13 SEPTEMBER 1997, Page 24


Tristan Garel-Jones marks the anniversary of a great bullfighter's death with a plea for the ritual a nation reveres

FIFTY years ago Manuel Rodriguez `Manolete', perhaps the greatest bullfight- er of all time, met his death in the bull- ring at Linares in Andalusia. The Caliph of Cordoba was mortally wounded by a fighting bull named Islero as he delivered the coup de grace.

It is hard to describe the consternation caused in Spain. Of course there are no possible comparisons in terms of the indi- viduals, but this event in Linares is the nearest Spain has come in the last 50 years to the sense of national grief we are expe- riencing in Britain today. The raw, tragic finality of death touching and affecting a whole people. A national hecatomb.

Even now, 50 years on, the serious press in Spain vie with one another in producing commemorative supplements and retro- spective profiles. Intellectuals and poets are wheeled out to do homage to the mae- stro. Thus, the senior bullfighting critic of the newspaper ABC writes, 'His sobriety, his uprightness, astonishing swordsman- ship, his personality, his truth, honour, harmony, all combine to make up the unique contribution of the uncrowned Caliph to this eternal and ethereal art form.' He exaggerates not one jot.

We should have a care before dismissing as barbarous a spectacle celebrated by Picasso, Lorca, Bergamin and Ortega y Gasset, none of whom spring immediately to mind as barbarians. Bullfighting has been described as the last serious thing in Europe, for it deals with the only thing that really matters about life: death. Everything humanity does is about avoid- ing death. We hear a bang, we cover our- selves. To live. Life is about preparing for death, postponing it where possible.

For our great-grandparents death was ever-present. Women bore a dozen chil- dren and were lucky to see a couple reach adulthood. Hunger, disease, wars, all com- bined to make death a reality. Today death has been sanitised, though, mercifully, not yet eliminated. But the fear of death grows. Its tragedy is magnified. How many people have seen a dead body, except perhaps one of their grandparents tastefully laid out by the local undertaker?

As a Member of Parliament it struck me that many of my constituents could not even utter the word 'dead'. Every euphemism in the book was deployed to avoid the dreaded word. And yet, there it is, the only reality.

Manrique de Lara's verse rings haunting- ly down the years:

Avive el seso y despierta contemplando Como se pasa el tiempo, Como se viene la muerte tan callando.

Stir up your mind, contemplate and awake, See how time passes, See how death creeps up in its wake.

What the bullfight does is confront one with death — its horror, its dignity, its finality. But in doing so it emphasises the hierarchy of creation, the difference between man and beast. Man — Christians would say the possessor of an immortal soul — codifies, creates, risks and con- structs a thing of beauty. The beast dies. The man lives — might die — will die in time. The contemplation of all that purges with terror and pity and, I believe, helps us to arrive at the happy state described by Walt Whitman praising 'the sure entwining arms of cool enfolding death'.

This was the arena into which Manuel Rodriguez of Cordoba, the son and grand- son of bullfighters, stepped at the age of 12. A face out of El Greco, callow and sor- rowful. A limping, majestic walk. A sense of honour and truth. Art and grace com- bined with breathtaking bravery. True, his mould-breaking style has been criticised by some. True, he had a short repertoire with the wide cape. But true, true, true that he possessed a unique, regal authority. To describe him as a star would be like describing Beethoven's 5th Symphony as a hit or Shakespeare's sonnets as bestsellers.

Amongst the remembrances on this anniversary one in particular struck me, from his contemporary, the great Pepe Luis Vazquez. They were fighting together in Palencia. Manolete drew a difficult bull and, unusually for him, was having great trouble in despatching the animal. The crowd grew restless. A formal warning was issued by the presidency. Again and again he failed to sink the sword home. 'Give him a bajonazo' shouted Pepe Luis (a bajonazo being, I suppose, an equivalent of a hit below the belt, an easy and perhaps rather cowardly way of bringing the busi- ness to an end). 'But I don't know how to do that!' To this day Pepe Luis expresses astonishment that Manolete should not know how to deliver a bajonazo. But we know better. The Caliph was the finest swordsman ever. He always killed from the front, head on — with all the risk and all the clean certainty that involved. Indeed, he met his own death delivering such a thrust. It is not believable that he didn't know how to deliver the all too common bajonazo. That he wouldn't do so is anoth- er matter. A point of honour. So where does bullfighting stand today? In quite a healthy state, though under some attack by the European Union, with Britain and other northern European countries in the lead.

It was I, on behalf of HMG and support- ed by Germany, who introduced the decla- ration on animal welfare annexed to the Maastricht Treaty. I did so with a clear conscience since I was expressing the strongly held views of a majority of my fel- low citizens and I welcome any measure to improve the welfare of animals in trans- portation, research and the single market. I was confident that the Spaniards could be relied upon to amend the text in such a way as to protect bullfighting. They did not disappoint.

The text has now been upgraded to a protocol following the Amsterdam Coun- cil; full treaty force and justiciable under the European Court of Justice. But before the busybodies get to work I must tell them that Spain has delivered a textual sword-thrust, head on, like the Caliph himself. The protocol ends thus: `. . . while respecting the legislative and administra- tive provisions and customs of the member states relating particularly to religious rites, cultural traditions and regional her- itage'. Ole!

There is a lesson here. Much of the debate about the European Union has centred on the sheep-meat regime, fish quotas and, above all, the single currency. These issues are not unimportant, but they are a sideshow. Does anyone seriously believe that Britain's identity as a nation can be measured in tons of white fish? Surely Hayek is right to say that economic sovereignty is something of a chimera and, in any event, that its pursuit by individual nations islikely to be fruitless. Markets and national convenience will take that decision for us.

The real battle in Europe is the struggle against imposed cultural homogeneity, and in this respect we must thank Spain for the addendum to the Animal Welfare protocol and ensure that its sentiments are given wider currency. And, so long as the Spaniards do not attempt to use the single market to set up a bull-ring in Milton Keynes, the British government should stop harrying them on a matter that goes to the very heart of their cultural identity.

As the mortally wounded Manolete was borne on a stretcher through the hushed crowd towards the hospital of the Marquis of Linares, he was heard to cry out, 'Why are you taking me so far?' Far indeed for he was to meet death, his close com- panion for so many years — but farther than he could imagine, for he was also to meet with immortality and to become a lasting symbol, in death, of honour, courage and beauty.

We must pray that the spirit of Spain will not be diluted by bureaucrats, busybodies and the politically correct, whether in Whitehall or Brussels, and that we may live to see his like again. iVale Manuel?

The author was Conservative MP for Wat- ford, 1979-97, a Whip, then Minister of State at the Foreign Office.