Sunday 15 November 2009

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

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'.

Copyright 2009

Next Post: 'What Makes a Good Writer?', to be published on Tuesday 17th November at 11:59pm (GMT)


  1. This was SUCH a delightful post! I've just had my elderly parents staying with me and every morning my Dad (an expert whistler) would go outside to feed the birds and whistle to them. Wherever he is, the birds always whistle back and this chorus goes on for 10/15 minutes. It's amazing how many people comment on it when we're in a park - as you say, it's a dying art. People are just too busy to take joy in a simple act like whistling. (Although some of us - like me - just cannot whistle, no matter how hard we try!!!)

    Loved the whistling scene in Bridge on the River Kwai (absolute gem of a movie).

    And, last but definitely not least, have a very very very HAPPY BIRTHDAY tomorrow! May the winds of joy always blow the sails of your life. And may you continue whistling your music!


  2. So you're a Scorpio too, like me, but we're eleven days apart. I'm on the fifth.

    I can only whistle by drawing air in, of course this is not a proper whistle. I too have longed to whistle all my life, but unlike you I've never managed to master it.

    This post reads like the beginnings of a terrific short story.

  3. What a warm and endearing post, Cuban! I recall having similar issues with trying to whistle when I was a little girl, but I eventually gave up the ghost and resorted to humming. And you must enjoy your whistling immensely. I mean, if you can recall scenes from movies where people were whistling, then that's quite the activity for you. And what better way to celebrate your birthday, then. I say whistle away... And have yourself a VERY HAPPY BIRTHDAY, Cuban!


  4. No mention of Roger Whittaker?!

    I am an inveterate whistler, and as a child my maiden great-aunt used to chase me around the yard shouting,
    "A whistling woman and a crowing hen
    Are no fit use to cock, God or men."
    but somehow it hasn't stopped me.

    Whistle on, I love to hear it!

    My two small boys are also struggling, as you did.

  5. Lovely post! My granddad used to whistle a lot, and I used to love it. I admired the way he did it, it was like singing. On the other hand, I cannot whisper at all.

    It is true, what happened to the whistling? Nobody seems to do it anymore. People are too busy with their mobile phones, MP3 players and so on... sad.

    By the way, did you know that in Chinese culture you cannot whistle at night? It is bad luck as they believe it attracts ghosts!

  6. Cuban: I am going to remember to do a little whistling tomorrow just for you on your birthday! Have a good one.

  7. My uncle tells me that in the little Brethern community church in rural Indiana, back in the '50s, there was a woman who would whistle solos in church. She would stand up front with a little doily-like hanky ceremoniously peeping out of her grasped hands, and whistle away!

  8. I thought I was the only one that still whistles these days. I whistle to my cockatiel and she answers back.
    It is nice to come here after having read all the bad news elsewhere.
    Al Godar

  9. Happy Birthday dear friend. I cannot believe you are only going to be 38. You are so wise.

    Not just smart, but wise.

    This was a wonderful post.

    Love Renee xoxo

  10. Good to see that there are more Scorpios here... :) I am one too. Thanks for a good post. I am back online, after a longer break. Kacper

  11. What a delightful post, Cuban! I only learned to whistle when I was teen, but I was always rubbish at it. I still whistle occasionaly, but it's such a tuneless affair generally that as soon as I realise I'm doing it, I stop! ;-)
    And here's wishing you a very, very Happy Birthday!!!

  12. What a delightful post, truly a pleasure to read...My desire as a child was to wink, try as I might I just could not do it, I would try and my entire face would contort into this horrif shape.....finally I remember one day almost ready to give up, I tried and low and behold it worked, I winked so much that day my mother told me I would freeze that way....awww the joy of simple youth.

  13. Ahh--whistle while you work tomorrow? Happy, happy Birthday Mr. Cuban in London. I hope the day is wonderful and the year ahead full of peace, joy, health and love.

