Wimbledon is “run with the nervous silliness of a minor public school” wrote Amanda Mitchison after attending the tennis tournament in 1988. The tabloid journalists she observed had the right idea: prowling the corridors on the lookout for minor celebrities at least “requires a sense of the sporting hunt”. Meanwhile the quality press barely had to watch the live games, so thorough was the material given to them in the press room, where they could borrow the BBC commentary too. The public rarely came for the tennis either. “Instead Wimbledon is about those very English participation sports: standing in line, getting piddled and being ticked off by men in uniforms.” The event’s exclusivity was inescapable. Many areas were closed off to the public altogether, or accessible only via maze-like corridors. “A security guard told me that to enter the members’ marquee you have to be able to walk on water,” Mitchison joked.
I first met the Mud in the press bar the day Boris Becker refused to pay a parking ticket and Barbara Bra-bra Potter wore panties personalised with the words “smart ass”. The Mud has a plump cherubic face, curly blond hair and a liking for tropical cocktail shirts. He was watching football on the monitor screen and dreaming of holidays in some sun splashed spot with free beer and fatty but flavourful food. He was muttering to himself: “Bonking Boris Becker told to bugger off… No. Bonker Boris blazes out at car bark… still not right…”
The following day the king of alliteration was standing near the official entrance waiting for the Duchess of York. He asked the Stink, “How about ‘Fergie the Fidget wriggled and giggled’?”
“And you wonder why your intros get rewritten,” replied Stink. He swivelled a gravid belly towards Mud and added, “You could wrap her twice round Di, she must be 14 months gone.”
[See also: Cries of a “woke Wimbledon” show that it can’t avoid the culture wars forever]
Mud: “Awhh, leave her alone.”
Stink: “I never did it…”
“Whooa! Arwf. Arwf.” Etc
The wriggler and giggler waddled out to her Jaguar, gave a wave and was off. To Mud’s consternation, she put on her seat belt. His “fullsome funloving Fergie forgets to fasten” had to be discarded. A scrawl on Mud’s notebook said: “Trinity Hospice… max. 3 days to live – last wish – determined to watch – cancer – Mr James – behind internat. box… in peaked cap… VIP treatment – It was pretty tame stuff and he looked worried.”
A Daily Muck photographer, however, was luckier – he had spotted George Harrison and his ex-wife in the crowd. He said, “It’s worse than ever this year – we were told to go for the knickers and incidentals. Even the Muck never did that in the past. And if they take their panties off on court 14 and you are not there it’s big trouble.”
[See also: Can Emma Raducanu survive her super-brand status?]
You have to admire the tabloids – at least prowling around the competitors’ dining room in a dog collar and looking up girls’ skirts requires a sporting sense of the hunt. Not so for the quality press. The All England Lawn Tennis Club provides media guides, potted histories of the players, up-to-the-minute press releases and transcripts of almost everything. The journalists can watch the important matches in the television monitoring room and crib the BBC commentary. They can shuffle over to the free Coca-Cola and coffee dispensers and wander down for a breath of fresh air to the prearranged press conferences on the ground floor.
The gutter hacks are more in tune with the spirit of the tournament. The public don’t come for the tennis – most readily admit that they can watch the game better on television. Instead Wimbledon is about those very English participation sports: standing in line, getting piddled and being ticked off by men in uniforms.
It requires the maximum time and effort even to get into the grounds of the club. First Joe Public must elbow his way onto the train at Earl’s Court, where he will encounter a vanguard of ticket touts. Afterwards he will wait in a long queue at the entrance to Wimbledon, and suffer a second serious onslaught from the touts.
Once past the entrance gates, the customer can worm his way into a standing space to watch the less prestigious matches or he can queue up for ludicrously expensive drinks and strawberries. Otherwise he can queue up to buy cast-off Centre Court and Court No 1 tickets or ask for them from people leaving. Here again he will probably have to queue as the strategic begging points fill up quickly.
The Centre Court battlements are made up of concentric, concrete corridors guarded by commissaires and security boys. If a member of the public gets as far as the staircase entrances, and if the ticket holders in front are wearing shorts and standing with their legs apart, he may just get an A-shaped view of the audience on the opposite side.
The All England Lawn Tennis Association only does it to annoy. The public can follow the game on electronic repeater scoreboards and can hear the groans and cheers from Centre Court. They just can’t watch – there are no legitimate peepholes, and no television screens relaying the match.
Other areas are closed off with opaque glass, or surrounded by maze-like hedges. A security guard told me that to enter the members’ marquee you have to be able to walk on water. The few that manage this sort of feat get punch drunk afterwards: “We saw part of Navratilova’s thighs and I commented that they are more muscular than Roger’s.” Or: “We managed to get into the players’ enclosure at Court No 1. A couple of young yuppy chaps tried to come in afterwards. There was this man playing God and, well, he was too English to say ‘get on your bike’ but he turned them back. He wanted to know if we were alright and then he asked (imitates posh voice), ‘ls this serviceman obstructing your view?’ It was quite wonderful.”
Wimbledon is run with the nervous silliness of a minor public school – inscriptions from Kipling, hydrangeas, a worrying emphasis on uniforms and decorum. Players can be fined £500 for temper tantrums on court and may get “scratched” for not conforming to dress regulations. The ball boys and girls are dressed up like Brighton Rock and made to stand and crouch in quasi-military postures during the game. The All England Lawn Tennis Club calls a hot dog a “sausage in crusty bread” and cannot resist telling you that “the weight, size, bounce and compression of balls are strictly regulated”. Even the plastic waste disposal bins are in the club colours.
Tradition is also fostered in a heritage museum where I discovered that tennis balls once came wrapped up in tissue paper like peppermint creams and that horses used to wear special leather mits when they pulled rollers across the lawns. Christine Truman practised on an electrically operated ball thrower which would be condemned on sight by any civil rights group.
These traditions and formalities appeal to the public. For instance, the “Last 8 Club” which is only open to players who have reached the Wimbledon quarter-finals, runs a marquee with colonial cane chairs and rubber plants. Nobody thought the idea was obnoxious. One man, for example, said, “I think that’s all rather nice. They are people who’ve attained something in life.”
This must partly account for why the tournament, with all its airport food and snotty rules, is such a good natured event. The British gasp at the good weather and perform acts of unwarranted friendliness: giving away tickets, taking photographs for others and applauding the children at the short tennis court.
Fergie sails up in her Jaguar to take over the royal box. Linda from Huddersfield camps out for two days beside the ticket office in a sleeping bag and bin liner just to get a seat on Centre Court. As nobody tires of saying, Wimbledon is quintessentially English – decent, proper, undemocratic, and unfair. It is a testimony to our abiding love of the lumber room and the Oxon title. And despite this government’s drive for enterprise and initiative, the public still recognise a cad: he’s called Mud, Muck or Stink and he may be holding tickets.
[See also: From the NS archive: Through the bars – John Berger visits the zoo (1959)]
Read more from the NS archive here, and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).