How boules got cool

According to Martine Pilate, who wrote La Véritable Histoire de la Pétanque and so should probably know, none of this would ever have happened without her grandad.

Round about the turn of the last century, in common with a great many of their compatriots across the south of France, the men of La Ciotat, a small port town in Provence, were much taken with a version of boules known as le jeu provençal, AKA la longue (because, back then, the piste was up to 20m long) or le trois pas (because players took three smart paces before launching their balls).

So anyway, says Pilate, one sunny spring day back in 1907, a bunch of longuistes were shooting balls on a now-celebrated piste in La Ciotat known as La Boule Etoilée. “In those days,” she recounts, “spectators could hire chairs to watch a game. This could cause problems, because people sitting near the jack were not above giving a boule a sly nudge with their feet every now and then, to push it closer or further away – whatever served a friend’s cause.”

To prevent such unsporting behaviour it was decided, for this particular game, to lose the chairs. “They took them all away – apart from the one belonging to Jules ‘Le Noir’, a great former champion,” Pilate says. “He had such bad rheumatism he could no longer step up to play, which upset him no end. So my grandfather made Jules a suggestion: ‘We’ll shorten the piste by half,’ he said in Provençal, ‘and draw a circle round your chair, and we’ll all play from there, with our feet anchored: a pes tanca.”

And thus was pétanque, the only form of boules in which the player must stand still to launch his balls, born.

Most of us, of course, ignorant of such subtleties, know it as plain French boules, a game played in the shade of plane trees on the scuffed gravel of countless squares across France by elderly men in flat caps and string vests, Gitanes clamped to their lower lips and shots of pastis never far from hand. Or encountered on summer campsites, which is where many of the astonishing 17 million French people said to partake in this most sociable of sports presumably indulge their passion. Or glimpsed on cinema screens, perhaps in something by Marcel Pagnol.

But we need to update that picture. Because, guess what? Pétanque has become fashionable. Not just across the Channel – where Karl Lagerfeld this month hosted a star-studded tournament in St-Tropez for the likes of Vanessa Paradis and Diane Kruger; where chic labels such as Chanel and Louis Vuitton are currently flogging designer pétanque sets in soft leather cases for £1,500; and where the country’s biggest boules manufacturer, Obut, has just launched a new line in tattooed steel for style-conscious teenage pétanquistes – but in Britain, too.

“I’d have to say,” says Ben Brousson, a French banker and former regional champion who has lived in London for 12 years, “that over the last few years the interest has increased phenomenally.” Brousson cites a tournament held just last month in the Chelsea Physic Garden in London, sponsored by the aperitif company Pernod Ricard, which drew 900 competitors. “And it really wasn’t for the booze,” he says. “These were smart, switched-on young people, French, English, all nationalities, all playing pétanque with total seriousness. Only 5% or 10% were the grans and grandpas most people see as your typical pétanque player.”

(Nine hundred competitors is still, of course, a far cry from the world’s largest pétanque tournament, the Mondial la Marseillaise à Pétanque, which, for its 49th edition earlier this month, drew 13,104 participants, aged 12 to 84, from 19 different countries to France’s second city. But it’s not bad for London. Indeed, Pernod Ricard found the experience heartening enough to announce a series of exhibition matches to be held in Spitalfields every Tuesday evening in August.)

One of the more unlikely leaders of this surge in interest is Olly Dixon, of the London synthpop band Filthy Dukes. He recently co-founded the East London Pétanque Association, which aims – among other things – to dramatically broaden the game’s appeal by staging “guerilla pétanque” events at selected summer festivals, such as Field Day in Hackney’s Victoria Park on Saturday.

More regularly, boulistes in the capital gather on summer evenings in such un-Provençal locales as Cleaver Square in Kennington, Brockwell Lido in Herne Hill and Larkhall Park, Lambeth, for a post-work end or two (as each game in a match is called). Flourishing clubs have been founded in the last two or three years in Kingston and on Parliament Fields.

And according to Mike Pegg, president of the English Pétanque Association and Britain’s only qualified international umpire, pétanque’s appeal is not confined to London or even the south-east (although Brighton also has a particularly well-used piste). Reflecting the game’s informal success, membership of the EPA has been climbing for several years: it now boasts 3,000 signed-up members in 300 affiliated clubs across 15 regions, from Yorkshire to Cornwall, Pegg says, with successful associations in Wales and Scotland too.

