THE LAST ARENA: Experienced bull-runner gored by bull: isn’t it ironic? I don’t think…


From the taurine blog ‘The Last Arena':

En castellano aquí.

An Op-Ed I wrote a fortnight ago, but Bill beat me to the punch – unsurprising from a much better boxer than I would ever have been – and got his in The Washington Post instead…

Alexander Fiske-Harrison & Bill Hillmann with their awards for writing bull Cuéllar, August 2013 (Photo: Jim Hollander; Awards sculpted by Dyango Velasco)

Alexander Fiske-Harrison & Bill Hillmann with their awards for writing bull from Cuéllar from the book Fiesta (Photo: Jim Hollander; Awards sculpted by Dyango Velasco)



This weekend I paid my last visit to my friend Bill Hillmann in the Hospital of the Virgin of the Camino in Pamplona. There we celebrated Bill finally being given the all clear to return home to his native Chicago, ten long days after his wife Enid and I chased his ambulance from that morning’s running of the bulls. That story appeared in almost every news network in the world.

(The first to break it were The Times and The New York Times.)

Part of the reason for this notoriety was the superficial irony of his injury: Bill and I, along with Joe Distler a veteran bull-runner from New York, Jim Hollander the EPA photographer from Jerusalem and John Hemingway, Ernest’s grandson from Montreal, had written an electronic guide book titled Fiesta: How To Survive The Bulls Of Pamplona (website here) – available at Amazon US here, UK here, Australia here, Canada here, Spain here, France here, Mexico here (all other regions available too.)


As ‘man bites dog’ stories go, “bull-survival guide author gets injured by bull” is a shoe-in, and it seems churlish to point out that he did indeed survive. However, to claim, as many in the world’s press have done, that his advice is not worth taking as a result is a step too far.

For a decade Bill has run the annual eight days of encierros – bull-runs – of Pamplona’s feria of San Fermín unscathed, as he has in other less famous towns like San Sebastián de los Reyes, Alcalá de Henares and Cuéllar, which has the oldest encierro in Spain, dating back to at least 1215 A.D.

Would the same reporters have said that driving advice from three-time Formula 1 champion Ayrton Senna was rendered invalid by his fatal crash in the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix? Are Karl Wallenda’s views on high-wire walking to be dismissed since he fell to his death in Puerto Rico in 1978? No, dangerous activities will always be dangerous, the only thing experience, and its passing on as advice, can ever do is mitigate the risks, not eradicate them.

Read on by clicking here.

En castellano aquí.

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Gored ‘Buffalo’ Bill Hillmann, Charlie Sheen, Tommy Ramone, matador Juan José Padilla & more…


It has been one hell of a Feria de San Fermín here in Pamplona, with highs and lows, screams and laughter, which, given that this Fiesta above all others is known to its devotees as a microcosm of life itself, should not be surprising.

The world’s press likes a good story and didn’t they just like the one about ‘Buffalo’ Bill Hillmann, bull-runner and author, being gored having published the eBook Fiesta: How To Survive The Bulls Of Pamplona. Hillmann’s co-author and the book’s editor, Alexander Fiske-Harrison, interviewed on his behalf – he was running with the same bull that day – and a small sample of the press includes Fiske-Harrison’s sometime employers The Times and Daily Telegraph, as well as The Guardian and The Independent in the UK making a complete sweep of broadsheets (it made all the tabloids too), Hillmann’s sometime employer the Chicago Tribune as well as the The New York Times, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times in the US, The Huffington Post and Esquire magazine, El Mundo, ABC and El Pais in Spain, Midi Libre in France, The Spiegel in Germany, The Globe And Mail in Canada, The Australian, NPR, BBCCNN, Fox, CBS, Sky, and NBC (the last includes Hillmann who is quite clearly on morphine.)

The most important new is that Hillmann is recovering well, despite having a two inch wide, eight inch long hole punched through his hamstring by a 600kg (1,323 lbs / 94 stone) bull from Madrid. He is now walking around his hospital room, so all’s well that ends well. (The bull himself, Brevito, from the ranch of Victoriano del Río, ended honourably on the sword of the one-eyed matador Juan José Padilla, by coincidence Fiske-Harrison’s first teacher of bullfighting during his time as a torero – the bull entered the ring with my Hillmann’s blood still on its horn.)

As journalists we well know the allure of “man bites dog” stories, and the “expert bull-runner gets gored on bull-run” story fits the formula remarkably neatly and, with several hundred photographers already on site, it also neatly fills the empty column inches created by empty desks as the press goes on its July holiday.

However, as a story, it has about as much irony as the famous Alanis Morissette song. Bull-running involves moving in the vicinity of Spanish fighting bulls, and doing it in Pamplona involves doing it in half a mile of street along with three or so thousand people who have never done it before.

