“Carlos Sainz: The ‘Matador’ who would not give up,” declared the BBC website, “Carlos Sainz can now assume the ‘El Matador’ nickname of his daredevil rally champion father, as F1 witnesses a tenacious drive.” Of course, were Sainz a matador and not a Formula 1 driver, BBC Sports would not mention him, and elsewhere on their website he would probably be roundly condemned.
The only bull ring I have ever entered is a shopping centre in Birmingham, but one cannot but notice the enduring popularity of bullfighting. It might be banned in Catalunya, but in much of Spain and across much of southern France, bullfighting is part of popular culture. As far east as the ancient city of Arles in Provence, corridas take place as part of local festivals.
If the bravery of Carlos Sainz is thought of as something to be acknowledged by the title “matador”, someone in the BBC must regard bullfighters as brave people. It seems an opinion widely shared.
Once I managed to discuss a bullfight with an Englishman who had attended the corrida in the French town of Dax, where there is a huge annual feria. During the six days some 800,000 people visit the town for the festivities, which do extend beyond bull fighting, but the ring is the culmination of each day’s activities. Tickets for each evening are snapped up. There is even a scoring system which seems to run from silence, through a salute, one ear, and two ears, and culminates with a tail. The feria is a sea of Basque colours, everyone dresses in white shirts and trousers and wears a red neckerchief. The Englishman, answered my question about what happened if you felt awkward about turning up not properly dressed. “They have even thought of that – you can buy a white tee shirt and red neckerchief for €13.” He had been lucky to get a ticket, for which he had paid €40 to a tout, but had been mystified that its face value was considerably cheaper than those of his friends. Reaching the ring, he discovered that while they were in the shade; he caught the full force of the late afternoon sun, leaving him as red as the neckerchiefs the next morning. “The last time I go to a bullfight,” he muttered. He never told me about the bullfight itself.
What seems strange in looking at newspaper pictures is that the ring seems a place for all the family; the crowd seem to comprise thousands of people of all ages. Perhaps they grow up with a less sensitive disposition than their peers in Northern Europe.The feria in Dax brings to the ring tens of thousands of people, along with choirs and bands; the atmosphere must be extraordinary.
It always seems sad to a sentimental Englishman that such a vibrant occasion is marred by the killing of animals. In “Death in the Afternoon”, American writer Ernest Hemingway saw bullfighting as an elemental expression of life and death; it seems a refined view of something more visceral. But when once expressing reservations, a friend asked me if I had ever been to an abbatoir. Perhaps we each have our own ways of cruelty. But perhaps in the future a “matador” will only be the description of a brave racing driver.