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On Bullfighting'

What Becomes'
A L Kennedy in person
A L Kennedy and the British army

Supplementary material is in italics

See also the pages
Bullfighting: Bullfighting: arguments against and action against
Seamus Heaney and bullfighting
Crap and credulity
Animal welfare: arrest and activism



My discussion of A L Kennedy's non-fiction book 'On Bullfighting' is far more comprehensive than my discussion of her novels 'Paradise' and 'Day,' and her short story collection, 'What Becomes,' in which I discuss only a few aspects.

'On Bullfighting'

Appearances are deceptive. Her photographs perhaps suggest someone not too robust, she complains in the book about her bad back, about not being able to sleep. 'I'm in the Plaza Mayor, Madrid, and feeling uneasy...too little sleep...' and 'I had a bad night on the train back from Granada - stayed unpleasantly awake for the duration.'

'On Bullfighting' starts with an unsuccessful suicide attempt. She decides not to go ahead when 'my least favourite folk song in all the world - Mhairi's Wedding begins to play' and '...I can't face jumping while the bloody thing is still being sung. Murdering myself to this accompaniment is more than I can bear.'

But in fact she has a strong stomach, an enormous appetite for suffering and death. This is someone who will put up with a very great deal, in a severely restricted sense, one that involves no pain and discomfort for herself. She writes about 'the cramped grip of the aeroplane seats' and, whilst walking in Madrid, 'the cold gnawing in my neck.' Whilst she's waiting for the bullfight to start in Madrid, this writer from Scotland with such sensitivity to chills complains, '...I am regretting my stupidly Calvinist choice to forego the hire of a cushion. The rigid chill of the masonry has already crept up as far as my hips.' There were animals, horses as well as bulls, waiting to experience something more drastic than this discomfort in the backside and hips. She'd felt no warmer in Granada. There, she decides to eat bull's tail, although with reservations '...I know it's absurd to be eating something stewed when the temperature's in the eighties, but I'm having a personal cold spell, shivering.'

Her reports from the bull-ring left me drained and disgusted, but I was only reading them. She was there at the ring-side, watching it all, watching the blood flow. She reports tourists walking out during one bullfight: 'Some tourists leave, unhappy. I take one of my larger pills and eat some lemon biscuits...' She stays right to the end, and comes back for more.

There's no indication that she found this a painful duty, for the sake of 'the book.' When capital punishment was used in this country, there were judges who did find sentencing a man or woman to death a painful duty (but none of them ever considered it to be a resigning matter.) The judge who sentenced Christie to hang, black cap on head, was in tears. (Timothy Evans, who was innocent, had previously been hanged for the murder. ) This was sentimentality to judges like Lord Goddard, who was sometimes brought to orgasm as he passed sentence of death, and, significantly, when he sentenced young men to be whipped with the birch. His clerk used to bring in a spare pair of trousers on these occasions so that he could change from the ones soaked with judicial semen. (See the Wikipedia page on Lord Goddard where I'm given as one of the three references for this information.)

The fast approaching death of the bull sometimes seems to bring A L Kennedy closer and closer to a kind of orgasmic writing. 'Ponce talks to the toro gently...The faena lasts six minutes: six minutes of coaxing and pauses...The dust lifts about the pair as they tighten on each other...he arches his body high and back...As the bull sinks, Ponce faces it...I have never seen the gesture filled with this tension, this sense of worship and violation, this naked hunger for a soul.' Later: '...there is something sexual about the faena' and 'Matadors often liken the faena to making love.' (From the Glossary: 'The faena is 'The final act of the corrida - the Act of the Kill.') Of another bull: 'Rather than tricking the bull, Ponce gives the impression that he knows what it wants before it does, that he is here to help. This is the body knowledge of a lover...'

But she's often denied the fulfilment she craves and the death of the bull is like bad sex, very bad sex. Before the bull can die, though, there's a kind of perverted foreplay, in which the spears of the picadors and the banderillas play their part:

'...the picadors spear as much danger as they can out of the bull.'

After the picadors have lanced it '...another bull is left, staggering and urinating helplessly, almost too weak to face the muleta.' She comments, prosaically, 'I do appear to be observing considerable distress.' The muleta, as she has explained in a footnote, is 'The small red cape, stiffened with a rod, which is used by the matador during the final passes which lead to the kill.' But before the bull could face the muleta, he still had to endure six more stabbings from the six barbed banderillas. These would bring him to an even more helpless state.

This is from the first bullfight she witnessed. After it, she writes, 'I have to see more corridas.'

On the back of the book, Michael Ignatieff is quoted as giving his approval: 'A strange and beautiful book.' I would put it differently, 'A strange and ugly book.'

And more scenes which didn't bring her to walk out:

'The picadors are, if anything, more brutal in their work...' The picadors lance the neck muscles of the bull, but she asks for our sympathy not for the bull but for her own neck muscles: 'Take it for granted that lifting and travelling still hurt my neck...' Later, she writes about the difficulty of settling into 'another two hours or so of sitting upright, of trying to make my neck muscles relax, of thinking the pain away,' the difficulty, that is, of sitting for two hours or so watching bulls stabbed eight times or more in the neck muscles.

Unlike the work of some common and literal-minded bullfighting supporter, where there's an exclusive emphasis on the bullfight, we're reminded that this is a more complex response - descriptions of the violence and the supposed ecstasies of the bullfight artistically interspersed with accounts of her own sufferings. This organizing principle is disastrously misguided. Her own sufferings are real enough, no doubt. It's found that she has a displaced disk in the spine, according to one account. According to another, her back pain was simply due posture, sitting at a desk for long periods of time, as writers tend to do. Perhaps she had no real intention of killing herself in Edinburgh but I assume that her distress was real. When she was in Spain, she gives no evidence that she was still suicidal. Again and again she forfeits our sympathy and unwittingly makes clear the disproportion between the suffering of the animals and her own sufferings.

'At the kill, the young man's sword hits bone, again and again and again while the silence presses down against him. He tries for the descabello. Five blows later and the animal finally falls.' The descabello, as the Glossary explains, is 'A heavy, straight sword' used to sever the spine.

