Persistent rumours of a civilisation beyond Berkshire

I moved from Notting Hill to west Wiltshire 12 years ago and I have seen no fox-hunting yet
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The Independent Culture
YESTERDAY I made the strange claim that interesting things happened outside London which London knew nothing of. I hope nobody took this to be a reference to fox-hunting. Fox-hunting is indeed interesting and rural, but Londoners are very well aware of the fact that it happens. Indeed, some Londoners, impressed by the billions of people who come on Countryside Marches to the capital, may be under the impression that nothing else happens in the countryside except fox-hunting.

Well, I moved from Notting Hill to west Wiltshire 12 years ago and I have seen no fox-hunting yet. Plenty of foxes, but no hunting. What I was thinking of, when I referred to interesting things happening outside the capital, was something like Bath's Natural Theatre Company. The Naturals, as they are known locally, have developed some highly sophisticated street theatre techniques, for which they have received awards in places as far apart as Japan and South America.

I'm not talking about juggling and fire-eating here. I'm talking about real street theatre, which people in London may not be aware of. I certainly wasn't till I encountered the Naturals.

I once asked one of the stalwarts of the group, Brian Popay, if they took the same acts all over the place.

"Well, there are certain acts which work everywhere," he said. "The nannies are always good, and the pink suitcases and the coneheads tend not to fail." ( Don't ask me to explain.)

"But the best thing to do is to devise something peculiarly apt to the particular event we have been invited to adorn. For instance, we were once hired to provide entertainment at the Glastonbury Festival. Now, a rock festival is a place where so many things go on - sex, drugs, mud - that you'd think it would be hard to surprise or shock anyone there. But then it occurred to us that there is always one predictable well-behaved element at a rock festival: the police. So some of us dressed up as members of the police and, well, misbehaved.

"One `policeman' and `policewoman', I remember, walked round hand in hand for hours. You should have seen the looks of disbelief of the faces of the bearded music-lovers, especially when the police couple would occasionally disappear behind tents for a quick snog, which tended to freak out the rock fans a bit."

The Naturals also do wonderful stage shows, with alluring names like Henry VIII: Diary of A Serial Killer and have done several burlesque shows based on the character of the composer Scarlatti.

Why Scarlatti? Hard to explain. Even harder to explain why these shows are very popular in Germany, where the Naturals often go on tour - they have just come back from doing a season of Scarlatti's Revenge (in English) in Hamburg at the little old St Pauli Theatre.

The point of all this is not to puff Bath as a happening place - actually, Bath can be guilty of the most deadening inertia - but to point out that things like a Bath-Hamburg liaison can happen without London being involved or even aware of it.

Another example. Bath has an annual boules tournament in Queen Square, and every time I refer to it glowingly in print I tend to get letters saying: "If you think the Bath boules tournament is great, you should come to the one at Sherston in North Wilts. That's a real boules event." This was confirmed to me recently by a tall young man from Sherston who works in our local Wiltshire wine shop and who takes the game of petanque very seriously.

How seriously I didn't realise till last month when he vanished for a fortnight, having gone with his team to take part in the Winter French Petanque Championships at Millau.

"Got through to the fourth round," he said, on his return. "That's at least halfway to the final. So we did quite well. Unfortunately, we were beaten by some not terribly good players from Marseille..."

It turns out that he makes these trips across the Channel quite often, dropping into selected petanque tournaments and doing well enough to come back with a good bit of prize money. If you ask me, I think it's a highly enterprising alternative to fox-hunting, and the interesting thing is that it couldn't happen were there not a well embedded boules culture in this part of the West Country, with many a piste behind many a pub.

It might make a good story in one of the London papers. And pigs might fly.

Tomorrow: Who should be the next mayor of London? The debate continues to rage in the West Country.