26 NOVEMBER 1983, Page 12

The bull-ring cycle

Simon Courtauld

Madrid inuring the first weeks of the Civil War, in the hills of the Sierra Morena, a village priest was taken from his church to the local bull-ring. A bull was released and — after how long it is not recorded — the priest was duly gored to death in front of an enthusiastic crowd claiming loyalty to the republic. A macabre ritual then followed: in a reversal of the usual procedure of the corrida, the priest's ears were cut off and awarded to the bull. Not long after, the Ar- my of Africa under Colonel Yagtie, making its relentless and merciless way northwards in the summer of 1936, killed hundreds of people of the village in revenge for the priest's death.

I do not know if this priest is one of the `martyrs' of the war whom the Pope now wishes to canonise. An unknown number — possibly as many as 10,000 — of clergy and members of religious orders were killed between 1936 and 1939. The matter of beatification has been raised from time to time; on the last occasion, in the Sixties, Pope Paul VI decided that to drag up the memory of those years again would be a mistake. But last month the Vatican, no doubt recalling the message of Pope Pius XII to Franco in 1939 — 'Lifting our hearts to God, we give sincere thanks with your Excellency for the victory of Catholic Spain' — announced that it would recon- sider the case for the Spanish 'martyrs for the faith'.

Eight years after the death of Franco and the restoration of democracy, and a year after the election of a socialist government whose prime minister was born after the civil war had ended, it is hard to think of a more insensitive and untimely idea. It is not just that Spain is trying to present itself as a

Western European socialist country, soon to belong to the EEC, while the bitterness of the appalling upheaval in the Thirties still runs deep. Death has a peculiar significance for Spaniards: it is foolish to underestimate it, equally to do anything provocative to re- mind them of it. Viva la muerte! is a cry of very recent memory, in a country where your guide in the Escorial delights in ex- plaining how the monastery was built by Philip. II in the shape of an inverted grid- iron (on which St Laurence was roasted), and in pointing to the pudridero, the room in which corpses were rotted before inter- ment; where the deaths columns in the newspapers are headed with the rather sinister-sounding word necrologicas; and where the ritual slaying of a bull by a man — matador means 'killer' — is considered to be part of the culture.

In the first year of socialism for nearly half a century, Spain has enjoyed one of its most successful bullfighting seasons for a long while. Last month, in Seville, strong men wept when Manolo Vazquez, now in his fifties, made his final appearance in the ring, cutting three ears. He had been fighting for more than 30 years, having become a matador in the year that the Queen succeeded George VI.

Whereas, a few years ago, football seem- ed to have replaced bullfighting in popular appeal, and it was felt, mistakenly, that bullfighting was not really appropriate to the new democratic way of life in Spain, the spectacle (it is not a sport, since the bull is always killed) is now flourishing once again. Socialist politicians like to be seen at the corrida, though the prime minister, Felipe Gonzalez, who looks like a bullfighter, is not an aficionado; many fights are televised, including slow-motion replays; and a lot of promising new boys are claiming attention.

Most significantly of all, perhaps, bullfighting is now written about, seriously and sympathetically, by academics and authors..This month's issue of Tauridia, a magazine which started publication this year, contains articles by a professor of language and literature, a member of the Fine Arts Academy of Saragossa, and a winner of the Premio Nacional de Literatura. The last mentioned, Luis Jimenez Martos, compares the style of bullfighters to the times in which they lived. The authoritarian Belmonte had his heyday under the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera in the Twenties; Manolete, fighting in the convalescent period of the Forties after the cornada ('goring') of the civil war, per- sonified the qualities of fearlessness and security, of remorse and elegant stoicism appropriate to the times. But then, at the age of 30, he received a fatal cornada himself, in the bull-ring of Linares in August 1947.

Later there were bullfighters who com- plemented each other by their different styles. Bullfighting needs such a contrast, such a contest, for its popularity to be sus- tained. It needs two outstanding matadors, the one to display a reckless bravery, the other to demonstrate technical expertise. It is this kind of rivalry which has been absent in recent years, but which two young men, Francisco Espla and Paco Ojeda, have shown signs of reviving this past season.

Kenneth Tynan, in his book Bull Fever, made the same point. Writing of the fights

which he saw in the summer of 1952 (the same year that Vazquez started his career), Tynan observed this essential dichotomy between Litri and Ordonez. He wrote, ac- curately enough though in rather overblown language, that when these two were fighting, 'Reach was confronted with

Grasp, Accident with Design, Romantic with Classic, Sturm and Drang with Age of

Gold'. I'm not sure about the last two, but

the general analogy is valid. And it is arguable that similar qualities, in the leader-

ship of Spain, have enabled it to achieve, in a few years, the transition from dictatorship to democracy under a socialist government and a constitutional monarchy. Without a fair measure of reach and grasp, of accident and design, of risk and 'technique', Spain would not have survived the immediate post-Franco period without bloodshed. It is now, once again, a relatively stable — or at least a submissive — society; and having become so, it is in a position today to follow the path of moderate socialism.

Occasionally one man represents, in the public mind, the synthesis of these virtues. Today it may be that the king qualifies for the role. In the Forties it was Manuel Rodriguez Manolete who, looking sad and soulful like an El Greco painting, at once brave and brilliant in his craft, became, for many people, the symbol of a unifying force. If the Pope intends to canonise any Spanish 'martyrs', I propose not the priest who was murdered in a village bullring in northern Andalusia but the matador who was killed in Linares.