Is that it?
On the second Sunday in December for the past twenty one years, the small town of Blond – about twenty miles from Tranquility Base – is given over to all things capon. For the uninitiated, a capon is a castrated rooster, a fact which explains their more relaxed mien when compared to their unsullied but pathologically tetchy brethren. They taste pretty good too and around here they, rather than turkey, seem to be the poultry of choice for Christmas dinner.
The flyer that we had picked up a few weeks earlier indicated that this annual event is a big deal, with plenty of official ceremonies and a service of thanksgiving on offer, but also a ‘tierce’. This is actually a form of betting, more familiarly known as a straight forecast. Not so interesting in itself, maybe, but by implication if there is a bet then there must be something to bet on. The intriguing prospect of seeing chickens racing was too good to miss.
The day of the fair was bitterly cold but mercifully dry. The Foire aux Chapons is indeed a major event in the local calendar. La toute Haute-Vienne seemed to have turned out and the whole town had been occupied by traders, their stalls offering all that might be expected to be available for sale at a French country fair: cheese, saucisson sec and, of course, dodgy counterfeit handbags.
The first race was scheduled to start at 11:30 and, having shelled out a euro for a betting slip to give us some skin in the game, we positioned ourselves close to the finishing line, which consisted of a rough spray of white paint across the road outside the boulangerie. The street was still crowded with people wandering up and down: naturally, this being France, nobody took a blind bit of notice of the repeated requests broadcast over the PA to clear the street in preparation for the race.
We waited, and then we waited some more. The man on the PA kept promising that things would be under way ‘dans un instant’, but nothing happened apart from a feeling of the will to live seeping away through the soles of our feet. Just after noon, the increasingly cheery – and increasingly desperate-sounding – announcer informed the largely indifferent throng that we had to await the arrival at the starting line of the requisite dignitaries in order to get the race under way. It seemed that it was no straightforward matter to get a chicken race off and running.
Suddenly, the crowds behind the finishing line parted, and a motley parade of these missing worthies began to make its way along the track in the general direction of the start. The banners that some of them carried indicated that anywhere of any local consequence (basically, anything with its own mairie) was represented. Their official status was confirmed by the wearing of silly hats and cloaks, some of which, it has to be said, looked like they had been run up in a hurry by an enthusiastic but ungifted amateur after one too many Ricards.
Although the course was less than a hundred yards long, the procession took quite a while to reach its destination, as not only was the street still packed with shoppers but the great and the good of the capon world seemed incapable of proceeding without exchanging handshakes and bisous with all and sundry. Finally – finally! – they all made it and we heard the countdown to the off over the PA.
The announcer then began what would usually be described as a running commentary, except that it was soon pretty obvious that there was not much going on in the way of running.
You see, the problem is that, apart from their reproductive organs, there are two other things that capons lack: a sense of direction and a competitive spirit.
This became clear when, eventually, the pack did hove into view. A gaggle of capons was being urged along the street , kept broadly on the right path by a guiding stick and the occasional prod from a wooden pitchfork. It was like curling with poultry: not so much a race as an usher. On they ambled: then, about ten feet from the (metaphorical) chequered flag, number 7 broke from the pack and ran on, but stopped inches short of the line and waited for the rest to catch up.
They all crossed the line together, as far as we could see, but the judges eventually came up with a 1-2-3 for the purposes of the tierce. We got two out of three, not good enough for a payout but we didn’t really mind: after all this excitement there was nothing for it but lunch and a lie-down in a darkened room.