enjoyed in your early years, will stay with you forever. Even as I sit here writing I see Jason leaping from the bows of the Argo into the arms of the women of Lemnos, the Walker children steering The Swallow towards Wild Cat Island, Long John Silver standing parrot-shouldered on the poop deck of the Hispaniola, and Buffalo Bill locked in hand-to-hand combat with Yellow Hand.

Anyway, it’s Christmas and a time of gifts, and in my book, there’s no better present than a book. My local bookseller’s holiday catalogue is bung full of new novels, many of which will have been written after a week’s writing course in Ireland and destined to be remaindered in early January. Here are three novels and a book of short stories that will still be around in a hundred years. First editions will be difficult unless you are Donald Trump, but definitely no Kindles, for the attraction of books is also in the handling of them, their smell, the bookplates and inscriptions of past owners and finding that Paris metro ticket you used as a bookmark twenty years ago.

Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West
Cormac McCarthy 1985

In 2010 Wyoming legislation was changed to admit the principles of “Cowboy Ethics”. The new law, which carries no criminal penalties if broken, spells out 10 ethics singled out by Texas author James Owen in his “Code of the West”. The State of Wyoming now admonishes residents and lawmakers to live courageously, take pride in their work, finish what they start, do what’s necessary, be tough but fair, keep promises, ride for the brand, talk less and say more, remember that some things aren’t for sale and know where to draw the line. Although these seem principles that could stem from any civilized society, I can understand the cowboy association. In fact, when my son left home to spend six months overseas with a strange family, he took with him a similar, Western-slanted, letter of advice from his father.

Remember you are a cowboy’s son. We are tough and resilient. We can ride alone for days through unforgiving country or we can join with like spirits to defend our home and families from marauding bandits. We are always prepared; we look after our ponies and saddles and keep our six-shooters in good order so that we can do our job properly. On the trail we can mess down with the roughest roughnecks; in town we can sup at The Golden Slipper without embarrassing the Mayor’s daughter who loves us for our panache. We fear no man because we know that courage itself is a more powerful deterrent to our enemies than our trusty Colt. We are honest, straightforward and uncomplicated, but not naïve. We are not surprised by the knife in the boot or the guile of the bushwacker. We help the weak and stand by our friends. We love women because they are on earth to be loved. But if we are alone on the trail we take our pleasure from the bounty the world offers, be it from the journey itself, from the sip of whiskey at sundown or the knowledge that you are young and alive and a cowboy.  

These were the rules left in the psyche of two or three generations by the great volume of Western literature and films ground out from the mid-nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century, mostly stories of hardship in a beautiful but uncompromising land. Gradually, from the 1960’s the mythology of the period was exposed by books like “Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee” and films like “Soldier Blue”, although the whole question of the “American Dream” had already been questioned by Scott Fitzgerald in that finest of novels, The Great Gatsby. We now see that the future envisioned by the pioneers as they rolled their wagons Westward has been surrendered for a world of soulless communities, fast food, insincere commercial cheeriness, red-neck obstinacy and silicon breasts. From the plains of Kansas to the canyons of Wall Street.

It has been Cormac McCarthy’s lot (with some help from Larry McMurtry and Pete Dexter) to restore some of the grandeur and dignity to the West. Blood Meridian, a story of violence and slaughter based on the true history of the Glanton Gang, a bunch of scalp hunters operating on the Tex/Mex border in the mid 19th Century, has all the beauty and horror of a Hieronymus Bosch painting, the writing almost Old Testament in its blunt purity and intensity. Moving forward in time McCarthy produced his “Border Trilogy”, novels that trace the movement and fortunes of men and horses across the hard land that was “No Country for Old Men”.

Boule de Suif and Other Stories
Guy de Maupassant 1880

Lack of sex played a big part in a school boarder’s days and nights. There were the occasional glimpses of the Burser’s secretary, her clicking heels echoing down the cloisters, but fantasies were mainly fed by the literature available in the School or House libraries where certain passages from seemingly harmless books were singled out to provide some level of erotic stimulus. Charlie and Rose’s moment of passion on the deck of the African Queen from CS Forester’s book of the same name springs to mind. But there was one book in the library that, without containing any overt descriptions of sexuality, provided a special kind of titillation. The title story takes place during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 where ten citizens from Rouen, deciding to flee the conflict by coach to Le Havre, unwittingly enter enemy occupied territory and are placed under indefinite house, or rather Inn, arrest until such time as one of the captured party – Elizabeth Rousset, a plump, attractive prostitute (Boule de Suif or “Suet Dumpling”) – agrees to sleep with the Prussian’s commanding officer. At first Elizabeth refuses, exercising her right to sleep with whom she chooses and declining the Prussian’s offer out of patriotism. The other passengers, who represent a cross section of French society, from the petit-bourgeois Loiseau to the aristocratic Comte de Breville, eventually tire of their detention and, using every form of argument, persuade Elizabeth to surrender herself so that they can continue their journey. Having given herself to the Prussian officer and once aboard the coach Boule de Suif is rudely ostracized by her hypocritical fellow passengers. “She felt herself swallowed up in the scorn of these virtuous creatures, who had first sacrificed, then rejected her as a thing useless and unclean.” There are great similarities between this story and Ernest Haycox’s “Stage to Lordsburg”, filmed by John Ford in 1939 as “Stagecoach” with Claire Trevor playing the Boule de Suif role.

In another story, “A Day in the Countryside”, Monsieur Dufour, a shopkeeper, and his family spend a day on the banks of the Marne near Argenteuil. Two cynical young men that the family meets in a restaurant plan to seduce Madame Dufour and her daughter Henriette. While Monsieur Dufour and Anatole, his shop assistant, fish, Madame Dufour flirts with one of the young men and Henriette falls in love with his friend Henri. The whole interlude by the river is infused by the sleepy lushness of the countryside, the idle hum of bees, a languorous sensuality. On the family’s return to Paris Henriette yields to her parents’ petit bourgeois expectations and marries Anatole, condemning herself to life in a loveless marriage.

