The winner takes it all

From across the river, beyond the line of plane trees, to the flat, dry stretch of compacted earth that serves mostly as a throughway to other places, comes the click of metal on metal. And as surely as the first notes of the cuckoo herald the arrival of spring in the UK, the sound of boule striking boule signals the same here in southern France. The boys are back, and from now until late autumn the game of boules (pronounced bool), or pétanque as it is also known, will be central to the life of almost every village and town.

It is a social and sociable game, slow-paced, calm and generally exceedingly civilised. Most years, the first out of the boules blocks are the teens and young men, done with winter and anxious to be out again in the chill evening air for a game and a chat. Soon they’ll be joined by others, young and old, sharing the same space or gathering nearby. Scratch games might go on for hours, with no one keeping a particular count of the ongoing score and players arriving to join in when it suits them. Competitive matches, though, will be highly organised and comprise a set number of “ends”.

Tempers can fray, particularly if ancient boules etiquette is not observed

Scoring is basically the same as in the many versions of bowls played in the UK and internationally, on grass, artificial turf surfaces or indoor carpets. Gaining points depends on which boule at the completion of an “end” finishes closest to the little target ball. In bowls it’s known as the jack, here it’s the cochonnet, which translates as “piglet”. Only the individual or team with the boule closest to the cochonnet can score. Then there’s the ammunition. Lawn bowls were originally made from dense, dark, wood, hence the term “woods”. Today they are made of hard plastic components or melamine. Boules, though, are cold hard steel.

The real difference between boules and other versions of the game is in the playing. Bowls are rolled, but in boules there is no obligation to keep the contest at ground level. The boule can be rolled, though I’ve never seen that tactic employed by anyone under five years old. The traditional method is to grip the boule with the palm of the hand downwards, and then throw it using an underarm swing, ending with an upward flick of the wrist. Throwing this way puts backspin on the boule and gives the player the maximum amount of control – in theory. In practice anything can happen. It’s not unusual to see a steel globe soar skywards before crashing down amongst the cluster of boules around the cochonnet, sending the whole lot clattering away in every direction.

Tempers can fray, particularly if ancient etiquette is not observed. I once took part in a competition for pairs, organised as a round-robin to ensure each duo played every other. Partners were drawn from a hat, meaning an accomplished player might be matched with a complete novice. But it was meant to be fun – a chance for French and Brits to meet, mingle and have a laugh. I drew a fellow Brit, someone I knew slightly, and believed to be a nice, mild-mannered character. I discovered differently when he surreptitiously drew me aside. “We can win this,” he said quietly from beneath the shade of an olive tree, while glancing around to ensure we were not being overheard. “I know the first pair we’ve got. She’s not bad but he’s useless, heavy-handed.” I nodded, slightly confused. “Right,” I said, “but… isn’t this meant to be… you know, just a bit of fun?” He glared, moving closer. “Fun?” he hissed through clenched teeth. “It will be fun when we’ve won.” Our smiling opponents were approaching. “You lead off so I get the last boule and can sort it if we’re in trouble,” my captain told me. “And don’t let me down.”

Such confidence – but he was right about our first opponents. We won comfortably, though I barely got the chance to chat with the opposition as my ear was being bent with tactical orders throughout the game. The boss then hurried away to study the order of play list while I sought out a glass of chilled chardonnay. I was on my second sip when he returned. He snatched my glass. “You don’t need that,” he barked. “Stay focused! There’ll be time for drinking when we’ve won.” We romped to victory in our second game, and the next, and my partner became progressively more boisterous in his celebrations. And to my shame, I gradually began to join in. Swept up, I guess, or too easily influenced. We pumped fists, high-fived and shouted “yes!” We even laughed sarcastic “oh, unlucky!” jibes at opponents when their boules fell short or sailed long.

Our antics didn’t go unnoticed, particularly among French friends. And although we won the “friendly” tournament, our triumph did nothing for entente cordiale. We were each presented with a bottle of Blanquette de Limoux, the sparkling wine of the region. My partner popped the cork on his and filled two glasses, offering me one. I declined. We’d won, but suddenly it didn’t feel like time for drinking after all. I’d been given an important reminder – it ain’t always about winning.

Robert Rigby is a journalist, author, scriptwriter and musician

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April 2023, Life, Sport

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