Ever since I was a little child I always wanted to learn how to whistle. I think this strong desire set in inside me when I was hospitalised for the first time, aged five. The ward where I stayed for a fortnight was long and narrow with beds propped up against the walls on either side. Humongous Disney cartoons looked down upon the children recovering there and despite the smiling faces of Pluto, Donald, Mickey et al the whole place looked cold, distant and dismal. And yet, what I remember the most was me, standing outside on the balcony of the Pedro Borrás Hospital , or El Infantil as we used to call it, and contracting my thick lips to expel the air inside my lungs. When not sound was forthcoming I would get upset and frustrated. I used to think that the opening my lips formed was too small, or that I had to use my teeth and so I kept trying. But to no avail, I still sounded as if I was blowing on a plate of hot soup.
Most of my friends could whistle. Some of them could produce high-pitched sounds, whereas others had to content themselves with a more chirping one. At least they were able to, but not poor, five-year-old me.
That was why I took it upon myself to learn how to turn my lips into a flute whilst still convalescent in hospital. After breakfast, I would get up from my bed and stand in front of the mirror in the showers and force the air out. And lo and behold, just a couple of days before I was discharged from hospital, a shrill sound came out. Though at first it was a mix between spitting and whistling, eventually it became more distinct and, dare I say, beautiful. I was over the moon.
With the passing of years, I realised that this activity was not just a bit of idle fun, although amusement was part of it. Like singing, whistling could be and had been used as a way of bringing people together. And of course, it had been utilised effectively in what later on became one of my life's ever-lasting affairs: cinema. Who can forget Lauren Bacall in her 'You know how to whistle' scene in 'To Have and To Have Not'? In 'Bridge On the River Kwai' Alec Guinness, playing Colonel Nicholson, arrives in the PoW's camp whistling the famous melody 'Colonel Bogey March', composed by the American Mitchel William Miller. I still marvel at the choreographic perfection of that scene. And away from the cinematic universe and into the musical realm we find the ultimate Piano Man, Billy Joel, whistling his way into and out of 'The Stranger'.
But people don't whistle anymore. I mean in public (I know that we, or at least I, still do it when I am cooking or tidying up around the house). Gone are the days when I would catch a passerby competing with birds' mellifluous singing and the contest would be so close that an Aretha Franklin or Jocelyn Brown would be wheeled in to decide upon a winner. No, nowadays people just make sharp, short sounds through their teeth in a manner that evokes a dog owner summoning his/her canine friend.
That's why my act of rebellion tomorrow when I reach my thirty-eighth year on earth will be to whistle all the way to work and back. A soft pressing of the lips, an instant of spontaneous human musicality (or maybe not, you might say) and a celebration of togetherness. Because as Lauren Bacall said when she defined whistling: 'You just put your lips together and blow'.
Next Post: 'What Makes a Good Writer?', to be published on Tuesday 17th November at 11:59pm (GMT)