In the comments section of the last post on sounds, TangoDancer asks if anyone still whistles tunes. I’m an inveterate whistler, and always have been, which makes me think it’s a hereditary thing; my father whistled constantly. Hardly anyone does now.
A little research seems to suggest that our old enemy class is behind the change. Whistling was seen as something people did outdoors, and people who spent a lot of time outdoors were more likely to be working class. Silence was bred in middle-class homes. For the same reason, a sun-tan was also seen as common until the 1920s, when it was popularised in the South of France.
As Noel Coward wrote in his song ‘Children Of The Rich’, ‘Mentally congealed lilies of the field, they lie in flocks along the rocks because they have to get a tan.’ Although a tan went from being something you associated with manual labour to a sign of wealth (i.e.. you had leisure time), whistling was also a privacy invasion in urban areas, as was making any sort of physical noise.
The British have always been acutely aware of invading the space of others. From the habit of cupping a cigarette the wrong way around inside the hand to endless apologising (there was one a very funny commercial consisting entirely of the word ‘sorry’) we have always confined ourselves. Even British gardens came to symbolise this. In the book ‘How England Made the English: From Why we Drive on the Left to Why we Don’t Talk to our Neighbours’ author Harry Mount points out that this privacy led to a national obsession with gardening (apparently the British have more gardens and spend more time working in them than anywhere else in the world).
Hoever the new guardedness with which we all treat one another does, I think, have deleterious effects. In the West Indies we went to a street party, the kind where old ladies open up the front rooms of their houses to serve food, gigantic speakers are rigged up in the middle of the street and everyone serves home-made rum. I’ve always loved these events, where you get to meet everyone from the mayor to the town crazy – but now the atmosphere was careful and ridiculously polite – what is the point of such events if they’re all so well behaved?
It took me many years to break me of the habit of always saying sorry. I had been raised by parents who constantly apologized for being a nuisance when they should have been the ones being apologized to. There’s an annoying English response that drives me crazy.
‘Would you like a cup of tea?’
‘Well, only if you’re making one.’
How did we become so cowed? Was it something to do with the seventies, a time when so many people appeared to have caught disappointment as if it were the measles? Parliamentary speeches were either filled with toothless union bile or the damp drizzle of appeasement. Fire and pride and joy had been misplaced. In smoky bars and steamed-up buses, downbeaten individuals couldn’t wait to offer up an apology. When served inedible food – ‘sorry, but this chicken seems to be frozen in the middle’, when poured a bad drink – ‘sorry, is there any chance of an ice cube?’ it was a triumph of environment over heredity.
Overseas visitors still acquire the habit of English apology within seconds of arrival. I prefer the kind of local events where they let tiny kids let off fireworks and you can’t move for broken glass at the end – they’re celebrations of life. And I want to sit up in the kind of late night bar they visit in the movie ‘Y Tu Mama Tambien’. Where I can whistle and drink and there’s a slight possibility that if I’m really stupid I might get robbed at gunpoint.
How did we get from whistling to guns? Connections.
For me, it’s one of the writer’s most essential tools. When you research, you make notes on the subject you seek to understand, but those notes can’t be taken in isolation. They rely on a complex Venn diagram of factors, and by exploring them you often find something more interesting than the point you started at.
This is particularly true when researching period, and it’s amazing how blinkered authors who have followed writing courses can get. For example, you can’t write about Jack the Ripper (as if there’s anything left to say) without researching Jews in East London, the popular songs of the period, other criminal cases at the time and a wealth of other mitigating factors. Then you throw out all the bits that don’t interest you, keeping in the parts that do – even if they’re not relevant to the story – and knit the whole thing together.
Connections are the key to lifting an ordinary book into something unputdownable.