June 29th – Gang Ball Day

The practice of ‘ganging’ the boundaries of a district is extremely old, serving as a way for districts to mark their boundaries in the days before maps were widespread and accurate. Whilst the shape of the City is relatively sedentary nowadays, it was once fast-changing, new buildings springing up all over. The maps there were quickly went out of date, and the perception of space changed with the new constructions, meaning that disputes over territory were common, especially as the districts and parishes all charged different taxes, were governed differently, and had a sense of identity and near-xenophobic pride.

Ganging still takes place in most districts today, despite the fact it is no longer necessary, as districts are less important in the management of the City and their boundaries are now accepted. The process is fairly simple; a group or ‘gang’ of Buentoillitants gather at their district centre, then run or walk around the boundary, checking off the boundary markers (small stones, plaques or even just wall or floor carvings, each showing the district’s particular glyph-like mark) verbally and with painted tallies. At seemingly random points all around Buentoille you will stumble across hundreds of these markers, some with enormous tallies on the wall next to them, demonstrating the hundreds of years they have been observed.

This is how most districts carried out the ganging of their borders, and whilst there were certainly boundary disputes that resulted in occasional violence between the gangs, it was primarily a peaceful practice. Peaceful that is, except for between the districts of Sleade Yard and Whight Hollow. There is only a small border between the two, but despite its side it was invariably the site of internecine violence, started from some unknown scuffle in an attempt by one side or the other to claim additional land for their district (the details of the original slight were lost in the hundreds of years of argument that followed). Gradually the violence became worse, and those who dwelled in the immediate vicinity started leaving for the day to avoid the bloodshed.

There is still some rivalry between the districts today, but it tends to be of a far better nature than it once was. This is primarily down to the introduction of Gang Ball, a sport that was invented as a way of quelling the worst of the violence. Games give rules to conflict, they isolate it and prevent it from spreading, this is something the women of Sleade Yard and Whight Hollow knew well, and sought to use to their advantage when they introduced the sport. Whilst some of those fighting in the streets were women (the papers of the time went into great detail about the exploits of ‘Stomping Betty’ and ‘Frying Pan Anne’), it was mainly perpetuated by the men. Deciding they’d had enough, the women of each district convened one year, after a young man had died, and decided on the rules.

To win the game for the year, Gang Ball players must get one of the ‘balls,’ heavy pieces of spherical masonry that would have once adorned the gateposts of Vincent House, a building that straddles the district line, from their opponents’ district centre over the boundary into their own. Whoever does this first wins. This is tougher than it sounds; whilst a very strong person can lift a ball, they are more easily rolled, and hundreds of people are trying to do that at any given time in both directions. Whilst no punching, kicking or other forms of outright violence are allowed, the game is full contact, with each team usually splitting in three: one group to protect the ball, one to get the opponent’s ball and one to line the district boundary. Injuries are common, but the hatred and death that had once marked this festival day are firmly in the past.

A common complaint of Sleade Yard players is that the ground slopes down slightly towards their opponents’ district around the boundary line, but this is usually counterbalanced by the fact they field more players, being a larger district. Most of the games usually come down to a scrum in Drakeman’s Arch, a point on the border where many of the roads funnel to, making the flats above it particularly good spots from which to watch the action. Most of the photographs you see of the sea of people pushing each other back and forth will have been taken from those flats. Obviously there is some danger of crushing to these situations, so as a safety measure each person has a whistle around their neck which they can blow to pause play.

A common tactic is for team members to link arms and push as one, the progress they make being determined by the strength of their bonds, but trickery and guile have been used on more than one occasion. On more than one occasion fake balls have entered the play (a move that became banned very quickly), and once or twice a team have succeeded in rolling the ball into a tenement building, locking the other team out behind them and then passing it though a window that crossed the boundary. On one occasion a team formed a long line and passed the ball between their legs, various ‘guards’ fending off the opposing team on each side. It worked, but the next time their opponents were wise to it and it never worked again.

Whilst Sleade Yard are the overall winners, as marked by a long tally in Drakeman’s Arch, Whight Hollow have won the last fourteen matches, and are the favourites to win this year. Whatever the result, both teams will leave their differences aside when play is out, shaking hands and hugging their opponents. Some even go for a drink with their rivals after, the losers buying, of course.

Other festivals happening today:

  • Tub Day
  • The Festival of Castoffs
  • Rumble in the Jungle Festival