June 2014

The Nation Reviewed

An Aussie bullfighter in Spain

By Matthew Clayfield
An Aussie bullfighter in Spain
In the 1960s, Sydneysider Chris Meagher was a torero known as “El Australiano”

At first glance, Chris Meagher’s apartment in Sydney’s Double Bay looks like that of any retiree. Photos of children and grandchildren line the mantelpiece. Nostalgic knick-knacks from a life well lived are scattered around the sun-dappled living room.

But something about these mementos seems out of place. A photo shows Meagher’s sons on the sand of the bullring in Pamplona, clad in the red and white of the Spanish city’s famous fiesta. Drawings on the wall at the foot of the stairs depict matadors, stoic and still, passing fighting bulls, toros bravos, with the small red cape, or muleta, of their trade. And in the kitchen, just above the kettle, hangs a 50-year-old poster advertising a novice bullfight, or novillada, in the Andalusian town of Santa Olalla del Cala.

The names of the three novilleros scheduled to fight on the afternoon of 25 August 1964 are listed in descending order of seniority: Joaquín Camino; Manuel Álvarez, “El Bala” (“The Bullet”); and Cristóbal Morales, “El Australiano”.

“That was the last time I ever fought,” Meagher says ruefully.

Five years earlier, at the age of 25, Meagher had arrived in Europe on the tour of England and the Continent that members of his generation were then making in droves. While others set to work in London, Meagher found his imagination captured by the people, places and, above all, the pastimes of the Iberian peninsula.

“I loved Spain right from the beginning,” he says today, smiling at the memory as he sits barefoot on his couch. “The people, the lifestyle, the alegría – the cheerfulness – of the place. I felt an immediate kinship with it.”

That summer, the young University of Sydney graduate saw his first professional bullfight, or corrida, in Pamplona during the annual festival of San Fermín, the seven-day fiesta of wine, music and bullfighting immortalised by Ernest Hemingway three decades earlier in The Sun Also Rises. Hemingway was in Pamplona himself that year, cataloguing the events of the season for an article that would be published posthumously as The Dangerous Summer. Meagher met Hemingway and shared a drink with him – “He was very jovial” – but it was the corridas that really caught his attention.

“I couldn’t believe what I was seeing,” he says. “How could a man walk into a ring with nothing but a piece of fabric and face a raging animal like that?”

He returned to Spain the next year and decided there was only one way to answer that question.

“‘Bugger it,’ I said. ‘I’ll learn how to do it.’”

In December 1960, Meagher went to Seville to start his training as a torero. Not long before, another Australian, Alan Brown, had been severely gored by the very first bull he ever faced, in the middle of his very first pass with the cape. Meagher read about Brown in the London Times and resolved that the same wouldn’t happen to him. When he arrived in bullfighting’s Andalusian heartland, he took up with the American torero and painter John Fulton.

“We trained every day for a year on soccer pitches and in old brickyards. We’d run at each other with a wheelbarrow-type device with a bull’s head mounted to the front of it. We learned all the moves, the classic passes. We worked tirelessly at it.”

Meagher and Fulton were at the bullring every Sunday afternoon as well.

He was awarded three trophies – the bull’s ears and its tail – for his efforts. He still has these today, tucked away safely in a zip-lock bag.

“They were bloody artists,” Meagher says of his heroes. “Bullfighting can certainly be ugly and cruel, but when you saw people like Paco Camino fight, it was like you were at the ballet.”

In 1961, in a small town near the Portuguese border, Meagher faced and killed a bull for the first time.

He was awarded three trophies – the bull’s ears and its tail – for his efforts. He still has these today, tucked away safely in a zip-lock bag. It was his first triumph – his first triunfo – as a torero.

He would chase such triunfos for the next three years, appearing in small novilladas in towns and villages throughout the country, killing some 30 bulls in total and spending a small fortune in the process. Bullfighting is an expensive pursuit for all but the most famous of matadors, who can make millions a year. A torero not only pays the members of his cuadrilla, or team, but must also purchase the bulls he fights. On top of that, Meagher says, there were the bribes that often had to be paid to the empresarios of the various bullrings just to get a spot on the bill.

“Things were ugly behind the scenes. The corruption involved was dreadful. I hated that side of it, but had to stomach it. If I wanted to get a fight, I had to play the game.”

He tried for a time to pass himself off as a local, adopting the name “Cristóbal Morales”. “It was obvious to everyone who met us that this was rubbish,” he says. He hands me a picture of him and his cuadrilla. He is at least a foot taller than everyone else in the photo and several shades paler to boot. The effect would almost be comical were he not so good at affecting the sad-eyed seriousness particular to toreros.

Spaniards – never quick to credit English-speakers who dare take up the sword and cape – gradually began to take notice, and Meagher acquired the nickname “El Australiano”.

The fateful novillada of August 1964 was the most important Meagher had ever taken part in. But the bulls, he says, were terrible. To this day, he believes they had been fought before.

“A bull can never be fought more than once,” Meagher explains, standing in the middle of the room with his old muleta. “Because he’s learning the whole time, you see? Every minute you’re in the ring with him, he’s slowly but surely working out that the target isn’t the cloth but you.” He passes the cape behind his unmoving legs, slowly swinging it from side to side. Bulls respond to movement, and this pendulum pass is designed to convince the bull that it’s the cloth he wants to go for, not the legs he’s beginning to suspect or the body attached to them.

“From the moment they entered the ring,” Meagher says, “these bulls knew what they were doing. It was like the end of the fight at the beginning of it.”

Joaquín Camino and “El Bala” recognised the danger immediately and fought cagily, doing little of interest with their capes and killing quickly. The crowd whistled its disgust, but the toreros didn’t care.

Meagher, however, needed to impress.

“I’d spent a fortune on this thing,” he says. “Well over a thousand quid. I couldn’t afford to do this again. I couldn’t afford not to try.

 “Well, I was bucketed around. I was very lucky to get out of there alive and I’d made a fool of myself in the process. I’d ruined my chance at the big time.”

Meagher was demoralised. In 1965, some six years after he saw his first corrida in Pamplona, he returned to Australia and became a lawyer. Though he specialised in cases involving Sydney’s Spanish community, he didn’t return to Spain until 1984.

Meagher’s bitterness may have dissipated, but the accoutrements of his art remain: his pink-and-yellow capote, the large cape, his nickname stencilled across its yellow underside; his red muleta, which his liver-spotted wrist still works about his body with skill; and his elaborately brocaded suit of lights, the traje de luces, heavy and faded yellow now on a long-suffering coat hanger.

What remains as well is the excitement he felt at that first corrida, the same excitement that eventually compelled him to test himself in the ring. He makes a few passes with the large capote and breaks out in a smile.

“I used to look up into the crowd every time I was about to walk out into the ring,” he says. “I’d look up into the stands and I’d think to myself: ‘If I make it through today, I swear, from now on I’ll be up there where they are, not down here.’ But then, you know, you’d enter the ring, you’d perhaps have a triunfo …”

Matthew Clayfield

Matthew Clayfield is a freelance foreign correspondent and travel writer.

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