Whistling, a Lost Art?

A man may whistle and a man may sing
A man can do a thousand things
But a whistling woman and a crowing hen
May bring the Devil out of his den

Maxine Peake

When was the last time a man in a hat walked down your street whistling a merry tune? No, nor me. In fact, was there ever a time when people really whistled? I mean, whistled casually rather than as an entertainment? Maybe that image was more in the imagination – or absorbed from mid-century Hollywood or Elstree Studios films.

However, Charles Dickens in Pickwick Papers recounted “To the great horror of Mr John Smauker, Sam Weller began to whistle. ‘I beg your pardon Mr Weller’ said Mr John Smauker, agonised at the exceedingly ungenteel sound.”

Indeed, the stereotype I have in mind is of a cheery butcher’s boy or newspaper boy out on delivery, and of more genteel boys being warned not to lower their standards to such levels.

And those piercing whistles with the aid of fingers in the mouth? I used to have a friend who could split stones at a dozen paces with one of those.

And those wolf whistles – now generally frowned upon – aimed by workmen at a cutie walking by. Said cutie was supposed to smile, perhaps wave, or she’d be subject to rather less complimentary comments.

Whistling is actually a traditional language in La Gomera, one of the smaller Canary Islands, so much so that it is studied in schools to keep the language alive.

Did soldiers whistle? John Keegan Casey (1846 – 70) appears to think so in The Rising of the Moon commemorating the 1798 Irish uprising.

One more word for signal token, whistle up the marching tune
With your pike upon your shoulder at the rising of the moon.

Colonel Bogey and When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again also suggest a tradition when soldiers might have whistled a marching tune if unsure of the words.

Whistling has a long history in music hall and vaudeville. Here in Jersey a lady called Doreen Le Maistre did a ‘Whistle and Saw’ act during the Occupation. Ronnie Ronalde was a rather more famous star with yodelling and bird imitation among his other talents.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) gave us Whistle While You Work which went on to epitomise the British war effort a few years later.

There are many examples in popular music. Perhaps Otis Redding’s Sitting on the Dock of the Bay has one of the more memorable whistling passages.

But to conclude I give you Whistling Jack Smith aka Billy Moeller aka actor Coby Wells who was a Jersey resident for a while in the late 1970s and who was no mean cricketer who I played against on several occasions. He was the public face of the hit I was Kaiser Bill’s Batmanhere is Billy.

Fungie the Dolphin

He’s not been seen for over a week now. The mainstay of tourism in the town of Dingle, Kerry in the far west of Ireland is gone and hopes are fading.

Fungie originally turned up in Dingle Harbour in the early 1980s. He fascinated locals and visitors alike with his friendly nature, but surely he’d soon join his mates in deeper waters.

Not so. He became a regular attraction and a little industry quickly grew up, – boat trips certainly but also the hospitality trade which found itself suddenly busier with the influx of tourists. No longer was Dingle a peaceful, niche corner of old Ireland, it was suddenly on the beaten track, a short and scenic trip down the road from celebrated Killarney.

Dingle Town

Now, here’s the thing. Some of us, maybe with rival Cork sympathies, thought it was all a cod (pun intended). Fungie might have been a real dolphin at the outset but those cunning Kerrymen weren’t about to lose their new income stream. I, for one, reckoned that the thing was now a blow-up dolphin, dragged about the harbour on display to gullible Americans.

One time I espoused this thought to the (previously friendly) ladies in the Tralee tourist office to be met with the fiercest of death stares (and I’ve received a few so I should know).

I repent; there is nothing in the present grief that suggests that Fungie was anything other than a real fish (or mammal). Fungie come back 😢😢

Your favourite cartoon strip?

I’ve looked out for Bristow since the mid-1970s when I was a fresh-faced articled clerk in a firm of accountants in Birmingham. Mr Bristow, buying clerk (19th in line for Chief Buyer), was a kindred spirit. Running since 1961, the Frank Dickens-created strip was a fixture in the Birmingham Mail at the time. Though I lost track of Bristow in later life and Dickens died in 2016, happily Facebook still remembers him with a daily insert.

