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Why all the bull, I've been asking myself?

Monday, 15 February 2016

My original intention was to write a novel about the last bull running festival in England. This isn’t it. It’s a novel about the unlikely friendships that arise in hard times, and the alliances you’re forced to make when there’s no time to choose. It’s about where you turn to when love has been stripped out of your life – about where those misplaced affections fall, and how they manifest. It’s about seeking an understanding of the past so that you can forgive and move on.

These are themes that could have been explored in any setting. My setting just happens to be an English bull running festival, at the time when the 1835 Cruelty to Animals Act was sweeping away all working class blood sports.

The story is fiction, and that’s an important detail. The last actual English bull run took place in Stamford, Lincolnshire, in 1838. In this novel the events take place in the Peak District market town of Buxton. It’s a town I lived in for ten years, and large chunk of that time was spent in a house overlooking the marketplace. Nothing much happened there apart from fights and police cars on a Saturday night, an ever-shrinking twice-weekly market, and a funfair in July. For the rest of the time it was a car park. The marketplace had been the focus of the town in years gone by, but now it was crumbling away, stall by stall, its main purpose gone.

That purpose, I decided, was a bull run.

For many years I’ve been fascinated by my own fascination with the English bull runs. Why have I spent so much time thinking about them? I am, after all, an animal lover, birdwatcher, environmentalist, and dedicated fan of those two great, flawed authors and conservation giants, Gerald Durrell and Gavin Maxwell. And yet my obsession with English bull festivals isn’t really about animal rights. I’m more intrigued by how the towns that used to torture bulls in this way – through baiting and running – also adopted the animal as a beloved mascot, looked forward to the event as the foremost working class holiday of the year, and were seemingly defined by it as a community. What happened to those towns when their sport was taken away? I guess they all turned into empty Buxton marketplaces.

This fascination goes way back. My A-level history project was about customs and pastimes in pre-Reform England, and my prize newspaper clippings for the mini thesis were from the Stamford Chronicle, reporting on the infamous bull run. In the 1990s I was researching the subject again, as a small part of my first book Maypoles, Martyrs and Mayhem. I unearthed the old Stamford Bull Running song from an archive, learnt it, and even performed it at book launch events. In the 2000s I began the groundwork for a PhD at Oxford Brookes University. The core of my research was – you guessed it – English bull running and bull baiting.

And now I’m returning to the subject as the background of this novel. If that doesn’t finally get it out of my system, I’ll concede defeat and set up those long-delayed counselling sessions.

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