Bath, boules and Bastille Day

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The Independent Online
The city of Bath is normally thought of as a Rugby Union fortress, but there were two big sporting events here in mid-July that for once punctuated the usual long gap between one rugby season and another.

One was the Youth Olympics - which, I am afraid to say, it never occurred to me to attend - held up on the university grounds at the top of the hill. The other one was the Bath Boules Contest, which takes place every year as near to Bastille Day as possible and which I wouldn't miss for the world.

It started out as a joint venture between two Bath firms, the Beaujolais Restaurant and Great Western Wines, and although they still run it, it has become a fixture beyond their wildest dreams. This year it spread over three days - grand dinner on Friday, boules on Saturday and Sunday. God knows how big it will be next year ...

For the boules, Queens Square in Bath shakes off its usual identity of two sunbathers-and-a-dog and becomes a wonderful non-stop party, in which all the teams dress up scattily, as if it didn't matter who won, and then play as if it were the most important thing in the world.

After losing our first match, my team did win the next three and seriously looked like qualifying for the quarter-finals, but just in time we found our losing streak again.

Most of the teams have a restaurant or hotel origin, and it's only when you get close to hotel people that you realise that they are all part of the same murky underworld.

"Hello," said our first opponents, Queensberry Hotel, "isn't that Thornbury Castle arriving? I don't see Christopher, though."

By a sheer chance, I knew who Christopher was.

"Didn't he used to be at Homewood Park," I said.

Queensberry Hotel looked at me scornfully.

"Everyone used to be at Homewood Park once," they said.

We also played against Bath Spa Hotel, Box House Hotel, Jigsaw, the New Moon and Jigsaw, and although each boules game lasts barely half an hour, you build up quite an intense relationship with your team and with the enemy - much groaning, much rejoicing, a lot of melodrama - the result being that on the streets of Bath for the next few weeks you smile and wave at familiar faces without having the faintest idea who they are, until you suddenly remember that he was probably the bloke going second for Parti Parti, that firm that had just finished doing the catering for the Youth Olympics ("We did 8,000 meals in two weeks - and did three weddings as well, God knows how").

The only violence known to occur on the day was reported to me by my wife, whose theatre group was running a sideshow in which a team of blindfold players challenged fully sighted players to a boules game for a stake. Sometimes, amazingly, the former won. One challenge came from a group of young South African males, who were as drunk and argumentative and unpleasant as anyone my wife could remember meeting.

"One of their Afrikaaner supporters," she told me, "decided it would be funny to jump across the boules piste and catch the boule as it was thrown by his friend. Unfortunately, he was too drunk to catch it and it went straight into his face and broke his nose. Fortunately, he seemed too drunk to worry much about it. But after seeing these guys in action, you understand the ANC."

Jean-Pierre, who runs the Beaujolais Restaurant, is regularly left desolate by the failure of his talented team of chefs and waiters to win or even get to the final, despite his threat of instant dismissal should they not qualify. He is true to his word every year - he sacks them all, and then, in a short but moving ceremony, rehires them en masse.

This year they finally came good and I was lucky enough to see the match of the tournament, the semi-final between the Beaujolais Restaurant and a Cheltenham restaurant called the Epicurean. All six players were French, and the shouting and drama were intense.

My favourite player was Jacques from the Beaujolais, who executed the shot of the day when he threw a veritable howitzer beyond the cochonnet (the little jack) and got it to roll back up against the jack. The crowd erupted. Jacques turned to them with both arms aloft, like General de Gaulle returning from the wilderness.

Alas, it was all in vain, as after being stuck at 9-8, the Epicurean got to 11 points first, to enter the final. Here they were unexpectedly beaten by the Bath City Police team, in which there was not a single Frenchman. Funny game, cricket.

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