Surely the master of the one-paner, Gary Larson. His offbeat takes on somehow familiar situations ran for 15 years. There was a hiatus from 1995 when it appeared the great man had done with cartooning, happily to re-emerge with new work in early 2020.

Probably the British favourite during the 1960s, the stereotype of a British (un)working man has been running since 1957. Reg Smythe was the creator, the flame carried by others since Smyth’s death in 1998.

Dilbert, created by Scott Adams in 1989, is very much an American product taking aim at the absurdities of corporate life. I love it but it never seems to appear or have gained traction this side of the Pond.

Peanuts, very much a product of American culture yet instantly recognisable here in GB. Charles M Schulz wrote and illustrated the strip from 1950 to his death in 2000 and it’s remarkable for not only its longevity but its continued popularity and striking of chords.

So what’s your favourite? Have I outraged you by missing an obvious strip out (like I am by the continuing absence of Rory Gallagher from any list of great guitarists when he’s in the top few)? Has the day of the comic strip gone, overtaken by new and more cutting edge humour? What say you?

Take a leaf from Bob’s book

My hero Bob Le Sueur just celebrated his 100th birthday. He is a legend in Jersey having lived, worked and resisted during the Occupation. As a young man and office junior he found that all of his colleagues, including his superiors, had evacuated the Island in advance of the German invasion. On telephoning his head office in the UK he was instructed to take charge, and so he did.

He spent much of his spare time during those terrible years risking his own life by organising shelter for escaped slave workers and carrying out various other acts of subversion. Since the War he has devoted much of his life to supporting various human rights causes and charities.

Now, I love my social history on a very amateur level. I enjoy seeing those black-and-white photos of old Jersey and hearing the old folk tell their stories of their youth. But it annoys me intensely to read, on an almost daily basis, the sighs and laments from those who long for those days to return.

“Look what they’ve done to Jersey.” (Whoever “they” are.)
“The Island has been ruined.”
“I wish I’d lived back then.”

I bite my tongue and refrain from suggesting that, should the complainers be transported back 100 years, they’d be clamouring to return to 2020 – with all its faults – before nightfall.

Bob Le Sueur, 100.

So, what does Bob have to say? Surely he looks back on his life in Jersey with fondness and regrets those things we have lost? This is what he has to say:

“I’m not someone who sighs for the good old days. I feel happy to have lived long enough to have seen so many positive improvements in our lives, in our attitudes and what we call our values.

“The position of women has improved dramatically in my lifetime, and we as a community care about the disabled. They are no longer hidden away, particularly the mentally disabled.

“I think young people today, in general, are much more aware and concerned about people in other parts of the world who are being victimised.

“I’m proud that I live in a self-governing community which has the breadth of vision to look beyond the horizon, and be a small part in the positive development of the global village.”

That’s Bob. If only there were a few more like him.

*Bob’s recently-produced memoir Growing Up Fast is available as an ebook here, and Waterstones here in Jersey has, I believe, copies of the paperback.

Change Your Life Direction in 3 Difficult Steps

This is for anyone who’s lost their way in recent months, from my Stateside blogger mate Britt.

Britt Skrabanek

Changes have happened all around us this year—we’re observing them and living them. The harsh closed signs, endless commercial spaces for lease, and out-of-work artists, musicians, servers, retailers, teachers, and flight attendants with nowhere to go. Many of us had to change our life direction this year, whether we liked it or not. We feel lost and maybe we feel found as well.

If you are changing directions with your job, your business, and/or your passion, today I’m sharing three difficult steps that have worked for me this year. I say “difficult” because none of them are easy steps to take.

It’s probably more like 300 steps rather than 3 steps by the time you work through everything. Anyway, I hope this helps if you’re in limbo right now.

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Talking to Tuula

I often run past the field entrance where Tuula Hoeoek, a young au pair, was assaulted and battered to death 54 years ago. This field entrance is at the top of a serious hill so it suits me anyway to stop for a few seconds.