'I have already watched Curro Romero refuse to have almost anything to do with his bull, never mind its horns. (The severely critical response of a member of the audience to a cowardly bull or a cowardly bullfighter.) He has killed his first with a blade placed so poorly that its tip protruded from the bull's flank...As the animal coughed up blood, staring, bemused, ['bemused?'] at each new flux the peones tried a rueda de peones to make the blade move in the bull's body and sever anything, anything at all that might be quickly fatal, but in the end the bull was finally, messily finished after three descabellos.'

The suffering of the bull 'left, staggering and urinating helplessly, almost too weak to face the muleta' wasn't ended by a painless and instantaneous death: 'Contreras...misses the kill...Contreras tries again, hooking out the first sword with a new one ...Contreras finally gives the descabello.' So, the sword is embedded in the animal, the sword is pulled out and thrust into the animal yet again, but it's still very much alive, the ungrateful creature. The descabello is hard at work in this book. People who have the illusion that the 'moment of truth' amounts to a single sword-thrust and the immediate death of the bull are disabused of the notion here. More often, the moment of truth is hacking at the spine with the descabello.

Even the sexual apotheosis which Ponce has offered is accompanied by this hack-work: 'He has risked a long faena, working on the bull, steadying it, but still the kill goes badly and a time warning sounds as Ponce tries to finish the job and the regulation twelve minutes for the kill expire. Three times he goes in with the sword, then there is a rueda de peones, then three descabellos before the animal sways and falls.'

The horses are mentioned very briefly. (For me, the suffering of the horses is a central objection to bullfighting.) A decree of the government of Primo de Rivera ordered that horses should be given a quilted covering 'to avoid those horrible sights which so disgust foreigners and tourists.' This was in response not to the concerns of aficionados but the concern of Primo de Rivera's English wife. A 'horrible sight' ended by this reform was disembowelling of the horse ('evisceration' sounds too clinical.) Before this reform, disembowelling was very common. Very often, as many horses as bulls were killed during a bullfight. But the protective mattress didn't end the suffering of the horses. It hides many injuries. Again and again, horses suffer injuries to their internal organs and broken ribs. Horses are still gored in areas unprotected by the mattress.

Bullfighting supporters generally acknowledge these facts. A L Kennedy admits them: 'Arguments are cited which state, reasonably enough, that the blindfolded and terrified horse is currently buffeted by massive impacts, suffering great stress and possibly broken bones.' But some aficionados have advocated 'kinder' treatment of the horses. Humane aficionados! What is the reform proposed by these good, kind-hearted people to reduce animal suffering? This: taking away the protective mattress and returning to disembowelling of the horses! As A L Kennedy puts it, 'a return to the 'kinder' option of evisceration.' She perhaps forgets that death by disembowelling - evisceration - was often not instantaneous. As Hemingway admits, a horse might carry on running whilst trailing its intestines behind it. (If only some of the horse's innards were showing, the gap in the horse's body could be filled with sawdust 'by a kindly veterinarian.' 'No sweeter, purer sawdust ever stuffed a horse than that used in the Madrid ring' according to Hemingway.)

She discusses these things in a strangely detached tone, and, in the same strangely detached tone, 'It is believed in some quarters that horse-killing greatly improves the bull's 'spirit' for the remainder of its time in the ring and is the only fit proof of its 'bravery'. And she goes on attending bullfights.

She's properly sceptical about the bullfight as art form:

'The corrida can sometimes create the effect of art (as can, for that matter, a voodoo ceremony, a funeral or a high mass) but it is divided against itself, because of the unpredictability of the bull, because of the numerous abuses of its own laws, because it hopes to weaken the bull, but leave it glorious, to defend the matador, but give him something to overcome. The corrida, although it has its own rigours and remarkable individual toreros, currently lacks the overarching discipline, creative economy and communicative breadth of an art. It could also be said that its levels of cruelty and violence prevent it being an art, that an art cannot exceed certain parameters of damage, that it cannot cause death.'

Even so, this is weedy prose, for someone with some reputation as a prose stylist: 'communicative breadth' is the language of educational bureaucrats and '...cannot exceed certain parameters' the language of a scientific paper, necessary in most cases - 'the levels of adenosine triphosphate in the biosynthesizing cell cannot exceed certain parameters.' I'd have to claim that my own way of expressing A L Kennedy's last point is far better. From the section Bullfighting as an art form. Bullfighting and tragedy in which, unlike A L Kennedy, I do grant bullfighting some right to being an art form, although the most limited and perverted of art forms:

'Hemingway, 'Death in the Afternoon:' 'Bullfighting is the only art in which the artist is in danger of death.' I would emphasize a different aspect. Bullfighting is the only art form where the artist inflicts suffering and death, the only art form which is morally wrong. Bullfighting is the pariah amongst the arts. Suffering and death have enough power. An art should do nothing to increase it. In other arts, suffering and death are confronted, explained, found impossible to explain, raged against, transcended, balanced by consolation and joy, not inflicted.'

There are sections of genuinely accomplished prose in the book but too much of it is routine or worse. There's cliché, 'the more bulls, the merrier' and, of Lorca, 'like any young artist worth his salt...' - and weak phrasing that any writer with any pride should have eliminated: of the Coliseum, 'the negative atmosphere of the place.' The misuse of 'literally' - '...the fact that I'm literally boring myself to death.'

The main weakness of the book, apart from the shocking evidence that this is someone whose feelings are severely restricted, is the common or universal failing of those who find excuses for bullfighting, the glamorisation of danger and the failure to put the danger to the bullfighters in context. I deal with this at length in the courage of the bullfighters. From that section:

'Not only is the courage of bullfighters completely eclipsed by the courage of mountaineers, it's completely eclipsed by the courage of ordinary people in time of war, civilians as well as soldiers. In some operations of war, death has been overwhelmingly likely or ever-present. The life expectancy of a British pilot in the First World War was typically 11 days, the life expectancy of many soldiers at the Western Front during periods of intense fighting something like three weeks. The men who flew in Bomber Command during the Second World War were all volunteers. They served for thirty operations before they became instructors or took up other non-combatant roles. In 1943, the chances of them surviving the thirty operations amounted to one in seven. After 15 operations, when they were more experienced, they had a 25 % chance of survival. What French bullfighter has had to show a fraction of the courage, has faced a fraction of the dangers faced by the countless, ordinary (or extraordinary) French soldiers at the relentless killing machine of Verdun?'

