A blended education

Recently, a few people have asked me, not unreasonably, if, now that we have had a taste of formal education, I have given up on the idea of home education. The answer is absolutely not. While I love that the girls are currently attending the village school in Sanlúcar, my commitment to the philosophy and practice of home education is as strong as ever.

A very particular set of circumstances led to the decision to enrol the girls in school here. We liked life on the Rio Guadiana in general, and we felt that enrolling the girls in the tiny village school would provide them with an immersive education in Spanish language that we could not give them at home. And, we felt that their attendance at school would give all four of us opportunities to participate in village life that we wouldn’t otherwise get if we continued to home educate while living on the river. We were drawn to the size of this school, with only seven or eight children per classroom, and thought that experience would be very different to being in a larger town or city school.

Apart from learning Spanish language and culture, the girls are learning other things at school that they wouldn’t necessarily learn at home – or at least would learn very differently at home.

One of Lily’s favourite school subjects is Religion, although she can’t quite express why. She’s certainly getting a very different perspective on religion at her predominantly Catholic Spanish school than she gets at home from her agnostic-Anglican and atheist-Catholic parents!

In school there is a big emphasis on perfectly neat cursive handwriting – something that I’ve never bothered with – and the girls are now writing beautifully. The great advantage of this for Lily is that she can now write faster, and doesn’t get so frustrated when trying to express herself on paper.

And, I must admit, one of the things I like best about having the girls in school is that I no longer feel the need to do the thing I like least about home education – arts and crafts! Even as a child I hated making things with scissors and PVA glue and toilet roll inserts and poster paint, and drumming up the enthusiasm to do that stuff with the girls has always been a guilt-inducing burden for me. Katie now has a very arty teacher and she comes home almost daily with some new creation. (Finding space to display these masterpieces at home is now the challenge!)

We have decided to spend another year on the Rio Guadiana, so the girls can continue to attend this school. Their Spanish language skills are developing so rapidly we feel that, with another year of immersion in the village, they will be close to fluent for their age. And after that? Who knows.

At home we continue to focus on those areas of education that are important to Julian and I and, in unschooling fashion, we facilitate the girls own educational interests.

At first, Lily found maths at school too easy (although I pointed out she was learning in Spanish), so she has continued to study maths at her own pace and level at home. In addition, she writes almost daily – letters, book reports, her own daily journal – and we try to give her the space and freedom to just get on with that. And while Katie is learning to read and write in Spanish, we continue to work with her at home to develop her reading skills and I’m hoping independent reading is just a few months away (this has been my hope for a long long time!!).

But, much as before, their informal education is led by what interests them and us. Katie has decided she wants to be a palaeontologist when she grows up (independent reading a necessity, Katie!) and our walks through the countryside these days are usually with the purpose of searching for bones. The many bones we find lead us in all learning directions. Through observation, conversation and research we are learning about physiology, how joints work, how to recognise different parts of a skeleton, the structure of bones, the different wild animals that live around here, distinguishing between carnivores and herbivores based on the teeth and jawbones we find. Believe me, it’s fun!!

Lily is recently fascinated by evolution, and asks endless questions about the origins of life, how plants and animals evolved, where the Earth came from, and so on. I told her recently that the answers to these questions were much easier when I asked them as a child. ‘God made the world’ was the answer that had to satisfy me! On our long evening and weekend walks, I try my best to answer her endless questions, and back home aboard Carina, we get the reference books out or search the internet for answers.

At home, we continue to actively learn through cooking and baking (weights, measures, how to cook, nutrition), through boat maintenance and care (learning to row, buoyancy), through shopping (maths, budgeting, practicing Spanish) and through all the other things we do on a daily basis. The girls are generally unaware, of course, that they are learning, but that philosophy and practice of learning by doing informs much of what we do together.

At the end of the next school year we will have another decision to make – to stay or move on. If we do move on I hope we will return to home education. But if we stay here, well, like many families, we will continue to blend education at school and home. The most important thing for me is that the girls retain their enthusiasm and joy for learning.

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(In)experience

Julian and I are often quite conscious of our lack of sailing experience. Since buying Carina over four years ago we have met so many people with vastly more experience than us. People who have grown up aboard boats; people who have sailed the world three times over; people who have been professional sailors; people who have taught sailing. We have also met people who were less experienced than us when they started out. But for the most part, the other live aboard sailors we meet are more experienced than we are.

