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Of Hens, History, and Wimbledon

I was actually eager, that Monday morning, to see what the papers had to say about Henman.

The day before had been a very unusual Sunday in the annals of Wimbledon. The wettest June for years had meant that what is usually a rest day for the players, was not. And it was an even more unusual day for another reason.

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It was the day when we British almost began to believe that maybe, just maybe, one - or even two! - British players might win through to the finals.

It was Tim Henman, Britain's No.1 seed, who was on everyone's lips - even mine. His Middle Sunday match had the nation glued to the TV.

In a fit of enthusiasm that Monday morning, I wrote: "Yesterday, Union Jacks were waving with fervor at Wimbledon as Tim Henman took a very long time to beat a Dutch player who, chauvinistically, nobody seems to have heard of previously in these islands. The cheering crowd has been compared in some papers today to those more conventionally associated with football. 'Hen-man! Hen-man! Hen-man!' they chanted.

"Henman is not demonstrative on court, and his determined features only grew more set with each burst of support. It was one of those matches that test nerves - in the audience, at least. Some of them looked far more fraught than either player. But everyone kept on keeping on, and at last Henman suddenly did it. He hatched his chickens. The audience raised the roof."

He won his next game, too, and Henmania gripped the country. Even hardened commentators started sounding like optimists.

Then it all fell apart. Both British seeds were defeated, Henman ignominiously. He was reported to have observed that he had played his best-ever tennis one day, and then, in his next match, his worst. Nobody disagreed with him. Hope had turned to shame. Perhaps the advent of the New Labor government did not, after all, guarantee improvement in our tennis playing. We returned to the real world, where empires fade and British Wimbledon champions are the stuff of folk tales handed down by grandparents.

But something of optimism still hangs in the air. There is a residual feeling that the world has not heard the last of Tim Henman.

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For myself, the papers on that still-triumphant Monday morning are likely to stick in the memory. It struck me, while reading the ecstatic reports of the man's prowess, that he had a strange name for a tennis champion. Not altogether propitious, perhaps, hens being rather silly (if endearing) creatures.

And then as I was flipping through the rest of the papers that day, I was further struck by a strange - but to me peculiarly natural - concatenation. The pages were not only full of Henman, they were full of hens.

There was a report of an English henhouse being converted into an opera house for the summer. The farmer's wife was in the foreground of the picture feeding the ejected hens, now happily free-range.

And there was another report: of a Hebridean henhouse being airlifted to Canada by the Royal Canadian Air Force. The photograph and story showed this structure, where Mary Mackenzie had kept her hens for some 40 years, to be a section of fuselage from a World War II bomber. Canada needed it to complete the reconstruction of one of these now-rare aircraft for a memorial to the heroes who flew them for the Allies.

MEMORY is an odd thing sometimes. I kept wondering for hours afterward why I felt the link between hens and opera and tennis and the war were logical and natural.

And then gradually it came clear.

Before I was born, my father and my oldest brother had been enthusiastic and not unsuccessful tennis players. The presence of a tennis court on our home patch had probably encouraged their proficiency.

But the war and I were just about simultaneous, and my earliest memory of our tennis court, though still enclosed in high wire fencing, was not the sound of pah ... poh, poh-pah - "Thirty-15" and then "Deuce" on a balmy July evening - but the low chuckling and alarmed squawking of hens scratching the all-weather surface. Hitler had made hens a serious need and tennis a prewar luxury. So personally, I have no difficulty in finding the underlying relationship between hens, war, and tennis.

The link to opera took a little longer to realize. But then it dawned. A few weeks ago, I went to a performance of Moravian composer Leos Jancek's 1924 opera "The Cunning Little Vixen." There, in Act I, with a chorus of chickens, he proved once and for all that (as I have always suspected) clucking is just another kind of coloratura.

And that took me straight back to all those enthusiastic Henman fans at Wimbledon: "Hen-man! Hen-man!" and I felt the world was not such a bad place after all. Just so long as it has hens in it.

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