In the footsteps of Hemingway: adrenaline and moral dilemmas in a tale of man against beast

William Hill Sports Book of the Year award -- the contenders

The winner of the 2011 William Hill Sports Book of the Year will be revealed next Monday.  This week, The Sports Bookshelf presents a run-down of the seven titles on the short list. Today:


In 2008, Alexander Fiske-Harrison established his literary credentials when his play, The Pendulum, set against a background of anti-semitic tension in the Vienna of 1900, and in which he also starred, made its debut in the West End and received favourable reviews. 

At around the same time, he wrote an essay about bullfighting for Prospect magazine, the reaction to which led him to move to Spain to study the subject in greater depth, in part drawn by its literary heritage -- Ernest Hemingway, for example, was a notable aficionado -- and in part, as a former member of the World Wildlife Fund and Greenpeace, to see if he agreed with those who would have the sport banned.

He lived alongside bullfighters around the bullrings and ranches of Spain.  Captivated by the adrenaline rush as well as by history, he ran with the bulls in Pamplona and trained with the great matador Eduardo Dávila Miura with the aim of taking on a bull in the ring himself, which he felt was essential to his understanding of a sport once described by the Spanish poet and noted liberal, Garcia Lorca, as ‘the last serious thing left in the world today'.

That description had struck a chord with Fiske-Harrison in 2000, at the age of 23, when he attended his first bullfight while on holiday with his parents.  He noted, too, that Hemingway had declared bullfighting to be ‘moral’ as it gave him a ‘feeling of life, death and mortality’.  Fiske-Harrison echoes those words when he suggests that ‘you cannot ban the bullfight, because it is already contained in the very facts of life itself. All you can do is turn away‘.

It was while in Spain that he began writing a blog, entitled The Last Arena - In Search of the Spanish Bullfight, and it was the events and thoughts he described along the way that became the basis for his book.


“He develops a taste for the whole gruesome spectacle, but what makes the book work is that he never loses his disgust for it… what I really enjoyed about Into The Arena is that after nearly 300 pages I still couldn’t quite decide whether bullfighting should be banned or allowed to flourish.”
-- Mark Palmer, Mail Online. Read more…

“His eye-witness reports of bullfights are particularly good.  He transposes the spectacle into words with great success, conveying the drama of the corrida while explaining individual moves and techniques with eloquence and precision.”
-- Miranda France, Literary Review. Read more…

"It is a world of glamour, fame and death that Fiske-Harrison penetrates in search of a solution to the 'terrible quandary' of bullfighting… the outcome is a debut that, despite some hefty flaws, provides an engrossing introduction to Spain’s 'great feast of art and danger'."
-- Brian Schofield, Sunday Times. Read more…


Alexander Fiske-Harrison is an English writer and actor. He was educated at Eton and subsequently at Oxford and the University of London. He trained in acting at the Stella Adler Conservatory in New York.  In addition to writing and starring in the West End play, The Pendulum, he has written about animals and non-human intelligence for Prospect magazine as well as the Financial Times, the Times Literary Supplement and for the BBC and CNN.

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The William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award is the world's longest established and most valuable literary sports-writing prize. As well as a £23,000 cash prize, the winning author will receive a £2,000 William Hill bet, a hand-bound copy of their book, and a day at the races. 

The judging panel for this year’s award consists of broadcaster and writer John Inverdale; award-winning journalist Hugh McIlvanney; broadcaster Danny Kelly; and columnist and author, Alyson Rudd. Chairman of the panel is John Gaustad, co-creator of the award and founder of the Sportspages bookshop. 

The winner will be announced at a lunchtime reception at Waterstone’s Piccadilly (London), Europe’s largest bookstore, on Monday 28th November.


The shortlist in full:
2. Into The Arena: The World of the Spanish Bullfight by Alexander Fiske-Harrison (Profile Books)
3. The Ghost Runner: The Tragedy of the Man They Couldn't Stop by Bill Jones (Mainstream Publishing)
4. Engage: The Fall and Rise of Matt Hampson by Paul Kimmage (Simon & Schuster)
6. A Life Too Short: The Tragedy of Robert Enke by Ronald Reng (Yellow Jersey Press)
7. 32 Programmes by Dave Roberts (Bantam Press)

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