Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Spain’s vacillatory President Zapatero seems to be outdoing himself. Having announced market-pleasing budget cuts a few weeks ago, he’s now retracted on a chunk of them. Needless to say, this has not gone down well with said markets. On the other hand, he might just be shedding a bit of his misplaced Pollyanna optimism; he’s warned us that the third quarter numbers might not be good. Which suggests the Spanish economy is heading back into ‘negative growth’ territory. August is a good time to announce these things, of course, as virtually everyone is distracted by vacations and fiestas. So it’s unlikely his popularity rating will drop below that of the leader of the Opposition, Sr Rajoy. Even if his party is eight or nine points behind the latter’s in the polls.

It seems to me the Galicians can be rather English before switching to being totally Spanish. By which I mean they show quite a bit of reserve, for possibly years, before ditching it completely once you’ve “arrived”. I say this because one of the waitresses in my lunchtime tapas bar told me today that one of the other regulars has complained that I’m not responding as warmly as he’d like to his expressions of interest in what I’m reading and to his question as to whether I want any help with vocabulary. I am, he’s told her, “un hombre peculiar” and “un rata de biblioteca”. This is because I don’t leave off reading my newspaper when he greets me. Worse, I don’t always look him directly in the eye when I’m talking to him. And this from a man who didn’t acknowledge my existence for several years and who often doesn’t look up to greet me when I come in. But, anyway, I must endeavour to be more Spanish, now that he’s become so. Kisses tomorrow, then.

In like vein, the daughter of the owner of another favourite tapas bar has gone from offering me a single free glass of liqueur (un chupito) three months ago to now putting the entire bottle on the table and insisting I take as much of it as I want. And this after eight years or more of me going there every couple of weeks or so, during which it was quite difficult to get even a free smile out of anyone.

This may be hard to believe but, as I’ve been typing this, my nice-but-noisy neighbour, Toni, has arrived at my door with a gift of six red wine glasses (copas). His wife, he says, noted that I was down at the pool earlier this week, with friends, drinking decent Rioja from inappropriate glasses. So she bought me these. Leaving me rather lost for words.

But back, finally, to Spanish culture. Possibly not having left it. There was an interesting article by the British historian Henry Kamen in El País today. On . . . err . . . bullfighting. Here’s Google’s translation, tarted up by me. Even if you can’t face it, you should at least scroll down to the note at the end, for a smile.

“Considerations on the 'National Fiesta’ [bullfighting]”, by Henry Kamen 

The El Mundo editorial that commented on the ban on bullfighting in Catalonia was quite right when it declared “It is a prohibition that seeks only to punish Spain." The always-intelligent Luis Maria Anson in his Canela fina of 29 July spoke of the "politicisation" of the issue. There are valid reasons to ban the spectacle, for example, on grounds of cruelty to animals, but neither Carod-Rovira, nor the vast majority of Catalan deputies who voted in favour of banning the bulls stand out as supporters of the movement to protect animals. His motivation was none other than to attempt a blow against the dominance of Spain. The ban is essentially a political issue and can only be reversed through political means, in Barcelona or Madrid.

However, the proposal of the PP party to reverse the ban, by legally protecting the spectacle, is based on a totally wrong view of the role that the Fiesta has played in the culture of Spain. I do not know if Rajoy has studied the history of Spain, but before rushing towards a blind public defence of the corrida, he should reflect a little.

The symbolic battle in public between men and animals can be found in many cultures around the world and has been described in many famous works of art. It evolved as a struggle to affirm man's sexual superiority and there is evidence that it was practiced in the Mediterranean from very early times. The bull became the symbol of machismo, of power, of the male thirst for blood. However, contrary to what many writers have said in the press recently, bullfights were never the National Fiesta of Spain, any more than auto de fe was.

In the early years of modern times, the most famous kings of Spain opposed the corridas. Queen Isabella of Castile attended one and was so horrified she refused to attend another one. Charles V never went to them. Like his great-grandmother Elizabeth, Philip II did not like the corridas and generally avoided them, but he took no action to impose his preferences on the Spanish. Sometimes he banned the spectacle when specific communities requested this (as the citizens of Ocaña did in 1561).