A L Kennedy makes a grotesque comparison, in connection with the bullfighter 'El Juli,' who, rumours have it, 'will soon attempt to face seven bulls...within the course of one day... At this level, the life of the matador must be governed by the same dark mathematics which calculates a soldier's ability to tolerate combat: so many months in a tour of duty, so many missions flown, and mental change, mental trauma, becomes a statistical inevitability. But in the corrida, the matador is not exposed to physical and emotional damage by duty, or conscription - he is a volunteer, a true believer, a lover with his love. And there are no limits to love, it is quite merciless.' This attempt at high-flown language is an abject failure, a chicken's attempt to soar. At least 'merciless' is accurate, given that in this case the lover may plunge the sword into his love repeatedly, hitting bone, or thrust the sword in and take it out with another sword, or the lover may hack away at the spine of his love with a heavier sword.

In the book, the merging of love and killing is only superficially deep. Love and killing are insidiously merged, recklessly and dangerously. Lorca's execution by a nationalist firing squad during the Spanish Civil War, instead of being a squalid and despicable act, is transfigured. Of Lorca, 'he might almost be aware of the darkness coming, might almost be asking himself when it will come, when a man who loves his country will be killed by other men who love it differently.' As an intransigent opponent of executions I make no exception for the execution of the bullfighting supporter Lorca, and of the bullfighter who was killed at the same time. After he was killed, Lorca was shot in the backside. The Falangist Juan Luis Trescastro: 'We killed Federico Garcia Lorca. I gave him two shots in the arse as a homosexual.' Does this shatter and make ridiculous the romanticized vision of A L Kennedy? Or is shooting someone in the backside an act of love too, like the sword thrust to the bull?

More evidence that she has a fondness for 'transfigurations' which falsify reality. 'I wonder again why Lorca came back to Granada, why he came home, why he took that last risk and came looking for extinction.' This came looking for extinction is pure supposition, imagined, arising from that same source as the over-written musings on the death of the bull at the hands of his 'lover.' In the Spanish civil war, according to Julius Ruiz, the republicans executed almost 38 000 people and the nationalists about 100 000 (and about 50 000 more after the war was over). Other sources give widely differing estimates, but whatever the number, it's likely that very few of these victims, innocent or far from innocent themselves, were 'looking for extinction' and there's no evidence that Lorca had a death wish.

The Falange, the Fascist or near Fascist group, were the foremost executioners in the conflict. The group 'had rapidly developed into the nationalists' paramilitary force, assuming the task of 'cleaning up'...Their leader, José Antonio, had declaimed that 'the Spanish Falange, aflame with love, secure in its faith, will conquer Spain for Spain to the sound of military music.' (Antony Beevor, 'The Battle for Spain: The Spanish Civil War 1936 - 1939.')

The republican Lorca and the nationalists were linked as well as contrasted. They were linked by the cult of death. One nationalist rallying cry was 'Long live death!' Lorca: 'Spain is unique, a country where death is a national spectacle...In every country death has finality. Not in Spain. A dead person in Spain is more alive than is the case anywhere else.' Another republican, El Campesino, again quoted in 'The Battle for Spain' : 'I am not pretending that I was not guilty of ugly things myself, or that I never caused needless sacrifice of human lives. I am a Spaniard. We look upon life as tragic. We despise death.'

When the darkness came to Germany, some Germans were revolted by the darkness and conspired against Hitler. Over four thousand of them were executed by the Nazis after the failed conspiracy of1944, but these were not people who loved Germany killed by others who loved Germany differently. A L Kennedy would never follow her dangerous idea so far, but others have done.

Facts and figures can be supplied which make A L Kennedy's 'dark mathematics' ridiculous. I give just a few of them above. And, ten years after she wrote about him and his likely demise, El Juli is still with us, still very much alive, despite the dark mathematics. (And the author's back problems have also subsided.)

In this book, A L Kennedy is an 'imaginative' writer in the worst sense of the word, as in 'The matador is at the heart of a strange balance between the demands of safety and fame [mention of the money at this point would have spoilt the effect], between the instinct for self-preservation and the appetite for the ultimate (and therefore ultimately dangerous [my emphasis]) execution of the corrida's three traditional acts.'

The matador often has some inducements generally denied to combat troops or the mountaineers who face death - adulation and high earnings: perhaps 80 000 euros for killing two bulls (much more for El Juli, the most highly paid bullfighter ever, until the advent of even higher earners) and, as the matador starts his journey to the ring 'perhaps...admirers and autograph-hunters.'

El Juli is exposed to danger, from two bulls, for just over half an hour to earn his 100 000 euros, or whatever it is he earns. Very, very infrequently, he's faced six bulls - just over an hour and a half in the ring. This is said to make exceptional demands on stamina. Bullfighting supporters are lost in admiration for someone who can not only face death but show such superhuman strength and stamina for an hour and a half.

I'd strongly recommend an immersion in the history of coalmining, and the present of coal mining in some countries, as an antidote to these particular delusions, and other delusions of bullfighting apologists: an immersion which demands, however, compassionate imagination. Witnessing death in the bull-ring makes no demands on compassionate imagination at all, just the ability to keep your eyes open and look. To enter into the hidden lives and deaths of miners (who of course included women and children as well as men) does demand it.

My poem Mines is about child-labour in coal mines. It mentions the rock falls and explosions which have caused so many deaths and injuries, but there were other ways of dying horribly, such as drowning when the mine workings were flooded, or a fall to the bottom of the mine shaft when the cage fell uncontrollably. A very few statistics (for single incidents, not the total for the year) from an enormously long list: the 439 deaths at Senghenydd in Wales in 1913, the 290 deaths at Cilfynydd, the 388 deaths not far from here, near Barnsley in Yorkshire in 1866, and the 1 549 miners killed at Benxihu in China in 1942.

