This page is taken from La Divisa 147. It is reproduced by the kind permission of the author, Brian Harding, and the Editor of La Divisa, Jock Richardson.
What goes on behind the scenes at a plaza de toros is of fascination to every aficionado, and during this years Feria de San Isidro, I was given an opportunity to see for myself what only few others have seen behind the closed doors of the plaza de toros of Las Ventas, the worlds most important plaza. The opportunity presented itself through unexpected channels, and in many ways was all the richer for it. Together with a friend, I was invited by the President of the day to attend the reconocimiento, the apartado and the enchiqueramiento (not sure about that word) of the penultimate corrida of the feria, the toros of Adolfo Martín. Later, we were to lunch together, play a game of cards, and then view the corrida from the lofty heights of the Presidents Box.
The President of the day was Manuel Muñoz Infante, the same President who the year previously had given the three avisos to José Tomás with a toro from the same ganadería. His good friend and Godfather of the Presidents young son is Angel Tirado. Angels son, Alejandro, is at the Escuela de Tauromaquia of Madrid, and Angels good friend is Manolo Peña, who is a friend of mine. In a recent property deal, Manolo gained possession of a small unfurnished ático, a top floor space in a new office building near the Plaza de Canalejas, in the heart of Madrid. From time to time, he holds lunchtime tertulias in this empty ático, to which he invites 10 or 12 male friends for good food and wine, conversation, and a game of mus. Mus is one of the worlds great card games, played in homes and bars all over Spain. The object is to join forces with your partner to defeat the other two players by cheating and blagging about the cards in your hands. Traditionally, players can communicate the contents of their hand to their partner with secret signs, mixed in with other false signs to confuse the enemy. Lively conversation is also allowed. Betting is nominal, and the game is won or lost when one team has won the pool of coins in the centre of the table at the start of the game. It is typically accessorized with large cigars and never-empty glasses of spirits, and as the excitement mounts, so does the volume of noise from the participants. It is the perfect setting to put the Spanish male into a suitable mental state to watch a corrida de toros.
Everyone except unusual guests (me) is expected to contribute to the lunch in some way, with a dish of mariscos (seafood), vegetables (salad, fried aubergine slices), pastries, wine, a bottle of spirits. This occasion was unusual, in that the President had somehow come by a suckling pig, a cochinillo, which was to be the main dish, accompanied by quails marinated in escabeche sauce. The problem of how to cook a nine-kilo piggy was solved by the pastry cook of an ancient bakery around the corner, who offered to roast said cochinillo in his massive oven. The result was a great success. Being a non-meat eater, I cannot vouch personally for the quality of the Presidents piggy, but I was assured by the others that it was a lot better than my gambas and salad. The rioja, which came in unlabelled bottles, was excellent. Don Manuel announced that conversation was to be limited to toros y tias.
The President began to fidget about how much time everything was taking, and as soon as the meal was over and the compliments dealt with, the tables were rapidly set up for mus. I was a spectator at Manolos game, and he and his partner trounced the opposition resoundingly with boyish whooping and hollering, which did not go down very well with the players at the Presidents table. I can only imagine Don Manuel was not winning. When the games were declared won and lost, we cleared away and set off separately to the plaza. Before he left, President Manuel Muñoz distributed invitation tickets to the Presidential Palco, with stern instructions that in his box, we must observe two rules: everyone must wear a jacket and tie, and strict silence must be observed throughout the corrida. No applause, no pañuelos. I had brought a jacket, and Manolo fixed me up with a suitable yuppie tie in pale green with coloured spots from his shop. Another shirt-dealer produced a boxed shirt from the boot of his car. Thus attired, I would certainly pass muster!
Manolo is a typical Spanish male. He is not a knowledgeable aficionado, but he enjoys going to the toros when the opportunity presents itself, and this is often at my suggestion. In the morning, Manolo and I had met in the patio de caballos at the appointed time, and followed the President into the anteroom by the office. On a previous occasion, I was led upstairs, from where I could look down at the proceedings of the reconocimiento in silence. This time we were shown into the corral itself, sent to a far corner and told to keep quiet and not to move while the toro being examined was in the corral. The first "adolfo" was brought in, and the group around the President made notes as the toro was called first from one direction and then another. This first animal looked absolutely huge from ground level, with a massive morrillo, the hump of muscle from the neck to the shoulders. It quivered with apparent rage as it reacted violently to the challenges, and after a brief inspection it was allowed out by the door near where we were standing. I was in awe of the terrifying spectacle of this massively furious creature only inches away. It seemed to tower above us. It glared in our direction as we peeped timidly back over the corral fence, a fence which suddenly didnt seem as robust as it had done moments earlier. In the excitement, I lost count of the toros as this process was repeated several times over, and I now regret not having made notes of numbers and appearances. I think I saw eight or nine adolfos, all magnificent, although two had slightly irregular horns with minor splintering on the tips of two of them. I never saw these two animals again, and conclude they must have been rejected in favour of the chosen six which went forward to the corrida with one sobrero from the named ranch.
