Paul McCartney says he can remember the exact moment he knew the Beatles had made it. Early one morning, getting home from a night on the tiles, he heard the milkman whistling ‘From Me to You’.
This incident isn’t recounted in A Brief History of Whistling. The record in question was a huge pop hit, and these authors prefer to concentrate on working-class culture, folk songs, music hall and the like. They also cover whistling at work (two blasts to your sheepdog for ‘go left’, one for ‘go right’), whistling in science fiction (it’s the one human skill that stumps an android in Star Trek) and whistling as language (the messages of the Guanch people of La Gomera in the Canary Islands can be heard five miles away). We learn as well that the Apollo astronauts found it impossible to whistle on the moon.
Throughout the book John Lucas and Allan Chatburn rail against employers — like Henry Ford — who banned their workers from whistling. They see it as yet another example of evil capitalists cruelly restricting the common man’s freedom of expression. However, I can’t help siding with Ricky Gervais, who included whistling on his Room 101 list of pet hates. Yes, it might cheer the oppressed wage-slave as he manfully struggles through the daily grind. But it doesn’t half get on your bloody nerves.
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