Every week I go and see 90 year old George Rough. A wonderful old chap who has lived in Putney all his life except for the four years he was away playing his part in Hitler’s downfall. He didn’t see his daughter until she was three. He still hates Churchill for all the unkept promises he made to veterans. He loves big band music and when I get to his house he is usually playing Glen Miller or one of the stars of the great age of big bands , the 40s and 50s.. This week it was Perry Como whose track Memories he insisted would be playing at his funeral.
He was for many years happily married to Nellie. Their daughter Pat unfortunately married an alcoholic. But he is old school , he doesn’t do down,its life, you get on with it. This week he mentioned how he and Nellie liked to sing and whistle together. Then one day he noticed she didn’t whistle “no more”. She told him straight ,”How can I with false teeth”. He visits her grave and those of his friends in the nearby cemetery every week, Great guy, I love him.
But it got me thinking. Whistling, what happened?. When I grew up in the 40s and 50s whistling was an essential skill with boys. Like kicking a football, cycling, nicking and cashing in empty pop bottles, making guys for November 5th and playing truant from Sunday School. Those hazy, lazy days of innocence, of which whistling and smoking 60 a day were part.
Who can forget Colonel Bogey in Bridge on the River Kwai. Google it (see below) and weep. Alec Guinness leads his ragged army into the camp. They are beaten but not bowed, they whistle,Lazurus like sick men leap from their cots. At that point the war is won. The Nips maybe good at torture and surprise attacks but they cannot whistle .They are lost. Similarly on the Western Front while the pathetic Nasty Nazis lolled about singing Lili Marlene our boys whistled as they won the War.
As it happens whistling was yet something else I wasn’t very good at. In a letter to the Independent a lady tells how she fell in love with her husband when he serenaded her detachment on the ferry to Northern Ireland in 1943 by whistling the 3rd Movement of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. In pre emancipation days it was considered common ,unlady like ,for women to whistle(and smoke). The rhyme sang ” A whistling woman and a crying hen Always come to a messy end.” Luckily by the time I got into girls in the 60s the golden age of whistling was over. No more Whistle A Happy Tune or Whistle While You Work.
So along with a lot of other individual skills whistling has died. Its place in the entertainment world faded. While once everyone not only sung but knew songs and music now that’s considered a specialist skill confined to choirs. The idea of four lads walking a long the street whistling a tune together seems very odd. But once it was normal. Even the wolf whistle once a familiar( inappropriate) cry from the building site is a memory.