French sporting success: a load of boules

'Terry Jones nearly wrecked our chances by dropping a boule on the referee's toes before we started'
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The Independent Online

I have lived near Bath for nearly 15 years now and I still can't make the place out. Everyone thinks it's a wonderful place if they live somewhere else ("Near Bath? How lucky you are! Such a terrific city!") and ostensibly they're right, but the plain truth is that if you took away the historical relics and Georgian town planning, the place would suddenly offer little more than car parks and suburbia and a dreary modern shopping centre.

I have lived near Bath for nearly 15 years now and I still can't make the place out. Everyone thinks it's a wonderful place if they live somewhere else ("Near Bath? How lucky you are! Such a terrific city!") and ostensibly they're right, but the plain truth is that if you took away the historical relics and Georgian town planning, the place would suddenly offer little more than car parks and suburbia and a dreary modern shopping centre.

You see, Bath relies for its cultural heritage on what its forefathers did: the Romans made the baths, the Georgians built the elegant city and the modern lot have created little more than traffic problems, sordid new hotels and queues of open-top tour buses belching foul fumes. I feel almost sorry for Bath and North-east Somerset Council, which has to run the place, until I realise that it is part of the problem - it tends to charge such exorbitant rents and rates, for example, that decent shops are driven out of town and usually replaced by paltry branches of national chains.

And yet because Bath is such a magnificent place to look at, a wonderful stage setting without a script, and has been designated a World Heritage Centre, there is a marvellous feeling of smugness abroad in Bath, a feeling that the residents have a great city and nothing more needs to be done. For that reason, often, nothing more does get done. The traffic in Bath is terrible and likes to grind to a standstill (though schemes are afoot). While the city is built on a God-given never-ending warm spring, the water pours away unused (though schemes are afoot).

Even in the world of theatre, there is a big difference between the nearby Theatre Royal Bristol and the Bath Theatre Royal. The Bristol theatre generates and commissions its own productions; the Bath theatre is merely a passing place for touring shows heading hopefully into or out of London.

So when something really does happen in Bath, when the curtain of inertia is pulled aside to reveal a bit of action, it is a shock. It happens when Bath plays rugby. It happens once a year with the Bath Festival, which is genuinely imaginative and lively and gets people off their backsides. And it happens every July with the Bath Boules Tournament, which takes over the whole of Queen Square for three days of feasting, playing and celebration.

What is extraordinary about the boules bash is that it started life years ago as a friendly informal contest between a few restaurants, organised by Philip Addis of the Great Western Wine Co and Jean-Pierre Auge of the Beaujolais restaurant, and despite having grown into a three-day circus, it is still organised by the same two men. Queen Square is normally a grand but empty central Bath square, occupied by full-grown plane trees and an old obelisk, surrounded by grey lawyers' offices. Come boules weekend, it sprouts marquees and bars, and the grey lawyers turn out on Saturday in wild costumes that would have them banned from most people's homes, and play boules incredibly seriously. But the Sunday bash is the exciting one, because that is when the restaurant teams turn out, and there are many French waiters and cooks in Bath, and they all want to beat the English and then beat each other...

I have been lucky enough to be in a team for the past few years, and last Sunday the three of us - Terry Jones (famous ex-Python), Isabel (who will soon be a famous actress) and I - played rather well. We beat nearly everyone in our group, including some very French people, and qualified for the quarter-finals; if you want to know how we did it, it was by following Isabel's master plan: "No alcohol till we're knocked out."

So, into the quarter-finals, with lots of sparkling water, where we played against the Pear Tree from Whitley, who were very good, and Terry nearly wrecked our chances by dropping a boule on the referee's toes before we started. But we beat the Pear Tree, because they had had a drink or two and weren't crystal-clear like us, and then we met the Ring O'Bells from Widcombe, who had brought along not only French players, but the entire clientÿle from the pub, who made such a noise that we were quite demoralised and went to pieces and lost, even though they had been drinking. But it was good in a way, because it meant we could all go home and watch the final of Euro 2000.

And what do you know? The French won again. Still, at least I could raise a glass to them by then.

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