Here be Dragons: Wimbledon Tournament and Victorian stoicism

By NikitaNemygin, July 14, 2015

Wimbledon Transformed
So, crowds are storming a small south London suburb, Sharapova is staring at me from every tube station selling mineral water and sports section of newspapers has suddenly jumped a queue to the front pages? It must be Wimbledon!
For The Fortnight, Wimbledon changes dramatically from the quiet village it usually is. Normally relaxed, at times sleepy shopping streets are now greeting the hordes of people, cheering them up with purple and green and yellow colours. Every shop, every corner tries to participate (and cash) in the celebrations.

Tennis cafe

Tennis cafe

Tennis interiors and property agents

Tennis interiors and property agents

The giant screen is uncovered near the railway station as the town follows the game.

The giant screen is uncovered near the railway station as the town follows the game.

It is “a breathless hush” of the stadium, the experience of the overnight Queue and general fascination with sportsmen that ruled in Wimbledon these days. I have overheard locals’ conversations about who is sexier: Djokovic, Federer or Nadal at least half a dozen times.

Tennis kitchens and frying pans

Tennis kitchens and frying pans

Surely, there must be a museum that caters for this thrill!
And there is: Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Museum.

Another view
The usual problem with highly specialised museums is that they are dedicated to a very narrow subject, and therefore often fail to engage those who have no idea about the topic. If you love the subject, you have probably already visited the place, but if you don’t, it’s not worth going – everything is too technical and fails to capture you.
But this is not the case in Wimbledon.

Entrance through the gift shop

Entrance through the gift shop

As I enter down to the museum from the well-lit and friendly shop, I see the poem “If” by Rudyard Kipling inscribed on the wall, highlighting “if you can meet with triumph and disaster and treat those two impostors just the same”. This line never fails to make my heart leap.
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss

This shows just how much Tennis museum is different compared to many others. Though it does go into technical side of tennis, for most part it very successfully appeals to your emotions rather than knowledge. It does talk about rules and regulations and history of the game, but more so it tries to present tennis as a celebration of the human endeavour and tenacity.

Victorian stoicism
This fascination with sports was particularly instilled in the British during Victorian Era stoic ideals. It is this “stiff upper lip” attitude that created the self-made men of the time, such as Charles Dickens, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Joseph Paxton and many more – through amazing tenacity and devotion they have raised through the ranks of the society and prevailed in their fields of interest.

One of the rooms in the museum

One of the rooms in the museum

In the museum after a few rooms I take a rest for a while on a bench in one of them s I remember an inscription of the similar Victorian attitude on another sports ground – Lord’s Cricket Ground in Maida Vale. “Play up, play up, and play the game”, a line from “Vitae Lampada” by Henry Newbolt. It is about carrying the flame of honour and sportsmanship from the early ages of school throughout life.

And it’s not for the sake of a ribboned coat,
Or the selfish hope of a season’s fame,
But his captain’s hand on his shoulder smote
“Play up! play up! and play the game!”

Both Vitae Lampada and If are from the same period, they reflected the mind-set of Victorian society. The sport is seen here as a training ground for such essential things as determination, endeavour and dare. The war is just another game, a chance to demonstrate your devotion and courage; just the stakes are a little higher:

The river of death has brimmed his banks,
And England’s far, and Honour a name,
But the voice of schoolboy rallies the ranks,
“Play up! play up! and play the game!”

Similar attitude is present for example in the Tennyson’s poetical interpretation of the deadly Charge of the Light Brigade, an episode in Crimean war when 670 British Horsemen perished after a disastrous order to attack that put them under direct fire:

Charge of the Light Brigade - Jack Sullivan

Charge of the Light Brigade – Jack Sullivan

‘Forward, the Light Brigade!’
Was there a man dismay’d?
Not tho’ the soldiers knew
  Some one had blunder’d:
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die:
Into the valley of Death

Back in the museum everything from the Kipling’s poem “If” at the entrance to the 3-D movie towards the end appeals to our emotions, for strive for achievement. Tampering with the visitors’ feelings is a great way to leave them satisfied and uplifted.

Tennis-related advertising

Tennis-related advertising exhibition

As I walk around, I certainly become the victim of this tampering. Artefacts from early ages of tennis catch my attention, tennis-related advertising exhibition moves me. I sit back again and stare down the corridor full of moving images of the notable athletes. I start thinking: what really makes this game so popular? It’s not the rules, nor the premise, not the stakes; it is the personality, which disposes of the needed qualities that we value as a society.

I feel that tennis is an echo of that Victorian mind-set. A gentleman’s sport. You are not going to see fans of Sharapova getting rowdy and smashing window shops when they aren’t happy with the result, even though it is a substantial crowd.

The lasting legacy
This fascination with stiff upper lip stayed with British society in the First and Second World War, with morale of the Brits being high even in the worst days of the Blitz, it stayed with them in the Post-war Reconstruction.
These attitudes are relevant to-day.

The British are often at War at the other side of the Earth. Until last year, they were still engaged in fighting in Afghanistan, as they were when they published “Vitae Lampada“ which talks about a failed operation in Sudan.
“Invictus“ by William Ernest Henley of the same period and same ideal is still one of the most cited poems and a part of common culture, to the point where they call a fragrance for men with the same name and hold servicemen’s Invictus Games.

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Could it be that our fascination with tennis is too a long-distance echo of the Victorian attitude? We are still compelled to follow that golden ball on the green court.

People struggle to define Britishness nowadays, getting lost in the over-repeated clichés of a “diverse society” and “democracy”, but could it be that Victorian ethos actually still lives on?

Back at the museum I examine glaring trophies and answer interactive quizzes and then exit after taking a look at the Kipling’s words repeated again above the door.
We come to see tennis matches in a continued celebration of the human struggle. Using our inner coping mechanics we see this struggle as noble and worthy of a human life. We see achievement as an ability to channel our sporadic minds into something focused which we deem more meaningful.

We think they, who can control themselves, have a potential to control the world around.
They dispose of enormous power, and nothing is more attractive than power.

Featured image – “The Tennis Player” by Percy Shakespeare.