On the piste with rose and Beaujolais

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The Independent Online
THERE was a boules competition in Bath last year, organised by such deeply serious sports organisations as the Great Western Wine Company and Le Beaujolais restaurant. The tournament filled Queen Square one sunny Sunday with tents and flags, as if jousting had magically returned to the world, and then as suddenly vanished back to Fairyland. For months afterwards, I found myself talking familiarly to complete strangers in Bath, remembering only afterwards that the one thing we had in common was that we had once hurled small cannon balls against each other.

The event came round again last Sunday, and I have to offend nostalgia by saying it was even better this year. The sun shone, the boules clinked like metal masts on yachts at anchor and the lime tree blossom mingled with the smell of Pernod. Most of Queen Square is grass, and thus useless for any foreign sport, but there is a network of paths rich in all the things that the French love to play games on - gravel, leaves, twigs, discarded filter tips - and it was up and down these that we battled on Sunday.

The best turned-out team was the police squad, who had commissioned their own T-shirts for the event, inscribed 'Les Policiers Boulistes de Bath, 1992'. The most-feared team was agreed to be the all-French outfit from Le Beaujolais restaurant. The most unsettling team was the one that, I noticed, had my accountant in attendance. Was boules so serious this year that we needed financial advisers in tow?

'No,' he said. 'I am playing for Tilleys Bistro. My son is one of their partners. Nothing more sinister than that.'

Well, if they had an accountant, we had a doctor. Phil Hammond, arguably one of the funnier junior hospital doctors in Taunton, is certainly the only one to have stood as parliamentary candidate against William Waldegrave in the last general election. The other member of our team was an old friend, Terry Jones, who said he had been practising hard. All in vain, alas, he said, as he had been under the impression it was going to be a moules tournament.

Our first fixture sounded daunting. '10.30am, piste 5, Miles Kington vs Universe,' read the blackboard. Universe - led by the Bath rugby star Roger Spurrell - turned out to be a firm that organises all-night raves in fields near motorways. 'To organise a rave is a bit like a very big night-club on wheels,' Roger said. 'It's also the best possible kind of party you can go to. They are absolutely wonderful.'

His eyes shone with radiant conviction, especially after his team had beaten us soundly. Next we met a catering firm, Bickfords, who also beat us. This was not good training for our next meeting, after lunch, with the dreaded Beaujolais. As team captain, I now played my master card and implored Jones and Hammond to consume as much rose wine during lunch as, well, as their captain was drinking. This, as I had hoped, unlocked their spatial/temporal inhibitions to such good effect that we went on to win 11-5. The bad news is that I can probably never again safely eat at Le Beaujolais, though it is nice when total strangers come out of the bushes to whisper: 'Hear you beat the dreaded Beaujolais' and shake you by the hand.

As the afternoon wore on, we found ourselves facing the final team in our group, Tilleys Bistro, the one with the accountant, who had beaten everyone except Le Beaujolais. They were good. Very good. Our main hope lay in the fact that the bistro was to reopen at six. 'If we win, we'll qualify and have to go on playing,' mused their captain, 'and then we won't be able to open the restaurant at six.' On such things does the fate of a sports tournament depend in the real world, away from the Olympics.

In fact, after beating us, Tilleys sailed through to the final, where the team was indeed depleted by the 6pm opening. They lost to the Wheatsheaf pub from Corston, whose team included a man of such stature that he had devised a magnetic gadget that enabled him to pick up a boule without bending over. I missed that - I was pouring Terry on to the London train. But I am sure I remember the leader of the police team saying that if every square in Britain were like this every day, Sunday would be a wonderful place. And did I dream it, or did I hear Roger Spurrell musing on the possibility of all-night boules tournaments in fields near motorways? I'll drink to that. Perhaps I already have.