If I crane my neck at the window of my Madrid office, I can just see the Plaza de Toros in Ventas a few hundred yards away. Looking out at it, or driving past it is as close as I've got in my three years here. There's a part of me that thinks I should attend a bull fight, to immerse myself in an important Spanish cultural experience. There's a part of me that has no interest in the death of a beast for sport.
It's entirely possible that this second part of me was strongly influenced by The Story of Ferdinand, the pacifist bull who also ended up in Madrid, getting a much closer look at the interior of the bull ring than I have so far.
Ferdinand, who preferred smelling the flowers to butting heads with other bulls, did not fight. Instead he lay down in the ring mesmerised by the flowers worn by the beautiful women who came to watch him fight. Ferdinand was dispatched back to Ronda where he led a pastoral life. Smart bull. Better Ronda than the carnicerrias of Ventas.
I was bought the story as a child by my aunt Astrid, and I loved it. I still love it in fact and have read it to my children and bought it for others. It is one of the few books I actually recall being read, alongside the Blackberry Farm books. It's a simple tale, beautifully told by prolific US children's author Munro Leaf. Published in 1936, just as Spain's brutal Civil War was getting underway it has been interpreted as a pacifist propaganda. Any why not? Who in their right mind would prefer marching off to death and destruction to sitting in a field smelling the flowers?
And maybe Ferdinand is more than that even. "It’s not a stretch to think of Ferdinand as more than just a symbol of peace, but as an icon for the outsider and the bullied." wrote Pamela Paul in this New York Times retrospective published for the bull's 75th birthday.
What Ferdinand has shown in his 79 years is, first, that great story-telling endures and inspires, and then that we would all be better off if there were a little more of his gentleness in our lives. And when (if) I do finally make it inside Ventas for a bull fight, whatever gore I find there, I'll have the comfort of knowing that Ferdinand made it home to his field and his flowers.