Miles Kington: The day I was grabbed by the Gauls

'The French pride themselves on being logical. Why then do they throw the boule from a squatting position?'
Click to follow

Last Sunday I was privileged to take part in the annual Bath Boules Tournament, a colourful, wine-scented, sunny, Mediterranean party in the middle of Queen's Square that has become so successful over the years that many parts of the square have now been laid out with pistes for the purpose of playing boules throughout the year. Indeed, on many days throughout the rest of the year you can peer through the railings and see nobody playing boules there at all, only bunches of rain-swept tourists gingerly peering at the sandy gravelly rectangles criss-crossing the ancient turf and wandering which forgotten civilisation left these melancholy burial plots and what for...

For Bath Boules Weekend, that's what's for, and as I led my team triumphantly to the semi-finals on Sunday and crashed out ignominiously against the Ivy Restaurant, I took the chance to observe the way the French play the game. The French? In Bath? Yes, indeed. Even the Ivy Restaurant team had a seven-year-old French boy playing for them, and very good too, curse him. Over the years Bath has been gradually infiltrated by any amount of French waiters, chefs, restaurateurs, sommeliers and constructors of patisserie, and although I am sure they do their culinary jobs perfectly well, what they are really here for is to play on Bath Boules Sunday and, by the end of the day, to raise the tricolour over the ramparts of the captured fort of Queen's Square.

An ideal opportunity, then, to study the French in action. They pride themselves, after all, on being a logical nation. And the logical way to play boules would be to come up to the mark, see where the jack ("le cochonnet") is and then throw your boule very close to it. This is not, however, the way the French do it. Much more often, there will be a democratic discussion about the way the player should do the next shot. At this level there are three players per team, so two of the team will walk up and down the piste gesticulating, pointing at possible landing places, squinting at the terrain and shrugging parts of the body which you would not think it possible to shrug. Meanwhile, the third member of the team, who is never involved in this discussion, stands to one side plotting. This is how French politics works. For every two people who agree on something, a third must always form a separate party to oppose it.

Finally, they take a vote and agree to abide by the majority decision, at which point one of them goes to the throwing place and sinks dramatically into a squatting position to throw the ball. Nobody has ever explained why they do this. From ground level you get a compressed view of the terrain, you lose most of your stereoscopic advantage and you have less balance. If you really got a better view from dog's eye level, you would also take your walk up and down the piste in squatting position, n'est-ce pas, monsieur? But they don't. Nevertheless, this is how most French people play a shot, and, as they never take advice from abroad, it would be useless for me to point out that man did not evolve to stand upright in order to regress to a squat to throw a ball.

The two men who have also evolved to be in charge of the Bath Boules Sunday might have been chosen by central casting to reinforce national stereotypes. Philip Addis, who runs the splendidly independent Great Western Wines, is slim, calm, imperturbable and cool, quite the young British colonial administrator. Jean-Pierre Auge, owner and tyrant of the very French Beaujolais restaurant, is voluble, quicksilver, active, ever so perturbable. And it was Jean-Pierre who this year lent me a copy of a history of boules, from which I learnt that there are many different kinds of boules (including, amazingly, a medieval kind called boule de fort from Anjou, which uses an oval boule, something like an ostrich egg...) and that pétanque, the most common kind of boules found overseas, is the Provençal version of the game.

If the French really wanted boules to be an international game, they would have asked for to to be considered as an Olympic sport by now. But they haven't. I think it is because they want everyone to admire it without partaking. They want the impossible. Which is what the French have always wanted. The most annoying thing is that sometimes they achieve it. On Sunday, in Bath, the final winner was the local Baku restaurant, all three of whose players were French. Science has not yet explained how they did it squatting down.