A couple of minutes before seven o’clock on the morning of 8 July in the early days of my career, I stood at the western end of the Calle de la Estafeta in Pamplona, wishing to God that I was somewhere else. Anywhere else would do.
I was waiting for a flare to signal that the first of half a dozen bulls had been released from the pen less than 200 yards away. Calle de la Estafeta was part of the route to the bull ring. Waiting, I reflected on how I came to be in this hazardous situation.
About a month earlier, over dinner in a restaurant somewhere in Devon, Tom Savage, the producer of the BBC’s Holiday programme, had suggested that the San Fermín Festival in Pamplona – more usually known as the Bull Running – would make ‘good television’. I agreed, but said it would make even better television if I wasn’t a part of it. This comment was made from the heart as, apart from a tendency towards cowardice, I possess a well-honed sense of self-preservation.
In July, Pamplona comes to life with the festival of San Fermin © Mmeeds, Dreamstime
Having grown up in close proximity to the countryside, I have seen what even a moderately annoyed cow can do to an innocent member of the human race. Dammit, I knew a farmer who had been badly injured by a bunch of sheep with no sense of direction. So I was not going to deliberately place myself in the path of a speeding bull. On this, my mind was firmly made up.
However, as the evening wore on I succumbed to that deadly combination of alcohol and stupidity that has been my undoing on so many occasions. I heard myself saying: ‘Wow, what a great idea. Let’s go for it.’
And so here I was, taking part in the ritual of the running of the bulls. And probably about to die as a result.
I had no time to dwell further on my folly for the flare soared into the sky, followed a split second later by another. That was not a good sign, as it meant that the last of the bulls had left the corral. With hardly any time between first and last, those bulls were already coming at a hell of a pace. It was time to run.
We tried, the rest of the crowd and I, but a line of Guardia Civil blocked the way. Their orders were to prevent us stampeding and trampling on runners farther down the route. It was a sensible precaution, but not one we appreciated at the time. After what seemed like an age, but was no more than a few seconds, they moved aside and, sobbing with relief and fear, I ran like a terrified rabbit.
Knowing I was in more danger from fellow runners than from the bulls was of little consolation, because the bulls didn’t know this. Neither did the steers.
I ran as fast as I could, thinking of horns and hooves and slight nudges and of how all that mobile beef was gaining on me.
Now, nobody ever mentions the steers when they write about the thrills and excitement of Pamplona’s bull-running festival. But half a dozen of those great, slab-sided creatures are released to run with the bulls, in theory as a calming influence – though how a castrated bull can be a calming influence on an uncastrated one, I have no idea; unless they were there to warn: ‘If you don’t behave yourself you’ll end up like us.’ Which is ridiculous when you realise that the uncastrated lads were all going to be dead by teatime. Anyway, steers are not supposed to present any danger, but as they are the fighting weight of a Vauxhall Astra, the slightest accidental nudge can do serious damage to your rib cage.
So I ran as fast as I could, thinking of horns and hooves and slight nudges and of how all that mobile beef was gaining on me. I ran in my stupid black beret and my ridiculous red scarf and my brand new espadrilles, because Tom had insisted we should all dress the part. I was determined not to die in such an outlandish outfit. By a miracle, whimpering with terror, I made it to the bull ring and scrambled behind the wooden barrier. I lay on the seats, shuddering and sobbing, in the foetal position.
Now any day that has its adrenalin peak at 7.15 a.m. requires a large quantity of alcohol to get you to the end of it. And as the wine takes effect, you forget the fear and begin to believe you are Ernest Hemingway reincarnated. You lie about your bravery and the extent of the danger you had faced. This is mainly done to impress young ladies, who are supposed to gaze at you in doe-eyed admiration. Neverhas the term ‘bullshitting’ been so apt.
All that wine combined with bravado ensures that when, towards the end of the evening, somebody suggests you run again tomorrow (as some idiot invariably does), you hear a voice saying: ‘Wow, what a great idea. Let’s go for it.’ And then you realise it is yours.
So, for four days I ran with the bulls. And by the fourth morning I had almost convinced myself I knew what I was doing. Almost. However, that morning, there was a complication. As I stood once more in Calle de la Estafeta, waiting for the signal flare, an English voice yelled out: ‘Hello, old son. Fancy seeing you here. How the devil are you?’
