In the 1970s, no British home was complete without its pair of castanets and figurine of a bull, back bristling with banderillas (lances). No home except ours, that is, because in our front room in Plaistow we had a traje de luces (suit of lights, traditional dress of the torero: http://www.flamencoshop.com/bullfight/suit_of_lights.htm) and a capote (cape) on one wall and, above the fireplace, a sword surrounded by the ears and tail of a bull. These days you’d have to travel to Billericay to see them. You’d also have to pay, because now they form only a small part of the museum dedicated to my Grandmother, Florrie Wentworth, or Florencita de Foresgeit as she is still lovingly known in Spain.
Nan was not the first torera: that was, arguably, Juanita Cruz. However, she was the first Englishwoman, the first grandmother and the first East Ender to wear the suit. This is the story of how she achieved that remarkable hat-trick of firsts.
Florence Constance Wentworth, first-born of a cabinet maker and an apprentice dressmaker, was born in Poplar, East London on April 3rd, 1916. Her paternal grandfather had been the last of a family of agricultural workers, a tradition maintained only by the keeping of rabbits and chickens in the back garden. Joe Wentworth, her father, was determined to discourage any sentimentalism where animals were concerned and so, at the age of 6, she was sent out to wring the Sunday Roast’s neck. Young Florrie idolised her father and understood that he’d like her to return with the cutest of the livestock. Quite clearly, this could only be Bobtail, her favourite rabbit.
The neck of a chicken could have been ergonomically designed for wringing by a six-year-old. It is long enough for two small hands to grip and the vertebrae provide both purchase and leverage. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for a rabbit, whose already short neck will disappear entirely into bunny shoulders at the slightest suggestion of wringing. After 15 minutes of struggle in the shed, Florrie reached for the nearest weapon in sight, a rusted chisel, and drove it through poor Bobtail’s head. Although a little put out by the obliteration of his favourite part of the rabbit, Joe hid his disappointment and congratulated his proud daughter on her first kill. After all, he reasoned, it had been his responsibility to teach her the rabbit-punch.
Already genetically disposed towards big-bonedness, her father’s exemplary dedication to the provision of protein, along with the household chores she’d inherited from her mother, draped Florrie’s frame with muscle. In 1932, she had to pawn the family mangle in order to buy her brother a suit for his first job, and she took up her life-long habit of wringing out the washing by hand and began to develop the most formidable physique in the street.
Having sent her mother’s family out into the world, Florrie briskly set about raising her own, more or less seconded by Corporal James ‘Budgie’ Ellis. In 1934 my father, Victor, was born. She also found time to set up her own dressmaking company.
Now this is about Nan but, since I am about to have an important role to play in her life, I’d better introduce myself: Anthony Edmond, born March 31st 1953 to Victor and my mother, Joan. I was born, went to school, etc, and more or less fade into the background until May, 1966 when Granddad Budgie fell off the perch. For a long distance lorry driver Budgie had, it seemed, left enough to provide for his wife. That was before his other wives and various creditors staked their claims. In the end, Gran managed to keep the house in Forest Gate by selling Flo’s Fashions to Evans Outsize. Still, this left little room for luxuries and Dad and his brothers decided to cheer us all up with a holiday abroad for the whole family.
By the time we boarded the plane on July 20th, ‘the whole family’ had been whittled down to Nan, Mum, my sister, aunts and female cousins and me. Victor took me aside to explain this masculine withdrawal as he dropped us off at Heathrow. Budgie had managed to get tickets for the World Cup Final. Unfortunately for me, he’d only been able to get six and, in any case, ‘someone has to look after the women’. If he felt any qualms about entrusting the entire feminine side of the family to a skinny, stooping, bespectacled 13-year-old, he managed to hide them.
While everything you’ve heard about the supreme tackiness of Lloret de Mar is true, in 1966 it was still at the beginning of its transformation from swan to ugly duckling. For the few unprepossessing English teenagers who went there that summer, it was little short of Paradise. A few days of constant sunshine, swimming and getting picked first at football had begun to work their magic on my seemingly invincible acne and drooping shoulders. A pity then that I was headed for the first great public humiliation of my life.