As for injuries, in mining as in bullfighting so much more numerous than the fatalities, it isn't obvious in the least that a horn wound in the leg is worse than the crushing of legs by a rock fall. And there's a very significant difference. An injured bull fighter is taken out of the bull-ring in a minute or two and is immediately treated in the bull-ring infirmary. The crushed coal miner had, and still has, no such benefit. Even with modern equipment, reaching the miner after a rock fall may be very difficult and may take days, or may be impossible. A severely injured high-altitude mountaineer also faces a prolonged and agonizing wait for rescue and medical treatment, if rescue and medical treatment are practicable at all.

A L Kennedy, on bullfighting plazas: '...all first-class plazas have fully equipped and staffed operating theatres standing ready, next to the ring.'

Well into the twentieth century, coal-mining made extreme demands on stamina, for far longer than an hour and a half, of course, day after day, miners working, very often, bent almost double in almost complete darkness, using a pick axe and moving desperately heavy loads for a full shift. George Orwell pointed out (in 'On the Road to Wigan Pier') that simply to get to the coal face and back from the coal face was very often time-consuming and intensely hard work in itself. In some countries, there are still these extreme demands.

A L Kennedy writes about her air travel to Spain and 'the general horror of picking up my bag which weighs, I've made sure, almost nothing.' Granted, she had at the time her spinal complaint, but any miner who had a spinal complaint like hers which wasn't permanently disabling would have had to carry on working and put up with the pain whilst moving tonnes of coal.

On the evidence of this book, watching bullfights tends to do nothing for sensitivity, sensitivity to human suffering as well as animal suffering. The risk of distorted perspectives is an occupational hazard of pro-bullfighting writers, the gross distortion involved in singling out one group as especially fearless - and giving them adulation - whilst ignoring the vastly greater claims upon our attention of others.

To return to El Juli, and to return to the cheerful prose of A L Kennedy: 'He's seventeen [at the time of writing], has been dubbed 'the Mozart of Toreo' and is electrifying the corrida.' If there are any further editions of 'On Bullfighting,' she can feel free to use this comment of mine: 'A book about love, life, death, danger, glamour, youth, celebrity. She was thirty-four, at the time of writing, has been dubbed 'the prose stylist in the Salons of Toreo' and is electrifying the world of corrida propaganda.'

The unchallenged and uncriticized comparison with Mozart, who lived and died in poverty, a universal genius, is bland and gross at the same time, but to most bullfight supporters a bullfighter ranks much higher than a universal genius.

More bland and gross manufactured rubbish: 'In 1999 Enrique Ponce was a multimillionaire, a superstar with jet-set friends. He still is.' (A L Kennedy writing not in this book but in the Guardian.)

Nothing in this book is fresh. Everything is routine, standard, unexamined or, if apparently examined, examined many, many times before: the ecstasies of the audience, the disappointments of the audience, 'duende,' everything. I examine in some detail Lorca's writing on duende in my page on bullfighting. I fully acknowledge Lorca's importance as a poet and dramatist, but make the point that his writing on duende is demonstrably ridiculous.

The discussion of the methods used to tamper with the bull is far from being frank and fearless. These methods are generally admitted. (I wasn't aware, though, that the most common method of making the bull far less dangerous is to give it large quantities of salt, deny it water and then allow it to drink large quantities of water.) In my page on bullfighting, I I make the comparison with mountaineering, in which devious practices intended to reduce danger are almost unknown.

The healthy modern scepticism which, far from being dry and arid, has helped to reduce or even human and animal suffering in many ways, if not nearly enough, is completely absent. The book marks no advance on the primitive level of Hemingway's 'Death in the Afternoon.'

One aspect of the bullfight which should be subjected to very close examination, but isn't in this book, is the audience and its emotions. Emotions are far from being self-justifying. The congregation feels - or many of them feel - extreme emotion at the climax of the mass, when they believe that the bread and wine are transformed into the actual body and blood of Christ. This emotion becomes - cold word, but necessary - problematic if you think, as I do, that no such thing has happened, that although the emotion seems real, the event which is supposed to have inspired the emotion, transubstantiation, is non-existent. The emotions of the bullfighting audience (or bullfighting congregation) are genuinely felt, no doubt, but they are compromised, and fatally, by the moral objections to the act and by misinterpretation.

As just one example of misinterpretation, the bull after all is a herd animal. There are obvious difficulties in inferring the inner life of a bull from observation of its behaviour. A L Kennedy is very good on the behaviour of herd animals like bulls. What is very, very unlikely is that the bull is sharing any of the 'higher' experiences claimed by the bullfighter and the audience when the bullfight is going well, going well, that is, for the bullfighter and the audience. The bull's focus will be on the cape (if it were allowed to live for a little longer, it would learn and attack the man directly rather than follow the cape). This being the case, so many of the most intense passages in this book collapse. The higher emotions, the ecstasies claimed by bullfighting supporters turn out to be based on insecure foundations, on transcendental appearances, illusory appearances, rather than inner realities.

As when, in connection with Ortega and bull - wounded, a few minutes before its death - she writes of '...something which is a celebration of this moment, these creatures, this breath, this fine time they are having together.'

She writes, 'Standing in the medios, the central area of the ring, Ponce removes his hat and slowly turns, holding it up for us. This will be our bull, he is giving us this death.' A death for the price of an entrance ticket costing a few euros! Such good value! These supreme experiences are remarkably cheap!

The books of professional historians, amongst others, are often very long and contain vast numbers of facts, even though the books are far more than a collection of facts. Sometimes, of course, historians make mistakes, but their own care for factual accuracy and the criticism of other professional historians ensure that the standards of factual accuracy are very high. 'On Bullfighting' is a very short book, 168 small pages without the glossary. The number of facts to be checked was very small. Which countries allow bullfighting and which ones don't is surely a basic, elementary fact, one which a barely adequate book would get right, let alone 'one of the best books of the year.' A L Kennedy states: 'when the European season is over, more and more bullfighters go to 'Peru, Mexico, Ecuador, Chile.' This is a slur on the reputation of Chile. The List of Shame (confining attention to this one issue, no others), the list of countries which allow the corrida, Spanish style bullfighting, is:


but not, to its credit, Chile. 'On Bullfighting' 'could not have been written without...the expertise and advice of Don Hurley.' Don Hurley is a bullfighting 'expert' associated with the shadowy Club Taurino of London. He allowed this particular mistake to pass.

