There was, at least until recently, an old sign round the back of the Savoy banning whistling by staff or tradesmen. Whistling, it seems, can wind up some people. Winston Churchill hated the practice. Posters were put up in the War Rooms forbidding it. One day, on his way to Downing Street, he heard a paperboy whistling and sharply told him to stop it at once. The boy had some spirit and argued back: ‘Why should I, you can shut your ears can’t you?’
Churchill found this amusing — even if he never learned to love whistling. If he’d lived in my house, he’d have seen it a little differently.
When I was growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, men — and it generally was men — seemed always to be whistling. It was the alternative soundtrack of my early life. But the whistles have gone quiet. I heard my postman whistling the other week and I realised I hadn’t heard that sound for a very long time.
Whistling, of course, can be used for nefarious purposes. In the 19th century, pickpockets used coded whistles to warn when the Beadles were approaching. Upmarket shopping places like the Burlington Arcade in London banned whistling altogether, and it still stays that way.
But really there was no stopping the whistling craze and it took hold in working-class culture. It was both an act of defiance and also a shrug at life’s vicissitudes.
In the late 19th century and well into the 20th, whistling was big business. The music halls and vaudeville palaces featured many whistlers who would perform tunes, bird song and yodelling. Ronnie Ronalde became a million-selling artist with his whistling songs. But his career is a sobering reminder of the impending silence of the whistle. In 1949 he played to a sell-out crowd of 6,000 people nightly at NYC’s Radio City. The run lasted for ten weeks. He did his final show at the Beccles Public Hall & Theatre (capacity: 175) on 19 May 2013.
There have been some outlandish claims for the benefits of whistling. Pinocchio’s Jiminy Cricket hails it as a cure for moral failing (‘Take the straight the narrow path and if you start to slide — give a little whistle’). But John Lucas, author of A Brief History of Whistling, says: ‘Whistling is about feeling at ease with yourself; there’s sheer pleasure in hearing the sound of your own whistle.’
Whistling (or, at least, whistling well) is harder than it appears. Personally, I have never been able to whistle a note. The sound is produced by an interaction of lips, tongue, epiglottis, and sometimes fingers. It’s all about creating air turbulence, something men are generally pretty great at.
But when it’s good it is an art form, and a uniquely working-class one at that. We need a revival of whistling — not wolf-whistles, but musical whistling. Doctors report it is a great stress reliver and helps expand the capacity of the lungs.
It is a way of laughing — or whistling —in the face of disaster too. ‘Never try to shut up a whistler,’ John Lucas tells me. ‘It’s part of the human spirit.’