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The Lost Art of Whistling.


ATTENTION, ALL YOU sexist, patriarchal misogynists, especially if you work on building sites: whistle at a woman and you are possibly committing a hate crime. It is now official. Plod will have you by the scruff of the neck, the CPS will scowl at you as they decide whether the hate incident of your public whistling deserves to become a criminal offence and hence a hate crime, and you will be publicly shamed. You will never again be able to whistle while you work as people did in the innocent old days or purse your lips except in the privacy of you own room. And even if uber-feminists like Jessica Valenti condemn catcalls one year then perform a volte face the next, bemoaning the fact that they’ve lost their looks and become so invisible they’re not worth a whistle, don’t expect to use that in your defence.

This item has cropped up a number of times in the media recently, and usually (when it’s local broadcast media, anyway), ineluctably conjoined the whistling with building sites. It has become one of those memes fixed in the journalistic mind. Building sites = common, working class men = sexism + unique ability to whistle.

I don’t believe harassment by whistling is at all common. Harassment by other means, yes, but whistling, I refuse to give it credence. I haven’t heard any male of any age whistle in any form in public for at least forty years. I must have walked past a number of building sites, large and small, in that time and not heard a single whistled note. For once, though, I think the simpletons in the media have got something right: whistling is – or was – a peculiarly working class phenomenon.

Time was when your lower orders whistled with gusto: the milkman doing his rounds, the postie shoving bills and postal orders through your letterbox, the electrician stomping about in your loft. No more. Some people used to be really good at it. My friend’s father, who was a a music teacher from a humble Hull background, could do some fine classical warbling in his happier moments. Percy Edwards made a living out of whistling impressions of birds. I’m sure there were numerous music hall artistes who whistled for their work, but the last of the modern professional whistlers must surely be Roger Whittaker, who is still on the go, by the looks of it. He used to be on TV when I was a teenager. He wasn’t my kind of entertainment but I always envied his talent because I can’t manage anything except that annoying, pathetic siffling through the teeth which is a sign of the truly useless amateur.

Apart from Roger, I can only think of one other example of whistling by a public entertainer of the last thirty years that has passed muster, and that’s Bryan Ferry in his homage to John Lennon, in Jealous Guy. Even there, it makes me feel uneasy because it’s unexpected and fraught with the possibility of failure. But of course, Bryan Ferry is of working class stock, so I shouldn’t have worried, should I? He was probably used to hearing his dad whistling on his way to the pit every day to look after the ponies.

So it looks like whistling as an activity, and a specifically class-related one, is a dead art form. I know wolf-whistling doesn’t really count as an art form any more than the type of catcalling you get at football matches (and I’m only going on what I’ve occasionally caught on TV) but it takes its place in a continuum: crude signalling at one end, high quality warbling or impressions at the other. The death of whistling mirrors the withering away of the old working class and its communal spirit. If I were a leftist I would blame Thatcher at this point. Thatcher, milk-snatcher, pit-killer, industry-destroyer and whistle-gagger. What a legacy. There’s a thesis in there for anyone with nothing better to do.

suxcoverCurrente Calamo columnist, poet, writer and lecturer Michael Blackburn lives in Lincolnshire . From 2005–2008 he was the Royal Literary Fund fellow at the University of Lincoln where he now teaches English Literature and Creative Writing. His poetry has appeared in numerous publications and anthologies over the years, including Being Alive (Bloodaxe) and Something Happens, Sometimes Here (Five Leaves Press). His most recent collection is Spyglass Over The Lagoon. A selection of his Fortnightly Currente Calamo columns, Sucks To Your Revolution: Annoying The Politically Correct (US), is available as a Kindle ebook.

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