Recently we met Tom, an elderly man from Cullen in Scotland, who has been sailing since he was ‘a wee laddie’. Before he was 13 years old he picked shellfish, sold them and saved up his earnings to buy his first little boat and then sailed it out to sea to fish for mackerel so he could earn the money to buy an outboard motor. By the time he was 16 he was a cook aboard a North Sea fishing vessel. He was a professional sailor for years and now lives on his own boat. The sea is in his blood. He’s as cool and at home on the sea as most people are at their land-lubber kitchen tables. He talks like a sailor, using nautical language that I at times struggle to understand.

We told him how inexperienced we were. He quickly corrected us.
‘How did you get here?’ he asked. ‘Did you have the boat shipped down overland?’
No, we said, and told him the route we had taken from Plymouth to Falmouth, across the English Channel to Brittany, from there across the Bay of Biscay to Galicia, down the west coast of the Iberian Peninsula, into the Mediterranean, along Mediterranean Spain, across to Morocco, back out of the Mediterranean again, and up the Rio Guadiana to our current location.

‘When you crossed the English Channel you did more than 80% of the people in the marina you left behind in Plymouth’ he said. ‘When you crossed the Bay of Biscay you did more than 99% of them. So don’t tell me you’re inexperienced’.

It’s easy to feel inexperienced when you are always surrounded by people so much more experienced. And we still are novices. We haven’t crossed any oceans, we have no two week or six week ocean passages under our belts. We haven’t experienced any great violent storms. But we are also cautious sailors. Our pleasant and mostly uneventful crossing of the Bay of Biscay, one of the world’s great patches of rough ocean, was as much due to careful planning and weather watching, and going when the conditions were right, as it was to beginner’s luck. I have no yearning for near death experiences at sea, I have no desire to put my children in danger. So we sail carefully and cautiously – departing quickly and suddenly because conditions are right, or hanging around for days or weeks waiting for the right conditions.

I’m not saying we won’t or don’t experience danger or that our lives won’t be threatened by the conditions we find ourselves in. That’s life. But we are cautious enough not to put ourselves in the way of danger. When we one day make those big ocean crossings (as we hope to) we will plan carefully and go when the crew, the boat and the meteorological conditions are right.

Every time we put to sea, every time we anchor, or raise the sails, or face a storm, or come alongside a pontoon, or do the thousand other things we do, we gain a little more experience. We are not the greenhorns we were when we set sail for Ireland in the summer of 2012. But neither are we this Scottish sailor Tom or Paudi Kelly, or the Dutch guy I met in La Palue, or Ruth and Duncan, or Hazel and Dave or the others we know whose ease and comfort makes us blush at our own ineptitude. We don’t yet, and maybe never will, have their levels of experience.

But Tom made a point that was both enlightening and sobering. ‘You can no longer use inexperience as an excuse for the mistakes you make’, he said. We have sailed a long way from our home port, powered in part by bravado, hubris and optimism. But the sailing we have done comes with a heavy responsibility – to not get ourselves in trouble, to not have others endanger their lives to rescue us, because we’ve done something stupid or intemperate. Everyone has accidents, everyone runs into trouble from time to time, but when something goes wrong we cannot plead inexperience. Having come this far it is our responsibility to act on the experience we have and to use that knowledge and skill wisely in every new situation we face.

After that discussion about (in)experience, Tom presented us with a jar of peanut butter and a jar of his own home made mango chutney. Wise words and food – he’s won me over!

Get a job!

Recently, someone with our best interests at heart suggested that our lives would be easier if Julian and I had permanent jobs. These would provide us with financial security, give us something on which to focus our attention, and provide structure to our lives. We could still have a boat, save up our holidays and go sailing in the summer. This put me in a reflective mood and I asked this person for permission to use our conversation as a jumping off point for this blog post.

It’s true that in our current situation we lack financial security. But are we so different to many two-income families? My parents both worked, they were careful with money, and yet money was always a worry. Before we had children, Julian and I had a joint income of £64,000. But it never seemed to be enough. Back then, of course, we knew exactly how much money would appear in our bank account on a certain day each month. We knew the bills would get paid and we didn’t give much thought to how much money we spent on food and going out. These days we don’t know how much money (if any) we will earn in a given month. But I don’t think it has made our financial worries any greater. Rather, our financial worries are different. We no longer have the expense of running a car, paying rent or a mortgage, and paying electricity, telephone and water bills. We have other expenses, but they don’t even compare to our expenses when we lived on land.