On the other hand, when in 1566 the Madrid Cortes asked for a ban on all corridas in the kingdom (and, it is superfluous to say there was no Carod-Rovira in that session of parliament!), he refused to respond on grounds that it was a traditional custom, and he did not want to ban a popular spectacle. Surprisingly, however, he gave full freedom to those who wished to ban the spectacle in Castilla. In 1568, Spain allowed the publication of a papal decree in 1567 declaring the corridas unlawful. Personally, he hated them. On major holidays, he preferred to remain alone in the palace at work, while everyone else went to the bullfight. On the feast of San Juan, 1565, for example, there was a special corrida for the court. All the nobility attended it, but not the king. At perhaps the happiest moment of his life, his marriage to Anna of Austria in 1570, he forbade the celebration of a corrida as part of the planned festivities.

Bullfighting fans normally avoid referring to facts like those just mentioned. Maintaining, perhaps, that the Fiesta was universally popular and the hostility of the ruling elite was irrelevant. Unfortunately for them, the facts show that the corridas were not generally accepted in the country.

In the 18th. century the great reformer of Spain, the minister Jovellanos, took the first steps towards an examination of the state of bullfighting. Like other ministers who supported the Enlightenment, he called the bullfights violent and ferocious, and felt it was time for "ferocity" in Spain to cease being a civic virtue. Almost without exception the corrida was rejected by the educated elite and the Europeanised intellectuals. When, in 1767, Jovellanos requested a report on the spectacle, it turned out that corridas were regularly held in only 185 towns in Spain, which led to the conclusion it could not be considered a national activity. The government adopted a plan which proposed abolishing it within four years from the date of the report. In practice, Spanish inertia ensured that nothing was done until a 1786 law that banned it, but even then nothing happened and it had to be banned again four years later.

In the last years of the 18th. century, therefore, the corrida was by no means the National Fiesta of Spain. Jovellanos discovered that it was unknown in the entire northern half of the Peninsula, except for the Basque Country. As late as 1800, there were no bullfights in Cataluña, Galicia or Asturias. This is a fact that the Spaniards seem to ignore. The public was shaken out of its happy disobedience to the prohibition when a torero bled to death when he was gored in front of Queen Maria Luisa. In consequence, in 1805, Minister Godoy banned it again. In practice, however, it continued and, indeed, reached its peak, while the figure of the bull became a kind of symbol of Spanish identity.

What is indisputable, in view of these facts, is that it is the Government of Castilla – effectively that of Spain - which has most often banned bullfighting.

In Cataluña, everyone knows that the corrida has no roots in popular culture. It was introduced as a foreign import little more than a century ago and without any popular support. The current Barcelona bullring, the Monumental, was opened less than a century ago, namely in 1914. Even before that date, the lack of support for the corrida was obvious. The Catalans considered it a sign of the backwardness of Spain as regard Europe. Dr. Robert, Mayor of Barcelona, organized in 1901 a popular assembly in which he called for its abolition. Since then, there have been several attempts to introduce a ban, but all failed. Until now.

At one time or another, of course, the Governments of Spain, not only those of Cataluña, have tried to suppress popular spectacles of all kinds. In the 17th. century, the Madrid government banned the popular theatre, but only for a short time (Prohibitions "have never succeeded", admitted an official report of1672). The prohibitions affected many other leisure activities, but all without exception were a dead letter. One of the most interesting was that of the carnival, disobeyed from the moment it was pronounced. At the same time, opposition to the bulls was widespread among the educated classes in Castilla. Miguel de Unamuno said that flamenco, bullfighting and the operetta were "a plague" that, instead of teaching people to think, satisfied them with "absurdities and atrocities."

In other words, the world of popular entertainment was a battle between two political trends in Spain. This division still exists. The Catalan Socialists claim to support the measure because they want to defend animals. This is obviously false. But it is also a lie that the proponents of the corridas are defending a National Fiesta. Spain, and especially Castilla, have never had a truly national Fiesta - as previously noted, the governments of Castilla banned corridas more often than any other in the peninsula. The PP party, which seems to be defending the idea of a National Fiesta, should refrain from entering an arena where they will be defeated and where their leader may even lose an ear.

Let those who have inspired the ban come to terms with their own voters about abolishing a spectacle that really only has roots deep in the regions of Catalonia which vote socialist. 