“Hey Tuula, how are you doing?” I wait and listen, there’s no answer. I move on.

We know who did it Tuula.

Maybe people are afraid to believe in ghosts

Have you ever seen a ghost? If not, do you believe in them, or at least have an open mind? If there was a scale of belief 0 – 10 where would you be? I reckon I’d be a 7 or an 8.

Obviously, if you’ve seen a real live ghost you’ll be a 10. Others, many of you, will be a sceptical zero. So no, I’ve never had the pleasure though I’d desperately love to learn that ghosts exist on a physical level.

Cottingley fairies

We’re short of apparitions here in Jersey. We do have a few old legends but they are firmly rooted in the past with no sightings (to my knowledge) in modern times. Our medieval castle Mont Orgueil does supposedly have a resident ghost whose dark corner I point out to our visitors; there is a little substance to this maybe according to previous ghost hunters. Doctor John Lewis, in his memoirs of the Occupation years, describes taking rooms in Bath Street and, for several nights in a row, heard a tumultuous racket coming from the room next to his own bedroom. Upon opening the dividing door there was silence and emptiness. He had almost got used to this phenomenon until one night the noise stopped abruptly, never to reoccur. (The building has since been demolished.)

A family I know well once experienced the sensation of an invisible ‘someone’ walking slowly across their living room and out through the wall – there were three of them who simultaneously experienced this. I re-wrote this scene in A West Cork Mystery.

Credit blogs.bcm.edu.

And of course, Ireland is where you will find ghosts, if anywhere. There is a rich cornucopia of myth, legend and folklore documented by the likes of WB Yeats, Lady Gregory and more recent writers like Michael Scott. And Ireland of course doesn’t just have ghosts; it has the faeries which, as everyone knows, are the descendants of the Tuatha Dé Dannan who were driven underground to the Otherworld by their conquerors the Milesians. They interact with the human race in myriad ways.

As a child, on a visit to an aunt in west Cork, she’d say, “Go to sleep now but wake up at midnight to see the leprechauns dancing outside.” And next thing the morning light would be streaming in through my window.

Slievemore, Achill (Atlas Obscura)

Walk (or run, as I’ve had the pleasure of doing) through the misty wilds of Connemara, wander through the deserted village of Slievemore on Achill Island, listen carefully to the dark silence descending over any Irish village once the pub door has been closed for the night, sit for a while, your back against a standing stone which pre-dates any history we know. Then tell me again that you’re a zero.

Any spooky experiences out there?

How not to deliver running as a sport.

Are readers of this blog still connected with their alma mater, the school you attended before going on to tertiary education? Certainly I’ve paid my subscription to the Old Philipians’ Association these last 50 years, and I follow, with mild interest, their Facebook group. Recently a conversation on the Facebook group caught my eye. It concerned cross-country running. During the winter us boys used to be sent off on a designated course around the streets of west Birmingham, or perhaps on several laps of the school’s playing field. No coaching, no advice, just do it. Meanwhile the masters in charge would sit and chat, drink tea.

This was OK by me. I enjoyed any sports we were made to do, though I never excelled at any. But it’s only now I realise how much outdoor sports in general, cross-country in particular, was hated by so many. They would try to avoid running with every excuse under the sun. Unable to avoid it they’d drag their feet, share a fag, risking the approbation of the sports masters.

The result? The vast majority left school with no intention of continuing to run, either in competition or to keep fit. What was the mindset of those trained sports teachers who used running as some type of punishment? Surely their role was to teach sport, not to inflict it. Those of us who continued with sport in later years did so in the form of team sports – soccer, rugby, cricket with your mates.

A common sight, back in the day. Some would claim it built character. I beg to disagree. Credit Andy Brown for the pic.

This wasn’t just my school. It was all boys’ schools. And after a miserable couple of hours in the mud and rain it was compulsory communal showers, excruciatingly embarrassing for many boys, especially with the odd creepy master peering in to make sure no one was dodging.

