Dom Joly: Beware ladies bearing boules, Wilko

Weird World of Sport: The bout ended with two elderly mesdames rolling around in the dust
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The Independent Online

I'm in the South of France playing golf with my father. He is 84 years old and still thrashes me every time (at golf that is, not a Victorian beating with a leather belt). We play at the gloriously French-sounding "Old Course" in Mandelieu – the club was originally established by a Brit but the French are now very much in charge. They let one know this by refusing to fly a Union Jack alongside the panoply of European ones that line the 18th fairway.

As my dad and I play I take the opportunity to observe the French golfer up close. They are a curious species. The men are almost uniformly clothed in Lacoste and are a fairly laid-back bunch, although sticklers for etiquette – a French word once enforced by Brits on golf courses but now almost abandoned back in the UK. It is the women, however, who are the most terrifying. They all wear huge sun visors that, from a distance, look like terrifying beaks. They move around the course in flocks looking for any minor infringement that they can tut-tut and wave their bejewelled hands at.

This attitude does not extend to other French sports, however. We drove down here from the UK and, along the way we travelled through the heartland of French rugby. We spent the night in Toulouse whose streets are packed with half-men, half-mountains, striding from bar to bar and not taking many prisoners. I did rather worry for Jonny Wilkinson and his supposed "spiritual rebirth" when he starts playing here.

He hopes to put his spate of injuries behind him and just crack on with some rugby. I don't think he's done his research. Not only will the tough inhabitants of this region not have an enormous amount of time for his hippy shenanigans, but I'm also fairly confident that his injuries will only multiply down here.

Perhaps Wilkinson should have given up rugby altogether and taken on a far more sedate French sport – pétanque. This game, involving heavy metal balls being thrown as near as possible to a small wooden one, is the retirement choice of most ageing Frenchmen. You can see them in their villages assembled around the dusty playing arena, smoking and drinking and generally having a very civilised time. There would be no place for Wilkinson if he rocked up with a cup of herbal tea and refused the offer of an untipped Gauloises.

The French are instinctively méfiant of this type of healthy man. It turns out, however, that maybe Wilkinson has a point. Upon arrival at my dad's I got chatting to an elderly French lady that I have known for years and lives next door. She was bemoaning the lack of men at her pétanque club. Apparently they have all died off and she is forced to play with groups of elderly women. This was news to me on many levels. I didn't even know that women were allowed to play pétanque. You never see them in the village squares.

There is obviously a secret circuit that we, as tourists, never see. I also wondered what the men were dying of. Surely the fabled Mediterranean diet allowed them to smoke and drink to their heart's content and still live to a 100? Not according to the elderly neighbour – she said that the men were dropping like ninepins (aiguilles neuf) and the women were taking over the sport. She wasn't happy with this situation at all.

As well as bemoaning the fact that pétanque is no longer a place to meet eligible old bachelors, she was more concerned with the atmosphere of the games. She said that the men used to keep things on an even keel but, now that they were disappearing and the women had taken charge, it had all become very volatile. She told me about a full-out bout of fisticuffs that had taken place the previous week between two seventysomethings. The dispute was over who would be on a team with one of the surviving men and ended up with the two elderly mesdames rolling around in the dust.

I asked the neighbour whether I could come down to her next game to watch. She looked at me with some consternation. She clearly didn't want to give offence but it became very clear that an Anglais would not be too welcome on the dusty playing fields of Grasse. Watch out, Jonny, don't anger the ladies out here or there'll be trouble.

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