De Maupassant fought in the Franco-Prussian war, saved Swinburne from drowning and was a protégée of Flaubert through whom he became acquainted with Zola, Turgenev and Henry James. He died, fittingly as a chronic womanizer, of syphilis at the age of 43.

Across The River and into the Trees
Ernest Hemingway 1950

Hemingway had very firm views as to how a man should live. His main characters were men of action, much like himself – uncomplicated, knowledgeable and philosophical about the craft involved in the violent lives they had chosen, whether it was soldiering, bull-fighting or big-game fishing. Knowing how to face death was also part of that code. Confederate General Thomas (“Stonewall”) Jackson’s attitude to death must have impressed him for they are Jackson’s last words –“Let us cross over the river and rest under the trees” – that provide the book’s title. In what many consider to be one of his less successful books, fifty year old Colonel Cantwell looks back on his recent involvement in WW2 and his passionate affair with a young Venetian Contessa as he hunts for duck in the marshes near Trieste. Knowing that the next round of heart attacks will finish him, he climbs into the back of his staff car and calmly sets his affairs in order before the final hammer blow takes his life. Although The Old Man and the Sea won Hemingway the Pulitzer in 1952, the seeds of his decline are already evident in “Across the River”. Dogged by health problems, alcoholism and depression Hemingway staggered through the last 10 years of his life until one July morning in1961 he walked out onto the front porch of his home in Ketchum, Idaho, and blew his brains out with his favourite shot-gun. It was, says Janet Flanner (1) ‘a permissible act of liberation from whatever humiliating bondage on earth could no longer be borne with self-respect.”

At his best and even with his hard pruned language, Hemingway managed to communicate layers of feeling that more verbose writers never achieve. “In his writing,” says Flanner “his descriptions of the color of deep sea water beside his boat or of the trout’s fins in the pool where he angled were like reports from the pupil of his eyes transferred by his pen onto his paper.” While many famous novelists remain faceless, their personalities and lives seemingly incompatible with their writings, Hemingway himself intrigued as much as his characters. I made the island-hopping pilgrimage to Key West; on evenings at the Closerie des Lilas in Montparnasse I would seek out the chair with its little brass plaque recording the writer’s patronage in the 1950s and in a bar in Genoa I met a man who had competed in (and won) a drinking competition with the author. It was clear from the care with which he pulled a creased and fading photograph of himself and Hemingway from his wallet just what the encounter meant to him.

Venice in autumn has that melancholic gravitas that suited Colonel Cantwell’s tragic end. Harry’s Bar and the countryside of the Po delta also figured in my story with Honeybee but the outcome, fortunatamente, has been somewhat happier.

1. Janet Flanner. American journalist based at “Les Deux Magots” from the early twenties when she began writing her “Letter from Paris” for “The New Yorker” under the pen-name Genet. Member of the Left Bank American colony, which included Hemingway, Gertrude Stein and Scott Fitzgerald.

James Joyce 1922

This is an interesting book, not just because of its place in the history of English literature as the first truly Modernist novel but also because of its difficult and exotic birth. Although his greatest book is set in the city of his birth, Joyce spent nearly all of his life in self-exile working as a journalist, writer and English teacher in Paris, Trieste and Zurich. It was in Zurich during WW1 that he first began work on “Ulysses”, which follows a day in the life of Leopold Blum as he wanders through Dublin, carousing with his mates, whoring, arguing, his peregrinations roughly following a contracted version of the journeys of Odysseus and Jason. In its allusions, puns and ribaldry it has echoes of Rabelais. Between 1918 and 1920 excerpts of the book were serialized in “The Little Review” in America where the rude bits, catching the attention of the authorities, resulted in the book being banned. In need of money Joyce turned to a Pastor’s daughter from New Jersey who had arrived in Paris in 1917 and opened a bookshop called Shakespeare & Company in the rue de l’Odeon. Sylvia Beach worked tirelessly, finding subscribers, organizing the printing in Dijon, and on 2nd February 1922, Joyce’s birthday, she presented the Irishman with the first two copies of “Ulysses”, bound in blue Morocco and printed on white Dutch paper. The book was an instant sensation. Janet Flanner was enthusiastic; “In its unique qualities, in 1922 it burst over us, young in Paris, like an explosion in print whose words and phrases fell upon us like a gift of tongues, like a less than holy Pentecostal experience.” Not everyone approved; Gertrude Stein and her companion Alice B Toklas both cancelled their subscriptions to Sylvia’s bookshop.

The book, which almost caused Sylvia’s financial ruin, immediately made Joyce a rich man and even richer in 1932 when Random House paid him an advance of forty-five-thousand dollars when the ban on the book’s US publication was finally lifted. Sylvia, who has her own footnote in literary history, never begrudged the fact that Joyce did not as much as tell her about his good fortune. “I understood” she later wrote “from the first that, working with or for Mr. Joyce, the pleasure was mine – an infinite pleasure, the profits were for him.”

Physical love is hard to write about in fiction; it can sound crude or self-conscious and even famous writers can fail. These last lines of Ulysses, from the longest sentence in English literature, leave you saying yes, this is how it should be.

“…and O that awful deep-down torrent O and the sea the sea crimson sometimes like fire and the glorious sunsets and the fig trees in the Alameda gardens yes and all the queer little streets and pink and blue and yellow houses and the rose gardens and the jessamine and geraniums and cactuses and Gibraltar as a girl where I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will yes