Editor’s Note: One of the above sentences was translated by Google as “The public came out of his disobedience to the prohibitions happy when a torero bled because of a fuck to death in the eyes of the Queen Maria Luisa.” I was tempted to leave it in but decided against it. As you can see, Google haven’t quite cracked the challenge. Think of horns.


kalebeul said...

For someone living there, Kamen shows a quite extraordinary ignorance of Barcelona. Take "In Cataluña, everyone knows that the corrida has no roots in popular culture. It was introduced as a foreign import little more than a century ago and without any popular support." The uprising of 1835 began in the bullring in Barceloneta after a poor corrida, and in the first half of the 20th century Barcelona may have been the centre of the Spanish bullfighting industry in terms of public popularity, with two huge and magnificent rings (Arenas and Monumental), massive crowds, and, unlike Dr Robert and his moaning folkdancers, no public subsidies. The view among Catalan speakers north of the border that the corrida is a fundamental part of Catalan identity is a reminder of that period.

The corrida in its modern form was also an innovation for the rest of Spain in the early nineteenth century, which shared and continues to share with Catalonia many of the older means of upsetting bulls. The obvious example is the correbous/bull running, but the still legal "Catalan" practice of tying fireworks to bulls' horns and mobbing them is also found in several other zones. Carod's original power base was Tarragona, the province where this is most popular, so a ban is not expected any time soon.

Graeme said...

It seems fairly clear that Henry Kamen hasn't seen the voting figures for the Catalan ban on bullfighting. Only 3 out of 37 members of the PSC voted in favour. In the end it was the votes of right wing nationalists that secured the ban. Only to be expected from someone who describes Luis Maria Anson as 'always intelligent'.

Colin said...


Well, I guess he could have meant by "the vast majority" 2 out of the 3 socialists who voted for it.

Possibly . . .

Who is LMA??

Colin said...


So, your folk-dancers don't smile either.

I tried to watch them once but fell asleep before they got into their full routine. Assuming it differs from the catatonic intro.

Colin said...


Not quite right. I was delighted they were in bikinis. And with the fact that Spanish (Latin women generally?) are happy to accentuate their "secondary sexual characteristics". And seem not to care about the age of the admiring men whom it's meant to titillate. It's one of the joys of life here.

But I was, of course, deliberately alluding to the sense of guilt-plus-fear that is imbued in British men for doing what comes naturally, in looking (even briefly) at what is obviously meant to be looked at and admired.

The young ladies (being well brought up Spanish girls) naturally greeted me on my arrival and farewelled me as I left. And I'm sure they'd have chatted to me if I'd initiated a conversation.

Of course, the worst interpretation is that they thought I was so old and so past it that it wouldn't matter what they were (or weren't) wearing.

Can't be long now.

moscow said...

"secondary sexual characteristics????"
You got me there!

"deliberately alluding to the sense of guilt-plus-fear that is imbued in British men for doing what comes naturally"

That is exactly what I meant, your sense of delight was spoiled by guilt - even if as an afterthought.

The whole paragraph only has meaning for someone who knows British culture from the inside.
It is just totally off-beam anywhere else in Europe, Latin or not.

My last point, there is not only femenism at play here, but puritanic victorian(??) values as well.

Colin said...

1.I assure you I feel no guilt at all. Do you think I would write these comments publicly if I did. I grant you you may be right about lots of other Brits but not me.

2. I was brought up a Catholic. In a religion which has guilt at its heart. I shed this, too, a long time ago.

moscow said...

Sorry, I just can't get over how unreconstructed British you still are...after all these years.......titillate? For wearing a bikini? I thought they were in the pool.....What were they supposed to be wearing? You have to take flight to Moscow before the summer ends. If you think wearing a hundrum bikini is titillating you've seen nothing yet. That is if you can see anything at all through Moscow's thick smog....

Colin said...

There you go again looking for evidence of your pre-conceptions. My use of the word referred to the general situation. What is worn on the street, in the bars, etc. As I've said dozens of times over the years, I'm making no complaint about this. But titillation is what it certainly is.

And it's not compulsory to wear bikinis at at pool. Happay as I am that they do.

Please to hear that things are even better elsewhere. Though I knew this was the case with Brazilian beaches. Though maybe you don't see tangas as titillation either. Just something uncomfortable that women with nice rears accidentally pluck from the wardrobe as they rush out to the beach. But which women with ugly rears usually don't.

Search This Blog