How Boules Got Cool
(adapted from an article in 'The Guardian' by Jon Henly, Wednesday 28 July 2010.)
Forget the image of boules (or pétanque, as it is more properly known) as the game of old men in string vests. Suddenly, it's the height of cool – and not just in France.
According to Martine Pilate, none of this would ever have happened without her grandad.
At the turn of the last century, 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).
One sunny spring day 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," Pilate 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. 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 born, the only form of boules in which the player must stand still to launch his balls. Most of us 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.
But guess what? Pétanque has become fashionable. "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 in the Chelsea Physic Garden in London, sponsored by the apéritif company Pernod Ricard, which drew 900 competitors. "These were smart, switched-on young people, French, English, all nationalities, all playing pétanque with total seriousness."
900 competitors is still, of course, a far cry from the world's largest pétanque tournament, the Mondial la Marseillaise à Pétanque, which, in 2010, drew 13,104 participants, aged 12 to 84, from 19 different countries to France's second city. But it's not bad for London.
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. 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, with successful associations in Wales and Scotland too.
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.
Back across the Channel, 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.
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." The undisputed young star of the moment is Dylan Rocher, who ousted 12-time world champion Philippe "Le Dieu" Quintais and his team to take the Mondial triplettes in Marseille in 2010. 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. 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."