These days we have to work hard to make our meagre financial resources stretch far. Some might think it burdensome to spend so much time comparing the prices on tins of tomatoes or weighing up the cost of a night spent at a marina versus the cost of motoring to an anchorage when there’s no wind by which to sail. But this is our work. These minute considerations allow us to live this incredible sailing life. If I wasn’t pondering tins of tomatoes I’d be giving essay-writing advice to a 19-year old undergrad. It’s just a different form of work.

Our way of life requires careful thought, planning and frugality and the replacement of time-saving devices and methods with manual and time-consuming labour. But without permanent full-time jobs, time is on our side and currently we undertake these boat maintenance and household chores in the warm January sun of the Costa del Sol, the beach a two-minute walk from Carina, a hulking orange mountain dominating the skyline behind us. We can leave when we wish and sail to wherever we choose, making anywhere our home. It feels like a pretty good life to me.

But having had this conversation about the benefits of permanent employment, I pondered the alternative to the life we currently live. Of course Julian and I could be in full-time permanent employment. There’s nothing to stop us. Academia is what I know and love and Julian has the research skills and experience to work in academia or in the private or public sectors. I certainly wouldn’t want a permanent job doing anything other than academic Human Geography/Anthropology. Why should I? It’s what I’m trained for. The academic life is a wonderful one, and I have to admit I miss all those intellectual conversations and debates that serve to fertilise the seeds of imagination. I miss my super-smart friends and colleagues, the opportunities for travel, the visits to the pub. I even miss my students some days!

But let’s imagine a scenario – based on my own experiences and on those of friends in academia. There is a side to academic life that makes the family life I desire almost impossible to achieve. Academic couples are frequently forced to live far from each other – in different cities, countries and even continents – as finding two jobs in the same university or city is often an unattainable dream. Julian and I lived apart when I lectured at Reading. In fact, all throughout my pregnancy with Lily, Julian lived in our home in Cambridge (where he worked) and I spent four nights a week in a flat in Reading (where I worked). My friends Tina and Ben have spent the past three years living apart in a foreign country and have only recently found university jobs in the same city in Tina’s native Canada. I have known couples who work in opposite ends of the UK, in different European countries and, in the most extreme example, a friend who worked in Fairbanks, Alaska, and lived there with her baby son, while her husband worked and lived in Vienna, Austria. Eventually, one of them had to give in and put their career on hold. In every university I have been associated with I have known couples who have been forced to live apart in order for both people to pursue their academic careers.

One of the reasons I quit my job at University of Reading after Lily was born was that we simply couldn’t figure out how to make it work. It’s a three and a half hour motorway journey between Cambridge and Reading. If we chose to live somewhere in between, Julian and I would both face up to four hours of commuting by car each day. House prices that close to London were way out of our reach and, if we factored in the cost of 12 hours of child care every day, one of our salaries would completely disappear in commuting and child care costs. Never mind how little time we would spend with each other or with our baby daughter. If you have ever been to Cambridge and Reading, you’ll understand why we chose Cambridge.

But let’s imagine that we were lucky enough to both find work in the same city. The academic workload is mindboggling. There are lectures to write and present, academic and pastoral tutorials, essays to grade, exams to mark, post-graduate students to supervise; departmental administrative duties; research grants to write and, if successful, to manage; journal articles, book chapters and books to write; editorial boards to sit on; external and internal examiner duties to fulfil; conferences to attend; research to plan and carry out; public or private sector consultation or collaboration; and much more besides. (I know as soon as I post this blog, I’ll think of ten more common tasks that I’ve forgotten to mention). I’ve rarely met an academic who doesn’t take their work on vacation. And, despite the misconceptions of non-academics, academics (in the UK) have only 30 days of paid leave a year, not the four months of freedom enjoyed by their students. Many academics don’t even take their 30 days. The long summer is a time to prepare for the next academic year, carry out research and write write write, because that old academic adage ‘publish or perish’ really holds true.

It is a privileged life, spending your days in a safe and comfortable environment, devoting your time to the research questions about which you are wildly passionate. And if I was single or had no children, I think I would throw myself heart and soul into it.

So, let’s take this scenario a little further. Julian and I have found incredible academic jobs in the same city and we are fully engrossed in what we do. In order to do our jobs to the best of our abilities and to progress up the promotional ladder, we would need to work long long hours, and so would need help with raising the kids. Pre-school, a large portion of our salaries would go on child care, and once the girls were in school (as early as possible, to reduce child care costs) they would still need after school care. We would see them briefly, morning and evening, all of us tired and frazzled.