Sr. Castell, the owner of the newly-built hotel we were staying in, was determined that his guests should be shielded from the rapidly growing excursion industry. To this end he had constructed a small plaza de toros behind the car park and guests were invited to take on young bulls from local herds as part of an introduction to Spanish culture. One afternoon, about sixty of us made our way there. I was going to say “made our way happily”, but Gran would have made that a lie. She didn’t look especially unhappy but, somehow, she seemed to have lost something of her personality along with Budgie and her company. She’d been the last one to join in the Hokey Cokey and there hadn’t been a single clip round the ear handed out, even when Cousin Melody tried to cheer her up with a cockroach in her glasses case.
For those who don’t like to see (animal) blood spilt, this is the only type of corrida (bullfight) you can safely watch. It’s a chance for boys who think they want to be toreros to try out the techniques they’ve seen and to see if they have the right stuff. If they do and their parents are well off, they may be sent to an escuela taurina (bullfighting school). If their parents are rich, they can miss out this stage (there is also a way for working class boys to make their way and you can see Bardem doing so naked here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wqLZ9ex9r7s.) Their opponent is a becerro (calf) before its horns appear or, often, a cow. The latter is generally preferred, since a young bull can quickly learn the tricks of the torero, thus making him an even more dangerous foe.
Sr. Castell himself opened the proceedings. As the paso doble (the two step; a dance music particularly associated with bullfighting) sounded from the Elizabethan record player and several men started to tease Manolito (the calf), he demonstrated the basic moves while explaining them in his accented but mostly correct English. Then the local boys took their turns.
In football terms, this was no more than a Sunday morning kick-around yet, in my eyes, there was something heartbreakingly noble about it. I was several inches taller than most of them but, as the first youth stepped out from behind the burladero (a kind of wooden shield in front of an opening in the barrier behind which the spectators sit), he raised his head to look around the stands and seemed suddenly to tower above us all. Then he looked at the bull and there was silence. I’m sure Victor and his brothers would have broken this fairly quickly with a sharp comment or two delivered in a Dick Emery voice. Relieved from the tension we’d all have joined in the laughter and then applauded as the boys and the English Men took turns to entertain us. As it was the boy, Raul, chose his own moment: “Ei, Toro”; claiming the young bull along with the rest of us.
Before that day, grace was something you mumbled before school dinner and beauty had no place at all in my vocabulary, yet Raul gave them both meaning for me as he strutted and spun around the plaza, drawing the bull past his slender body as if it were attached to the faded red capote. Along with this new vocabulary I was also learning some new, dangerous feelings and this could have been another kind of story. As in all such hero-worship, I couldn’t tell if I wanted to be with Raul or simply to be him and, since the former was impossible for me, I chose the latter.
When Sr. Castell asked for volunteers from among his guests, I was the first. I checked quickly around my womenfolk for signs of approval and was more or less satisfied. Only Nan was something of a disappointment. She was sitting in the front row wearing her flowered, wrap-around house dress, as if to distance herself from her crimplene and denim-clad relatives, and all her attention was focussed on knitting the third in a series of Dennis the Menace jumpers for me.
The Paso Doble sounded again and I took my place behind the burladero. Raul handed me the capote and Sr. Casell said: “remember la Verónica”. The Veronica (http://photos1.blogger.com/blogger/1211/1519/1600/01_Ver??nica) is the most basic of moves with the cape. It is named after the gesture of Saint Veronica when she wiped the face of Christ as he dragged his cross to Calvary. The idea is to hold the cape in front of you with both hands, calling the bull’s attention. When it charges, you move one leg behind the other while swinging the arm on the same side of the body backwards. The result is that the cape stays more or less in the same place while you disappear from behind it, thus ‘wiping the bull’s brow’. It’s a simple enough move and it becomes automatic. With practice. I started off well enough, jiggling the capote and holding it, so Sr. Castell told me when he visited me in the hospital, perfectly. Unfortunately, in the middle of my first Veronica I became somewhat confused and moved the cape instead of my body.
When a torero goes down, he is quickly surrounded by colleagues whose objective is to distract the bull, which would otherwise do his best to gore and trample his tormentor to death. However, while Manolito pawed the ground in preparation for the coupe de grace, my presumed rescuers were all doubled over and clutching at their testicles. Surprising really, seeing as it wasn’t their brilliantly white West Ham shorts which were rapidly turning red. Nor could I expect much help from my relatives, since those not frozen with horror were helpless with laughter. Except for Gran. As Manolito thundered towards me, she was suddenly between us. The half -finished jumper was a blur as Gran went through the first of her perfectly executed Veronicas. After several more passes, our Spanish hosts had begun to recover and were moving into the ring when Manolito managed to snatch the annoying garment between his teeth. It looked as if I was in for a good stomping at least, but Nan still gripped her knitting with one hand. In the other she held her no. 9 knitting needles. Just before she fell, she cried out: “I’m sorry, Bobtail!” and plunged her makeshift estoque (killing sword) between the calf’s shoulder blades.
