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before the law of permiso marital, whereby a wife required her husband’s permission to work, own property and travel, was revoked.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.
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.