Sometime during the week, I went dutifully to the mairie to fill in the form that gave me permission to burn all the brambles I've been dutifully uprooting over the last couple of weeks. The road winds down the Côte de Mathieu, as it's called, via a series of hairpin bends. At the sharpest of the bends, I caught sight of a poster on a tree. It advertised the French national garden-pulling championships.
Driving back up from the mairie with my signed authorisation, I wanted to find out more, but had to content myself with a glimpse in the rear-view mirror. I couldn't read where or when, but there was a photograph of a horse in profile. So garden-pulling must have something to do with horses.
I remember wincing when I first saw a poster to advertise a ball-trap. A TV drama – called, I think, Ball-Trap on the Côte d'Amour – cleared up the mystery. It was a drama based around a group of people on a camping holiday in Brittany who were tangentially involved with a clay-pigeon shoot.
Just recently, I've noticed when walking our reluctant dog that the three stocky horses are back in the triangle of scrub land where the road to the farm joins the road that runs along the crest. I'm guessing that they must be here to eat as much grass and hay as they can manage to build up their strength for the garden-pulling championships. They are mighty creatures with legs like tree trunks and great barrel chests, but several hands less high than a British shire horse. Daphne cowered when all three came trotting towards us to see whether I'd got any carrots for them. I had to explain that I was saving them for a Gujerati-style carrot salad.
So then, it seems likely that the gardens are pulled by these shire – or we should properly say departmental – horses, but this doesn't address the degree of difficulty involved. Pulling a garden must be the equine equivalent of a triple salchow with double pike and twist. Or that fearsome wall that all those posh show jumpers in hard hats or peaked army caps would try to negotiate in the jump-off against the clock. (It's symptomatic of a very misspent youth that I should have wasted precious time watching something contested by double-barrelled people, in which I wasn't the least bit interested. Maybe, like the hurdles, it was something to be negotiated in order to get to the juicier bits of Sportsnight With or Without Coleman.)
Presumably, the type of garden has to be standardised in terms of dimensions and shrubs, paths, number of sheds and other outhouses and all those kinds of details. It would be very unfair if departmental horse A only had to pull an English-style manicured garden with just a few neat flowerbeds if departmental horse B had to pull a rambling chaotic affair like ours, with a bank and willow bushes and fruit trees and woodpiles and so on.
In fact, there are so many unanswered questions. How do you detach the garden from the house, for example? And, if you manage to do this, how then do you attach – by rope or by chain? – the full perimeter of the garden to the horse? Is it a race, with horses lined up side by side, each pulling its garden frantically towards a finishing line? Or is it a matter of each horse – plus horticultural load – going through its paces to earn points? And what about the judging? Is it done by one individual or by a panel of arbiters? Personally, I'd favour a panel.
I missed a golden opportunity to find out more about garden-pulling at the Fête de Bret on Saturday night. Bret was celebrating his 51st birthday, but I turned up later than usual, having been seduced by the idea of a candlelit dinner at home to see out Earth Hour. It was amazing how quickly an hour without music and electric light passed. We enjoyed some stimulating conversation over a very leisurely meal cooked by The Daughter. After clearing up more leisurely than usual, I took off for Bret's soon after 9:30.
Ensconced behind his laptop to score a soundtrack to his party, my friend and host greeted me with a new hairstyle to mark the occasion. Normally, he just creates some facial hair fantasy, but this time he had shaved the entire left side of his head. The music always makes conversation a little challenging at my time of life when your hearing's not what it used to be. But I had a good chat with Kate about dual languages (apparently, the tongue in which you instinctively count represents a bilingual person's stronger language); and with Anna about the dilemmas of putting your child through a very psycho-rigide educational system; and with Natasja about shamanism; and with Steve and Jessica about their recent short trip to Lisbon.
But I completely forgot to ask French friends there if they could cast light on garden-pulling. And once the big and little hands were pointing to 12, knowing that I would lose an hour during the night, I simply had to get back to the comfort of my bed. This always presents a dilemma at parties here. Do you sneak off or do you say your proper goodbyes and risk tarrying an extra half hour? My exit was a half-assed compromise. And I was punished for it when I couldn't drive my car off the muddy verge. I had to go cap in hand and fetch my American friend, Steve, who knows all about these things. He and his mate Steve managed to liberate the Berlingo without too much difficulty. The secret, apparently, is to use second gear and to make sure that the tyres are pointing straight ahead and not at the angle I had left them.
I did find time to ask Bret about his hair. How would his clients react to having someone who looked like Arthur Brown (of the Crazy World) try to sort out their computer problems? Fire! It takes you to burn... Actually, he'll probably shave it all off to encourage a strong new growth. Which is probably how the roots of all those brambles I hacked off at the base will react.
There's a point... I wonder whether there's time before the championships begin to contact the committee to propose a new team event. Link up three or four of the mighty departmental horses, say, and attach them to the stubs of all our brambles, then get them to pull them away from here for good. Forever. A significant degree of difficulty, but a potential to score heavily with the judges.