Singing “The Winkle Song” around the world

Last week I sang The Winkle Song to around 600 Bangladeshis from a stage in a car park in Dhaka. They seemed to like my performance, which made me reflect on other times I’ve sung the song around the world.

I always introduce The Winkle Song by saying that it’s a song that can be sung only by people who can’t sing. That’s my excuse. I can’t remember where I learnt it, but I tell people it’s a song that has emerged from the back streets of South London, just like I have. A winkle, I explain, is a small blue shellfish; you need a pin to winkle out the winkle itself, which is something like a small worm–but very tasty to the true South Londoner. Most people have never heard of a winkle, and if they have they confuse it with a whelk or even a cockle.

Here are the words of The Winkle Song:

One Saturday afternoon for tea

I fancied a luxury

So I went down to old Mother Wrinkles

Bought myself a pennyworth of winkles

Took them home, put them on a plate

‘appy as can be

For my old woman and her seven kids

And all the family

Were picking all the big ones out

Picking all the big ones out.

When I saw my pennyworth of winkles

All the big ones gone

It made me rave and shout

For my old woman and her seven kids

We’re picking all the big ones out.

Bangladesh was once East Bengal in the days of the Raj, and I have sung The Winkle Song in West Bengal as well–on a boat on the Hoogli River in Calcutta. I sang it to the senior officers of the Indian Medical Association, most of whom were drunk on Indian whisky. I wasn’t feeling well and so was not drinking. They asked me for a song, and once again The Winkle Song was wheeled out. In their drunken state the officials liked it so much they wanted another song. That was a problem as I know only one song, but then my scouting days came back to me and I sang I’ve Got Sixpence. They asked for another song, but I said I knew no more. So they asked me to dance, and I did. My dancing, if it’s possible, is worse than my singing, but they liked it. Although editor of the BMJ and had given the named speech at their conference. I was simply a performing monkey–and I didn’t mind. Making a fool of yourself works well in every culture (although I reflect that Nazis might not have liked The Winkle Song).

On another occasion I sang The Winkle Song to the world leaders of surgery in the Melbourne Art Gallery. I was sat at the top table with the presidents of umpteen surgical colleges. I had given the president’s lecture, which I’d entitled “Is Surgery An Anachronism In The Age Of Evidence Based Medicine.” It hadn’t gone down well. I was supposed to say a few words at the dinner on behalf of foreign guests, and I hadn’t intended to sing. But during the meal the waiters began to sing, revealing themselves to be opera singers. Their performances, mixed with Australian wine, inspired me, and I decided that I’d sing too.

This wasn’t my best performance of The Winkle Song as half way through, perhaps affected by the wine, I forgot the words. I’ve never been invited back.

But perhaps my strangest performance was at the Oxford Union. I’d been invited to contribute to a debate on the 60th anniversary of the NHS. The evening hadn’t been smooth as I’d not realised I should have been wearing evening dress–and at dinner I’d mistaken the Tory Member of Parliament, Louise Mensch, for a student.

There were far too many speakers, and I was scheduled to be the last. The audience was lapsing into torpor by the time I was finally asked to speak–at about 11.15. I’d carefully prepared my speech, but I thought that it would be cruel to inflict another speech on the somnolent audience. So instead I launched into The Winkle Song, dancing and stamping on the old wooden floors to emphasise the rhythm. The audience instantly awoke. The applause was rapturous. It was my greatest performance.





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