is the New Spain
France, it seems, is the place to be. According to Paco Aguado in 6Toros6, bullfighting is at its best north of the Pyrenees. Noting the growing appeal of the fiesta outside its traditional Midi heartlands, Aguado fantasises about corridas being held in Paris again for the first time since the 19th century. The periodic threat of abolition has, he believes, honed the French aficionado: "The desire to learn more each time, to understand the spectacle and to have arguments with which to defend it, is a constant feature of the Gallic public". National pride, perhaps, holds him back from making the converse point: that many Spaniards, believing that they have an innate knowledge of their fiesta nacional, make little effort to study it.
I happened to be at the Béziers feria when I read Aguados article and, from what I saw, he is right. I had until then been rather snotty about French bullfighting. I suppose it was Hemingway who first put me off. Mockery of French crowds runs throughout Death in the Afternoon, serving as a kind of descant to Papas love of Spain. He even carries his scorn into the glossary ("Al Alimón: a very silly pass in which two men each hold one end of the cape and the bull passes between them. You will only see it used in France, or where the public is very naďve"). Many English-speaking writers have followed Hemingways lead, while Spanish critics often dismiss French crowds as credulous and superficial.
My only previous experience of a French feria, in Bayonne, had rather confirmed the stereotype. The spectators there, while exceptionally good-natured, were also ignorant, distracted and drunk. It was rather like San Fermín, only more so, if you see what I mean. Since then, I had stuck to Spain.
Still, the Béziers cartel looked very promising: bulls by Torrestrella, Cebada Gago, Martelilla and Miura, and many of the leaders of the escalafón. The only unknown factor was the crowd itself. No performer, after all, will be much better than his audience. Would the Bitterois (as inhabitants of Béziers are known) demand honest work from their matadors, or would they be satisfied by tricks?
The Béziers feria is compact: a rejoneo affair, four corridas and two novilladas (one with picadors, one without) over five days. The corrida de rejón was an innovation: until this year, Béziers used to begin with a Portuguese-style event. I wont describe the rejoneo, except to salute Pablo Hermoso de Mendozas brilliant performance. It is not only his equestrianism that is remarkable, but the utter confidence he communicates to his horses. Even when they have been touched by the horns, they remain so calm youd think they were warming up in their paddocks; somehow, the touch of Hermosos knees gives them a sense of total serenity. In San Sebastián last year, I watched a bull catch and topple one of his mounts. Hermoso was on the bull at once, distracting it with his hands while his horse regained its feet. The same horse met his second bull without the least sign of nervousness.
Nor, in the interest of space, shall I describe the two novilladas, hugely entertaining though they were. The novillada without picadors is an especially enjoyable occasion and, if you are close enough to hear the advice being shouted to the youngsters from the callejón, an educational one. But, to give you a rounded picture of the Béziers festival, I will describe the four corridas in full.
The main business began on the Thursday evening, with bulls by Torrestrella for Javier Conde, El Juli and Iván García. Condes first was a matadors dream: 480 kg, charging in straight lines and offering few surprises. It cried out for a splendid capework, and Conde did his best to oblige, citing from a distance and offering some fine derechazos. Yet, although he made no obvious mistakes, he seemed not to be getting the most out of it. The bull led with its right horn, and Conde was happy to work exclusively on that side. But his muleta work appeared wooden, almost perfunctory. The crowd seemed to feel the same way, and he was lucky to get a vuelta.
On his second bull, he went to pieces. It was, admittedly, a more hesitant creature than the first, but this was not the root of the problem. The real difficulty was that this bull favoured its left horn and Conde simply would not work on his left. The result was as scrappy and ugly a faena as you could ask to see, with Conde repeatedly struggling against the bulls natural tendency, and the bull becoming more and more unsettled until a messy estocade and puntilla. The crowd blamed the animal, hooting and whistling as it left the ring. But a more rounded matador would have been able to elicit a decent lidia from it. Afterwards, Conde tried to claim that the bull must previously have been used in a "tienta de machos". In fact, the fault lay with his unwillingness to match his style to the bulls inclinations. I know that the critics are forever drooling over Conde, with his supposed gypsy grace and "duende" and all the rest of it. All I can say is that, on the three occasions I have watched him, I have found him rather one-dimensional. Perhaps he was having bad days, or perhaps I was missing something, but I cant remember ever seeing a decent set of naturales from him.
