Ian McMillan: Lionel – Bart ’at – inspires a good whistle

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Sometimes, in the crowded and jostling arena of the newspaper letters page, you get somebody bemoaning the perceived decline in whistling.

They wax nostalgic about trilling milkmen and tootling posties and they ask where it will end, and will whistling become as extinct as the old Pontefract custom of wearing odd socks on St Malcolm’s day, and is that bad for civilisation at large as well as for civilisation as they understand it in Pontefract?

Well, I’m glad to report that whistling is alive and well, in our house anyway. In early December we all went to see Oliver! at the Crucible in Sheffield, and my grandson Thomas hasn’t stopped whistling the tunes since; Lionel Bart would be proud of him. Or as we’d call him in Yorkshire, Lionel Bart ’At. The tune Thomas whistles most is Be Back Soon, the rousing anthem that’s bound to get your toes tapping and your fingers snapping and your lips puckering.

The whistling reached a shrill climax the other Sunday afternoon when we sat down for a family game of Cluedo. I was Colonel Mustard, or as we call him, Col Mustard, short for Colin. That makes him sound like a kid from the top street whose dad worked in insurance and collected stamps. Thomas was, as I remember, the Reverend Green, and the rest of the family adopted the characters of various other hardened criminals. Well, alleged hardened criminals. As soon as the dice rolled Thomas began to whistle; it seemed to aid his concentration as he manipulated the rope and the lead piping. The trouble was, the whistling became contagious, and soon it was like playing a board game in an aviary. And the worst thing was, we were all whistling the same tune, or extracts from it, or variations of it. God bless you, Lionel Bart. Well, at least it wasn’t Celine Dion. It got so bad that we started to interrupt our speech with whistling. “I think (whistle) it’s Miss Scarlett (toottoot) with the (trill) candlestick in the study.”

We were becoming Clangers or kettles. Birds in the garden were looking at us as though we’d just said something rude. Every so often one of us would say, “Look can we all just stop whistling, just for a minute, please?” and a beautiful and palpable silence would settle, interrupted only by the clacking of dice and the clicking of plastic suspects as they moved around the scene of Dr. Black’s terrible demise. We all knew this wasn’t a real silence. This was what scientists would call a Pre-Whistling silence. It was like when you know a train is about to come through a tunnel: there’s a calm before the train-storm. After a couple of minutes one of us, (probably me, actually) would begin. I’d start quietly at first, as though people might think I was just wheezing. I’d whistle thoughtfully, minimally. Then somebody else would join in, tentatively, then somebody else at low volume, then Thomas at the top of his whistling voice; it was like the tributaries of a river joining together to make a mighty whistling Amazon that thundered down to the sea. And we threw caution to the wind, because what is whistling made of if not the wind, and we whistled and we whistled. And we haven’t stopped since.