Having the left-over financial resources to own a boat, keep it in good condition, and pay marina fees would be beyond us. Our dreams of a month or two at sea would remain just that and if we were lucky we might manage a week here or there.

But Julian and I chose other priorities. Home educating our children and exploring the world with them quickly became a priority for us. So for the past four years we have chosen a middle path. For three years I took temporary academic contracts that had set working hours. I worked professionally for those 35 hours every week, but I didn’t kill myself working every night and weekend as I used to do before. And this winter I’ve found a job teaching English 18 hours each week. It lacks the intellectual stimulation of university life, but it challenges me in other ways.

Despite not having full-time jobs, our lives have purpose and focus. Short, medium and long-term planning focus our thoughts, as we find innovative ways to make our finances stretch far, plan where we want to sail in a given week or month, and think about where we want to be in five or ten years time. We are focused on raising and educating the children – something that requires a lot of energy and innovation. And both Julian and I passionately pursue our own interests. While I have immediate and decade-long plans for my writing. Julian’s approach to planning is different, but this winter his obsession has been studying Spanish.

What we lack in financial security we more than make up for with the time and space to be innovative in our approach to living. And we have time to play, learn and grow together. No-one’s path through life runs smooth all the time, and each choice made means that other choices have to be cast aside. But at 40 and 41 years old, Julian and I have made our choices based on our past experiences, and based on what we know works for us as individuals and as a family.

Live an enthusiastic life, whatever path you choose.

9 + 9 + 9 = 36

In July 2013, when I spent a week in Ireland, I visited my friend Bernard in Navan. Bernard and his wife Moya have twin girls who are a year older than Lily. They were five at the time of my visit and I remember being mesmerized by what they could do. Their manual dexterity and language abilities were so much more advanced than Lily’s or Katie’s. They could skip with skipping ropes, put slides in their own and each others hair, and have conversations with me and their parents that seemed, at the time, terribly mature. But, you know, they’re Bernard’s kids, so I wouldn’t have expected anything less.

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A year and a half on, and Lily is now five and three quarters and Katie is four and a quarter. When I reflect on what they could not do last year, but can now do with ease, I am astounded by the ability of children to learn so much so fast. Over the years, a great deal of my anthropology practice has focused on how and what we learn about the world around us and how we put our embodied knowledge into practice. So it should come as no surprise that seeing my own children go through this process of engaging with and learning about the world around them is fascinating to me – as I’m sure it is to most parents.

I’m not bragging about how great my kids are. I’m gushing about how great ALL kids are. The ability of children to learn so much so quickly, and to make sense of a very complex world, astounds me. Some people compare kids to sponges soaking up information. But this analogy doesn’t capture the exciting, complicated and innovative ways that children re-organise all the information they receive in order to make sense of it and of the world. All children are learning all the time. They are all learning different things, each one at his or her own unique pace and with his or her unique style. Here are just some of the things my children have learned since last year:

Lily has learned to swim and Katie is nearly there too and both of them love to fully submerge in the water, their little heads disappearing below the waves. They can now both dress themselves, and brush their own hair and teeth. Some mornings, Lily makes breakfast for both of them (Katie’s still too short to reach into our top-opening fridge or to reach the cereal bowls). They can both use knives and forks, although Katie protests loudly at the indignity of having to cut up her own food and prefers her minions to do it for her.

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This time last year, Lily could read simple picture books (we thought them very advanced at the time). When I went to New York I bought her some Elephant and Piggy books by Mo Willems, to add to those she was already had at home. However, within a week of returning from New York, her reading ability had advanced beyond Elephant and Piggy. These days, she can read anything. I mean, anything! She doesn’t always understand the words (‘Mummy, what does superficial mean?’, ‘Dad what’s oesophagus?’) but she can pronounce pretty much every word she reads. I’ve heard a rumour that Santa is bringing a dictionary!

Because she is such an avid reader, her spelling is fantastic. Until a couple of months ago she was a cautious speller, and always sought reassurance that she was right. Not any more. Sure, she gets some things wrong, such as ending a word with ‘y’ when it should be ‘ie’. On the other hand, she knows that a word such as ‘pick’ is spelled with a ‘ck’ instead of a mere ‘k’. I can only imagine she knows these things because she reads so much and so she knows what words are supposed to look like. We certainly haven’t taught her. She has never ‘learned’ spellings off by heart the way I had to do for homework when I was a child.

