I’ve returned to the subject of bullfighting recently, reading Edward Lewine’s Death in the Sun (as opposed to Hemmingway’s undoubtedly unreadable Death in the Afternoon) about his season spent with top-class matador Francisco Riveira Ordoñez. I recommend it for an unbiased but detailed look into the subject. Upon mention of this, my friend Sophie sent me the following transcript which always springs to mind whenever I think of bullfighting. I, like Sophie, was fortunate enough to grow up listening to my father’s Flanders and Swann cassette tapes. If you’re English you have a duty to familiarise yourself with their marvelous comic songs and stories. You can find out more about them, and browse their lyrics, here. Madeira M’Dear is a personal favourite.
If you’re quick, you might be able to get tickets to Tim FitzHigham and Duncan Walsh Atkins’ At the Drop of a Hippopotamus tour at the Southbank Centre on 4th June. I wish I could!
Los Olivados – Flanders and Swann
‘Well, we promised you another hat, and here it is. I bought this last year when I was on the Franco-Spanish border, in the tiny principality of Andorra. It’s worn like this – with the peak, the brim at the back, you see. And it is in fact the distinguishing mark, the proud distinguishing mark, of the Andorran olivador, or olive-stuffer.
How many of you, I wonder, as you toy with a dry martini at the bar, have thought of the romance that lies behind the simple stuffed olive, or have witnessed, as I have, the almost unbearable drama of a corrida d’olivas, or festival of olive stuffing.
In Andorra, every boy hopes that he, too, will grow up to be one of the truly great oliveros. And each year, in fiesta time, people come to watch this traditional sport from as far afield as Cadeeth, Madreeth, or by air ferry from Leeth – as I myself deeth.
Let me now try to recreate for you something of the atmosphere of a corrida d’olivas. By three o’ clock in the afternoon, the stands in the great Plaza d’Olivas are packed with spectators; and excitement mounts as the band strikes up a paso doble, announcing the grand entry into the arena of the olivador. He is closely followed by his assistants, the picador, with his pick of sharpened wood, and the matador, with his small round mat. They bow to the Presidente Municipale, or Mayor, in his box, who gives the signal for the trumpet to sound, and the first olive to be wheeled in. A gasp goes up; for this is no ordinary olive. This is the giant, pendulous oliva brava, specially bred for the ring in the rugged foothills of Andalucia.
A corrida d’olivas is divided into three parts, or tercios – the first, a tercio of quites, or passes. Here, the olivador, keeping the rest of his body entirely motionless, passes the olive from hand to hand, trying to soften up its tough outer skin, in a bewildering series of Veronicas, Naturales, Media Veronicas, Veronicas Reverso. All this before the hyper-critical eye of the aficionados, each with his bottle of aficiolemonad.
The trumpet sounds a second time, this time the tercio de banderillos, and now it is the turn of the picador. Planting his feet firmly together in the sand, he holds his picks at arm’s length and prods into the olive, trying to determine whether the stone runs true up and down, or whether it is set at an angle, favouring one side, the dreaded oliva revoltosa.
The trumpet sounds a third and last time, for the tercio del muerte, the moment of truth. The olivador bows again to the Presidente, saying to him, “I dedicate to you this olive”. He then places it on his knee; murmuring a prayer to St. James of Compostela, he takes the pica, raises it high above his head. All is hushed. And then, in one sudden movement, he brings it jabbing down into the heart of the olive. And a great cry goes up of “Olé!” – he has made an ‘ole.
But before the gutted olive can fall to the sand it is caught by the matador on his mat, dragged out of the arena, and handed over to the estufadores, who are of two types: the estufadores pimentos, and the estufadores anchovas. Their dread work done, it is distributed among the poor.
No olive is ever allowed a second time into the arena. And woe betide the olivador whose olive is revoltosa. For then, at the moment of pica, the pick, glancing off the angled stone, will jab hard – ungh! – into his own knee.
A cruel sport. Some may think it so. But this is surely more than a sport, this is more than just a vital art form. What we have experienced here today is total catharsis, in the acting out of that primeval drama of man pitted against the olive.
And as the sun sets over the now empty Plaze d’Olivas, nothing is left but a few footprints in the hot sand, with here and there a tell-tale smear of olive oil. And one is reminded of those immortal words of Garcia Loca – in the Roy Campbell translation – “all lust and life must pass away, to make a cocktail canape.”
And this hat – this hat was introduced by perhaps the greatest olivero of them all, Flaminguez. Flaminguez it was who, at the very moment of pica, would give a deft twist to the wrist, which sent the sharp olive stone flying high into the air. And this peak – is to stop it going down the back of the neck.’