John McLellan: Bullfights are horribly gripping and unjustifiably compelling

French matador Sebastian Castella stabs a bull in the San Fermin festival in Pamplona, northern Spain (Picture: Jose Jordan/AFP/Getty)
French matador Sebastian Castella stabs a bull in the San Fermin festival in Pamplona, northern Spain (Picture: Jose Jordan/AFP/Getty)
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The bull reared and twisted its head in defiance but, as its legs widened to steady itself, the wounded animal dropped its snout and snorted blood onto the sand as its life ebbed away. It looked up one last time, bowed its head and, with one last bloody splutter, crumpled to the ground dead.

The crowd in the packed Seville bullring was quiet, the matador had not done his job by honouring the bull with a quick, clean kill. There was no waving of handkerchiefs and programmes for Daniel Luque.

Of course, no death in the bullrings of Spain, Portugal and Southern France is quick and clean. It will take at least ten minutes from when the picadors first stick their lances into the bull’s neck muscles for it to be dispatched by the matador plunging his sword between its shoulder blades and into its heart.

At best, when the sword severs the spinal cord and bursts the heart, the bull will drop dead instantly, but the matador must have the anatomical knowledge, speed, strength and accuracy to deliver the fatal blow effectively. He must also have nerveless courage to go in over the horns of the wounded animal to hit the correct angle, otherwise death can be prolonged.

Luque had narrowly missed so death was not immediate, but just at the moment the bull was about to be finished off with a dagger, its struggle ended and he was dragged away by the mule team to be cut up for butcher meat.

Scenes like this will be playing out right now across the Iberian Peninsula, although the biggest and best corridas have already been and gone in the cooler weather of April and May, with the heat of the summer mainly for the novices.

I’d never been but had a fascination with bull-fighting and its concept of courage and honour since I read the biography of the legendary El Cordobes, he of the poster fame which came back from those early package trips to Spain in the 60s. My son and I were knocking ideas about for a trip when the subject came up and he seemed as fascinated as I and so we agreed that Seville at the height of the season at the end of April was the time to see the most accomplished matadors and not too hot for sight-seeing during the day.

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Just under a tenth of Spaniards attend bullfights at least once a year and despite the growth of animal rights protests and repeated attempts to outlaw bull killing in Catalonia and the Balearic Islands, the Spanish Government has declared bullfighting a cultural asset. Only this month the Portuguese parliament overwhelmingly threw out a bid to outlaw their version of the spectacle.

And with the colour, the music and the brutal ritual, a spectacle it unquestionably is. Bullfighting in Seville is not just part of the fabric of Andalusian culture, but is literally part of the fabric of the old town, with the magnificent La Maestranza bullring actually built into the warren of ancient streets around it.

As advised, we bought tickets in advance, about the same price as a rugby international for good seats in the shade, but as the corridas take place most nights in April we took a walk up to the ring the night before to check out where to go. The streets thronged with locals in their finery, the men all in jackets and ties, the women smartly dressed as if for Ladies Day at Musselburgh Races and we arrived at the gates just as the matadors strode through the crowds and into the building.

We jostled our way through and managed to buy some cheap tickets in the sun, crammed into the brick terraces, curing in the evening sun with the billows of cigar smoke from every second aficionado around us. After all, what’s the point of banning smoking when the product is death and flirtation with danger?

For the six beasts in the ring every night, their untroubled years on the bull farms come to an inevitable, violent end. Their instinct is almost always to attack although, on this occasion, two did not seem up for the contest so were coaxed out of the ring by a small herd of cows and calves. The removed bulls would end up as butcher meat too. Their replacements weren’t timid, one of whom upended a Picador and his horse, and a Banderillero found himself spinning through the air as he tried to stick his coloured barbs into the back of another.

Because we hadn’t set out to go in that night we still had the tickets for the following day, so back we went. There were fewer spectators in the dearer seats but more tourists and sitting next to us was a Scot who worked in agriculture and when I said we’d been the night before, his wife asked what it was like and revealed she was vegetarian. I could only say she was going to have a very difficult two hours, and so it proved as the poor woman buried her head in her phone throughout.

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Luque’s botched kill was the low point in what for regulars would have been a relatively unremarkable evening were it not for the showmanship of another matador, Manuel Escribano, who knelt in front of the gates as the untamed bull charged into the ring.

It was all horribly gripping and unjustifiably compelling as each toreador took his chances with the bulls, but the sense of guilt at being part of the death of animals as entertainment was inescapable. For all the fans in the ring, 90 per cent of Spaniards do not go and other locals I spoke to clearly felt it was a national disgrace.

Yet the breeding estates are held up as models of animal husbandry where the animals roam free in what might be regarded as havens of biodiversity until their date with destiny, and still receive EU farm subsidies despite a 2015 European Parliament vote to call a halt.

If you eat meat, then this is the fate of your dinner played out literally in the raw. The animals you are consuming will not have met a tormented death in a ring, but nor will they have had the life fighting bulls enjoyed.