Three Days in Málaga
I got my bulls in early this year, in Valencia and Madrid. For various reasons, we couldn’t have our usual taurine summer. But I did manage to squeeze in three days in Málaga, to coincide with the appearance there of José Tomás. Such is the man’s fame that it seems otiose to talk of him having “cartel” anywhere in particular. But Málaga was a ring where he appeared often during the 1990s, and was one of the few plazas he favoured with an appearance during his come-back season of 2007. The malagueños adore him.
Málaga isn’t a popular feria for British aficionados. The opportunity costs are high: it clashes with Dax, Béziers and the back-to-back San Sebastián–Bilbao fortnight. And, of course, it’s devilishly hot in August. The corridas start at 7.30 pm, which makes them just about bearable. But, if you’re in Sol or Sol-y-Sombra, you’ll be drenched with sweat before the end of the paseo.
Still, Málaga is cheap and easy to get to, and its inhabitants – once you penetrate their dialect – are as amiable as any in Spain. As a public, they tend to favour drama over classicism; but they are a discerning bunch, and punish anything they perceive to be false or gimcrack. Over three days, I watched two terrible strings and one decent one. But, overall, there was more than enough emotion to make the visit worthwhile.
18th August: Bulls of San Miguel for Matías Tejela, Alejandro Talavante and Daniel Luque
Without the bulls, there can be no drama. All sorts of things might be going on that are noteworthy, unusual, even educational. But if the bulls won’t charge, the evening will slither past you without ever really connecting.
These bulls, by San Miguel, were among the worst I’ve watched: cowardly, weak, lazy and petulant. Their lack of breeding was evident from the moment they sauntered out of the toril, trembling, fidgeting, lowering. The cuadrillas edged closer and closer in an effort to get them moving, in one case coming as far as the inner chalk-line before the animal responded. I half-expected that bull, the fourth, to sit down and sniff flowers, Ferdinand-like. (I managed to keep that wretched book out of my house until my elder child was five, when a friend slipped her a copy. Happily, it has had the effect of making her more interested in the fiesta.)
The sheer dullness of the string served to rob the evening of any colour; even though, viewed objectively, some mildly interesting things occurred. There was, for example, a fight in the gradas, which initially involved two people, but pulled in more and more until a good half dozen had to be carted off by the local constabulary. (I would love to believe that the fight was over a difference of taurine opinion, but they didn’t look the type.) There were two earsplitting broncas, both aimed at Talavante, who gave up trying to kill his first bull after much dreich hewing with the descabello: I lost count after his twelfth attempt. When the third aviso sounded, the bull was called over to the nearest burladero and puntillado: to make matters even worse for the hapless matador, it dropped instantly, as though the knifeman had flicked a switch.
I was in Sol, in Tendido 6 – which seemed roughly the demographic equivalent of Tendido 7 in Madrid, or perhaps Tendido 8. My neighbours were gruff, middle-aged, pot-bellied men, with such strong Andalusian accents that their consonants had disappeared altogether, creating the weird impression, until you tuned in properly, that they were speaking Finnish. The chap next to me was genial and loud. He came originally from Extremadura, he said, and regularly wrote taurine poems for his countryman, Miguel Ángel Perera, which he then posted on buladerodos.
As he spoke, I felt a memory tolling upwards from the depths like the bell of a sea-drowned church. “You don’t post as El Escorpio or somesuch, do you?” “Yes! Yes! Naranjoescorpio!” He exulted in his international recognition, and spent several minutes loudly telling the rest of the Tendido about it.
He was at his happiest, though, when given cause to protest about something. So were the rest of the stand. And, of course, the wretched animals before us gave them plenty of cause for righteous complaint. “Hands up! This is a stick-up!” they chanted in unison, and “We’re a first class ring, not third class”.
“Is this really a first class ring?” I asked.
“’Course it bloody is,” said the fellow in front of me (I translate loosely).
“No it ain’t; it’s second,” said a voice from behind.
“First, I tell ya. Since four years ago or somefin.”
“Nah, nah, according to the Reglamiento, the first class rings is…”
“Stop talkin’ out yer arse…”
If you’re wondering why I’ve said so little about the matadors, it’s because there is little to say. Tejela killed with a full sword each time – beautifully the first time, hideously the second – but had no opportunity to do anything more. Talavante tried to win back the crowd’s sympathy by ostentatiously crossing to cite to the opposite horn. You know how he does it: lots of little fairy sidesteps. But whereas this might well have worked on Tendido 7 in Madrid, whose denizens often seem to regard crossing as the be-all and end-all of toreo, it left their malagueño equivalents quite cold. Daniel Luque, whose first bull was the only one to approximate aggressive behaviour, managed some decent circular series on both sides. The crowd, wishing to punish Talavante further, and never slow to cheer an Andalusian, gave him an ear for each bull (evidently forgetting that, on the sixth, they had been threatening to murder his abusive picador while Luque looked on).
