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When I lived in Southwick near Brighton (near ‘Hove Actually’) my mother decided to join the Bowling Club...

When I lived in Southwick near Brighton (near ‘Hove Actually’) my mother decided to join the Bowling Club.

She inscribed and then was given a set of rules, which covered all aspects of the game and the expected standards of dress and comportment. She had to buy the correct clothing and, of course, a hat, all in white. Being a newcomer to the sport, she had no badges pinned to her hat, which depict the owners’ past competitions and successes. She had been far too busy running farms in Africa.

I only saw her playing from a distance as we had three young children with us and, of course, we couldn’t come too close for fear of distracting somebody at a critical moment in a game, or ‘end’.

I knew only too well how, decades ago in Rhodesia, Hartley Bowling Club members had complained that the flicking of our horses’ tails, two hundred metres away, was a distraction to their game! Only they would know.

So, when the opportunity came to see a Pétanque Competition in France, I wondered what the etiquette would be and if there was a dress-code in force.

I need not have worried.

The setting was not an immaculate lawn (or green) and there was not a single competitor dressed in white. In fact, the competitors were difficult to distinguish from the spectators. However, I realised that everyone was taking the competition seriously.


One keen player had his twelve year old son as a partner, another young man was partnered by his girlfriend whose exotic appearance made it difficult for everyone else to concentrate on the game. A couple of experienced players had livers the size of a barrel of wine, which was no handicap at all, as it seemed to give them a solid ‘platform’ from which to launch the metal boules at the target.

The target is an unhappy little ball, which gets thrown across a gravel ‘piste’ and is then bombarded by the players. There are many balls in sport that are subjected to abuse. They get kicked, clouted with hockey sticks, clobbered with golf clubs or carried into sweating ‘mêlées’ of rugby scrums. But none of them have to cower on stony ground while heavy metal balls are launched at them.

As I watched the players, I realised that there are techniques to playing this game, which include the stance. This has to be within a small circle that the players gouge in the sand for each ‘end’. Both feet have to be within this circle but they make the ‘throw’ in any way from a standing or crouching position.

The next important technique seems to involve the ‘spin’, which is imparted to the metal ball in a variety of ways. The ‘backspin’ seems to be the favoured one, which involves an underarm swing with the knuckles in front of the boule. I could not determine how successful this was because as the boule crashes to earth, stones and gravel fly from the impact and the boule seems to wobble off in its own direction as directed by the debris. Sometimes this is towards the object ball and sometimes not.

The result is greeted with a shrug by the player, rather like a golfer whose ball has sliced into the rough as a result of an invisible, unforecast gust of wind.

Then I realised the sagacity of the game.

All sports need some ‘unfortunate circumstance’ to blame in defeat.

In sailing, it is the wind or the tide, the current or the equipment, but never ever the lack of competency of the sailor. In Rally Driving it is the elephant crossing the Kenyan road, the quicksand at the base of the sand dune near Dakar or the broken experimental gearbox.

Never should it be the incompetence of the competitor.

Each one of us needs a reason for defeat, because there is only one winner and the rest of us need an excuse.

What better excuse can there be that the boule ricocheted sideways on impact?

Pétanque does not need a sophisticated yacht to blame, or a “state of the art” rally car.
It needs a simple metal ball and an area of sand or gravel.
It does not need a bowling club “dress committee” and a lawn mower that can shave the hair off a peach.
It does need a gathering of people of any stature, shape, size or sex to come together to celebrate the summer.
There are no artificial exclusions due to social status, accent, size of car or professional qualifications.

In short, it is a game for the people.

A quarter of the population of France play this game.

There has to be something good in that!