El Juli, happily, was on form. Apparently he often is in France. I wonder whether, despite his occasionally clinical manner, he isnt rather more affected by his audience than he lets on. I had last seen him in Seville in April, where he appeared three times. The crowd was determined not to be impressed by the young madrileńo, and Juli turned in mediocre performances with his first five bulls. On his final bull of the feria, he decided to pull out the stops. He met it portagayola but, soon afterwards, it was retired. Poor Juli: if he didnt want to lose face, he was more or less obliged to meet its substitute in the same fashion only this one, too, was taken off. Finally, with a thunderous expression, he sank to his knees a third time before the toril. By now, he had won over even the most cynical part of the crowd and, to the delight of the tendidos, he produced his first really thrilling faena of the festival.
Béziers is virtually home ground for Juli. It was in neighbouring Nîmes that he took his alternativa but, in the eyes of the Bitterois, that makes him one of theirs. His bulls were different in character. The first, Simplón, was a brave enough fellow, and Juli let him have the full repertoire: lovely, tight chicuelinas, his own banderillas, and well-executed series on both sides with the muleta. It was classic Juli: feet together, no unsightly angles, hypnotic muleta work. Above all, he showed his complete knowledge of the bulls territory, linking his series fluidly, with no awkward hanging around. If he was not spectacular, he was very convincing and, after one estocade and one descabello, took an ear. His second, Envidiado, was a tougher customer. He snatched Julis cape on making his salida, and nearly caught a peón. Julián was much more careful this time, but got what he could out of the animal, once again placing his own sticks. I was surprised that he should have dedicated such a cussed creature to the crowd, but no one seemed to mind. As the final tercio got under way, Envidiado was chopping and starting to hanker after a querencia, but El Juli worked him calmly, fixed him firmly in the lure, and gave him an estocade that dropped him instantly.
Iván García, substituting for Matías Tejela, is a willing 19-year-old, who took his alternativa in March. Watching him was like watching an instructor demonstrating the full range of lances and passes. What he lacked in finesse, he made up for in ambition. Thus, we had four passes on his knees and some fine chicuelinas, each carried out with an elegant little tuck. He placed his own banderillas both times, again demonstrating a wide range of styles, including a slightly botched attempt at an al quiebro, in which he ended up having to skip a couple of steps. But full marks for enthusiasm. With the muleta, too, he gave us everything he knew on both sides, even throwing in a cambiado. His first bull was the best of the night, and he took an ear after one estocade and a puntilla. The second was tetchier, but he tailored his toreo to suit its mood. He finished with two pinchazos (the second very unlucky) and two descabellos.
Friday: Cebada Gago
The next night was the turn of the Cebada Gagos, great favourites with the Bitterois. And what magnificent beasts they turned out to be: big, sleek and with murderous horns, brave under the pic and loaded with stamina. Three of them might have qualified for a posthumous vuelta, although in the event only one did.
The first matador was Pepín Liria, who has always struck me as workmanlike, if nothing to write home about. He is brave enough, but often seems to have difficulty gauging the bulls natural terrain, with the result that his performance can involve a great deal of loud and clumsy citing. With these bulls, though, any competent torero would shine and Liria lived up to them. His first was a splendid negro burraco with a lovely upsweep on his horns, who overthrew a picador and so intimidated the banderilleros that only four sticks touched him. Liria dedicated him to the crowd, and gave him his best shot. As usual, he was a little ungainly, skipping about between passes and failing to move into a rhythm. But he gave us several series on both sides, working close to the horns. His kill, too, was brave rather than beautiful, a pinchazo and then a half estocade. It was the same with his second bull, Avador (500 kg), who won a vuelta. Only this time, the estocade was perfect, and Liria won two ears. The second struck me as extremely lucky; or, rather, it was earned chiefly by the bull. I dont want to be curmudgeonly: Liria is a sincere bullfighter, eschewing the cheap tricks and adornos that one often sees. But Id have given anything to see his bulls with Juli.