I turned and immediately recognised the actor Trevor Howard. Clearly, he had mistaken me for someone he knew, for we had never met until that moment. That wasn’t the problem, however. The problem was that Mr Howard was absolutely blotto, as drunk as the proverbial skunk. He and a bunch of other folk had been driven through the night from the film festival in nearby San Sebastián, fortifying themselves with copious amounts of wine and, in Mr Howard’s case, much brandy, too.
To this day I do not know who he thought I was. There was no way of finding out at the time, much less convincing him of his error. He had no idea where he was or what was about to happen, and was in the middle of one of those endless, pointless monologues much favoured by drunken people when the flare went up.
I turned to go. Mr Howard was in full flow and thought I was being rude. He said so, loudly and in picturesque language. He also grabbed me firmly by the shoulder so I would remain and listen to the conclusion of his lecture.
© Mmeeds, Dreamstime
As people ran past us I saw, out of the corner of my eye, that the first of the bulls had entered the street. I pulled free from Mr Howard, who staggered back, shook his head, grunted and collapsed backwards like a broken puppet into a shop doorway where he promptly passed out. Pausing only to kick his legs into the safety of the doorway, I joined the fleeing mob. I made it to the bull ring, somehow overtaken en route by three bulls and four steers.
Though bull-running is the heart and soul of the San Fermín festival, there are also bull fights in Pamplona, but they are not very good. Their daily purpose is to dispose of the animals that made the morning run, but the fighters are either veterans on their way down or novices on their way up. But we had to film the bull fights, if for no other reason than to bring the wrath of anti-bullfighting viewers down on our heads. So, one hot afternoon, we took ourselves to the bull ring to do just that.
Among the crowd was a group supporting one of the novice fighters who, for reasons known only to themselves, had brought along a duck as a mascot – a real duck.
From time to time this wretched bird was flung into the air, but could not get far as she had a long string attached to one of her legs and would be hauled back, quacking and flapping like an ungainly feathered kite. The spectacle was very cruel, and rather sad. We filmed it though we knew it could not be used, even if the duck gang had refrained from making extremely rude gestures towards us and our camera.
As we were in the process of swearing our undying love for each other, not to mention ‘The Great English Broadcasting Company’, the duck began to recover her senses. She had had a terrible day – indeed, a terrible week – and was in the mood for revenge.
At the end of our last, long evening, on the way back to the hotel we encountered about a dozen of those fans, led by a burly bloke with a stubbled chin and a serious personal hygiene problem. He had a large plastic barrel of wine slung over one shoulder, and the semi-comatose duck stuffed into the top of his leather jacket.
Recognising us from our encounter in the arena, he barred our way, insisting we should drink wine with him and his chums. One of them had a load of thick green glass tumblers in a plastic bag, but Mr Stubble was hampered in his efforts to fill them from his barrel because of the duck. So he removed her from his jacket and placed her on the pavement.
Then the toasts started. To Pamplona! To Spain! To England! To Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth! To General Franco! (This was, as I mentioned, a long time ago…)
As we were in the process of swearing our undying love for each other, not to mention ‘The Great English Broadcasting Company’, the duck began to recover her senses. She had had a terrible day – indeed, a terrible week – and was in the mood for revenge. My feet were inches from her head. She lunged at my bare ankle, ripping down with the serrated edge of her beak, drawing copious amounts of blood.
I dropped my tumbler – which, oddly, did not break but bounced several times along the roadway – and began to hop around in considerable pain. I also tried to kick the duck, but it is not possible to hop and kick at the same time. I may have sworn. I know Mr Stubble did, as he scooped up his duck, yelling abuse at me for trying to harm her, as he led his chums away. As the Victorian music hall ballad puts it: ‘We parted on fighting terms.’
With the red scarf bound round my ankle as a makeshift bandage I limped back to the hotel, helped by my companions. Prue, our Production Assistant, cleaned up the wound, declared it did not need stitching and dressed it with a couple of large plasters from her BBC first aid kit.
Thus my Pamplona adventure came to an ignominious end. But it gave me a unique claim to fame. I am the only person you’ll ever meet who survived the bulls of Pamplona… only to be gored by a duck.
Inspired by John's tale? Read more in Gullible's Travels.