She now has her own email account, and regularly emails Granny and any other family members who take the time to email her.

We have taken a very different approach to Katie’s reading and writing. You might say no approach at all, as our philosophy of unschooling has evolved. With very little input from us, Katie can now read most of her letters, knows what sounds they make and can write many of them. It is now her turn to get to grips with Elephant and Piggy.

Two months ago I wouldn’t have believed it if I was told that Lily would soon be able to add together three numbers in the hundreds. But she does it with ease. Even her mistakes show she’s learning. The other day she added 9 + 9 + 9. Her answer was 36. I told her she needed to try again. Her brow furrowed for a minute and then she said ‘Silly me. That’s four nines. I should have just done three nines’.

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The list of things the girls can do aged four and five that they could not do aged three and four seems almost endless. Their drawing, painting, inventing, role playing and much more besides have all become more complex, detailed and advanced. And they are such great company. They have a much greater awareness now of the impact of what they do and say, and they use that awareness to great advantage, teasing their Dad and me, making us laugh, playing tricks on us. They are avid communicators, talking the hind legs off a donkey at every opportunity, and making friends with people of all ages.

One of the things that I find fascinating is that I always notice a leap in their abilities when they have had new social experiences. After we’ve had visitors, or have spent an out-of-the-ordinary day with family or friends, both girls show an improvement in their aptitude for everything from drawing to mathematics to making conversation. I don’t know what the reasons are for this, but I can almost see the synapses in their brains going into overdrive and ensuring that they respond to these new stimuli and learn quick and fast.

This Christmas, take pleasure in what amazing creatures your children and grandchildren are. Revel in their curiosity and hunger for knowledge. Enjoy their creativity and humour and inventiveness. Answer their questions and laugh at their (awful) jokes. Make the time to listen to what they have to say. Take them seriously. Read to them. Sing to them. Allow them to read to you and sing to you. And accept that they’re smarter than any of us will ever be! Happy Christmas xx

The Bullfight

by Julian

I like eating meat. I tried to follow a semi-vegetarian diet for a month once. I ate some eggs and fish, but no meat. By the end of the month I felt tired and drained. A day after eating a good steak I felt better again. I know this is very unscientific but suffice it to say, I eat meat for both my pleasure and my wellbeing. However, I was always dissatisfied with the fact that the meat often arrived in a packaged form. I felt that if I ate meat I should be comfortable with the raising, killing and butchering of an animal. No! More than that, as a fit, healthy man I should be able to do it all myself. Martina gave me the opportunity to test this when we went hunting caribou with her Inuit friend in Arctic Canada. The first day out I saw a caribou shot three times and still not die until the hunter stabbed it in the back of the head. As the first time I had witnessed the killing of a mammal I stood there stunned and unable to move to help as Martina assisted in moving the carcass to dry ground and butchering it. Not a good start. The next time we were out we spotted a mother caribou and its calf. I was offered the rifle; I thought ‘It’s now or never. If I can’t do this I should be a vegetarian for the rest of my life’. I had considered the situation; I could shoot well enough; I knew where to aim for; the caribou had lived a free life unlike most of the animals I had eaten, some of which had no doubt been kept in miserable conditions. I shot, the caribou jumped up twice and dropped dead. I felt comfortable not only to help Martina butcher it but to cut out its kidneys and along with some back meat from the calf I made a delicious steak and kidney pie. Some of this pie we brought round to Martina’s hunter friend who ate it all on the spot, out of courtesy I think.

Now here comes the big-big-big BUT! I am completely unsure, even hostile to the idea that an animal should be killed for entertainment, proof of bravery, or the pleasure of killing. Lines are blurred because in a world, or at least a part of a world, where we don’t need to eat animals to survive or prosper are we killing to satisfy our taste alone? Is there really a difference between the entertainment of our taste buds and our general amusement?