'On Bullfighting' is described on the back cover by Jeanette Winterson, another fiction writer, as 'One of the best books of the year.' This claim - it appears on the front cover as well - is moronic, of course. To make an elementary, a supremely obvious point, to be familiar with the publications in one single sub-field is difficult, almost always impossible. Nobody can possibly decide what are the best books of the year.

The comment of Julian Barnes isn't as ridiculous as Jeanette Winterson's but it's tired and routine: '...the public spectacles are treated with a fresh particularity...' John Banville's formulaic 'a thrilling and thought-provoking read' is almost as bad as Jeanette Winterson's comment. 'Thought-provoking' is wide of the mark.

These writers, and A L Kennedy too, have achieved success by routes which are desperately difficult. (Michael Ignatieff is a very prominent politician in Canada as well as a writer, but politicians may face difficulties which are just as severe as the ones faced by writers. I'm far from sharing the cynical attitude towards all politicians. I admire Michael Ignatieff very much and I quote him in my page on attempts to demonise Israel.)




A L Kennedy's work can be far superior to the repugnant author.  'Paradise' is an outstanding novel. It's about Hannah Luckraft, a woman who qualifies as an alcoholic by any definition, even though her experiences aren't extreme.

Some of the novel is peculiar. Of parents: 'While we dream in our cots, they prowl round close at hand: partly out of love, or relief that we are quiet, but also because we may simply stop breathing at some preordained, but unknowable, point.' So far so good, except for 'preordained.' I think this is evidence for A L Kennedy's carelessness rather than any belief in determinism, of the kind which plays a prominent part in Tolstoy's 'War and Peace.'

Immediately after this, adding italics: 'Their fears for us weaken the air above our faces and do, in fact, make it tiring to inhale.' The peculiarity of 'Day,' so much in evidence there, infects this novel too, but to a far lesser extent. It's a fault, surely, the kind of individuality which a novelist can do without.

On the same page, 'So, like a good, eldest child, I worried in their place and kept watch on Simon as if he were kittens, or spun sugar.' The unexpectedness of 'spun sugar' is, again, the kind of individuality which a novelist can do without. There's no evidence that this is a significant aspect of the protagonist's disordered thinking rather than a stylistic quirk of A L Kennedy.

Novelists, like poets, can be great in spite of carelessness, wrong-headedness, stupidity. Endre Ady, the Hungarian poet, and syphilitic, sporadic alcoholic and manic-depressive, was a Calvinist but a belief in predestination was submerged in his wildness, frenzy, terrors, screams of pain.

'Their fears for us weaken the air above our faces and do, in fact, make it tiring to inhale' is very careful as well as evidence of carelessness, has strength as well as weakness. The 'do, in fact...' is pedantic phrasing, but the sentence fits very well into the novel, which is careful, carefully considered, in its expression, in the desperation of Hannah Luckraft, the protagonist. This striking linkage of desperation and carefulness can be viewed as implausible, but not to me.

I point out in the review of 'On Bullfighting' that 'too much of it is routine or worse. There's cliché...and weak phrasing that any writer with any pride should have eliminated.' So in this novel, we have, adding italics, 'Mercifully, there is no one to hand for more conversation.' But the language of this book is generally far, far stronger.

Its insights are very often superb. Non-drinkers and very light drinkers often refuse to allow heavy drinkers and alcoholics any complexity, supposing them to be inferior in all respects to themselves. They often think that heavy drinkers and alcoholics lack all discipline and are denied all pleasure. A L Kennedy is subtle and knows otherwise.

Hannah Luckraft, 'As it happens, when I lost my job, one of the points in my favour was my spotless driving.'

The pleasure she finds in bars is unexpected, to the ferocious non-drinker, who may expect bars to be hellish for the drinker as well as the complete abstainer. 'There are few things finer, I think, than being refreshed and ready and strolling into your favourite bar, your local...

'It welcomes you into the place that will never change: the booths and stools and the pictures of dead golfers - and, inexplicably, a horse - and the easy, happy curve of the bar that courteously lifts your eye to the mirror and the optics. I know people build miniature gantries in their houses, but this shouldn't be allowed: it's a terrible insult to everyone concerned. The tall gleam of charged glass, the winking ranks of spirits, the delicious confusion of lights and shades and labels, they're only perfected in a pub, a bar, on licensed premises.'

I admire this, without sharing in the least the sentiment. In general, I dislike bars, whilst thoroughly appreciating - and practising - drinking. In a similar tone of appreciation, early in the novel, there's this:

'Bushmill's, County Antrim, 700 millilitres, 40 per cent. I mean, what else do you need to know? Not that, as an additional courtesy, you don't turn it in your hands and love the rounded corners and the dapper weight and the elegant cut of the label: the black with the white and the gold, all shaped around each other to mark out an arch: a long slim doorway to somewhere else.'

Some of this is echoed in the last paragraph: 'I reach into my holdall and find the full bottle of Bushmill's undisturbed: that marvellous label: the long, slim door that leads to somewhere else.' This would have been a wonderful end to a wonderful novel. I think that the actual ending of the novel is just as wonderful: 'When Robert has finished, when he steps through, pink with scrubbing, wrapped snug in a towel, then we'll lie on a bed together and we'll talk, we'll tell each other everything. I'll ask him to bring through the glasses and then we'll begin.'

The ending '...that leads to somewhere else.' and the actual ending '...and then we'll begin.' both have {direction}, they are endings pointing beyond, endings that are intriguing, not final, endings suggesting new beginnings.


'Day,' and the fate of the bomber 'Mi Amigo.'