  14. First of all a very Happy Birthday to you! Make sure you do put those lips together and blow-just not too hard so as to not blow out a nearby unsuspecting person's ears. I was a slow, very slow, learner on how to whistle and have never figured out how to do the dog whistles. Probably a good thing because I so get upset when someone near me blows my ears out. Love the song and video. Sure takes me back.

  15. Many thanks for your kind comments. Maybe my daughter read my post today. She has been whistling all day long. :-)

    Have a nice week, all of you. As for me, I've got 'Adaptation' to watch later on tonight with my wife and our mates Ben & Jerry (they call them the chocolate fudge duo, go figure!).

    Greetings from London.

  16. Happy Birthday, Cuban; You're never to old (or to young) to whistle.

  17. Feliz cumpleaños, Cubano.

    Your story about learning to whistle has been a birthday gift in reverse. I had so much fun reading that story because I remembered also trying to learn how to whistle. I don’t know if, as commented elsewhere, social opprobrium descended on me because I was a girl, but I never stuck to it the way you did. Consequently, I’ve always been convinced that the ability to whistle is something one is either born with or not. So glad you found a way to get beyond that. You give me hope.

  18. Happy birthday!

    I can't whistle, I've practicing since I was 4 and well, I just can't!!!

    Happy whistling!!

  19. What a wonderful post!!!... I have always been very enthusiastic about whistling but I can't do it that well... But to hear so many singers and musicians whistle ... i always wondered when can i whistle... well, in India whistling when a girl passes by can land one is jail or one can be tagged as a eve-teaser, so nowadays if u whistle u are considered to be a hooligan ... but I still like to whistle within the confines of my world ... its can be a lovely short story, very unique ... keep walking!!! .. :)

  20. Happy Birthday, Cuban! I posted something I remembered because of your post. Thank you for the memory!

  21. Well, how great to be able to wish you a Happy Birthday!! If I could, I'd whistle Dixie for you..I can only whistle through my teeth, so I'll be able to get you a taxi!
    Terrific post!

  22. HAPPY BIRTHDAY!!!! BOTH TO YOU AND MY DAUGHTER! I hope you enjoy your special day with those that are dear to you my friend.

  23. Happy happy birthday dear Cuban, the first we have all been able to share with you through this extraordinary sphere.
    And I have never whistled while in hospital - but I most certainly will learn and try now!!
    But I can lift one eyebrow up without raising the other :) bit weird, but cool :)

  24. Thanks a lot for your lovely comments. I kept my promise and whistled all the way to work and back, helped by a mix of 'So Flute' by St Germain and 'On the Bound' by Fiona Apple.

    Greetings from London.

  25. Happy Belated Birthday! I love to whistle and so does our youngest son. But he can't whistle after sunset. In my husband's culture (Ibo) there is a superstition that whistling at night invites evil spirits! So we do all our whistling during the day!!!

  26. As a non-whistler, though not from choice, I think it is a crying shame that people don't whistle any more. Let's hear it for the whistlers - long and loud, now!

  27. You mentioned so many of my all-time favorite movies: "Bridge On the River Kwai", "To Have and Have Not", "Pinocchio". I love whistling music, yes Billy Joel in "The Stranger" is great (tried to copy many times but my rendition is rather choppy). My father was a fantastic whistler. He could add these little warbles with twists and turns here and there.

    Happy birthday, young Cuban! I think you will enjoy "Adaptation".

  28. Happy Birthday, interesting post...we should all 'whistle a happy tune'.


  29. Yes, happy birthday, a little late!
    This is indeed a fun and whimsical post. I've heard a lot of lost arts mourned, but whistling is a new one.

    Guess a lot of people remember their dads or grandads whistling. My husband's grandad was known for his cheerful whistle, and he would still purse his lips as if to whistle when he could no longer speak or even sit up.

    And there's a song by Janet Presley (sorry, I don't have a link), about her father. The last line of the refrain says, "I never / knew love sounded like / whistelin'."

    On the other hand, in Indonesia it is taboo to whistle if you are ... outdoors, near food, or a woman. Pretty much rules out most situations.

  30. P.S. Did you do the sketch yourself?



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