June 1st - Playing with bulls
It was all so French: the huge men hawking sugared nuts and straw hats, the tootling tunes blaring from the loud-speakers, a lapdog yapping hysterically, and children all over the place jumping up and down with excitement as the crowd waited for la course Camarguaise to begin. I simply couldn’t imagine a similar scene back in Blighty. Not only would it be deemed too dangerous, but also way off the straight and narrow path of PC righteousness.
For a start off, the Brits don’t play with their bullocks. It just isn’t done. British bullocks are bred for docility and their destiny lies between the covers of a soggy bun. But Camargue bulls are prized for their savagery and strength - taureaux vedettes dying a natural death at the ripe old age of 25 or more. On average they work for 15 minutes once a month, and honestly, I think they enjoy it.
Wearing fine yellow strings and small fabric tassels tied round their horns, they trot into the arena tossing their horns like pop stars, working the crowd for all they’re worth. Applause ringing in their ears, they paw the ground, snort provocation, bellow ferociously and bash the barrière (fence) with their horns.
Slowly the raseteurs climb over the barrière, the bull turns to face them and they begin to play. The point of the game, if you’ve never been to la course, is to win money by grabbing the strings and tassels off the bull’s horns with the aid of a small metal hook, each man’s safety depending on his ability to outrun the bull. The idea is to grab the strings, race to the red-painted barrière and leap over it to safety leaving the bull to slam into the fence (un coup de barrière). But some bulls will follow a raseteur right over the barrière and into the contre-piste, so the raseteurs often jump clean over the contre-piste into the front row of the grandstand.
Men leaping haphazardly into the crowd? Blimey. They’d never allow that back in the UK. Especially as last year a man from round our way was killed when a raseteur jumped into his lap. You can imagine the uproar that would have caused in Beckenham or Canterbury. Not here. There was a certain amount of shrugging, various people said heartlessly that he was too old to have been in the front row in the first place, and the incident was written off as one of those things.
But sitting in the front row tempting the fates to chuck a raseteur at you isn’t the most dangerous vantage-point: you can stand in the contre-piste if you want to crank up the danger-level - and even hang your arms over the barrière waving them at the bull. That way you can pretend to be in the game; ducking when the bull charges, running away if it smashes through the barrière into the contre-piste, climbing up into the gradins (grandstand), and even leaping onto la piste given half the chance.
Now forget the absence of exit signs, fire regulations, emergency lighting, forget the rudimentary sanitary arrangements, the casual handling of food and drink... can you imagine a sporting event in the UK involving killer bulls mixing with the general public? No, I think not.
And believe me, these bulls take no prisoners. If they catch you, they maul you. There might not be any health and safety precautions for the audience, but during la course there’s always an ambulance armed and ready out the back. With good reason too.
The bulls are never intentionally harmed and if they do hurt themselves, (ie split a hoof, as happened yesterday in Sommières) the game is stopped. The raseteurs on the other hand hurt themselves all the time. Knees are twisted, fingers cut and bruised, heads bashed against bars, feet trampled, ribs battered... and if the bull catches one of them, hospital is the best outcome that can be hoped for. Accidents aren’t common, but they do happen, and sometimes they are fatal.
No, it could never happen in the UK. For one, you wouldn’t be allowed to hang out in the contre-piste - but then I don’t suppose you’d be allowed to play with the bullocks in the first place - can you imagine what the PC wallahs would have to say about it? And what about the raseteurs jumping clean into the gradins? There’s no way you’d get away with that in the UK.
And the kids? In the interval they swarm down into the contre-piste and into the arena itself, playing at being bulls, searching for scraps of yellow strings and tassels, and gazing with awe at the raseteurs, who for their part treat them with indulgence, sometimes going as far as to bestow a cocarde (red tassel) or a gland (white tassel) on some wide-eyed child.
Kids on la piste? You’d never see that in the UK. I mean, what if? But in the south of France, they take a pragmatic view. It’s not up to the authorities to run round warning people to leave their bullocks alone. It’s up to the public to watch out for themselves.
I love it.
Next column will be uploaded around 12th June.
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