I am an inveterate whistler. I have been a ‘siffleur’ for years, whistling happily to myself when I am alone and, more particularly, if out walking. The pattern is fairly routine – I step outside, stand on the pavement and start up. It is automatic. I don’t plan what tune will emerge, although at the moment it is likely to be the nursery rhyme – ‘Oh, the Grand Old Duke of York’; or the English Folk Song – ‘Dashing Away with a Smoothing Iron’. Subsequent tunes are handled differently – there is almost always some conscious selection.
Responses from passers-by vary; most don’t notice, sometimes I get a nod or smile, and occasionally there are expressions of disapproval. From time to time people who might otherwise keep mum are moved to speak out, and some comments have hurt. Years ago, a complete stranger came up to me while I was whistling, tapped me on my shoulder and said loudly, “I hope you won’t mind me asking, but has anyone ever told you how well you whistle? If so, they were lying – itsounds awful!” She then rushed away. Worse was to come – a friend told me how he had some sympathy for her position (see Whistler’s Mother, 4th August 2014) .
Since hearing those remarks I have practiced hard. Following whistling tips from champions found on the web, I have more purposefully pouted my lips, practiced scales, trills and warbles, whistled tunes soft and loud, tried to broaden my range, worked on a trombone effect (glissando) and more recently applied lip salve.
Nowadays comments are generally warmer. Recently there was: “It’s lovely to hear someone whistle like that, it’s just like being with my Grandad all those years ago”. And on another occasion: “What a treat. Hearing you makes me feel happy – thanks”. This blog tells of something one better – a wonderful moment when I whistled along with a complete stranger. It was magical.
When we went from London’s National Theatre to Waterloo Station there was the usual choice. My wife, Rohan, and I could either walk along the fume-ridden pavements of a busy road or go through a dank pedestrian subway. The subway won, as it usually does, but it was a close call. There is, however, a problem; on a winter’s evening much of the subway is uninviting, not to say hostile, with its general emptiness, grubby concrete walls, unpleasant smells and dark corners that could be hiding anything.
However, during the walk things do get better. At its far end, as one nears the station, the atmosphere changes. Here one walks down the brightly-lit and uplifting poetry tunnel – along its length is a poem about travel painted on the wall in a lovely typeface and arranged like a rivulet. And this time there was more – as we approached the tunnel’s entrance, wafting out with the light was the sound of whistling accompanied by a guitar.
The sound was, predictably, the work of a busker and for me that gave added pleasure – listening to buskers is irresistible. Plonk a busker in front of me in the street and I will stop and sing along. If there is a coffee shop nearby and I have the time, I will sit and sip through several numbers. In London I am spoiled as in any one trip I would expect to hear several performers: over the last months the music has included accompanied or unaccompanied voices, accordions, violins, saxophones, clarinet and a 4-piece band. This was the first time I had heard accompanied whistling.
Before I actually entered the tunnel and saw the musician, I started whistling along to his ‘There’s a Boat That’s Leaving Soon for New York” from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. He heard me, stopped his own whistling, and accompanied me on his guitar as I walked towards him. Next he started whistling again and for several bars I stood next to him on his pitch in the tunnel and whistled with him in harmony, making up my tune as I went along – and it worked. Here was serendipity at its best.
Soon we got to the end of the song and stopped, and as we smiled at one another the silence was broken by loud clapping and shouts of “That was brilliant – well done” from a woman who had appeared at the far end of the tunnel. This just made everything even better.
I had to leave to catch our train home so it was ‘goodbye’, ‘thanks’ and a tongue-in-cheek suggestion from the busker that we might perhaps work together some time. Harmonising like that was the stuff of dreams; how I would have loved to go back for an encore or two. My years of practicing and the confidence it brought had all been worthwhile.
The illustration shows a photo of the Dutchman Geert Chatrou, the current whistling world champion.
For helping me write this blog, I would like to thank Harold, Rohan and Vivien.