Jesús Millán, unfortunately, wasted his opportunities. At the miurada which closed the Feria de Abril, he had given one of the bravest exhibitions I expect ever to see, being pronounced the triunfador of Seville. But it rather looks as though he will be a one-hit wonder. Not that he did anything wrong, exactly; but he was circumspect to the point of timidity, doubling his bulls coldly, passing them at arms length, letting his picadors jab them to excess. His second bull, the appropriately named Tramposo, was an especially tricky brute, wary but strong. He overthrew a picador and, despite some severe doblones, remained upright into the third tercio. Millán made no attempt to dominate him, and proceeded almost immediately to the kill, much to the fury of his audience. Tramposo would have tested any matador. But it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Millán has lost his spirit. Both his bulls seemed to be in charge throughout. Had he been prepared to take risks, he could have tickled better work out of them.
Javier Valverde, too, failed to give his bulls their due. His first, to be fair, was the poorest of the night. Yet this did not justify the defensive capework, the over-picing, the bitty passes, the letting go of his muleta. And with the second, a lovely roan-coloured beast called Cepillero (505 kg), he had no excuse. Valverde was simply reluctant to go near it, making for a scrappy and inelegant performance. When the kill came, Valverde looked terrified. He made a diffident attempt at a lunge, and then a badly placed half-estocade before descabellando. Afterwards, both Valverde and Millán gracelessly blamed the animals; but each man had faced at least one high-quality bull. They had simply failed to do their adversaries justice.
Saturdays corrida saw the Bitterois let themselves down. In their determination to honour their favourite son, Sébastien Castella, they unleashed an aural avalanche: nine ears, with all three matadors leaving on shoulders. But, for sheer entertainment, it was hard to beat.
The bulls were by Martelilla, all fine looking, the second three stronger than the first. Enrique Ponces performance with his first was fascinating. To start with, he gave us a bit of expectation-management. The gentle breeze in the stalls was obviously a howling gale down in the arena, judging by the way he drenched his muleta with water and rolled his eyes. The bulls hesitancy made him assume Paxmanesque expressions of incredulity. And, just in case anyone missed the point, he began the final tercio by calling over to one of his peones in a voice which carried to most of my tendido "This ones even blinder than the last!".
I dont mean to suggest that he was faking. The bull was difficult, no question. He just wanted to make sure we all knew it. And, of course, no one is better than Ponce with difficult bulls. No one else would have been able to conjure the faena he did out of so unpropitious an animal. Yet Ponce gave us everything he could manage, including some great series of naturales, beautifully finished. Slowly but inexorably, he imposed his mando on the bull, working it on both sides, and killing with his first estocade. The crowds reaction was mixed. My neighbour, a local artist, was very cross with me for petitioning the ear. Had I foreseen the "ear inflation" that was to follow, perhaps my hankie would have stayed in its pocket. Yet I felt that Ponce deserved his reward, if on no other grounds than that he had overcome his usual faults. That is to say, he had not begun, as he so often does, with an unnecessary series of doblones, nor had he made excessive use of his pica. It was, in short, Ponce at his best: an exact diagnosis of the bulls strengths and weaknesses, and the perfect prescription.
Then came the local hero, Sébastien Castella, whom I was very anxious to see. From the moment I arrived in Béziers, everyone had been telling me how wonderful he was. But for prejudice against non-Spaniards, said the Bitterois, he would easily be recognised as one of the top ten matadors alive or, depending on how much they had had to drink, the top five, or top three. With so many local hopes riding on him, how could he possibly live up to expectations? He soon answered that question. First, to throaty cheers, he made his way to the centre of the arena. Then he did something quite astonishing. He turned his back to the toril, held his capote to one side, and waited.
I have never seen this manoeuvre before: if any of the more experienced subscribers to La Divisa know a name for it, I should love to hear from you (in the mean time, I shall think of it as a castellina). The Frenchman looked over his shoulder as the bull charged, but kept his feet motionless. The Martelilla slammed into his cape, piercing it in two places; the crowd exploded. Everything seemed set for a fantastic performance but, unfortunately, the bull bashed away repeatedly at one of the burladeros before trying to climb over it. It never truly recovered, and limped badly for the rest of the engagement.