A B17 bomber with damage sustained over Cologne

This isn't a review of A L Kennedy's novel 'Day,' about Alfred Day, a tail-gunner in a Lancaster bomber, although I give some background information and make a few comments of my own. I mention the novel only for some linkages with 'On Bullfighting.' On the back cover, a paragraph is quoted from the Guardian review by Ursula K Le Guin, 'A woman born in 1965 who writes a novel about an RAF bomber in the second world war needs a gift for bringing history alive, as well as guts and true bravado. Her picture of what war does to people burns with saeva indignatio...her narrative gift is great.' The final sentence of the review paragraph is omitted, 'Yet the book never quite worked for me.' The Guardian review is titled, 'At war with you: A L Kennedy's brave attempt at a tricksy narrative in Day fails to convince Ursula K Le Guin.'

Some extracts from this impressive review of an unimpressive book: 'The problem may be that it is all told from one point of view, and young Alfred F Day's world is both limited and incoherent...Alfie is a person deprived and damaged to the point of pathology. A pathology, told from within, may be dramatically effective, but more than 250 pages is too spacious a stage for it. Madness is presented to us as, essentially, a performance, and the author does a tremendous job of acting...' The reviewer says, in connection with the prose style, 'This constant shifting between three narrative modes, one of them highly artificial, ensures that the author's stylistic self-consciousness dominates the book.'

'At the crisis point of the novel, whether it is a matter of overcontrol or lack of control, the combination of dialect, italics, the second person, and the nonstop sentence creates an effect of mere hysteria, ending, alas, in bathos. As Day's pilot steers the half-destroyed plane towards its doom, "Yo can tell he's weary with holdin her and wants to go home and yo'd like to goo wum with him and he has such blue eyes the skipper like he's got all the morning sky inside his head."'

I think that 'Day' is written in a style which is often tangled (and uninteresting to untangle), often fake-colloquial, often with fake emotion, often almost unreadable, except with determination which is unrewarded by the end of the book. As a study of a consciousness, the novel is wearying. The better passages are written in the style with least individuality and describe action, such as this:

'The turn for home lets Alfred watch the naked city: small, straight glimmers from canals, shine of the lake, the white scatter of incendiaries as they bite, redden; thick folds of smoke like panels of night, of nothingness, and a cookie folding open, hooping itself round with shock and shock, bright and then settling into fire, more smoke. He shouldn't look, but this is Magic Night and so he does.'

Even so, this is nothing special. Read for the first time, it may well impress, but re-reading it is likely to disappoint. 'of nothingness' adds nothing, the repetition of 'with shock and shock' adds nothing. But 'the white scatter of incendiaries as they bite, redden; thick folds of smoke...' is really good, I think.

Writing the novel should have given her searing insights, which should have made untenable the pathological romanticism of 'On Bullfighting.' 'Day' was written after 'On Bullfighting' but she seems to have learned nothing in the meantime. In a Guardian article, 'Deaths in the Afternoon,' published after 'Day' and ten years after the publication of 'On Bullfighting,' she still has the mind of the typical bullfight apologist. In connection with an 11 year old killing six bulls, 'Dreams of such complexity and dark glamour...' Of Ponce and El Juli, described above, 'In 1999 Enrique Ponce was a multimillionaire, a superstar with jet-set friends. He still is. El Juli has joined him - it isn't hard to find incentives for a would-be matador to start early.' And 'the appeal of imagination's extremities, our killing dreams.'

In 'On Bullfighting,' A L Kennedy describes the matador putting on the clothes of the corrida: '...this is the moment when the matador can no longer avoid consideration of the coming afternoon's trial.' Clothing is important 'in this stylishly dangerous world...Like military men, matadors are meant to die in good order.'

The chances of a matador dying, not just in the coming afternoon's trial but in a whole career, are very small. I've written at some length on this page and my page Bullfighting: arguments against and action against about the vastly greater risk of dying in military action, almost always. Just as importantly, the vastly more common tendency of people facing these extreme risks to face them modestly, without the romanticism of bullfighters and bullfight apologists such as A L Kennedy.

I focus attention now on just one instance, the fate of the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress 'Mi Amigo.' There are countless other instances. The name 'Mi amigo,' meaning 'my friend,' was suggested by the bombardier, Lt Melchor Hernandez, who was of Spanish origin. Mi Amigo took part in a raid on a heavily defended Luftwaffe airfield in northern Denmark. The plane sustained very serious damage and it crashed in a park not far from where I write, with the loss of all ten crew members, on February 22, 1944. A memorial stone marks the crash site, and there are ten oak trees, one for each crew member. They are not forgotten here. A service is held at the crash site each year on the Sunday closest to February 22.

Crews who completed twenty-five missions would return back to the United States. Some died on the first mission, some survived the twenty-five missions, but in the year before Mi Amigo was lost, the average was only fifteen missions survived. On just one raid in that year, the raid on the ball-bearing factory at Schweinfurt (a great deal of the German armaments work, including tanks and planes, depended upon ball-bearings) sixty American bombers were lost, and their six hundred crew members. Of the 15 aircraft in the 305th group, to which Mi Amigo belonged, only two returned. In the year that Mi Amigo was lost, the chances of survival were better, but still desperate. On the same day that this Flying Fortress was lost, 43 aircraft and 430 aircrew were lost also.

David Harvey's book on the subject, 'Mi Amigo: The Story of Sheffield's Flying Fortress' can be warmly recommend. From the book:

'The Focke Wulf 190s continued their attack on the formation of B-17s and Mi Amigo was singled out for attack...Mi Amigo was seen by other B-17s to take heavy damage, in particular to the engines...Mi Amigo approached the city of Sheffield and, as she flew low over the city, many people heard and saw the aircraft in a distressed state. Engines misfiring, firing...Suddenly, one of the engines died and Mi Amigo plunged into the hillside of Endcliffe Park. The B-17 tore into the trees. The large tail section was ripped from the main fuselage, the wings folded and collapsed.'

'In an instant, fire broke out and ignited the remaining aviation fuel on board.' Attempts were made to rescue the trapped crew but it was impossible. And David Harvey writes, '...on a cold February afternoon in 1944, ten young American airmen, thousands of miles away from their homes, died whilst fighting a cause they believed to be right.'

