The Wombles storytelling and singalong has quickly become an annual tradition at Wimbledon Bookfest, with two sold-out sessions in the ‘Big Tent’ on the corner of Wimbledon Common.
Writer and musician Julian Butler was back with his acoustic guitar to host the event on Sunday, 14 October, in much the same format as Bookfest 2011.
“How many of you were here last year?” he began. “Oh, quite a few, that’s good. And you’ve come back for more? That’s what I like to hear.”
Around fifty children, mostly of preschool age, sat on blankets in front of the stage, with parents (and some of the more wary kids) in rows of plastic seats behind them. Many of them had brought cuddly Wombles – ranging from 1970s family heirlooms to the latest toys fresh from the bookstall in the corner.
“Here we are on Wimbledon Common, where the Wombles live,” said Julian. “Has anyone ever seen a Womble, before today?” A little boy said he’d seen Orinoco, while a softly spoken girl had quite a tale to tell, and said she’d held the Womble’s hand.
Julian picked up his guitar. “Shall we have a quick singsong to start with – a little warm-up? Shall we sing The Wombling Song? Everybody knows The Wombling Song!”
This year they put the lyrics up on the screens. “That does mean I’ve got to get the words right!” joked Julian. They were a bit too small to read comfortably, but most people picked up the main ‘Underground, Overground’ verse, which was repeated a couple of extra times so that everyone could join in.
“Who can tell me the names of any Wombles?” asked Julian. “Great Uncle Bulgaria – does anyone know what Great Uncle Bulgaria’s like?” There was a murmur from the young audience, who decided that the elderly Womble was strict.
“Who’s the bossy Womble?” More chattering… “Bungo, absolutely. And who’s the lazy Womble?” Ah, that one was easy. “Orinoco,” confirmed Julian. “He likes to eat a lot, and he likes to sleep. Very good.”
One little girl near the front seemed to know everything about the Wombles. Julian congratulated her, saying, “You’ll be up here next year!”
This time, Julian read the ‘Orinoco And The Black Umbrella’ chapter from the hardback edition of The Wombles. But for some of the younger children, 15 minutes was a long time to concentrate, and they started fidgeting (with one boy bashing his friend over the head with a cushion) or wandering back to their parents.
Next it was time to sing Remember You’re A Womble. “That was pretty good for a first attempt,” said Julian after the first verse, “although I have to say, it did sound like some of you haven’t heard it since 1974”.
Then he addressed the kids: “Now, you know all the words to this, don’t you? Remember, remember, remember, member-mem-mem-mem-member, you’re a Womble. That’s not too hard, is it? So I want you lot joining in next time.”
The second story was shorter: “This is the most recent Wombles book. And by most recent, I mean 1975! This is The Snow Womble, but it’s just come out again. And I think they’re selling it in the bookshop just over there. It’s a lovely book; it’s got some really, really nice pictures.”
He held up some of the pictures as he went along, and it was nice to hear one of the kids calling out, “Can I see it?”
To finish off, there were two more songs – Let’s Womble To The Party Tonight, and a repeat of The Wombling Song to get everyone singing along again.
Then Orinoco put in a brief appearance, waving to the children, and was soon surrounded as everybody left the tent and took turns to have their picture taken with him outside. And soon it was back to the burrow for dinner and forty winks, until it was time to do it all over again for the afternoon session…