In 1959, my parents founded an English language school on the southeast coast of England and in 1970, The School of English Studies welcomed ‘El Cordobes’, Spain’s most celebrated bullfighter.
I was eleven years old and had never heard of the man they called ‘The Beatle of the Bullring’, but I was fascinated by the secrecy that surrounded his arrival. He had chosen Folkestone because he wanted to keep a low profile. Within days, however, his cover was blown and there were photographers hiding in the bushes of Grimston Gardens and reporters calling the house day and night for a story.
Finally, it was agreed that the press could visit for a one-off interview and photo opportunity, and a team came down from the now defunct Daily Sketch to follow Manuel Benitez through a day in his life at SES. Pictures were taken of him playing table football with the other students and sitting in the Language Laboratory with headphones and a text book. The photographer even snapped him polishing his powder-blue Rolls Royce, a chore much more likely to have been done by his chauffeur. The double-page spread in the paper the following day infuriated my father. He was scornful of the impoverished, clichéd language used in the article, which described the matador as stabbing at everything that moved with his ballpoint pen and shouting ‘Gore Blimey’ and ‘Magnifico’ when tasting Mrs. Bannister’s fruit cake. In spite of all the excitement, Peter O’Connell remained determined that the SES teaching routine was not to be disrupted and, according to the article, the Press had to wait until the tough bullfighter had finished morning school before they could do their interviews.
El Cordobes was given special one-to-one tuition with Marion, the Director of Studies. She recalls driving Manuel around town in her Ford Popular in a bid to confuse the Press, who pursued him wherever he went.
Even though I had no interest in bullfighting, I decided to make the most of having a real live celebrity in the school, and I asked to be introduced to the great man. I had been told that even though he was in his mid-thirties, he had never been to school and this, in itself, I found astonishing. El Cordobes was very gracious and even though his English was non-existent, we smiled at each other and communicated through an interpreter. He subsequently handed me two pieces of what appeared to be air-dried beef. When I showed my mother what the great matador had given me, she explained that after he killed a bull, he would cut off its ears and throw them into the crowd. It was a great stroke of luck if you caught one and here I was with two, possibly even belonging to the same bull. I was revolted by this story and managed to get my mother to exchange the ears for an autographed picture, which I thought would give me greater kudos with my friends at school. First, of course, I would need to explain who El Cordobes was and why they should be impressed, after which I could always throw in the bit about having turned down a couple of dead bull’s ears.
El Cordobes is arguably Spain’s most famous bullfighter. Growing up in poverty in Cordoba, the young Manuel Benitez would steal into estates at night and practise fighting on untrained bulls. Later, in an attempt to gain recognition in the Ring, he vaulted fences at big fights and, using a makeshift cape, challenged the bull and delighted the crowds. He was flamboyant and provocative and had a reputation as a great lothario. Several biographies were written about El Cordobes and in 1991 the musical Matador, loosely based on his life, opened at the Queen’s Theatre in London. The great bullfighter had been due to spend seven months studying at SES, but the publicity became intolerable for everyone concerned, and a few weeks later he went back to Spain.
Richard, a summer teacher at SES, had lived in Spain for many years and was an avid fan of the ‘toreo’. In 1980, we were visiting Barcelona and Richard invited us to a bullfight. I wasn’t keen on the idea, but decided that, in view of the school’s history with El Cordobes, I should go. I bought a copy of Ernest Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon in the hope of preparing myself a little, but the spectacle turned out to be worse than I could ever have imagined.
Bullfighting was banned in Barcelona in 2012 and Las Arenas is now a shopping mall. El Cordobes fully retired from the ring in 2000. At the time of writing, he is eighty-five years old and lives a quiet life in his hometown of Cordoba.
Taken from I Have Come to Say You Goodbye: A History of The School of English Studies, 1959 – 2017 by Una Suseli O’Connell (pub. June 2022).