The reconocimiento successfully concluded, we were shown out to the anteroom again, to wait forI was not sure what. I explained to Manolo how the sorteo the drawing of lots by the representatives of the toreroswas normally conducted in private. I explained how they agree among themselves the matching up of three pairs from the selected six, and then the numbers of the pairs are written on pieces of paper and finally drawn from a hat. As I finished my description, the President re-appeared and instructed us to follow him back into the corral. Bunched in a corner were those involved in making the sorteo. I recognized El Mangui, and El Boni, representing their matadors. There was some discussion with the President and his Delegado about the pairing, the papers were put into the mayorals sombrero cordobés, and it was covered with a blue plastic file which looked out of place. I saw El Mangui drag a whole cascade of gold medallions on a rope-like chain from inside his shirt, kiss them all frantically, and say a quick prayer before the draw was made. The results were noted under the Presidents gaze by Andrés, a plaza employee in a bright blue boiler suit. The whole process had taken place under the Presidents supervision, and as if to emphasize his authority, several times he had made a point of holding up the proceedingsto ask for the blue file, for example, and to argue the point about which numbers should go first in the pairings.
He also supervised the corralling of the individual toros in the chiqueros, in the order in which they were to appear. I have seen this part of the process before, and remember being impressed by the silent seriousness of the gloomy chiqueros, where the toros were to await their fate before being released into the ring in seven hours time. I pointed out to Manolo the torilesone on each side, at the end of the passagewayswhich would be opened onto the ring when the time came. Later I pointed out the same toriles from the other side, so he could make a link between the two events.
We were excused from the copita of sherry with the representatives of the empresa, as we hurried away to pick up the gambas and crabs for lunch.
The inside of the Presidential Palco is a little tacky. The walls could do with a coat of paint, the chairs of the President and his Asesores have seen better days. Most of all, the concrete bench seating for the Guests is not upholstered, unlike neighbouring palcos. It must be that most Presidential guests have leathery-hard backsides. As far as I could make out, all the others present were personal guests of the President too. I was seated just behind the President, two rows up. I had a perfect view of the plaza beyond the backs of the President and the two Asesores, a veterinary surgeon and a retired banderillero. Although the three certainly consulted throughout the afternoon, my attention was not on observing them but what was happening down in the ring. I have always liked a high viewpoint in the plaza, and recalled that on the first day of my visit to San Isidro this year, I had been accommodated in the Grada of Tendido 7, exactly opposite my present position, at the same height. The uniformed attendant solemnly repeated the warning about no applause or petitions. Looking down, I could see how all the Presidential pañuelos were tucked out of sight, suspended from the rail close to the Presidents hand. In front of him was a small wooden clipboard for taking notes. Don Manuel, however, seemed to be using this to keep his unopened programme handy, albeit upside down. He started the corrida at precisely seven oclock. I was immediately impressed by the spectacle of all the members of the paseílloalguacilillos, matadors, banderilleros, picadors, monosabios, arenerossaluting the President by removing their hats one by one, in a definite, clear gesture of recognition of the authority of his position. To each token of submission, Don Manuel replied with a short, stiff nod. I have seen this ceremony hundreds of times as a member of the public, but never before this moment had I been moved by its significance. Permission having been given for the corrida to take place and to unlock the gates of the toriles, the white pañuelo signalled the release of the first adolfo for the Mexican Zotoluco. The magnificent animal we had seen in the corral that morning did not disappoint us. Although the Mexican was sadly not up to the challenge of this fierce, awe-inspiring creature, when it was despatched Don Manuel did not hesitate to whip out the blue pañuelo to award the toro a vuelta al ruedo. I should have noticed the nature of the consultation which must have taken place between the President and his Asesores, but distracted by what was happening in the ring, I saw and heard nothing, just the pañuelo going out, and the roar of approval of the crowd. If there is a next time, I must make an effort to pay more attention to this sort of detail.
Although the other toreros, Padilla and Gómez Escorial, displayed a degree of inexperience in handling their similarly brave toros, the crowd encouraged them to give greater distance for the suerte de varas, and they responded as best they could. These toros were all impressive in the way they charged to the horse and reacted to capes. They pressed hard in banderillas too. They wanted to swallow the muleta down in one fierce charge. What a pity that the toreros were not up to the challenge. Zotoluco seemed surprised by what was in front of him. Padilla tried a larga a porta gayola, but he was all airs and no substance. Only Gómez Escorial made an effort to seize the opportunity, but being at the same time inexperienced and out of practice, he was not up to the task. The toros outshone them all by a mile. Efrén Costa, the Mexican picador, came up to scratch, however, and to my mind provided the best performance by a picador with perfectly timed, perfectly placed pics on the fourth toro.
I was very frustrated by the need to refrain from applause. Several times I brought my hands together, then remembered the ban, and held them tightly gripping each other instead. I was bemused to discover I inevitably shared the general feeling of superiority given by the high position and the collar and tie. When David Buckingham waved his handkerchief at me from Tendido One in greeting, I acknowledged him with a grave nod of the head. The distant, rare verbal protests from Tendido Seven were scarcely audible above the hubbub of the crowd. We all felt very secure in our palco. I could almost say, smug.
Manolo and Don Manuel both say we must do it again next year. I never believe such things are going to happen until they have actually taken place. In my jacket pocket, next to the ticket to the Presidential Palco, I had my own ticket to Tendido Alto of Five. Just in case.