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27 Dec

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Hemingway spent his last birthday in Andalusia, the southern reaches of sunny Spain. A region steeped in Arab influence, Flamenco music and machismo. My wife and I found this lovely bronze plaque in memory of the great novelist just outside the bullring in Ronda a fortnight ago.

Late December and the sun blazing down we explored the building. Clare would not set foot on the sand, it felt macabre to her and not a place for holiday snaps.

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I witnessed a bullfight in 1998 in Madrid – it is not for the faint of heart. The ritualised slaughter of a massively powerful, beautiful animal by a matador and his team of picadors on foot and horse back is supposed to be a demonstration of supreme machismo – literally ‘the sense of being manly’.

The bull does not stand a chance of course – he will die, that is his fate. Sitting in the arena I asked an old Spanish guy next to me to explain the meaning of the bullfight as we watched. He said “Signor, the bull is the man, the matador is the woman”

This surprised me, as you can imagine.

Hemingway was somewhat obsessed with hunting, drinking and death – he was a man’s man. The culture of hunting is still strong in this region of Spain. This is the Hunting Museum in Ronda.

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None of these specimens was hunted for food, they were all killed for trophies. What lunacy, a byproduct of the same machismo which gives us the bull fight, the trophy hunt, the religious fanatic and the terrorist.

The certain testosterone fuelled knowledge that “Might is Right” yields a cult of Death. By killing the trophy hunter satisfies his hunger for power not meat. Taking life to feel alive.

As a professional Zoologist in the past I have collected many species of animals (all invertebrates) in order to understand their physiology, relationships and ecology. I was never comfortable making collections of reference material for the sake of future study. So I did not indulge in this form of esoteric stamp collecting.

To be fair there is not a huge difference between a trophy hunter and a butterfly collector. The only way I could feel happy collecting is with a camera.

What then is the counterbalance to machismo?

Life bursts forth in its fabulous complexity, fuelled by the sun through photosynthesis. Carbon dioxide plus water joined in green plants and algae to make sugars. The start of most food chains. Synthesis and symmetry – mathematical, chemical and physical processes – hinted at by the Arabs who built their palaces in southern Spain.

It was just near here, in the park in Seville that this woman danced for me a ballet of such blinding absurdity that it made me laugh in the midst of suicidal depression.

The counter to machismo is humour. Sharper than the sword wielded by a matador, and pen of a Nobel laureate novelist.

The Alcazar, Seville, Spain.

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