I still dont understand why it wasnt taken off. Perhaps the crowd were so awe-struck by Castellas opening that they did not want to spoil things. Or perhaps they had eyes only for their hero, not for the bull. Its limp was already bad as the tercio de varas got underway and, before long, it was barely able to stay on its feet. I wanted to call for a replacement myself, but was restrained by a combination of English diffidence and, more immediately, the fact that I couldnt remember the French word for lame (its "boiteux", by the way, in case anyone should find himself in a similar situation).
As it was, Castella could do very little. He soldiered on, and gave us a beautiful estocade, but he had never really had the chance to prove himself. Not that the crowd minded: as soon as the sword plunged, the handkerchiefs were waving furiously. The president had no intention of being lynched, and gave the tendidos what they wanted. The ear inflation was underway.
César Jiménez, on current form, strikes me as having a pretty good claim to being the best matador in Spain. I dont know if youve ever felt illogically proprietorial about someone simply because you saw him as a novillero before he became famous. Well, I feel that way about Jiménez. But I dont think Im being biased when I say that he is growing into a figura.
His work with his first bull in Béziers was complete, mature and brave. It has been a little over a year since César took his alternativa (also in Nîmes, as it happens). Yet in that time, he has grown perceptibly. I had watched him three times more since his alternativa. On each occasion, he was hugely impressive, taking risks and cutting ears. But his toreo had still had a gawky would be putting it too strongly a boyish quality. There was something a little angular about his work with the capote, in particular. Once, I had seen him trip himself up by standing on the end of his cape.
All that has gone now. His first bull was vicious, obstreperous and quick. Yet Jiménez gave him the full works, with his trademark chicuelinas, wrapping the end of the cape elegantly around himself. Patiently and gracefully, he imposed his dominio on the bull. Where other matadors would have been cautious, Jiménez made the bull follow his agenda, giving us heart-stopping largas cambiadas and linked series of every kind with beautiful remates. I was surprised to see him dedicate the animal but, once again, the crowd lapped it up. He killed after one pinchazo. In fairness, this ought to have cost him the second ear. But having set a low threshold by petitioning Castellas ear, the Bitterois now felt more or less obliged to recognise that Jiménez had been better, and the president again complied. Now the floodgates were truly open.
Ponces second was slower, more deliberate, and slightly bizco, its right horn higher than its left. This time, Ponce was back to his old tricks, doubling his bull mercilessly back and forth, working overwhelmingly with his right, and spreading enough cloth to float a decent-sized frigate. The technical expertise was still there and the estocade, when Ponce was finally satisfied with the bulls posture, was clean. But it was not Ponce at his best, and I felt the bull had called out for more. Still, such was the mood by now that the crowd had to petition an ear on the strength of the kill alone and, once again, the president obliged.
With his second, Castella began more conventionally. It was a strong animal, slow at first, but serious when provoked. Early on, it methodically smashed several planks of the barrera. But, with a home crowd behind him, Castella was on a roll. He seemed determined to squash in all the suertes that the condition of his first bull had denied him: citing from a distance, a wide variety of passes, a little bit of unnecessary swanking about in the bulls blind spot (which no one minded), even what looked like a molinete. It was electrifying to watch, if too frenetic to be beautiful. Yet the crowd demanded and got two ears, despite his having had his muleta snatched from him and taken a great deal of time over the estocade.
Sometimes, crowds contrive to take on a collective personality. As they sat down, the Bitterois seemed to feel the stirrings of a kind of shared guilt. They knew that the five performances they had seen did not, on any measure, deserve seven ears. Yet, caught up in the momentum of the whole thing, they could not now stop themselves.
That said, Jiménez would have been awarded two ears from his second bull by any crowd in the world. It was a spirited creature, sure-footed and sensitive. Jiménez passed it just twice before moving into the chicuelinas he does so exquisitely. His work with both cape and muleta was graceful and assured: we had revoleras, cambiadas, derechazos, naturales, pases de pecho, the whole range. The bull moved into an almost musical rhythm, and Jiménez gave us two series of naturales which were the finest thing I saw in the whole feria. By the end, we were all down there with him in the ring. When the kill finally came, people blinked at each other as though they were waking up, as though the blood were returning to their numbed limbs. It was the kind of performance that we hope for whenever we enter a bullring.
All three matadors left the ring on shoulders, as did the mayoral (who, plainly worried lest the cheers subside when he passed, ordered his bearer to catch up with the three bullfighters). Despite what the next mornings Midi Libre called the "incontinence présidentielle", it was as moving an evening as you could ask to experience.
