Daily Archives: April 17, 2014

A Brief History of Whistling by John Lucas and Allan Chatburn (Five Leaves, £9.99)

Brief History od Whistling

Five Leaves boasts an eclectic list: fiction, non-fiction, politics, social history, essays, verse novels … you name it. What’s that you say? A book on the history of whistling? Yup, Five Leaves have published it.

John Lucas and Allan Chatburn’s good-natured overview begins with an investigation into the mechanics of whistling and determines that Lauren Bacall’s oft-quoted line from To Have and Have Not – “you know how to whistle, don’t you … just put your lips together and blow” – is something of an understatement. As a sassy double entrende, it’s hard to beat, but Lucas and Chatburn uncover more than enough evidence to prove that whistling is, in fact, an art form, one requiring practice, discipline and dexterity.

But like all art forms, whistling can have its subversive practitioners. The authors present instances of whistling as a form of protest – from the iconic ‘Colonel Bogey’ scene in David Lean’s Bridge on the River Kwai to the Cretan shepherds who, in the real-life theatre of conflict, whistled in code to alert resistance fighters to the proximity of Nazi patrols – or as a similar tool of communication between criminal gangs. A sign at the Burlington Arcade in Piccadilly permits the Beadles (i.e. the security staff) to eject anyone behaving in a disreputable manner; historically, this included whistlers: accomplices reconnoitring the arcade would whistle to tip-off thieves to easy targets.

Bans on whistling extend to the working environment (miners at the coalface and theatre hands behind the scenes – in both cases, health and safety considerations mandate the ban), though elsewhere whistling is culturally intertwined with professions: the shepherd who instructs his dog with specific variances of tone and pitch; ploughmen signalling a turn at the end of the field; tinkers and butcher-boys whistling to announce their presence.

Whistling in literature offers plentiful material, from the bustling descriptions of Dickens, to Hardy’s critique of a patriarchal society and the prejudices by which a woman’s reputation can suffer in Tess of the d’Urbervilles. Edward Thomas’s poem ‘The Penny Whistle’, a lament for a changing England written in the early months of the Great War, is quoted in full and sensitively analysed. John Hartley Williams’s ‘Music While You Walk’ is given equal consideration; likewise Paul McLoughlin’s beautifully evocative ‘Whistling’, which closes the book.

A Brief History of Whistling is an eccentric but eminently likeable work. At a shade under 170 pages, it doesn’t outstay its welcome, but instead deals out a wealth of little-known facts and anecdotes. The prose is elegant but wittily crafted. At the risk of a crass and obvious analogy, if this book were a person it would be a 1920s dandy, whistling jauntily and twirling its cane as it swaggers confidently onto your reading list.

Neil Fulwood



The People in the Photo by Helene Gestern, translated by Emily Boyce and Ros Schwartz (Gallic Fiction, £8.99)

People in the PhotoA few years ago my elderly mother sent me a mysterious photograph of her much younger self in the arms of a black man. She said it was important that she passed on the photograph but did not want to tell me the background – she just wanted me to have it. The man was black in that he was burnt black by the sun rather than being African or Caribbean. What was this story? Wouldn’t anyone want to know? I was reminded of Stephen Poliakoff’s Shooting the Past, where a film library was under threat of closure and the staff need to save these images of the past.  Our family lost most of their photographs in a house move which perhaps makes me more interested in what old pictures can reveal, or conceal.

The People of the Photo, then, was a must read. Helene, who did not know her mother, finds an old photograph of her with two unknown men. What was the story, who were they? She advertises and is contacted by Stephane who knows part of the background. Both the characters are single, in their late thirties, and it becomes obvious their families were connected, but how? As they live in different countries Helene and Stephan ewrite and email as each finds just a little bit more background, gets closer to the truth. There was a hushed-up affair, and a tragedy, but what really happened? Why are things so secret? And… are they siblings? Difficult, as they are clearly falling in love. The chapters of the book are short, exploratory letters and emails that gradually open up – the two gradually open up to each other as they open up the past.

The first half of the book worked very well for me, the letters and emails both felt like they were from women used to being on their own, being able to open up because they were writing. But wait! Half way through I realised that Stephane was a man. My ignorance of French names made a fool of me. But that was when I began to have doubts about the book – possibly the author could not write letters as a man would write which led to my guessing it was between two women. It was when they admitted their love that the book began to fade for me slightly. But I was pleased to stay with the book and to finally understand what created the dysfunctional families who brought them both up in ignorance of their past.

The translation is superb and I loved those parts of the book set in the one part of Paris I know reasonably well.

Ross Bradshaw