The pilot of the plane, Lt. John G Kriegshauser, had worked in the warehouse at the Continental Shoe Factory. He liked playing softball with his brother and friends. He had a great interest in his 1936 Ford Sedan. He was a very ordinary man, but, like his other crew members, an extraordinary man as well. He left a letter to be sent to his parents if he should fail to return, in which he mentions laying down his life for a cause he believed was just and right.' I quote it in its entirety, for its dignity and its quiet and unassuming courage, recognizing the extreme dangers he faced but completely devoid of posturing, histrionics or romanticism:

'This is a letter I hope is never mailed. This letter isn't meant to be the final word from me, nor is it meant to build up false hope that I am still alive.

'I am writing to let you know the various things that may take place. Should my ship be shot down, you would receive a telegram from the War Department, probably stating 'Your son has been reported missing in action'. This isn't the final word, but it does mean I've failed to return from a raid and as yet, no definite word can be given to you as to whether I've been killed or whether I've managed to get out of the ship.

'If you should receive such a telegram, don't give me up as lost as it is very possible I am a prisoner of war, or that I've escaped capture and am escaping through France or possibly my ship was in such condition I was able to fly it over to some neutral country and am now interned in the country until the end of the war.

'Should the final word come through 'killed in action', then there isn't much sense in having any false hopes because the telegram is the final word. If I am killed in action I want you, my folks, to know I couldn't have had better parents - parents who have constantly, throughout my span of life, done everything to make my life as full as humanly possible. I'm deeply grateful for every effort on your part and I'm sorry I didn't have the chance to repay you both in some small manner.

'May God watch over you and protect you, and some day repay you for all the sacrifices you have made for me. As for Peg, I don't intend to write a letter of farewell but I do wish you would notify her of any telegrams you receive. Peg was the only girl I ever really loved and someday, as soon as possible, I had hopes of making her my wife.

'My final word is that I'm glad to have been able to lay down my life for a cause which I believed was just and right.'

Fighting to end Nazism was surely a cause which was just and right. From the General Glossary of this site, where, in connection with my concept of limitation I give this brief comment on war: 'War is one of the most terrible of evils. Pacifists refuse to practise limitation but limitation is surely essential: to do everything possible to avoid war but to go to war when (and only when) it's the lesser of two evils. The most compelling case is, surely, the Second World War. The work of the extermination camps couldn't be halted by reason and argument but only by force of arms. An absolutist opposition to the arms trade would have been a fatal error. Bertrand Russell was a pacifist during the First World War but applied limitation, in effect, and supported the allied cause during the Second World War.'

The names of the crew are recorded on the memorial stone. David Harvey gives interesting information about each of them and their roles, and the dangers and discomforts they faced. For example, 'The gunner inside the ball turret had an extremely vulnerable position. It was not for the claustrophobic.' Randall Jarrell's wrote a well-known poem about the death of a bull turret gunner. Of the tail gunner, 'German fighters would attack the B-17s from the rear trying to take out the tail gunner before shooting at the engines.'

Lt John Kriegshauser (Missouri) - pilot
2nd Lt Lyle Curtis (Idaho) - co-pilot
2nd Lt John Humphrey (Illinois) - navigator
2nd Lt Melchor Hernandez (California) - bombardier
S/Sgt Harry Estabrooks (Kansas) - engineer and top-turret gunner
Sgt Charles Tuttle (Kentucky) - ball-turret gunner
S/Sgt Robert Mayfield (Illinois) - radio operator
Sgt Vito Ambrosio (New York) - right waist gunner
M/Sgt G. Malcolm Williams (Oklahoma) - left waist gunner
Sgt Maurice Robbins (Texas) - tail gunner


'What Becomes'


My first readings of the pieces which make up 'What Becomes' were overwhelmingly favourable, the second readings less so. In the first readings, fresh and inventive wording attracted attention, in the second readings the instances of flat and routine wording began to attract attention. Some of the instances of fresh and inventive wording began to seem less impressive, but what still seemed fresh and inventive seemed page-bound in some instances: the characters, the scene and the rest didn't emerge sufficiently from the page, to take on an independent life. A L Kennedy is sometimes stronger in effect than in affect. The emotional life of these stories is sometimes quite thin. But overall, these are very, very impressive pieces.

The bleakness which has been found in the stories doesn't go very deep. Many, many veterans of the bombing campaign of the Second World War have written far bleaker, far more disturbing accounts of the campaign than are to be found in A L Kennedy's 'Day.' Although Hannah, in A L Kennedy's 'Paradise,' is a heavy drinker, she's nowhere near rock bottom. The comparison with the much bleaker world of 'The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant,' in Fassbinder's film, is instructive. None of the stories in 'What Becomes' is searing in its bleakness. The playfulness, the high spirits, the joie de vivre, the cheerfulness, even, which are to be found in the stories have sometimes been overlooked. A L Kennedy is a very versatile writer, but not a guide to voids, chasms, gulfs, crushing disappointments and tragedies.

From Andrea Gillies' 'World Beer Guide,' the Chapter 'How to Taste Beer:'

'Some beers, especially canned ones, taste exactly the same all the way through. The flavour you get when the beer first hits your tongue is the same as the one you get 'in the middle' of the sip, and in the 'finish'. In the case of many cheaply made beers it's likely that the flavour, such as it is, will die away completely by the time the finish should have arrived, and that the 'aftertaste' will be slightly unpleasant ... Structure is vital to a successful beer ... Complexity is vital to the satisfaction rating of a fine beer ... Typically, a complex beer will have not just various strands of flavour chiming in all at once, like a musical chord, but flavours that are introduced at one point of the tasting process and then recede ... Some beers come up with surprising new flavours that were not predicted in anything that's come before, and just occasionally produce something really wild and wacky ...The most important question to ask of a beer is 'Do I like this, and do I want some more?' There's precious little point ploughing on with a beer you just don't like, no matter how great its international status. But it's also important to attempt a little objectivity, and separate out the question 'Do I like this?' from the quite independent question, 'Does this beer achieve what it sets out to do - is it good at being what it wants to be?'

The contrasts with the appreciation and criticism of prose fiction writing such as 'What Becomes' are important, but so too are the linkages.