The game’s growing popularity, he says (echoing Rabelais), is down to the fact that it’s “for both sexes, for all sorts, and all ages. It’s exceptionally sociable yet tremendously competitive. You can play it on any reasonably level patch of bare hard ground; you don’t need a manicured lawn. And while the rules are as simple as you could imagine, the tactics can be as complicated as chess.”

The principles of pétanque are as old as history. Archaeologists found two balls and a jack in the sarcophagus of an Egyptian prince buried in the 52nd century BC. The ancient Greeks and Romans liked playing with stone balls; medieval Europeans preferred wooden ones studded with nails. Boules became so popular in France that the game was banned for commoners for much of the 14th and 15th centuries. Here, successive English kings from the time of Edward III forbade their archers to play it, and an act not repealed until the 18th century formally outlawed the game for “artificers, labourers, apprentices and servants” at any time except Christmas.

(In France, several regional variants of boules emerged, and still exist, although pétanque is the most popular. Here, boules eventually mutated into the altogether more refined lawn bowls, although quite when it’s hard to say. Sir Francis Drake may have insisted on finishing his game of bowls on Plymouth Hoe before laying into the Spanish Armada, but contemporary paintings show his group playing with metal cannon balls on a gravel surface, and some portray him lobbing the ball, not rolling it: it seems likely we played something more similar to pétanque than bowls until at least the 19th century. Today the two versions, Pegg insists, co-exist peacefully, though pétanque “probably appeals to a rather younger crowd”.)

Back across the Channel, meanwhile, following that crucial intervention by Martine Pilate’s grandad, the first formal pétanque tournament was played under the new rules in 1910, and the first world championships in 1959. The Fédération Internationale de Pétanque now has more than 600,000 members in 52 countries. While more than half of them are in France, the game is huge in unexpected places: Queen Sirikit of Thailand, for example, was such a fan that pétanque became an official sport of the Thai army.

It’s a devilish clever game. The object is simple: individually, or in two teams of two (doublettes) or three (triplettes), you have to get your own balls (steel; of restricted size and weight; marked and engraved as you choose) as close to the jack (the cochonnet, or piglet) as possible. But in the process – and here’s the fun bit – you are permitted, nay encouraged, to interfere with your opponent’s.

Pétanque is thus a game of dexterity and technique, but also of gamesmanship, bad behaviour and sheer animal cunning. Of skill, and skullduggery. In French, pretty much the worst insult you can throw at a pétanque player is that he’s “transparent”.

Teams have pointers, who aim to “kiss” the jack with their balls, and shooters, who try to blast their opponents’ better-placed boules (and if necessary the jack) to kingdom come. So: point or shoot? Pin-point accuracy, or massive and destructive force? Go for broke – a throw known as à carreau knocks the enemy’s winning boule out, leaving yours in its place; le bec inches a potentially winning boule of your own yet closer to the jack – or play it safe? (And remember: hovering over every game is the dread spectre of Fanny, the demoiselle – or, more usually, artistic representation thereof – whose bare bottom the player who suffers a 13-0 defeat is required to kiss.)

The French, not surprisingly, dominate the competitive game. “They start young,” says Pegg, “and they play anywhere – in a car park, under the Eiffel tower.” Some players reach extraordinary levels of skill: the great Christian Fazzino was capable of shooting 992 boules out of 1,000 in the space of an hour. The undisputed young star of the moment is Dylan Rocher, barely 18, who earlier this month ousted 12-time world champion Philippe “Le Dieu” Quintais and his team to take the Mondial triplettes in Marseille. He’s now famous for life in France.

The Brits don’t fare badly: we have reached the last 16 on occasion, and once won bronze in the ladies’ shooting. But we obviously lack the low cunning needed to go all the way. “Those that do well in Britain,” says Brousson, “tend to be big characters, voluble, quite Gallic in their attitude.” Here, it’s really the social aspect that wins out: “The friendliness, the chat, the forgetting of your problems. And, um, the drinking. You can’t beat it.”

The rules

Someone from Team A throws the jack 6-10m away.

The same player lobs the first boule, always underarm.

Now someone from Team B throws; this team keeps throwing until they land a boule closer to the jack than Team A or run out of boules.

Then it’s Team A’s turn again.

Points are scored when everyone is out of boules: one point for each boule closer to the jack than the best-placed boule of your opponents. First team to 13 wins.

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