I have always been uneasy about bullfights; I watched one on television at my Uncle Ken’s once. Ken lives in Estepona and told me he had been uncertain to begin with but had become fascinated by the art of the bullfight. I didn’t respect Ken’s views, but I had a general respect for him. Fourteen years later I turn up in Andalucía on a boat with Martina, Lily and Katie. It is my job to take the girls out for a day of learning, entertainment and culture whilst Martina cleans the boat and works on her writing. So we take the bus to Roquetas de Mar. The señora at the tourist office in Aguadulce has highlighted two free museums, one at the bullring and another at the Castillo. We turn up at the bullring first, partly because this is the first stop on the bus and partly because there appears to be an international beer festival next door which may have various entertainments and soothing elixirs available. We walk into the information office where the señora speaks good English to find the “Museum is open ten o’clock until one in the afternoon on a Saturday but is closed today because of a bullfight.”

“Oh!” I say “Is the museum at the castle open?” This is on the other side of town and my heart has sunk at the thought of nothing to do for two hours until the beer festival starts.
“Yes” she replies.
“How much is the bullfight?” I ask out of genuine curiosity but absolutely no intention of paying to support something I have serious moral dilemmas about. “Oh nothing right now” she says “There are not enough people at this time so we have just opened the gates.”
“When is it?” I say, with a slight lump in my throat.
“Eleven-thirty.” This is fifteen minutes away. My feet are suddenly glued to the floor. My mouth goes dry. Here I am standing next to the open gates of a bullring, a fight begins in a few minutes and I don’t have to fund it. Martina is not here so I can’t say “Take the kids off, I am going to see what’s going on and come away the moment I feel ill at the spectacle.” What do I do? After a walk and a bus journey, Lily and Katie are expectant, so I say to them “Right, we are just going in to have a look at the bullring. The museum is closed.” Good start. “We may get a quick look at the bull and the matador.” Just out of curiosity and the sake of education.

We go in and get excellent seats in a little box. The girls are excited and interested in the theatre: the band, the crowd; the horsemen. I turn to them and, feeling about as uncomfortable as I have ever done, I say “We will just watch the bull come out. Now you know Daddy is not comfortable with this and would never pay money to support it. Please don’t look, close your eyes if you want to. We will leave as soon as you want to go.” I am on the edge of my seat. I consider my options for getting them out of here quickly if I need to. “You know they kill the bull.”, I say to them.
“Yes we know daddy.”
“The matador has a sword; he kills it with a sword.”
“Um.”
“You do know we don’t have to stay and see that, and we wouldn’t be here if we were paying for it.”
“Yes of course.” The girls are confident, they sit there transfixed, they really want to see this and I can’t think of a good reason to pull them away.

The arena is perfectly round. We sit half way up in a boxed off area with three short benches. Below us are several rings of plastic seats where we would be closer to the action but not have as good an overview. The theatre is more than half empty but most people are in a group to our right so there is a crowd-like atmosphere. The crowd ranges from old ladies to young men and schoolgirls. I even see a mother feeding her baby. Gee whiz, I imagine these same women knitting happily at the guillotine during the French revolution.

The ring is covered in neatly raked orange-reddish sand. Around this is a well-kept wooden wall with several gaps, each covered by a short barrier behind which the men can jump to get out of reach of the bull. Behind this wooden wall is a ring with a higher wooden wall between it and the crowd.

After some important looking men shake hands with some very young men and everyone takes their places we hear the band strike up outside the arena, at first distant, becoming louder and louder. As they pass into the tunnel the sound of the brass, drums and cymbals rises to a stirring crescendo. They emerge into the arena to applause and circle once, exiting the way they have entered. Later they take up position high in the stands with a few trumpeters over the bull’s gate to herald any significant event.

Two horsemen ride in side by side with extreme coordination and purpose. The girls find this exciting. Handsomely dressed in black with capes and hats with feathers, they are like two Zorros riding out for adventure. The horses are beautiful. They dance their horses sideways around the arena, facing the crowd and doffing their hats to more applause. After this the matador and all the performers walk into the ring, equally spaced out in formation. Most are dressed in reds, greens and gold with small black hats. The matador, a distinguished looking man, is resplendent in light grey with a wide brimmed hat, waistcoat and jacket. The golden men take their places around the edge of the arena and the bull’s gate is opened. Nothing happens. The man by the gate taps several times until eventually the bull emerges into the daylight of the ring. It is not the biggest bull I have ever seen but not one I would like to be near. He is brown with curly hair between a magnificent pair of horns. The men jump out one-by-one waving large pink capes to entice the bull to charge them. The bull eventually does with some astonishing acceleration so that the men have to hurriedly jump back behind their barriers. After a few passes some of them emerge into the middle of the ring, standing to the side as the bull passes beneath their capes. The bull is quite energetic at times, and able to turn back on these men quickly enough that it seems quite dangerous. As this occurs other men spread their capes and shout to entice the bull away, so that no individual gets in too much of a knot. The crowd cheers acts of bravery or foolishness. I assume that most of this action is to tire the bull so the matador can perform without having to jump behind the barriers, or be rescued. After a while a novice matador comes out with two brightly coloured barbed sticks. Without a cape he seems vulnerable and the men with the pink capes have to work to get the bull near to the man without it attacking him. Finally he throws the sticks into the bull, just piecing its skin so that they rest on its back. The bull is agitated by this.