The only moments of beauty came with Luque’s verónicas, which he delivered as tenderly and slowly as if raising his bride’s veil in church. My genial extremeño neighbour told me that Luque would be substituting for the young Cordobés on Wednesday, which cheered me up considerably. Luque’s passes and, even more, his lances are ever soft, gentle and low: an excellent thing in a matador.
19th August: Peñajara for El Cid, Sébastien Castella and Miguel Ángel Perrera
I had thought no bulls could be as worthless as the San Miguels of the previous night; but these Peñajaras were excruciating. I’ve noticed that, when taurine critics want to be kind about dire bulls, they describe them as “desiguales de juego”. Well, there was nothing desigual about this lot. They all exhibited the same tendencies, being high-horned, handsome, hesitant and halting. The only animal to rise above mediocrity was the second substitute (and last bull), a Jaralta. The rest, including the first sobrero (another Peñajara) tended to come up short, to stop mid-pass, to tire quickly and – most surprising of all these days – to refuse to go to the horse.
I’ve observed in these pages before that El Cid makes you believe in fate. How can anyone be so consistently luckless in the sorteo? For a while, I tried to convince myself that there must be another factor at work. Perhaps El Cid was doing something to spoil his animals; or perhaps he has mastered the age-old torero’s craft of making decent bulls appear faulty. But, the more I see of him, the more convinced I am that it truly is luck, pure and simple.
This evening was a case in point. There was no way that anyone could have simulated these bulls’ shortcomings, which were on display from the moment they made their opening laps. The first set the tone for the entire string, being manso and sulky. It was worse, indeed, than the ones that were later green-hankied; but the crowd hadn’t really warmed up yet, and so gave it only a perfunctory protest.
For El Cid, even more than most, such a bull is a disaster. He can handle a wide range of traits – it is easy to forget how recently he graduated from the tough ganaderías – but the one thing he can’t handle is immobility. The toreo he does best – citing at a long distance, muleta well forward, and then catching the bull in the cloth to draw it into a long circular series, pivoting each time without any steps – requires bulls that charge from a distance. When he gets a non-starter it’s… well, a non-starter.
Both the bulls he drew were in that category. But he got one break: his second was returned, and replaced by a white-socked colorado which, though by no means noble, at least had a few spirited charges in it, enabling Cid to produce a faint semblance of the toreo which, when he does it well, is as beautiful as any in Spain. The bull was reluctant on the left, which is much Cid’s better side. Still, the matador was game and brave, marring things only slightly with some vulgar horn-grabbing. (There were unwonted desplantes from several performers, evidently as a concession to malagueño taste. “Well, we’re from the Saaf, innit? We like a bit of alegría, know what ah mean?” said the pretty girl next to me with combs in her hair. Again, I translate loosely)
Cid ended, inevitably, with a few pinchazos, costing him the ear. Oddly enough, this is the one bit of his toreo which the critics do call unlucky (“he lost the ear through bad luck with the steel”, etc). In fact, luck almost certainly has nothing to do with it: the poor fellow is simply left-handed. It makes his naturales angelic, but his killing erratic.
Castella, too, did badly in the draw. His first bull was fitful and crafty: at one stage, he had to pull off a sort of emergency tafallera as a recurso. It became cowardly in the tercio de varas, backing away and pawing even when placed virtually on top of the horse. By the time the faena started, there was nothing left. Castella dispatched it efficiently, if not bravely, with a low lung-kill.
With his second, he evidently wanted a trophy, and gave us some glamorous capework, as well as beginning his faena with six parallel passes on the estribo. But the bull ran out of steam. Castella stomped over to get the heavy sword with a face like thunder, and his thrust was better this time, if still a tad low. Sébastien seems to be going through a bad patch at present. I hope he pulls himself together. A couple of years ago, he would have elicited something, even from these mediocrities.
