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Book Review

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



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