However, for a bull-runner not to run Pamplona and to stick to smaller towns like Tafalla or Alcala de Henares would be like a jockey turning down the Grand National because it was dangerous and he was unlikely to win. We’d suggest the journalists commenting otherwise actually read the book. Otherwise they run the risk of looking more than a little foolish themselves (like the BBC interviewer who claimed Fiske-Harrison that the difference between bullfighting and killing cattle for meat was that one was for entertainment, the other of necessity. We don’t need to eat meat, the cattle die because we like the taste, and the fighting bulls are eaten anyway as Fiske-Harrison tersely responded.)

Joe Distler, another co-author of Fiesta whoran every bull-run from 1967 to 2012, once answered a question as to why he did it thus:

‘Have you heard of Karl Wallenda? He was a great high-wire walker, and when asked why he still dared fate after being seriously hurt he calmly replied, “Walking the wire is life, everything else is just waiting around.” That’s why I run.’

Wallenda was killed walking the wire. Would anyone question his ability to give advice on it as a result?


For ten years Hillmann has been coming to Pamplona from the US, and for the past two he also went to the oldest encierro – bull-run – in Spain, Cuéllar, along with other smaller towns. As Americans go, that’s pretty damned knowledgeable.

However, the true magicians on the encierros like Miguel Ángel Castander have been running all their lives, in hundreds of encierros, as well as being a professional recortador and pastor, ‘herdsman’, in the encierro of San Sebastián de los Reyes (you can see him here with the bull which gored Hillmann and nearly caught Fiske-Harrison a few second before – he is pulling the tail, then later distracting it with his body as the lure. This is what Hillmann was attempting when the bull caught him a few moments laters. Note the men in green shirts, Pamplona’s pastores like the Fran Itarte, the man losing his hair.)


This is why in the book includes four Spanish and Basque runners among its contributors. It also point out that you don’t run for competition or to impress, there is no keeping score or ‘experts': running is for the alegría, for the sheer ‘joy’ of putting it on the line. This is the reason the guide book is the only one in any language with a foreword from the Mayor of Pamplona himself.

There are other things in the encierro as well, like history and camaraderie. The first of the serious American bull-runners Matt Carney is the father of this tradition – and was Joe Distler’s great mentor. So, to see two of his children – Allen and Deirdre – standing together in a doorway awaiting the bulls on calle Mercaderes near the famous ‘curve’ onto calle Estafeta, was a moving sight. As moving still was Fiske-Harrison’s father Clive in the next doorway along with Joe Distler and former Texan rodeo champion Larry Belcher.

However, that was also the same day another runner lauded in the book, El cohete escocés, ‘The Scottish Rocket’ Angus Ritchie, was trampled. Apparently he protested that being taken was hospital unnecessary, although we’re sure the rumours that, (1) they were worried about a head wound which had in fact been self-inflicted the night before and (2) when they checked for concussion by asking him to say his name they inferred from his thick Paisley burr he had a subdural haematoma, simply can’t be true.

However, what is true is that the view from Noel Chandler’s balcony during the encierro included Charlie Sheen who has been in town for a few days. We’ve yet to see him in the streets.

Alexander Fiske-Harrison & Bill Hillmann plan their run in Cuéllar in 2013 (Photo: Nicolás Haro )

Alexander Fiske-Harrison & Bill Hillmann plan their run in Cuéllar in 2013 (Photo: Nicolás Haro )

The Editor.




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Updating… watch this space…

… the new post will be up in one hour… The Editor

(Meanwhile, read Fiesta: How To Survive The Bulls Of Pamplona)

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The Last Arena: The Times: Bullfight cancelled after three matadors badly gored


Here, here.

The Editor

AFH The Times article logo

As Graham Keeley in The Times of London writes today, despite my 4,000-word post (recently extended) on the art of toreo below, it is the risk that makes it ‘real’ as Adolfo Suarez Illana used to say to me in the ring, ‘authentic’ as one Andalusian government official called it to me last Thursday, ‘the last serious thing left in the world today’ as the poet Federico Garcia Lorca put it.

I saw David Mora do amazing work in the ring in Seville two weeks ago today, and the other two toreros last year. I wish them well and a quick and complete recovery. Unlike my rather grotesque and viciously moralising compatriots writing in the comments section of The Times, who are like another Taliban in their own petit way, and who seem too dim or venomous to realise…
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The Last Arena: The Statue And The Storm


From our friend in the south…

The Editor


José Mari Manzanares shows his art in Jerez


Cristina Ybarra presents her poster for the Rocío pilgrimage in the Salón de Borbón at the City Hall of Seville

Cristina Ybarra presents her poster for the Rocío pilgrimage in the Salón de Borbón at the Ayuntiamento, ‘City Hall’, of Seville

On Friday morning we took the train from Seville to Jerez and the temperature went south alongside us to a bearable 30 degrees. We exited the world of Ybarras and (encaste) Ibarra, Borbóns and (liquid) bourbon, and entered the land of horses and Domecqs. (For a story about my Zippo lighter, see Cristina Ybarra’s blog here.)