The Béziers feria closed, as always, with a miurada. And what juggernauts these were. The smallest of them was 620 kg, and three of them were over 700 kg. All Miuras are heavy, of course, but not all are enjoyable to watch. Size, aggression and cunning do not, of themselves, make for a good faena, and I have seen more than one miurada which turned into a kind of primal battle for survival. These, however, had all the best features of their line, and some of them were magnificent.
El Fundi was the only Spanish matador. His first bull, Solano, was a monster: 720 kg, with colossal horns and the merest sprinkling of white hairs (what I think the Spanish call "negro entrepelado"). Fundi is not a tall man, and the effect, in other circumstances, might have been comic. It was a courageous performance. Fundi called the cambio de tercio after one long pic, and placed his banderillas adroitly. He managed a good, long faena, too, with some ayudados por alto which seemed almost impossible given the height of Solanos horn-tips. He also worked impressively close to those murderous horns. It couldnt be called beautiful, but it was compelling and, after a half-estocade and one descabello, Fundi came out to receive the crowds applause.
His second bull, Silletero (620 kg), was wonderful. Those commentators who claim that Miuras are not what they were, that the fight has been bred out of them, should have been there to watch him. Silletero was noble, brave under punishment, and frank in following the lure. Again, Fundi was plucky, holding off on the doblones and placing his own sticks. This time, though, his toreo took on a slightly gimcrack quality. There were some silly adornos between the bulls horns, and some wholly unnecessary strutting around. The crowd loved it, Im afraid, becoming ecstatic when a vulgar desplante resulted in the bull snatching Fundis muleta. Buoyed up by the applause, Fundi rustled up a first-class estocade. But his award of two ears was ridiculous. Silletero was rightly granted a vuelta; but such an aristocratic animal deserved a better lidia.
Stéphane Meca was less than impressive, but the French crowd did not care. His first bull was enormous (700 kg), and Meca was taking few risks. The bull took two pics, the second of which went in repeatedly and way off to one side. After the banderillas, as the bull stood spurting fountains of blood, Meca dedicated it to a famous actor in the crowd (wild applause). Before setting to work, just to be safe, he pulled the animal back and forth a good deal more. Fundi had been flashy, but had at least worked close to the horns; Meca was both glitzy and timid, all the way up to a miserable excuse for a sword-thrust into the bulls flank. After a descabello and puntilla, the crowd whistled the bull. It was, admittedly, a dangerous and defensive beast, as well as a big one. But Mecas treatment of it had served to exacerbate rather than ameliorate its faults.
His second was wonderful material, and Meca tried to offer a wider range of passes this time. But, as usual, he seemed unable to keep his feet still. Even when the bull was nowhere near him, he jumped about like a grasshopper. What might otherwise have been impressive suertes were marred by his incessant scurrying. Meca had obviously decided that a bull of almost 19th century dimensions should be met with suitably old-fashioned toreo. He cited squarely from the front, at long distances, and even killed recibiendo (albeit with a bit of his trademark scuttling), which earned him an ear. But Im afraid it was all rather ungainly. The crowd, wowed by the style of the kill, and never slow to applaud a Frenchman, clamoured for a second ear, but this President stout fellow! was having none of it. Meca behaved very badly, awarding himself numerous triumphal circuits even now he kept skipping while the Bitterois yowled and jabbered at the box. With astonishingly poor manners, Meca bragged afterwards that he had had a wonderful faena, and that "the crowd could see it, even if the president couldnt". The next days local paper agreed, commenting sniffily that "no doubt the president had his reasons". Yes, no doubt he had, among them the fact that Meca had dropped his sword, lost his muleta and managed only one half-hearted series on his left.
Denis Loré, another Nîmois, seemed chiefly interested in remaining unhurt. His first bull battered away repeatedly at the barrera and, opening a gap, leaped into the callejón, scattering people in all directions. From then on, the Miura was ruined, discomposed and limping. As with the previous night, no one demanded a replacement. Loré went through the motions, but he, too, gave us silly ornaments in the place of decent capework. He made no attempt to follow through with his sword-thrust, pulling out after the merest pinchazo, and then stabbing the bull almost horizontally before a descabello. Not that this denied him a salida. His second bull was uninjured, but otherwise things followed a similar pattern, Loré failing to engage, the crowd indulgent of their countryman.
