We were puzzled by the flyers stapled to the trees and telegraph poles: “Taureaux Piscine,” they read: “Vendredi 22 heures.” What had bulls and a swimming pool to do with one another? And what might they get up to together at ten o’clock on a warm August night? In the south of France, many towns boast of their piscine, and some of their bull-ring, but the two together were an unlikely combination. To investigate was irresistible.
We were in the Gard, that wild region which stretches between Provence and Languedoc, west past Nîmes towards Monpellier in the Hérault, and Spain. Spain seems very close down there. North of Nîmes the flat landscape of the Rhone delta breaks up into low hills and rocky crags. Scattered villages perchés are picturesquely disposed on cliffs overlooking the scrubby garrigue, and in the valleys sheep wander, clanging their large, muted bells. The main town here is Uzès. Like the hanging villages, it rises up on its hill and dominates the undulating terrain round it with a group of quaint towers and turrets worthy of Italy. It deserves a day of anyone’s holiday.
Under the elegant Tour Fenestrelle of the Cathedral of St Théodorit, which soars to 137 feet, the streets of Uzès intersect in a labyrinth centring on the Place aux Herbes, which is circled by wide, low arcades and filled with plane trees that make it a refreshing place to stroll in the summer heat. But for this week in August the town was virtually inaccessible. From morning to night the streets were filled with slow-moving queues of cars, or closed off altogether for the passage of a procession of Camargue horsemen or some other spectacle. For our visit coincided with the annual Fête Votive, a fair that was once a celebration of the local saint, but is now simply an excuse for a week-long party. Our attempts to penetrate the town centre were frustrated, so we sought our pleasures in the outskirts. It was here that we found the bull-ring.
We queued for tickets at a booth, making our way to seats on stands erected round a miniature arena, an oval about the size of a Wimbledon tennis court. In the middle of the ring was a large inflatable rubber paddling-pool, with about a foot of water in it. Music with a strong Spanish flavour blared out from a tannoy. Dozens of youngsters, small boys and girls, teenagers and young adults, were gathering around us, some swinging on the railings, some lounging in the concrete-walled corridor that ran round the ring, many already wandering across the raked sand of the arena itself. It was all very informal; people were eating ices or popcorn, and talking into their mobile phones.
We sat and waited, agog. Eventually a hearty man entered the compère’s box, at the opposite end of the arena from the bulls’ enclosure, and began a loud, imperfectly amplified introduction to the evening’s events. He kept up a vociferous commentary throughout the proceedings, whipping up excitement in onlookers and participants alike. At a signal, the enclosure gates suddenly opened and a small bull, black, sleek and frisky, hurtled out into the space in front of us. The young men taunted it, playfully – there were no lances or darts, only darting figures, running up as near as they could, daring the bull to charge them.
And charge them it did. They dodged and ran, and finally dashed full pelt for the safety of the ringside, leaping athletically over the corridor and high on to the rails to escape the horns which, although blunted with plastic balls thrust on to their tips, looked long and curly enough to do damage if one got in their way. At times the boys would leap into the pool, and the bull would splash after them. It frequently made as if to gore them, but they always nimbly evaded it. At times the animal halted and pawed the sand with stretched forelegs, the image of untrammelled animal fury.
Then someone opened the gate of the enclosure and the bull obediently ran inside. There was a pause. The recorded band played its Spanish tunes, and the compère kept up a continuum of excited babble. After a minute or two another bull, also young, wiry and mercurial, pranced out. The boys taunted and teased it as if it were a pet dog rather than a bull. They lay down in the water, and it galloped over them, hardly pausing to gash a split in the rubber side of the pool. When a third beast appeared, the boys passed round a quoit that they had to get over the bull’s horn. When one of them succeeded, he was much cheered.
There was a twenty-minute interval for more popcorn and text-messaging. For the next bull, five or six lads lay down close together, sardine-fashion, in front of the enclosure gate so that it galloped over them as it rushed out. In due course the girls too joined in, and proved as speedy and mettlesome as the boys. At least six bulls took part, and none of them was injured. In France, as in Portugal, even “adult” bull-fights do not involve the death of the bull. The evening ended with a crescendo of amplified enthusiasm from the compère’s box, prizes for the most intrepid participants, and a general sense of exhilaration.
Many of the locals apparently regard the taureaux-piscine as a childish activity, something adults avoid. But we, adults all of us, were thrilled by the immediacy of the excitement, and the sense that this was a game in which young people were being genuinely put on their mettle. They really had to run – fast. They needed ingenuity and tactical skill to touch the animal’s horns, still more to put the quoit over them. They had to understand the animals, as you must understand your opponent in a serious game. Yet this game was not really serious: it was just enormous fun.
But it had a serious side. I thought of England and its institutional terror of challenge, of adventure, its reluctance to expose young people to risks – and particularly to give its huge urban populations any chance of learning about animals and co-operating with them in an exciting pursuit. It dawned on me that ideas of heroism, even of “looking death in the face”, ought to be inculcated as part of any system of education that is more than superficial. When religion is not automatically taught there are few ways in which the deeper truths about ourselves can be approached, let alone explored properly. The corrida, even in its juvenile form, is an enactment of a serious dialogue, simply by virtue of its taking place between human beings and animals whose own seriousness must be understood if they are to be confronted. At the least, it’s an exhilarating challenge to its participants to risk their safety, and to learn to understand the landscape, and animals in it. That must teach some degree of self-knowledge, and knowledge of the living world on which we all depend for our existence.