Finally, the matador comes out. On his own with a sword and a small red cape he cuts a very striking figure. He entices the bull to run at him letting it under his cape to one side and then the other in what appears to be a well choreographed dance. He turns his back on the bull and strikes the most elegant pose with his back arched and his arms down. He toys with the bull waving his cape from side to side; the bull seemingly hypnotised, he places his hand on the bull’s head to great clapping from the crowd. Accompanied by atmospheric music he swaps swords and we all know the bull’s time will soon be up. The bull charges and the matador strikes it deep in the back with the sword. The bull slows, blood comes out of its mouth and its legs gave way. Another man bearing a dagger stabs the bull in the back of the head and it dies quickly, much as I have seen done with caribou in the Arctic. Horses come on to drag the bull away (Lily and Katie liked those horses), and the bull’s ear is cut by one of the horsemen from earlier and ceremoniously given to the matador. The fight is over, the crowd cheers, waving white handkerchiefs at the demise of the bull.

The nervous tension of watching a bullfight for the first time, added to the fact that my two tiny daughters are with me is very tiring. I cannot and will not even try to describe the draining emotions. However, the girls seem happy with everything, asking questions, pointing things out, and so we stay for another one. In the second fight the matador is younger. He seems less sure. He loses a shoe and ends up under the bull. Others jump in with their pink capes to quickly lure the bull away. Later the young matador’s cape is ripped away making him more vulnerable. Again others quickly ran to distract the bull. Early on he tries to turn his back on the bull, probably misjudging the energy the bull still has. The crowd scream to him and he reacts just in time. From the overall performance I assume he showed some great skills but at the end of the fight he puts his back to the side of the ring and breathes heavily for a while. I can only begin to imagine the effects adrenaline is having on him; it is certainly having a big effect on us as a crowd. I think this is all too much for Lily, who is easily frightened. She has moved closer to me, as has Katie. “I’m scared”, Lily says, “I want to go”.
“Okay.” I reply. I have had more than enough, and feel mentally exhausted by what we have witnessed. However, Katie, is upset. “I don’t want to go. I want to see the next one. I love bullfights.”
“Let’s just see the bull come out”, I say. “Then we have to go.” Katie is distraught. Previously Martina and I had been convinced that the midwife should have held Katie up at birth and said “Congratulations, it’s a vegetarian!” Whereas Lily happily munches on baby squid and has even eaten raw shrimp from our engine intake filter, Katie tends to say things like “Yuck! I don’t like meat” and “I only like the yellow fish!” (Meaning in batter)! Now all she wants is to tell Mummy how much she likes bullfights and can she go again.

So what about the morality of the whole thing, the cruelty to the animal? Well, when they got into the killing and the physical hurt to the bull I can only say they did it very quickly. I have seen animals hunted for food that have, to my eye, suffered far more than the quickly dispatched bull. To be honest we can get a bit too hung up on suffering and death and seem to prefer years of suffering and a painless last minute over a last minute of suffering and a great life. This is probably due to our often being disconnected from the realities of nature. So is it wrong that the bull was killed for the chance for some men to show off their art, their skill, their bravado, their tradition, to entertain the crowd? Is it right to kill because, frankly, I really like the taste of caribou? Try it, it’s delicious. I still don’t feel right about bullfights.

Yes I could kill the bull. I would stay as far away from it as possible and shoot it with the best weapon I had to hand. I would hang it to get the best flavour, butcher it and roast or barbeque it rare. Then devour it with some fine English mustard (The one with the drawing of a bull’s head on the jar) or some strong horseradish sauce. What I would not do is stand around waving a red cloth at the animal until it charged at me. But maybe that is just the way I get my satisfaction and actually nothing to do with imagined moral superiority. I hope the girls grow up to respect animals, and people, and that neither of them ever considers becoming a bullfighter. Although my biggest concern in that regard is their safety.