And the girls’ schools? I don’t know. They were the mysterious St Paul’s girls up the road in their neat grey uniforms, noses in the air, chaperoned by scowling nuns. But I do know from anecdotal evidence that many girls equally hated sports as delivered by their schools. We see so many women, now in middle age, taking up running for the first time and amazing themselves by enjoying the experience.

I’d love to speak to those old sports teachers about their approach back in those days (1960s) and I’d also like to know how that approach compares to today. Surely our schools are teaching children sport, starting with first principles and developing skills on a programmed basis. Aren’t they?

Writer For Hire

Almost by chance I find that I’ve started a little sideline. Having written and self-published eight books I more or less know my way around the process. I also know that writing books is likely to lose you money, rather than the other way round. I’ve been happy with that situation and have never really sought to monetise my hobby by seeking agents, spending time on marketing, etc.

A year or so ago I was put in contact, by a mutual friend, with a local woman who had a story she wanted to tell. Over a number of months I sat down with her and chatted with a voice recorder discretely placed. I’d transcribe the recordings and slowly we built a book together. Eventually we self-published the book, the client’s name on the cover. Moderate sales to date but unbroken five* reviews on Amazon. The client was happy to have achieved an ambition, I was happy having made a few quid.

Afterwards I wondered if there might be a local market for a Writer For Hire. I ran (and am running) a little classified advertisement in the local paper. I’m happy to say that there has been a steady response. The work is stacking up nicely; one local woman is writing her hilarious and poignant memoirs longhand, I’m typing it up, correcting, critiquing, structuring and advising. Then there’s a shorter project comprising a local lady’s Occupation memoirs. I’ve been entrusted with polishing up the hair-raising story of a guy who survived, amongst other adventures, six months in Bali’s notorious Kerobokan prison; I’m getting involved in a book tracing 100 years of a local football club.

What have I learnt about the freelance life? Firstly, you need to establish mutual trust or you won’t produce your best work. People won’t volunteer personal stuff to someone they don’t trust. Second, this work isn’t a hobby and I owe each client my full care and attention. Third, this is stuff I am good at, enjoy, and can do it from my armchair at any hour if I wish. At other times I’ll take myself off to the library. As to price, this isn’t my primary, or even secondary, source of income (yet). I can therefore work as cheap as I wish. I refuse to ask for upfront payment, and I cap my price so the client isn’t concerned about rising costs.

Having spent a life working with figures I know what I enjoy most.

Going down the pub

As far as inconveniences caused by Covid-19 go, when many have died, not being able to go to the pub is pretty low on the scale. No one disagreed when they were closed towards the end of March. They are the prefect breeding ground for the transmission of disease. And, unlike schools which can also be considered high risk, they are not an essential part of life. Of course, if you want alcohol, there are other ways of obtaining same.

And so it was that the last time I ventured into town for a quiet beer with the boys was on 15th March, 16 weeks ago. We generally meet at the Peirson in the Royal Square before moving along to the Mitre, also known as the Blue Note Bar. In Ireland these two places would be known as ‘old man’ pubs – quiet, pleasant, good beer, low music, nothing much to entice the younger set.

The Peirson

Not many people about last night, a contrast to those images from selected spots in England where there was crowding and trouble. Of course, there is never news where everything is in order.

So there we were, reconvened in the Mitre at our reserved table, four of us. Our fifth and final member, our 80-year-old ‘President’ was missing. We bumped elbows, ordered our drinks and carried on from where we’d left off. Football is the common denominator. We all support English clubs – Burnley, Leeds, Birmingham and Barnsley respectively. We are also all runners, or ex-runners. The conversation and beer flowed steadily. The drill in all Jersey bars is seated only, one-metre physical distancing. The police stepped in, saw that all was well, and went on their way.

The Mitre

And a couple of hours later we went home. Nothing special you say, but to us it was, in a quiet sort of way. The pub is a part of our social lives, occasionally abused by some, but a welcome port of call for others, especially after the troublesome months we’ve been through.