The first response to prose writing comes with the first reading, which shouldn't be the only reading. In the case of very difficult writing, such as some poetry and technical writing, further readings may be needed just to understand what's read. In the case of most prose fiction (but not works such as 'Finnegans Wake') this is unnecessary. Further readings are needed to correct initial misconceptions, to bring to consciousness hidden complexities, for a variety of other reasons. Some works are very quickly exhausted, and it's clear by the second reading that further readings aren't likely to be very profitable. But strong feelings shouldn't, in general, be granted exemption. There are many reasons why a reader doesn't appreciate a particular piece of writing, including stupidity, severe limitations of one kind or another, the unprecedented complexity and originality of the writing, very different from the writing the reader is used to. But favourable as well as unfavourable impressions, at the first reading or after many readings, have to be examined carefully and sceptically.


A L Kennedy in person


'An evening with A L Kennedy,' an event at a literary festival I attended, was an incomplete delight. She's self-deprecating, almost self-effacing, but has very great presence, impressive in her professionalism but with the enthusiasm of an amateur, a degree of seriousness conveyed with a light touch. For once, the person can give an enhanced appreciation of the writing - it's easier to appreciate the individuality, amounting almost to uniqueness, of the writing, after hearing her in person. I regretted more than ever her disastrous excursion into the world of the bullfight. The evening gave one facet of her personality, the book on bullfighting a very different one, vastly less attractive, chilling and hideous.




A L Kennedy isn't childish, but her Web site, www.a-l-kennedy.co.uk has a childish - and not harmlessly childish - section in which readers are invited to ponder what the 'A L' in 'A L Kennedy' stands for, and even to vote, if they've nothing better to do with their time and if they've no objection to the 'infantilization' of culture. From the Web site:

A L stands for:
Almond Ladybits
Aural Lollypop
Always Loopy
Angry Lithuanians'

(It's safe to assume that 'A L' doesn't stand for 'Animal Lover.')

The current results are:

A L stands for:
Almond Ladybits
75 34.6%
Angry Lithuanians
61 28.1%
Aural Lollypop
50 23%
Always Loopy
26 12%

So far, then, more than a third of voters have gone for 'Almond Ladybits.' It's very surprising that most of the readers didn't vote for 'Always Loopy,' asked to participate in such a fatuous exercise. The use of sarcastic names is sometimes demeaning and unjust, sometimes healthy - they help to deter stupidity and worse. A L Kennedy deserves some ridicule. She's been very helpful and has provided the names herself for that purpose, but I've resisted the tendency to use the names sarcastically.


A L Kennedy and the British army


In her Guardian article 'Deaths in the Afternoons,' A L Kennedy writes that she lives in a culture different from the Spanish culture of bullfighting. She goes on to make strong criticisms of her Scottish - or British - culture. She says that she lives in a culture 'that finds young boxers admirable, one where boys watch soldiers parade, watch gang members posture.' This is surely so confused as to amount to idiocy. This culture has incomparably less interest in boxing than Spanish 'culture' has in bullfighting. Boxers, like, bullfighters, freely choose to go into the ring, but if the boxing ring is degrading at all, it's vastly less degrading than the bullfight ring. Only in the bull-ring are there living creatures, the horses and bulls, who are forced to be there, and the suffering inflicted is incomparably worse, to the horses as well as the bulls, but in almost every case leading to the death of the bulls.

The equation of the soldiers of a democracy and gang members is disturbing. A democracy needs a police force to deal with internal threats, such as violent gang members armed with knives and guns. Sometimes, forceful action has to be used against the gang members, occasionally ending in the death of the gang member.

A democratic country of any size can no more dispense with armed forces than with a police force. It needs armed forces to deal with actual threats or potential threats from outside the country. A predecessor of A L Kennedy writing in the early 1930's who made this facile comparison between soldiers and gang members would have had to recognize within less than a decade, if they had had a particle of good sense (I'm not sure that A L Kennedy has this modest endowment, at least in considerations of national defence) that good-will had failed, appeasement had failed, now that the Germans had invaded Czechoslovakia, Poland, Holland, Belgium and France, that soldiers, sailors and airmen had to defend the country by force of arms, or see this country invaded too, with the loss of freedom, the imposition of Nazism and the extermination of British Jews.

When British soldiers march after completing their dangerous tours of duty in Afghanistan, fighting the unspeakable Taliban, when they march at the funerals of those who have been killed in Afghanistan, is A L Kennedy suggesting that they should be equated with gang members?

See also my discussion of Fran Brearton's comment about the 'emasculation' of British soldiers.

Baudelaire's poem The Albatross is about the plight of the poet, who soars in poetry and is clumsy in the everyday life of the world.

Hardly have they put them on the planks
than these kings of the blue sky, clumsy, ashamed,
let their great white wings pathetically
drag besides themselves like oars.

This winged voyager, how clumsy and weak!
The one so beautiful before, how hilarious, hideous!
One man teases his beak with a pipe,
another mimes, limping, the cripple who flew!

The poet is like the prince of the clouds
who haunts the storm and laughs at archers;
exiled on earth amidst jeers,
his giant's wings prevent him from walking.

A L Kennedy blunders in these comments about soldiers but soars when she touches upon soldiers in her art. 'As God Made Us,' in the collection of short stories 'What Becomes,' is remarkable. A group of Scots men is preparing to have a good time: 'For this Gathering they'll do the usual: swimming in the morning and then a big lunch and then getting pissed and then going back to Gobbler's place, because this was his turn, and eating all his scran and some carry-out and then watching DVDs of their films and getting more pissed and maybe some porn and maybe not.'

They go to the baths, with a constant stream of banter and invective, and suddenly, the astonishing 'Gobbler ... removes his foot before swimming.' All these men are amputees. They are disabled ex-soldiers. A teacher with a school party objects to them: ' ... it isn't your fault, but you must see that you're disturbing.' And, 'There must be places you can go to where you'd be more comfortable.' 'And the lads don't speak.' These ex-squaddies have the sensitivity of so many coarse people, the teacher has the insensitivity of so many of the genteel.














   {} A L Kennedy: 'On bullfighting'