Gates of Fear, Barnaby Conrad

th-1Every now and then, I choose to read an out of print book about an esoteric subject. Of course it has to be recommended – life’s too short for random choices. I’ve just read Gates of Fear by Barnaby Conrad. The author worked for the American consulate in Spain during the 1950’s. During his posting there, he became an aficionado and his afición was bullfighting. He even took it up himself.

My life is sedentary and easy. I play a sitting down instrument. That’s why I admire physical courage. There is a kind of courage in performing in public but it’s not physical. In a world where police officers refused to rescue a drowning boy, I find myself inspired by men and women who put their bodies and lives in danger.

During the middle part of the twentieth century you could say there was a bullfighting craze. This was largely thanks to Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises (1926), Death in the Afternoon (1936). Such was Hemingway’s stature, bullfighting became a topic of literary interest.

This book’s book’s 550 pages include photographs and drawings as well as extensive passages from other writers making it a type of anthology. The cost of permissions must have dented the author’s earnings.

We learn about tauromachy’s ancient roots and the feeling of the Roman amphitheatre is never far away – the sand, the animal versus man contests, the cruelty, blood, death and the braying crowd.

Bullfighting spread throughout the Spanish-speaking world. It crossed the Pyrennes into the amphitheatres at Nimes, Arles and Frejus. And the Portuguese developed a version with mounted matadors.

Conrad conjured up the excitement and terror that was unleashed when the gates of fear were unbolted to allow a huge, angry bull into the arena. Bullfighting comes with a history of famous names and stories. Many were killed and even more suffered life-changing injuries. My favourite was Josellitto who became so successful, the crowds became bored and started to boo him. Soon after he lost concentration and was killed. His bull had poor eyesight so didn’t fall for the matador’s visual trickery.

There were a few female matadors notably the American, Bette Ford. And she fought bulls, not cows. Alas, the glass ceiling is still an integral part of bovine life.

But after a while I tired of matadors and their silly tight trousers and glad the book came to an end. The passage I enjoyed the most was written by Lysander Kemp. It was a contrarian piece about how he didn’t care for the spectacle and probably best reflected my own views.

Nowadays I hear very little of bullfighting. It never troubles the British sporting press and doesn’t seem to try to spread its appeal outside the Spanish-speaking world. Corporate sponsors have stayed away though this has allowed the sport to maintain its integrity as a spectacle.

But I’m writing this after reading a report on the Wilder-Fury fight and watching the press conference after. Now that’s the kind of physical courage I prefer. The match might be in London.Bring it on!

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