Perera had the best of the Peñajaras as his first (best in the sense that its flaws, which were the same as its brothers’, were less pronounced), and the faena was perfectly competent, with decent series on both sides. The volapié, however, was glorious, and won him an ear. His second was so poor that it was sent back to the corrals after the third pair of banderillas had been placed – or misplaced – by which time the crowd’s protests, which had begun before the picadors came out, had become overpowering. Its substitute, the Jaralta, was the least bad animal of the night, and the faena had barely started when the band struck up ‘El Gato Montes’ (played, like every other pasodoble here, at around half its normal tempo). But this bull, too, tired, giving Perera opportunity for nothing more than a workmanlike faena and warm applause.
It’s worth noting the quality of the cuadrillas. These were precisely the sort of bulls that often make for scrappy first and second tercios. But the quiet professionalism of the peones spared us a good deal of tedium. El Cid, in particular, now has the best cuadrilla in Spain: Pirri, Boni and Alcareño.
20th August: El Pilar for Pepín Liria, José Tomás and Daniel Luque
José Tomás divides opinion among Anglophone aficionados. Whereas Spaniards tend to be uncomplicatedly admiring, plenty of English voices – not least in this magazine – are more sceptical. He’s a dimwit, they say. He’s too unimaginative to interpret a bull, to adjust his style to its inclinations, they say. He works only with tame little Núñez specimens, they say. Bravery, immobility and bloodshed don’t make for beauty, they say. You can’t mandar with short passes, they say.
To all of which, I say: Phooey! The return of José Tomás last year, and his two appearances in Madrid this year, have changed contemporary toreo; changed it utterly and for the better. I’m not a particular tomasista – I’m not in the business of having favourite bullfighters, and, if I were, El Juli would have a better claim – but the mere presence of “el de Galapagar” has raised the game of other toreros and filled the rings in a way not seen in years. Twenty minutes before the corrida, I saw a man offering €400 for a ticket, and being turned down.
All experience is subjective, of course, and my experience of JT has been especially lucky. This was the sixth time I had watched him since his comeback, and I’ve never seen him leave with less than three ears. Tonight, oddly, was the time I felt his trophies were least deserved; yet, for reasons I’ll explain in a moment, it removed any doubt in my mind about his versatility and skill.
First, though, let me tell you about the bulls. El Pilares are a salmantino breed, of Atanasio heritage, owned by the Frailes and related to the Puerto de San Lorenzos. They have broad foreheads and lovely horns, and are generally aggressive, often warming up as the faena progresses. I had tentado before some of their more distant cousins at the ranch of Don Ramón Flores near Salamanca the previous month. These six really were “desiguales de juego”. The first and fourth were outstanding; the second suelto and mercurial; the third parado and idle; the fifth codicioso and dangerous; the sixth sabido and malevolent.
Pepín Liria, marking his despedida in Málaga, gave the best performance I’ve ever seen from him. Even so, I’m afraid he just doesn’t do it for me. He scuttles constantly, bending at the knees and the waist. He moves sideways rather than forward, like that horse of Pablo Hermoso de Mendoza’s. All toreros have to move sideways sometimes, of course. But Liria does it when there is no need whatever, as a kind of reflexive tic.
His two bulls tonight were so frank and noble that even Liria ought to have been able to hold his ground; but he just can’t keep his feet still. There was much merit in the rest of his performance. His first estocada was exemplary, and several individual passes were long and slow: but they were linked by crablike footwork. Not everyone minds this as much as I do, and the crowd loved the Murcian’s larga cambiada and, later, his four pases de rodillas (still moving bloody sideways, even on his knees). He cut an ear from his first, and was warmly cheered as he left. I applauded the old boy, too (he’s 18 months older than me). I can’t pretend I’ll miss his performances; but he’s been on so many cartels that bullfighting won’t feel quite the same without him.
Now to José Tomás. Let’s first deal with the charge that he lacks mando. In a sense, it’s true. If you judge a torero by “parar, mandar, templar”, what Tomás does outstandingly is parar. He is motionless, erect and dignified in even the most hair-raising situations, which, of course, is why he is so often gored.
This comes at a cost. He is not a torero who reaches well forward, affixes the bull to the cloth, and then shifts its intended line of charge to place it where he wants it. If this is what you are looking for in the ring – if, for example, you are lucky enough to be the sage Jock Richardson – you won’t enjoy him.
It’s true, too, that he sometimes seems determined to plough ahead with a pre-arranged plan regardless of what comes out of the toril. Last year, I watched him two days apart in Dax and San Sebastián. He gave exactly the exactly the same faena – exactly the same faena, from the opening estatuarios to the closing manoletinas – to two very different bulls. You might say this indicates lack of imagination; I would say it indicates a different kind of mando, a determination to do as you had intended, whatever the tendencies of the bull.