A torn scrotum may sound fairly horrific, but a few stitches were all that was necessary. My metaphorical balls were another matter. Sr. Castell did his best to help with his comments on my handling of the capote, and my family tried to cheer me by explaining how funny I’d looked. Only Nan’s obviously improved spirits made me feel better. Most of all though, I was dreading going home and facing the taunts of the male Ellises and my friends at school.
Happily for me, English manhood had its own problems. A blind, Nazi-sympathising Swiss bastard had failed to see the ball clearly crossing the line and three minutes later, a man called Uwe Seeler had scored the winning goal. It would be years before the full psychological effects of this national disaster were fully felt, but in Plaistow they were pretty clear from the moment we arrived home. The once garrulous and self-opinionated Victor began to settle into the resigned gloom that would characterise him for the rest of his life. He only fought against the inevitable one last time when Nan announced her plan to return to Spain. She’d kept in touch with our host in Lloret and had been enchanted by his idea to make a novelty act of her great faena (the last third of the bullfight, in which the toreador has 10 minutes to despatch his or her victim). “You’re not dragging the family name through the Spanish mud”, he said. “You’re quite right, I’m not. In Spain a woman keeps her name when she marries. From now on I’ll be Florrie Wentworth to you!”
The following June, it was Mum who drove us to the airport and three days later we were in the church of Santa Maria del Mar in Barcelona, watching Nan and abuelo (grandfather) Alberto’s wedding. Then we joined them on their tour of holiday resorts as they took their show around the country. Florrie was starting to take her bullfighting seriously. She’d kept the red and black striped motif for her capote and still appeared in the flowered house dress (indeed, her only concession to the sartorial aspect of bullfighting was the hat with the mouse-like ears), but she was beginning to show an elegance that demanded a bigger audience than drunken tourists. Clearly she was ready to move from calves to her first novillo (a three-year-old bull). Except that women were not allowed to fight bulls in Spain.
It was two years before I saw Nan again. She’d bought me a ticket to Cuba so that I could spend the summer with her and Alberto as they travelled around the bullrings of Central and South America. After every fight, she left the ring to the sound of olés and Granddad thought it was time for her to tomar la alternativa (step up in class and fight fully-grown bulls).
In the Monumental in Mexico City, Nan was awarded her first trofeo, an ear. Just before I made my unwilling way back home, she had her greatest triumph in La Maestranza Cesar Girón in Maracay, Venezuela, receiving the ultimate accolade: both ears and the tail. The presidente (chief official) of the plaza took one look at Nan and decided to withhold the tail, since protocol demanded that she be carried from the ring on the shoulders of the other toreros and picadores. The situation looked rather ugly until a visiting team of castellers (human tower builders, see here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NIIzGnoYUtc) from Lloret offered to carry her. When I boarded the plane, the gruesome trophies were in my suitcase.
I didn’t see her again until 1974 when Article 49 of the Sindicato del Espectáculo (show business union), which prevented women from fighting bulls on foot, was repealed. She was headlining in "Las Ventas del Espíritu Santo" in Madrid and this time she was carried out of the plaza in front of the Caudillo (Franco) and her whole family, apart from Victor. In fact she was never to meet or talk to her first-born again and she didn’t return to London until the day before his funeral in the winter of 1991.
By this time, ‘our Flo’ was a household name in most of the world and after the funeral she was going to lay the cornerstone of Britain’s first bullring, built on the old Wembley site. It was no great surprise, therefore, to see the crowds awaiting her at Heathrow. It was warm for December and she was carrying her new chinchilla coat over her arm.
Outside in the car park, nobody paid any attention to Mandy Myers until she had launched her tin of red paint. Most of it hit its target, but Mandy’s final wrist flick sent the last few drops into Nan’s face, sending her staggering backwards into the road. When she had cleared her eyes, she looked up to see a white van bearing down on her. Professional to the end, she offered her crimson cloak to the bewildered driver just before disappearing under the wheels.