Miles Kington: I'd like to teach the world to sin

'We need a song book you can take into foreign bars in case some fired-up cardinals demand one of your songs'

Thursday 02 August 2001 00:00 BST

The other day on Desert Island Discs, Sue Lawley was talking to Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, the biggest Catholic cheese in Britain and one of the few men to boast both a hyphen and an apostrophe in his surname, not that I would ever accuse a top churchman of boasting, although you could tell he was pleased to be able to tell Miss Lawley about an encounter he once had with the Pope.

He had, it seemed been to a party with lots of cardinals, one of whom was Wojtyla, which was what the Pope was called before he was the Pope. The Pope-to-be had got a group of Polish cardinals singing some Polish song in a very impressive manner, after which all the Polish cardinals looked at all the English-speaking cardinals as if to say "Come on, give us a song now", and Murphy-O'Connor said the best they could do was "My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean" or some such.

This seems to me to have been a very poor show.

Murphy-O'Connor had already confessed to speaking Latin very well, and you would imagine that he and the other cardinals might have had a few Latin roundelays up their sleeves. Failing which, an Irishman can always sing an Irish song. Failing which, he can usually sing "Danny Boy".

But "My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean"? That's only one step above "Ten Green Bottles" or "Happy Birthday".

It all goes to show that the Cardinal had never met my friend Tom Owen Edmunds. (I'll keep this seminal tale short in case you have heard it before.)

I once found myself with Tom in a small village in Burma, being sung at by the children of the village. "Frère Jacques", for some odd reason. And they wouldn't go away, but just stood there, hands held out. Carol singers are bad enough, but these were after blood.

"Right," said Tom. "We'll sing back at them. We'll sing them at their own game. We'll sing till they're sick of it."

"Sing what?"


I knew what he meant, of course – "And did those feet" and all that – but I quite reasonably pointed out that I couldn't remember all the words.

"No problem," said Tom, pulling out his wallet. "I've got them written down."

Sure enough, there were the words. We duly sang the children out of sight, and then I asked him the reason for this strange item in his wallet, so he told me that as a roving travel photographer he often found himself in bars where foreigners sang to him and then said: "Now sing us a song from your country!" At first he couldn't oblige, but then he had the brilliant idea of taking "Jerusalem" with him wherever he went.

"It doesn't half quieten people down, especially the full version," he said.

Taking the experience of my friend Tom and Murphy-O'Connor together and shaking them up a bit, what do we find when we look in the cocktail-shaker again? I think we find a crying need for a new book. A song book. A book that you can put in your pocket and safely take into foreign bars, ready for that moment when some rowdy boyos, or even some fired-up cardinals, challenge you and demand that you sing one of your songs. Something like The Left Song Book, which, I was amazed to learn last week, was one of the best-sellers of the Left Book Club in the 1930s and from which left-leaning persons all over Britain would draw the words to the Marseillaise and the Internationale at the drop of a beret.

Talking of cocktail-shakers, Sue Lawley also asked the Cardinal what the fearsome drink consisted of that he used to serve at his parties in Rome. He laughed and said he didn't know to whom she'd been talking, but as far as he recalled it was a mix of Punt e Mes and sweet Martini.

Lordy lord.

I have a little experience of cocktails and I can tell you that such a mixture has a good chance of being somewhat sickly and cloying. It sounds like the alcoholic equivalent of "My Bonnie Lies Over The Ocean..."

I think what the world needs is a small cocktail book you can slip in your pocket and take everywhere, just in case a horde of thirsty cardinals challenges you to mix a drink worth drinking.

A pair of world-beating ideas there, to make all of us a fortune. A go-anywhere songbook and a go-anywhere cocktail book.

Would any wealthy sponsor just drop me a line, and a blank cheque?

You can leave the rest to me.

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