Tonight, though, he proved that he is perfectly able to tailor his style to suit a bull. His first was fickle and distrait, and was especially bad on the left. José Tomás gave it the performance he had plainly intended, with fine verónicas, into which he stepped determinedly, making the animal turn; then beautifully slow and close tandas on both sides. So far, so Tomás. In honour of JT’s hero, the band struck up the pasodoble ‘Manolete’ – playing it, dirge-like, at half its proper speed – and didn’t stop when he went to collect the death-sword. The sheer slowness of the music served to emphasise the slowness of the muleta-work. Because Tomás works so close and, in consequence, gets knocked about a fair bit, it’s easy to lose sight of how controlled, how templado he can be. The crowd watched round-eyed as the torero who is obsessed by Manolete delivered slow manoletinas to the strains of ‘Manolete’.
Now, I’m not a particular fan of manoletinas. They can be made to look more dangerous than they are, and often have a specious quality. But Tomás doesn’t lift the outer edge of the cloth or incline his torso away as the bull charges. He is taut and stationary. No one, not even Manolete, has let the animal pass as close as he does. Four manoletinas, one pinchazo and then an absolutely perfect estocada. (Another point sometimes missed by JT’s detractors is the extent to which he leans right over when killing.) One ear. As he made his lap, the band struck up ‘Happy Birthday’. ‘Happy Birthday’ is, apparently, the most performed tune in the world (the second is ‘Amazing Grace’); but you’ve never heard it played as slowly as this. José Tomás was 33.
His second bull was caramel-coloured, ill-favoured and ill-tempered, breaking away early to throw a picador and then refusing to respond to challenges. The crowd, angry on their hero’s behalf, protested furiously. After endless faffing with the cabestros, the bull was eventually coaxed away and replaced with a similar specimen. But the crowd had no appetite for more delay, so the protests this time were muted.
This bull was cussed on the left, but impossible on the right. JT saw it immediately, and conducted the entire faena with his left hand. This was neither the bull nor the faena he had planned, and his performance removed any doubts about his ability to read an animal. The passes were controlled, and the bull, as always, thrillingly close. But the matador plainly felt the need to inject some more drama, so – half-way through the faena, unbelievably – he drew the bull into a pase cambiado, waving the muleta behind his back to cite and then pulling the animal across his body as it charged to take it in front.
This time, the sword was flawless, and the crowd – which included, as always when JT is on the cartel, a large contingent of French aficionados looking pale and wan in their Paseo shirts – exploded. The president granted the first ear readily enough, but a near 100% petition continued. There was then a moment of confusion. The presidential hankie twitched, as if being withdrawn and hung again, which most people took to be the sign of a second ear. “¡Rabo! ¡Rabo! ¡Rabo!” they chanted. Then a second white cloth appeared next to the first, which many wrongly assumed to be for the tail rather than the second ear.
Now Tomás had faced two very different animals and given each an ideally judged lidia. As for fancy capework, he had saved that for his quite to Pepín Liria’s first: an animal of such nobility that he was able to give it four successive gaoneras without shifting the position of his feet, simply twirling between each.
It was a phenomenal performance overall. But, for me, the single best moment of the evening came, not from JT, but from the exquisite wrists of Daniel Luque, who received his first bull with 12 magical delantales, drawing it gently from the barrera to the middle of the ring. He wafted his capote as if it were gauze – which, as you’ll know if you’ve ever hefted one, is an extraordinary feat in itself, even with no bull present. The faena that followed was pretty and controlled; but, to be honest, my mind kept going back to that glorious opening. A fine sword won Luque the ear.
His second bull, the last of the day, was wise and cruel. On this one, Luque didn’t attempt even a single verónica, simply leading the animal gingerly to the horse and giving it a brisk, but brave and professional, faena, finished off with a nasty horizontal blade.
The crowd could see that he had done his best and, in any case, it was going to take more than a disappointing bull to dampen their mood. We floated out of the plaza on a high. “What an evening!” said my neighbour. “Pa’ rompe’ la’ ma’o’,” I agreed. (I’m ashamed to write that, after three days in Málaga, I was dropping into something approaching the local patois, drawling, swallowing my consonants.) “¡Pa’ partirse la camisa!” he elaborated, which I thought a delightfully flamenco expression: an evening to make you rip your shirt in two. Which, when you think about it, is what we all go to the bullring hoping for. ¡Viva Málaga!