As I said in my last post, the bulls and bullfights of the Feria de Abril of Seville had been bad – the bullfighters unable to show either art with them or skill. I have written before – on this blog, in my book Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight – that large bulls, such as a first category bull-ring like Seville requires by law, have a far greater probability of being unfightable than the smaller ones found in a second category bullring like Jerez de la Frontera.

As the Royal Decree No. 145 of February 2nd, 1996, states in Article 46:

The minimum weight of animals in bullfights will be from 460kg in rings of the first category, from 435 in those of the second and 410 in those of the third.

Now, all aficionados look at the weight of bulls before they enter the ring, however, often they do not look – and in certain rings they do not publish – and the equally important age of the animal, which, of course, bears a varying and indirec relation to its weight. The toreros, ‘bullfighters’, I know and have fought with all spoke as often about age as size or horn type. A year in a bull’s life is a long time. So, although the same Royal Decree pronounces in the preceding article, 45, that -

The males that are destined to be fought in bullfights should be as a minimum four full years and in every case less than six.

- this still offers a two year range which is the difference between headlong aggression and a more judicious and challenging approach to what the bull perceives as a combat.
IMG_5669Of the El Pilar bulls we saw in Seville not only were four over 550kg, but four were also over five years old (three of both fours being the same bulls). In part this explained their lack nobleza, ‘nobility’, a concept which can be explicated in terms of unquestioning aggression or volatile stupidity, depending on your viewpoint. (The high casuality rate among the officer class in all conflicts leading up to and including the First World War in no way springs to mind. The full nature of the toro bravo I go into in one of the ‘pages’ listed top right of this website. For those whose main interest is how bullfighting can still exist in the modern world – the ethics – or why I refer to its as an art – the aesthetics – or a breakdown of the three act structure of a corrida – capote-picador, banderillas, muleta-sword – there are also ‘pages’ there on these topics.)

When you combine these old wise bulls who ‘speak Latin and Greek’, as the saying goes, with young unknown – or older and relatively little known – toreros the audience of Seville vote with their feet and wallets, not least because bad toros and toreros cost no less than great ones at the Maestranza box office (photo above), and you’d do better to spend your money on a cocktail at the Hotel Alfonso XIII (photo left), and read the critics in the Spanish newspapers bemoan the lack of a single true toro in the whole damned feria (photo below.)

The Spanish newspaper ABC bemoans the lack of bulls with the headline 'When there is raw material' (click to enlarge)

The Spanish newspaper ABC bemoans the lack of bulls with the headline ‘When there is raw material’ (click to enlarge)

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The Last Arena: Between one feria and the next


News of the bulls from the south of Spain. Let us hope by the time they come north, they’re in better shape…

(Click the logo below to read.)

The Editor

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Olé! Capturing the Passion of Bullfighters and Aficionados in the 21st Century


In support of the excellent new book, Olé! Capturing the Passion of Bullfighters and Aficionados in the 21st Century, we direct you to this post at The Last Arena – including Michael Wigram’s excellent chapter on the history of bullfighting reproduced in full. However, before you go, we should say a few words about the chapter by our friend Bill Hillmann. There has never been a truer runner, more loyal friend, more humble man and more authentically striving author. However, there is no denying that some of his choices of words at the beginning of the chapter – particularly the words ‘elite’ and ‘star’, which have no place there – were unfortunate. It is quite clear, though, that they were used in contrast to his conversion as described, and conclusions as reached, by the end of the chapter. In Bill’s own words:

Last year I had an incredible experience in Pamplona. A legendary Spanish runner named Juan Pedro gave me a priceless gift during the run when he caught my arm as I tripped and saved me from falling. That moment revolutionized my understanding of the run and changed me very deeply. Later I made a similar helpful gesture to another Spanish runner named Jose Manuel and we became good friends as result.

I set out to write an article about that for the Ole Anthology. I wanted to show the very natural and ugly emotional-urges of jealousy and ambition that exist in my heart as they do in all human hearts.  I wanted to show how Juan and the Encierro taught me that those emotional-urges should be ignored and defeated from within.

I failed miserably in my attempt to do this. Instead many people read the first half and ignored the second. Effectively they set out to attack the very things in me which I grappled with and overcame in the course of the essay.

My failure is, I created such a pompous-assed, unreliable-narrator in the first half that they couldn’t trust me in the second half. Or in certain cases it’s possible I held a mirror up to some reader’s faces and they saw their own jealousy and ambition in mine and they couldn’t handle that and sought to destroy it.

Either way, I regret failing, but I don’t regret trying.

I don’t know what “elite” means or what a “spectacular run” is. I’m a “star” of nothing and I don’t care about TV or acknowledgement from others.

I take pride in what I do. I am honored to share the street with the Spanish and learn about their beautiful tradition. A tradition which has taught me very much about life and what it is to be human all while giving  me astonishing joy. I love the Encierro. I love everyone who loves the Encierro and I apologize for that disaster of an essay

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