Offside, 23 September
Dangerous, demanding and chaotic: bull coursing puts fashionable 'extreme sports' to shame.
I have acquired the unfortunate knack of missing Shared National Experiences. Four years ago, when England trounced Germany 5-1 in Munich, I was marooned in a bar in Liguria, northern Italy, watching the Azzurri draw 0-0 with Lithuania. And again this year, as England regained the Ashes at the Oval, I was in the south of France unable to pick up the cricket commentary on my radio.
But am I bovvered, as the stroppy schoolgirl on the Catherine Tate Show would say? Not at all. Sure, it would have been enjoyable to feel the Aussies’ pain, but I didn’t actually need to be part of the occasion. I was happy enough with a text message from a work colleague informing me that England had won the Ashes. In any case, while the English were professing their new-found love for cricket, I was becoming a nouveau fan of a very different type of sport: bull coursing.
I’m not sure whether a bull course meets my rather strict criteria for qualification as a real sport (see Offside, 14 July) but it’s a pretty thrilling spectacle nonetheless. La tauromachie – the art of the bull – is a big deal in Le Grau du Roi, a small fishing port on the edge of the Camargue, where we were staying. Bulls are bred in ranches throughout the swampy marshlands of the Camargue and during the September fête at Le Grau du Roi bull courses are staged twice daily for an entire week. By the end of the week I was hooked.
Not that I’m suggesting that bullfighting is the new football or any nonsense like that. To me the arcane traditions of a bullfight are as unfathomable as the laws of cricket would be to a Frenchman. My only taste of taurine culture before this was Jim Bowen’s Bullseye. In fact, there is something fundamentally medieval about a sport that pits men against animals. The notion that man versus bull could possibly be an equal sporting contest can only originate from a pre-modern society that has little or no sense of human exceptionalism.
However, unlike the highly ritualised and theatrical Spanish corrida, in which the bull is wounded and weakened by the bandilleros and picadors before being ceremoniously slain by the matador, the course camarguaise is a much more equitable contest. The purpose of a French course is not to kill the bull but to snatch rosettes and tassles from it. If anyone’s going to get hurt it’s more likely to be the participants – known as razeteurs – or else the spectators.
What I like about the bull course is that it reflects a society with a very different attitude to risk than our own bubble-wrapped culture and makes our fashionable new breed of ‘extreme sports’ appear rather tame and anodyne by comparison.
But it wasn’t the bullfight proper that made me come over all Ernest Hemingway but the encierro or ‘running’ of bulls that accompanies it. In village fêtes throughout the Languedoc the bulls are driven through the streets by Camarguais cowboys and chased by local youths.
The encierros in Le Grau the Roi were a curious mixture of ancient and contemporary cultures. Gangs of spiky-haired teenagers, more American Graffiti than Death in the Afternoon, sat around waiting for the bulls, revving up motorbikes and souped-up cars. Traditionally the youths are supposed to chase the bulls on foot but these thoroughly modern kids evidently prefer a bit more va va voom.
The French authorities tried in the past to ban bull coursing due to the high level of fatalities but the people of the Languedoc resisted and the sport continues to thrive. Although safety measures have now been introduced – in Le Grau du Roi crowd control barriers line the route – these are rather tokenistic and, in some parts of the street, non-existent. While we were there one enterprising bull did manage to break through the barriers and run amok in the tourist quarter.
When a rocket is fired to signal that the bulls have been released onto the streets the atmosphere becomes electric. Young boys run into the road to get a better view of the approaching bull. A brass band strikes up a pasa doble. The bulls, flanked by mounted cowboys, look pretty damn ferocious and they run bloody fast.
Any sane person would hastily clamber up a wall, as I do, but instead the local men give chase and attempt to wrestle the bull to the ground with their bare hands – quite literally taking the bull by its horns. Whenever an animal is grounded the crowd gasps and applauds while some spectators leap over the safety barriers to take pictures.
You don’t need to understand the Languedocienne relationship between man and bull to be thrilled by this spectacle. There’s nothing like watching a bunch of nutters hurling themselves at a great big angry bull to get your endorphins gushing. It’s dangerous. It’s physically demanding. It’s downright chaotic. And it’s a hundred times more exciting than boules. ‘Super, smashing, great,’ as Jim Bowen would say.
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