Wink murder: is the lascivious gesture dying a death?

When the Trumps came to tea, the Duchesss of Cornwall winked, and people were amused. But is such an exclusionary gesture still OK?

When the Trumps went to Clarence House for tea on the first day of their recent state visit to the UK, the Duchess of Cornwall performed (if that is the right word) a wink. Why? We outsiders dont know, and we are not meant to know. A wink is all about collusion, and collusion is about exclusion, says Dr Peter Collett, an Oxford psychologist with an interest in body language. Therefore, the wink, in his opinion, is anachronistic. Its not as prevalent as it used to be because it goes against the tide of the zeitgeist, which is all about not leaving anybody out.


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It is true: you dont see as much winking as you used to, and so a wink today stands out as a flashback to monochrome England, such as when you see someone smoking a pipe, or hear a milkman whistling. As a mode of communication, it seems as quaint as Morse code.

I am sufficiently interested in winking to have written a novel about a man who winks at people and then kills them. The novel is set in the 70s, which was a lascivious decade, therefore well stocked with that sort of winker, but the main thing was to set the novel in the past.

It seems to me that winking belongs in the past partly because society is increasingly informal, and the winker needs formality in order to have something to undermine. There would be no point winking at someone in the middle of an orgy, for instance. (When I ran this idea past Collett, he said: Ill take your word for it, Andrew.)

Perhaps the heyday of winking was in the risque entertainment of a century ago, when comedians tackled social strictures with a sort of constrained rebellion, via such outmoded notions as cheekiness, naughtiness and mischievousness. The ventriloquists figure was a cheeky boy and a winking mechanism came almost as standard. To quote an Edwardian advertisement: In addition to all the ordinary movements, the Wonderful Boy is constructed to laugh, cry, smoke, wink and flap his ears. On the music hall stage, the wink and the double entendre were natural companions. The singer Marie Lloyd was known for her wink, and in 1895 she had a hit with a song called When You Wink the Other Eye, a title suggesting that winking had reached such epidemic proportions that everyones first-choice winking eye had become worn out. The song gets progressively lewder, culminating in a scenario wherein a cash-strapped woman flags down a cab and makes a suggestion to the driver

Her purse, alas! Is empty, but somehow she must get there;
She whispers something in his ear, then its Drive to Leicester Square.
All right jump in! says cabby oh, Cabby knows his fare,
For he winks the other eye.

The singer Marie Lloyd was known for her wink. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The American silent screen had its famous female winkers. One was Cissy Fitzgerald, who had an involuntary wink in her left eye, which she incorporated into her act. This tic apparently caused her some distress, but it has been suggested that Fitzgeralds wink also makes her a feminist icon, in that winking was seen as a male prerogative.

If the music hall wink was exclusionary, it perhaps excluded the people who merited exclusion: the controlling middle and upper classes; the people not in the music hall audience. In the 70s, my dad was a master of the exclusionary wink from a similarly leftwing angle, in that the person he was excluding tended to be my uncle Peter. Uncle Peter was a Tory and a keen motorist (he owned driving gloves and a car coat), who regularly suggested to my dad who worked for British Rail that funding for railways should be slashed to the bone. You make a good point, Peter, my dad would say; then he would wink at me, which I found flattering, given that I was only about 10 years old.


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When I mentioned my dads winks to Marina Benjamin, author of feminist titles such as The Middlepause and Insomnia, she was well disposed: I think thats nice, as long as the third party didnt see the wink. I assured her there was no question of that. We then moved on to the lascivious wink, and she was less indulgent: That wink the Benny Hill wink says to a woman: Youre game, arent you? so its demeaning because it bypasses all kinds of mutual communication. It is a shorthand by men and always men you dont want to have anything to do with, by the way.

I asked at what point she thought that sort of wink became insupportable. When feminism began, she said, laughing, which is not to say it has quite disappeared: It happens all the time on public transport. Did Benjamin think women ever winked at men? Pass, she said. Cant think of an example.

Certainly, I have never been winked at by a woman unknown to me. I would have remembered, just as I would have remembered if I had been involved in an earthquake. But I can confirm that men are still winking at women they dont know because Ive seen it done. The winker does usually seem a marginal figure, like someone mentally living in the past. The last time I saw a man wink at a woman in a pub, they had been introduced immediately beforehand: that is, the man had marched over and unilaterally introduced himself to the woman, whereupon he embarked on five minutes of boasting, culminating in: And Ive got a nice new Range Rover for sale around the corner if youre interested, followed by the wink.

Woody Allen took flak for saying he hoped the allegations against Harvey Weinstein would not lead to a witch-hunt atmosphere in which winking at a woman in the workplace became wholly unacceptable. In response, Peter Bradshaw wrote on this website: The only people that can get away with winking are the paradoxically supercool young people on the front of i-D magazine Winking went out with cardboard bus tickets. The middle-aged winker seems to be using the old-media equivalent of the winking emoji or its typographical equivalent ;-). These I have received from women and my pulse rate has remained steady.

He seemed to be winking at the whole of Britain. Julian Assange arrive at Westminster magistrates court in April. Photograph: Jack Taylor/Getty Images

India Ford is an internationally renowned body language consultant. She suggests that a wink is powerful because its a physical signal, and these are more telling than verbal ones; also because it comes from the eyes, and we send more communication with the eyes than any other way. I mean, imagine the effect on you of a very severe eye roll.

Here is an instance of a momentous wink. In the quarter final of the 2006 World Cup, Wayne Rooney committed a foul, and Cristiano Ronaldo urged the referee to send him off, which he did. Ronaldo then winked at the Portugal bench. When the BBC pundits watched the playback, one of them exclaimed off-camera: Hang on did he just wink? It was the wink that made Alan Shearer lose his cool: I wouldnt be surprised if Wayne went into the Portuguese dressing room after the game and stuck one on him.

Ronaldos wink distorted his beautiful face. A woman I know thinks a man who winks at a woman might be forgiven because he is at that moment sacrificing his good looks (if any); he is making a funny face. In 2014, Elle magazine ran a feature about bad winking and it turns out winking doesnt suit George Clooney or Catherine Zeta-Jones, for instance. But are these bad winks amusing?

It seems clear that one should never use a wink to demand a laugh. Welcoming the Queen to the US in 2007, George W Bush fluffed his lines, saying: You helped this country celebrate its bicentennial in 17 1976. He then turned and directed a stage wink at her, as if to say: Im a bit of a twit but you dont mind, do you? Her Majesty remained expressionless. That goes down as one of the more recent examples of a famous wink. Another occurred the following year, when to the dismay of her supporters and detractors alike Sarah Palin winked three times at the TV camera during a vice-presidential debate.

This was a strange wink, in that it was apparently not exclusionary. Palin was presuming to wink at the whole of the US, just as Julian Assange seemed to be winking at the whole of Britain (he was said to have winked at the cameras, plural) when he arrived at court in a prison van recently. Collett says that, since a wink is a narrowcast communication between me and you, Assanges wink was misapplied (which is the least of Assanges problems right now).

But surely winkers deserve some sliver of credit for their boldness? The winker always expresses bravado, no matter how their subtler message might go astray. A wink is a reset or jump cut, and usually a leap in the dark; things will be different after the wink. When Lee Jones, the antihero of my novel, winks at a woman, she asks what it meant, to which he replies: Lets wait and see what it meant, shall we?

Andrew Martins novel The Winker is published by Corsair.


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