There is something about hen parties that repels me. I was at Girona Airport near Barcelona two weeks ago. In the passport queue were a group of women in pink feather boas (the hens) and behind them men in numbered football shirts, their names plastered across the back. I shuddered and felt relieved I wasn't getting the Sunday flight back. I have attended only two hen parties, one a perfectly civilised dinner and the other by accident.
Thanks to Ryanair and easyJet, the hen has gone international since my laying days, and Barcelona is the top overseas choice for British hens today - an honour so overwhelming that the region has banned two-for-one drinks, ladies' nights and other cheap drinking offers in an attempt to quell the revolting behaviour.
In an effort to understand what repelled me so much, I immersed myself in sociological studies into drunken tourism and hen nights, and now recognise the paragraph above to be laden with middle-class cultural superiority and Foucaultian crisis (even if I'm not quite sure what that means). A professor at Goldsmiths in London with the excellent name of Bev Skeggs has warned that hens are superseding single mothers as the source of moral panic in Britain: "We now have the loud, white, excessive, drunk, fat, vulgar, disgusting, hen-partying woman who exists to embody all the moral obsessions historically associated with the working class now contained in one body . . ."
This is one academic who is a joy to read. White working-class women, she adds, are "being marked as the national constitutive limit to propriety - an act which repeats moments of crisis in authority condensed and symbolically figured through the excess of the grotesque, weeping, leaking, excreting bodies of working-class women". Lovely stuff.
But it doesn't quite explain my revulsion, as I find all hen parties grotesque; it doesn't matter what class of chicken they are. In fact, I don't think I've ever seen a working-class one. And I feel particularly ashamed of these parties overseas. This, too, is dangerous sociological territory: another value-laden, judgemental middle-class attitude, this time towards mass tourism. Yet, as with the hens, I dislike all mass tourism, be it in Tuscany or Torremolinos: the transporting of your home life to another country to sit pissed by the pool and claim some kind of cultural capital out of it.
Just as we are allowed to admire the women in Sex and the City because their overt heterosexuality comes couched in professional jobs and dressed in Manolos (Skeggs again), so we are invited to respect the middle-class binge drinking associated with villas in Corfu or "wine tasting" in France at the same time as professing our disgust at drunken hens or football fans. The rich have always hidden away yobbish behaviour in villas, Fulham nightclubs or the Priory, while the poorer classes have the streets for their stage.
So what is it with me and these hens? I may not have thought much more about the girls in boas, had I not received, on my return from Girona, a text message inviting me to a hen night. Just a night (although I did notice a reference to breakfast on Sunday in a subsequent email that also mentioned karaoke) and in London. Yet I panicked and immediately replied that I was sorry to miss it, but I would be in France. And now I am in France, for I had to see the lie through, and consequently missed the start of the election campaign to which I had been much looking forward. It's not the furthest flight I've made from a hen: I once fled as far as Belize. The closer the friend, the further away you must be to avoid offence.
After my 48-hour immersion in sociological texts, I'm suspecting that I may just be a snob and it is only the public element of the hen night I abhor; it's not as if I mind wrapping myself in a feather boa in private. But then there is the affectation of the thing, too - comfortable middle-class people pretending to be loud and crude and out of control and then returning to their desks on Monday morning.
Alco-tourism is thought to be about pushing boundaries; people frighten themselves with the risks they take. There is a parallel with the adventure holiday, which sells organised danger. But as Skeggs points out, choosing adventure and risk might enhance your status among the middle classes; if you are working class, it is more likely to land you in jail. We have "gap years" where you can pretend to be poor, and bungee jumps that mimic the feeling of one's life falling off a cliff. And hen parties where you can get really really drunk and pretend to be vulgar. But just for the weekend.