Across Iberia by Slow Train

by Matthew Asprey

26 April 2011

All photos by
Matthew Asprey 

Pondering Meaty Topics

The first bull came out to be fought by Sergio Blanco. This was the moment when the violence of the spectacle made the deepest impression on me. Because it’s a ritual slaughter performed six times I became accustomed to what was going to happen. The bull spends 15-minutes in the ring. If the matador has not killed him by the end of that time the bull is removed and slaughtered outside. The banderilleros use their large pink capes to attract the bull and get it running from one end of the ring to the other. They duck behind screens to avoid being gored. They use their capes to bring the bulls in close to their bodies for veronicas. The closer and more daringly they can draw the bull, the louder the applause.

The bull’s main suffering comes from the two spearings into its back muscles by either of the two picadors on their horses. The bull tries to attack the horse with his horns (which is not really possible due to the padding) while the picador digs in. After those two spearings blood starts to flow down the bull’s back and flanks. I was close to the spearing during the first fight. The next and probably milder pain comes from the attachment of three pairs of banderillas, which are brightly decorated harpooned sticks. The banderilleros must draw the bull into a charge, reach over and above the horns with both arms to hook each of the banderillas into the bull’s shoulders, and then dodge the horns.

Finally the matador uses the muleta, which is a much smaller cape than used by the banderilleros, to draw the bull in for a series of progressively close passes. After a set number of these, which are designed to demonstrate the matador’s bravery and willingness to put himself within inches of real danger, the matador fetches a sword. He draws the bull for a charge in which he will stab the bull deeply through the back of the neck and avoid a goring by the horns at the last moment. If this is done perfectly the sword should pierce the bull’s aorta and kill him pretty instantly. This rarely is done perfectly and certainly did not happen for any of the bulls in this novillada.

The crowd was not blood-thirsty. It was interested in the displays of bravery by the matador and his team. In fact, the fight is judged less successful the bloodier and more prolonged the killing of the animal. The first fight was despairing because it took a long time to kill the bull. The first stab didn’t enter the bull’s neck deeply enough. The second stab didn’t kill him, either. Basically the banderilleros had to jointly wear down the wounded bull, confuse him with cape swirls, and finally deliver a series of attempted coups de grâce with a knife to the back of the neck.

Anyway, the ritual continued. Only the fifth of the six duels was particularly exciting because Gómez Del Pilar was lifted between the horns, narrowly escaping a cornada through the belly, and thrown at least two metres into the air. He landed face down and then got straight back up. After that he continued to fight with sand on his face and clothes, drawing the bull in very close without displaying fear. This led to a reasonably clean kill and a huge response from the small crowd, a waving of white handkerchiefs. Gómez del Pilar paraded around the ring.

I walked out of the plaza de toros into the metro station and headed back to my hotel. I thought about what I’d seen. If a bullfight is not mere theatrics it’s a display of some courage on the part of the matador; it’s not really sadistic in that the satisfaction of the spectators does not derive from the prolonging of the bull’s suffering; nevertheless, it’s indefensible by my standards because it causes unnecessary pain and death for a sentient animal.

On the other hand, lots of frankly unnecessary activities cause suffering and/or death for animals and aren’t the subject of such passionate debate. I can’t see how bullfighting is any more violent and pointless than, say, big game sport-fishing. That’s not really about eating for survival, even if the fishermen will probably eat their catch. And for the record, the slain bulls are used for meat, too.

Why stop there? The production of meat and dairy products is equally unnecessary. There’s nothing essential in animal products that cannot be found in plants. Really, if you buy a cheeseburger at McDonald’s or walk around in a pair of leather shoes or even eat an ice-cream, opposition to bullfighting is pure sentimentalism. The life of a beef or dairy cow involves far more suffering than the life of a four or five year old bull raised to be tortured for 15 minutes in a ring.

What meat and dairy eating bullfighting opponents must hate is the undisguised visceral spectacle of the bullfight. It’s an aesthetic reaction of disgust rather than a logically consistent stance against animal cruelty. Factory farming puts a convenient screen between people and the animals they exploit for food and clothes. This screen is provided to allow people to disengage from the need to confront the ethical questions of their diet.

The violence of the bullfight is not screened, and the spectators do not pretend they are not watching an act of violence. This archaic sport emerged from a peasant society that had close proximity to the animals it ate and used for labour. That kind of rustic proximity does not exist now for most people in the West—not even for the customers at Le Pain Quotidien.

Riding the Rails Across Spain

“I’d like to put in a word for…old-fashioned travel of all kinds. Not only old-fashioned trains but old boats and barges and gondolas and canoes, ox-carts…anything that takes long enough to give you a chance to see where you’re going before you get there….”

  —Orson Welles, 1955

Rather than take the three hour express train from Madrid to Barcelona, Clare and I decided to buy tickets for the overnight slow train. It cost €44, about a third of the express price. The train was to leave Atocha station at 10.50PM and arrive at 8AM. We opted not to spend an extra 15 euros on a bed in a sleeper car. Instead we would spend the night in a six seat cabin. The train wound up being so late that our fare would be refunded in full.

The cold rain had made the Madrid streets glisten like black obsidian. We had our final Madrid meal at a not-very-cheap Indian restaurant between Callao and our hotel. I enjoyed my daal, but Clare left the restaurant with an uneasy stomach.

As the train chugged east by night across the Iberian Peninsula I scrolled through the old time radio shows I’d loaded onto my iPod months ago. I settled on a 1952 episode of Orson Welles’ Lives of Harry Lime, ‘Man of Mystery’, hogwash that formed the basis of Welles’ film Mr Arkadin (1955). It’s an excellent bizarre movie that makes more or less sense depending on which of the many versions you watch. The story is Eric Ambleresque: the naive English or American traveller embroiled in European corruption. Welles had acted in the 1942 adaptation of Ambler’s Journey Into Fear. He and Joseph Cotton famously reunited for Graham Greene’s The Third Man, also in this tradition.

In Arkadin a sleazy American is hired to prepare a confidential report on the early history of an amnesiac Armenian or Georgian billionaire. This becomes a disorientating investigation across postwar Europe and beyond, with quick dissolve transit between Spain, Cannes, Morocco, Munich, Amsterdam, Acapulco, Paris… such city-hopping was probably much like Welles’ life at the time, shooting footage here, hustling for money there. Right now, after months prowling the globe by long-haul bus or slow rail or fast plane, I sometimes felt like I was living inside one of the more confusing versions of Mr Arkadin. It was getting to the point where I would wake up and momentarily forget where the hell I was.

The important thing was to have constants no matter the locale: four hours writing each morning at my netbook, a Flashman paperback in my backpack, jazz on my iPod. Everything else was adventure.

I dozed in my train seat and woke with an aching neck. I was stuck next to an air conditioning unit which exhaled cigarette smoke all night. An elderly lady in our cabin was the ideal overnight train traveller. She sat down in her seat, wrapped herself in a brown overcoat, and simply hibernated. She didn’t even take off her glasses. Another guy in a soccer jersey was not such a fine travel companion. At 4AM he decided to play a bouncy pop song through a tinny mobile phone speaker—a song that should in theory barely entertain a 12-year-old—while everybody else was trying to sleep.

At midnight Clare lost her dinner. After that she was unable to consider another Indian meal, not even the fare at my old Barcelona favourite El Harrison Ford. It’s a cheap restaurant better known as the Moti Mahal off Sant Pau. The menu facing the street proudly displays a photo of a well-fed and contented Harrison Ford and Calista Flockheart with the waiters.

“I really don’t want to eat Indian food,” said Clare.

“What’s good enough for Harrison…”

“No way.”

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