I may have painted an unfair picture of the Béziers crowd. It is only natural, I suppose, to notice when the audience disagrees with you, but to take it for granted when they agree. In fact, the Bitterois were pretty discriminating, and compared favourably to many Spanish audiences.
They had some of the usual faults. A number of them were determined to boo and whistle all the picadors, even those who performed their task flawlessly. Others seemed interested only in the visible outcome of a move, rather than the style with which it was performed. Thus, for example, any stumble by the bull was jeered, regardless of whether it was the result of over-picing or whether the bull had simply been following the lure closely. Similarly, a matador whose estocade was beautifully placed but who, by mischance, failed to drop the bull, could expect little applause. There was a silly emphasis on the trivia: competently placed banderillas often attracted louder applause than mesmerising capework, and the heartiest cheers of the evening went to the matadors who managed to land their monteras the right way up when dedicating. There also appeared to be a group of people who would join in the applause (or the whistles) without any clear idea of what they thought they were applauding (or whistling).
Others, though, seemed extremely discerning, and for the very reason that Aguado gives in his 6Toros6 piece: the French are willing to study toreo open-mindedly. The relative scarcity of the art in France makes the aficionados there more passionate as well as more willing to learn. Bullfighting is absolutely central to the identity of Béziers more, even, than the local rugby team. After all, any similarly-sized Spanish town would expect to hold corridas. But the Bitterois feel that their feria sets them apart from most other Frenchmen, and are commensurately proud of it.
Their patriotism is deeply endearing. They are indulgent of their own matadors find me the crowd which isnt but never try to build up a local man at the expense of his fellow performers. Their press is magnificently chauvinist, focusing almost wholly on the French season, with only the merest acknowledgment that bullfighting is not unknown in Spain. A matador may just have been pronounced the triunfador of Valencia, but the critics in Midi Libre will instead remind you that he had a very poor run at Mont-de-Marsan two years ago. Each evening, just before the sixth bull, the audience rises to sing the Provencal anthem (the quicker-witted matadors snatch off their monteras at this point, putting themselves in the crowds good books).
For all this, though, the flavour of the Béziers festival remains almost wholly Iberian. After half a century of regular ferias, the Bitterois still think of their corridas as a foreign import. The local peńas have Spanish names; the stalls serve tapas and paella; the crowd at the ring shout out their advice and jokes in Spanish even when the matadors are French. Yet it is precisely this sense of the exotic that puts the Bitterois on their best behaviour. It is as though they are determined to show the visiting Spanish cuadrillas that they know a thing or two themselves which is, when you think about it, pretty much the ideal attitude.
The most striking thing about the Béziers feria, though, is the quality of the bulls. The local impresario, Robert Margé, is an enthusiast, not just a businessman. He chooses fine ganaderías and selects the bulls carefully. Again, this is something which seems to be true across the Camargue. It is instructive to see how often the better bloodlines appear in France. If you have the time, check this out yourself:http://www.portaltaurino.com/ lists all the ganaderías, with reports of where they have appeared each season. Click on your own favourite breeds, and count how many of their recent appearances have been north of the Pyrenees.
My friend Nick Herbert, planet-brained director of a think-tank called Reform, has been going to Béziers for 15 years. He believes it has everything: good bulls, good toreros, a good crowd. And he likes the compact nature of the festival: how often can you squeeze six bullfights into a long weekend?
Nick is right. Béziers has everything going for it. It takes place in August, for one thing, when most of us are on holiday, and when the bulls are at their ripest. Its cartels are of a consistently high quality. It is a nice mix, too, the novilladas serving to bring you down to earth in case the matadors have made their work look easy. And, of course, it is in a part of the world which would be well worth visiting even without the attraction of the corrida.
In Béziers, I met another Englishman, the racehorse trainer Sir Mark Prescott. He has been watching corridas since the 1960s, and bubbles with the enthusiasm of the connoisseur. He told me that he had been to virtually every ring in Europe but that, nowadays, he hardly ever goes to Spain, instead making regular annual visits to Arles, Nîmes and Béziers. A year ago, I would have found that bizarre. Now, Im not so sure.