What ever happened to the whistlers? I have found myself becoming nostalgic for things of little use of late, but I get nostalgic nonetheless. There was a time (in my youth – back when dinosaurs roamed the earth and women pushed giant prams and everyone smoked) when whistlers were to be found aplenty.
Men of a certain age, they were always of a certain age and from a certain class (we don’t have proper class system anymore apparently) were likely to be found wandering corridors in workplaces, whistling a fine warbling tune, as though they were the only person in the world.
They were of course generally working class men, hospital porters, bus drivers, warehousemen, men with a task to be completed that required no particular haste, which allowed them time perhaps, for a perambulation. Such men found a simple pleasure in the art of whistling. And it was an art. It was not a simple whistle. It was not any old dog call or semi-tuneful copy of the latest pop song, oh no. Nor was it a young man’s game. The great whistlers needed time to mature and perfect their art. One never heard them during their apprenticeship, which must surely have been a secretive affair, for when they revealed their skills, they appeared fully formed, masters of their craft.
These men whistled with a soulful warble, well-rehearsed, a practiced, melodic rendition of a very particular type of song. Spanish Harlem, If I Ruled the Word, My way, anything by Perry Como or perhaps a little bit of Mario Lanza. They were uninterruptable, unless they chose to break off mid-stream to great a passing stranger with a “Morning” but always with the implied, though unspoken understanding that they would be carrying on with their song regardless.
They sought no recognition these songbirds, they sought no special reference. These men, and they were men exclusively, broke the monotony of their day and indeed ours, with a twinkle in their tune. Were they an international phenomenon? I suspect so. In Ireland they were the type of men who would retire to the pub at the end of a shift – to have ‘just the one.’
But they were more than just whistlers. They were often fully fledged bards, available at weddings or at the end of a Saturday night session, to entertain the masses with a song or two. They needed little encouragement, so confident were they that the gathering would be enthralled by their mastery of song. There would be an enforced hush, with soft calls if anyone dared join in, for some would surely try to latch onto the coat-tails of such giants – calls of “One singer one song.” I can hear them now;
“I left…( A dramatic pause at the beginning as the singer waited for all of those in the pub to take a moment to recognise what was coming, “…my heart…” There would be a general kerfuffle, a mirthy self-congratulatory murmur as those who had ‘named that tune’ were proved to be right. Perhaps a soft cheer, not too loud as to interrupt, but at the very least a recognition that ‘he sings this one lovely.’ “… in San Fran-cis- (drop an octave) -co…”
Of course it was not the end of their skills, these multi-talented, bottle-bellied, bald men of small stature, yet legends in their own mind, oh no. They could hold court at the bar on a Saturday afternoon, the newspaper quarter-folded on the bar beside them, a winner or two highlighted for the 2.30 at the Curragh or the 3 O’clock at Kempton. They knew so much these wise men.
“Jem” is all they would have to say to James the barman, perhaps not even that. A look could suffice, or a tilt of the almost empty pint glass. The more experienced barmen needed not even that and would be tilting a glass at the pump themselves in anticipation of the nod, the creamy foam beginning its magical journey about the glass before he’d leave the pint of Guinness to settle, just in time to replace the previous one as the mighty giant finished off the last drop.
These men didn’t smile very often. They had no need to. They were content, assured of their world. They knew how things worked. They were kings of their domain. Governments came and went and they always had predicted it in hindsight. They alone could have told you how to fix all that was wrong with the system and they were not shy in expressing such opinions.
They turned up for work every day, collected a pay cheque each Friday and in between, they created lines of demarcation and adhered to all agreed work practices, within the scope of their union agreement. They clocked off on the dot and worked overtime at time and a half or double time, but only when it suited, or at least that’s what they told people.
What they earned was their business and theirs alone, they invariably had a side-line for a little bit of supplementary income, and money for the odd pint or a small flutter on the gee-gees, was part of necessary expenditure. They loved their children but they never changed a nappy, nor got up once for a night feed. They loved their women, but they never truly understood them, nor considered or cared for the notion of equality.
They ate meat and two veg, steered clear of fish except on good Friday, went to mass as an example to their offspring, but may have slipped out the back for a quick smoke half way through… and they did smoke, to a man. But the smoking never did them any harm. They’d all tell you, that their old man lived to be ninety and he smoked seventy fags a day since he was seven years old. But they never lost their singing voice; they never lost their warbling whistle, yet inevitably they did die all too young.
In their wake, they left a generation of widows, many mourning the loss of the man they loved, others glad to be free of their yoke. They had their darker side that generation, they made an impact that was not always as light as this piece may imply, but for all that they are gone now. A generation of whistlers to be heard no more, and you know what, I feel their silence every day…
Haven’t read a Max Power book yet? I think it’s time to pick one up.
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