‘Last fling before the ring.’ ‘Buy me a shot, I’m tying the knot.’ ‘Keep calm and bridesmaid on.’ If you find yourself on a train to Brighton, Paris or Amsterdam with a group of women in T-shirts bearing the above slogans, change carriages. You are about to witness Jen’s hen in full prosecco-and-Pringles feather. On the lash, off the leash, bonded together in squealing sisterhood for one night only.
If only it were for one night. The hyper-inflation that has seen weddings go from church and breakfast to three-day wonders now extends to the hen. Away we go to Lisbon, Barcelona, Marbella on a dawn flight in matching hoodies and hangovers from the pre-hen the night before. The last time I was at Luton, a party of hens wearing ‘Bride Tribe’ tops and headbands with fluffy antennae had divided into two groups with the bride — white hoodie, L plate — weeping at the centre of one and the maid of honour — pink hoodie — sobbing in the other. They hadn’t even been through security.
It starts with an email: ‘Hey lovely ladies…’ The maid of honour invites the hens to fill out a ‘Doodle Poll’ listing all the weekends they are available between now and the wedding in August. Then comes the WhatsApp group — #donttellthebride — and six months of messages about the budget, the ethics of stripograms and who’s going to buy the willy straws.
Hens can be homespun (knit your own garter ribbons, Great Bridal Bake Offs, cottages in Hardy country) or hysterical. The hysterical hen is done ironically. Lawyers, doctors and management consultants forget feminism, chuck #MeToo, and cry: ‘Bring on the naked butler! Fox in the hen house! Pour me a phwoar!’
Now it’s my turn. I’m getting married in June. Shall I have my revenge? Assemble 30 nearest and dearest girlfriends for a night at the Chippendales followed by a Cotswolds spa day? Only £400 per hen and all the Ocado booze you can drink. My maid of honour has been threatening to buy tickets to Magic Mike Live. So I’ve put my foot down, gone full bridezilla. No hen.
It’s not that I don’t love my friends or that I don’t want to see them, more that they don’t really know each other. Why should your best friend from school, your future sister-in-law, your flatmate, your cousin and Lucy from yoga want to spend a weekend together in a Malaga Airbnb? It’s an imposition, a drain on holiday savings and a weekend not spent with their own families. One friend returned from a hen weekend to report: ‘There were 12 of us. In three bedrooms. In bunk beds.’
My future father-in-law was briefly curious about plans for what he called the ‘lady stag’. I liked this. Hen branding is awful. While men are rutting stags, clashing antlers, proud and heraldic, women are headless chickens, mindless cluckers, cooped-up, feathers ruffled. What about a deer do? A doe do? But that’s not much better. Think: Bambi. Think: deer in the headlights.
The problem is wider. I am wary of performative female friendship. When I see Taylor Swift and her girl squad of models and actresses clasping each other’s waists in elaborate displays of Best Friends Forever devotion I am instinctively suspicious. The same goes for Victoria’s Secret angels and their hugging and backstage mugging.
It must be grim to be a lonely teenage girl today and find your Snapchat and Instagram feeds filled with pictures of classmates lined up at parties. Sometimes I count my Noughties adolescence blessings. At least when I wasn’t invited to parties I didn’t have to watch the evening unfold on an iPhone, snapshot by filtered snapshot.
Of all the many indignities lately suffered by Theresa May, the worst to my mind was the interview she gave to Julie Etchingham of ITV. The Prime Minister was trying to talk about domestic abuse. Julie wanted to know how she ‘let her hair down’. Mrs May explained that she didn’t have time ‘to have the girls round’. This was taken as further ‘Maybot’ evidence. Brexit? Corbyn? The NHS? Gather the girls for a night at Maidenhead Smokey Joe’s! Can you imagine a journalist from Das Erste asking Chancellor Merkel about her plans for Friday night? Mutti und das Mädchen.
We set too much store by being part of a photogenic girl gang. As if looking like Little Mix were more important than quiet, loyal, through-thick-and-thin friendship. And I resent the three-line whip that comes with hen dos. Willingness to wear a pink sash and board a plane from Stansted is a strange test of commitment. So when the next ‘Hey ladies…’ email arrives, have no guilt. Promise you’ll be there on the big day. But as for the hen: cluck off.