Two weeks after finishing school, my friend Michael and I arrived in Pamplona to run the bulls. We were excited and nervous – running the bulls sounded both glamorous and terrifying – but we didn’t really know what we were letting ourselves in for.
Pamplona is in the mountains of north Spain: Basque country. Every July it hosts the San Fermin festival for two weeks, and the heart of the festival is the world-famous bull-running event. The Running of the Bulls takes place at 8am each morning. Each day of the bull-running showcases a different stock of the cattle lovingly reared in the surrounding countryside. San Fermin is a rich, complex event that inspires great passion, devotion and controversy. The festival is so multifaceted and charged with meaning that it would take a whole book to do justice to it. Michael and I were interrailing around Spain; and although Pamplona is full to bursting in July, we’d somehow succeeded in booking a hotel so that we could experience San Fermin for ourselves.
When we arrived, there was an American woman in the lobby, wearing the distinctive San Fermin white clothes and neckerchief. We got talking with her, and she had lots of intimidating advice about bull-running. She’d run the bulls that morning, and said things like “Don’t wear a watch, it could get snagged on something,” and “Remember not to stick together – other people will distract you from your own safety,” and “if you fall over, DO NOT move until someone taps you on the shoulder with a rolled-up newspaper,” and “The biggest danger isn’t the bulls, it’s the other people.”
The most worrying thing was her horrible, very fresh black eye, which made half of her face puffy with bruising and cuts. It was a starker warning than anything she could have said. We went to bed, not very reassured.
By dawn the next morning, we were at the start of the bull-running course. A large proportion of the people gathering in the square were English-speakers – Australians, Americans and South Africans. There were macho Spanish guys, alpha male tourists with dreadlocks and loud laughs, self-confident patriarchs taking their last chance to pit themselves against the bulls, and a couple of blokes in morph suits. I’m pretty tall, but for once I wasn’t one of the tallest people around: everybody seemed to be my height, or even taller. The crowd got packed closer and closer together, hemmed in by a police cordon.
Hundreds of watchers, wearing matching San Fermin outfits, waved and called down to us from balconies all along the narrow street. Beside me, a man and his grown-up son were trying to calm his terrified wife. The crowd was very tense, but chanting defiantly. As we reached fever pitch, the line of policemen dissolved and let us through. We ran as a horde, up the street, releasing our pent-up adrenaline. The policemen moved through the crowd, dragging away people who looked like they might be drunk or be otherwise unsuited for running the bulls. The course between the square and the bullfighting arena was penned in by sturdy fences, to make sure the bulls didn’t escape – and to give us a barrier to duck behind if we needed it.
Running the Bulls
At 8 o’clock we heard the gunshots that signalled that the bulls had been released. The atmosphere was electric. Bizarrely, because everybody was straining to look the same way down the street, they all started jumping for a better view. As far as I could see, there was a wall of grown men bouncing up and down. Waves of panic and exhilaration swept up in our direction, scattering people like gusts of wind through leaves. It was clear now why the stampeding people were even more dangerous than the bulls. People were properly scared now, and the camaraderie was gone.
Into the whirlwind of panic burst the bulls. I tried to run but I did not dare take my eyes off the flailing horns, and in the blur people were throwing themselves out of the way. The beasts thundered past, terrifyingly close. Then more of them came, ploughing through the confusion. I chased after them, running as though my life depended on it, convinced that there were more bulls still behind me. People were lying prone on the ground, and others were tapping them with newspapers as the signal that it was safe to get up.
I sprinted towards the bullfighting stadium, through a passage into the arena. At that moment I heard another gunshot, which meant all the bulls had been rounded up successfully. I later found out that the bulls had taken just 136 seconds to complete the 875-metre course, goring two people along the way in “the fastest and most dangerous running of the bulls” that year. In the stands, the crowds were in a frenzy, chanting down at us. Replays were already being projected on great screens, the crowd oohing and aahing at the footage.
Michael and I quickly found each other and shared a triumphant hug. Michael pointed to one of the giant screens. “See the guy falling over?”
“Ouch,” I winced, as the figure on camera slid across the cobbles alongside the bulls.
“That’s me,” he grinned. Michael had managed to fall over twice – “but the second time I had it coming because I tripped over somebody who’d tripped over me the first time.”
The morning wasn’t finished yet. A furious, frantic bullock with rubber-tipped horns burst out, scattering all of us still in the arena. Because of the rubber-tipped horns, the idea was that this one wasn’t dangerous – as long as you were a pro and you knew how to fall safely.
The bullock stampeded around, goaded by dozens of cocky Spaniards who were all trying to catch its attention. Everywhere it charged, the crowd gave way with a surge of adrenaline and fear. When the bullock got tired, it was replaced by another, and then another. The crowd cheered and jeered – some people held onto its horns, some were brutally thrown onto the sand, and others were forced to flee from its charge. One man was caught by his rucksack – he eventually wriggled free, and the animal ran amok with the bag still hanging from its horn. Somebody else leaped forward and nabbed the rucksack, to adulation from the crowd.
The Living Statue Pimp
That evening, we returned to the centre of town and joined the nightly party. We tagged along with an exuberant marching band, got squirted by a water pistol filled with sangria, and worked our way through a succession of overcrowded bars. We stopped to admire a living statue in a motorbike helmet, who appeared to be doing a very impressive balancing act.
At that moment, a man came up and started chatting to us – or more accurately, chatting at us. I have no idea why he decided to do so. He was very intense; and he told us something that has intrigued me ever since: he was the living statue’s pimp.
Living statues have pimps. If you knew this, it’s probably because I’ve spent the last nine years telling everybody about this unexpected insight into the world of street performers.
The pimp was from Mexico, but he told us he was much happier in Europe. He painted a rather idyllic picture of life in a van, with some living statues and costumes in the back, driving from festival to festival and living by his motto: “Don’t. Pay. Taxes.” Everything he told us, he kept coming back to the same point: “Don’t. Pay. Taxes.”
“What are you going to study at university?” he asked Michael.
“Physics,” said Michael.
“That’s cool,” said the living statue pimp, “but then you have to go and study economics and learn how to Don’t. Pay. Taxes.”
When I commented on the living statue’s apparently incredible balance, his pimp was airily dismissive: “It’s a trick; of course it’s a trick.” There was a hidden frame inside the suit, supporting the living statue’s weight. He emphasised that he never let any of his performers become a star. “If one of them becomes a star, you are dead in the water.” Then he shook our hands warmly and moved off.
I was aware at the time that running the bulls was a coming-of-age experience for me. We were eighteen, and it was the most intense thing I’d ever done. The thrill and the emotion is unlike anything I’ve encountered since, and it’s hard to put into words.
There was no running of the bulls in 2020, due to coronavirus. The Times Literary Supplement asked me to write an article about the cancellation of San Fermin, and what it might mean for Pamplona. Have a read – and let me know what you think!
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