jan morris | why I mourn the decline of whistling

22 11 2010

NOTES from the UNDERGROUND No. 210 | November 22, 2010

Why I Mourn the Decline of Whistling


Jan Morris

One night during World War II, on leave in London, I penetrated the blackout to see a show at the London Hippodrome called “The Lisbon Story.’ I forget what it was about, I forget who was in it, but I still have at the back of my mind its theme tune, which was called “Pedro the Fisherman,”

This is because I have always been fond of whistling, and “Pedro the Fisherman” is the quintessential whistling song—jaunty, catchy, with a touch of the sentimental and an un-obliteratable melody. I like to think that it also expresses the generic character of people who like to whistle, and although I know it can sometimes be intolerable to have a habitual siffleur in the family, forever performing “Pedro the Fisherman,” I still mourn the decline of the whistlers.

For they are almost a vanished breed these days, and with them has gone a manner of public thought and conduct. Something cocky has left society. The whistling errand boy, the whistling postman, the whistling housewife in her flowered apron, Pedro himself, all were expressing in their often discordant music something at once communal and defiant.

On the one hand it was a declaration of liberty, on the other it was a kind of mating call, inviting anybody of like mind to share in its attitudes. By and large whistlers didn’t give a damn, and if whistling was a cock of the snook at respectability, decorum, and frequently musical good taste, it was also fundamentally honest. You might be maddened by the sound of it, but at least you knew you could trust a whistler.

I don’t know when whistling started, primevally I imagine, but all down the generations the practice has helped to ease the passage of the nations. Think of the marching armies, whistling their way to war; the illicit lovers, whistling home the morning after; the errant schoolboys, whistling up their bravado as they make for the headmaster’s study.

Whistling not only cheers up the whistler, it invites the world at large to cheer up too. One of the great whistling songs of all times, employed by multitudes during World War I, had the lyric “Pack up your troubles in your old kit-bag and smile, smile, smile!” In our own troubled times the tune is worth. whistling again.

Sometimes the practice of whistling is indeed resuscitated. For a few months after the release of “Bridge Over the River Kwai” in 1957, half the world was whistling the British Army’s “Colonel Bogey” song (minus its merrily obscene lyrics), and in 2006 the Swedish trio Peter Bjorn and John did the same with their “Young Folks” melody, which brought whistling high into the charts.

But it was not the same. It was whistling, so to speak, to order. It did not spring from the public heart. It contained neither the fine careless rapture, nor the spirit of independence, that comes from random whistlings in the street, like roosters’ bold calls in the morning.

Perhaps it takes either joyous success or optimism in adversity, to set the nations whistling again. Our world today is in limbo-time, injury-time maybe. Popular music has mostly abandoned the melodic line, and when I myself need a shot of the old exhilaration I often return to the end of Pedro’s song (music by Harry Parr Davies, lyrics by Harold Purcell), which has the fisherman merrily whistling his way to sea with his love in his arms.

The tune goes like this—but no, dear friends, even in the present state of technology you must imagine my lyrical whistle for yourselves.

Ms. Morris is a writer in Wales. [from: The Wall Street Journal, Nov. 8, 2010]

British writer and historian Jan Morris, pictured at her home near the village of Llanystumdwy in Gwynedd, north Wales. Jan Morris has had a long and distinguished career as a journalist and writer and published more than 30 books.

Copyright Photograph © Colin McPherson

Jan Morris

CBE (b. 2 October 1926, Clevedon, Somerset, England) is a Welsh nationalist, historian, author and travel writer. She is known particularly for the Pax Britannica trilogy, a history of the British Empire, and for portraits of cities, notably Oxford, Venice, Trieste, Hong Kong, and New York City. With an English mother and Welsh father, Morris was educated at Lancing College, West Sussex, and Christ Church, Oxford, but now considers herself Welsh. A gender re-assigned woman, she was published under her former name, James Morris, until the 1970s.

Morris served in World War II in the 9th Queen’s Royal Lancers, and later wrote for The Times. As a correspondent for The Times, Morris scored a notable scoop in 1953 when accompanying the British expedition which was first to scale Mount Everest. Morris reported the success of Hillary and Tenzing in a coded message to the newspaper, “Snow conditions bad stop advanced base abandoned yesterday stop awaiting improvement”, and by happy coincidence the news was released on the morning of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation.

Reporting from Cyprus on the Suez Crisis for The Manchester Guardian in 1956, Morris produced the first “irrefutable proof” of collusion between France and Israel in the invasion of Egyptian territory, interviewing French Air Force pilots who confirmed that they had been in action in support of Israeli forces.

As a soldier, Morris was posted in Trieste in 1945 during the joint Anglo-American occupation.

Morris was born male and named James. In 1949, Morris married Elizabeth Tuckniss, the daughter of a tea planter; they had five children together, including the poet and musician Twm Morys. One of their children died in infancy. According to her memoir Conundrum, Morris began medical transition in 1964.

In 1972, she had sex reassignment surgery in Morocco. Sex reassignment surgeon Georges Burou performed the surgery, since doctors in Britain refused to allow the procedure unless Morris and Tuckniss divorced, something Morris was not prepared to do at the time. They divorced later, but remained together and on 14 May 2008 were legally reunited when they formally entered into a Civil Partnership. Morris lives mostly in Wales, the land of her father.

Morris has received honorary doctorates from the University of Wales and the University of Glamorgan, is an honorary fellow of Christ Church Oxford and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. She received the Glyndŵr Award in 1996.

She accepted her CBE in the 1999 Queen’s Birthday Honours “out of polite respect”, but is a Welsh nationalist republican at heart. In January 2008 The Times named her the 15th greatest British writer since the War.

Partial bibliography | Non-fiction -Travel

  • * Coast to Coast (published in the U.S. as As I Saw the U.S.A) (1956: winner of the 1957 Cafe Royal Prize)
  • * Sultan in Oman (1957)
  • * The Market in Seleukia (1957)
  • * South African Winter (1958)
  • * The Hashemite Kings (1959)
  • * Venice (1960: winner of the 1961 Heinemann Award)
  • * The Presence of Spain (1964)
  • * Oxford (1965)
  • * The Great Port: A Passage through New York (1969)
  • * The Venetian Empire (1980)
  • * A Venetian Bestiary (1982)
  • * The Matter of Wales (1984)
  • * Hong Kong (1988)
  • * Sydney (1992)
  • * The World: Life and Travel 1950-2000 (2003)
  • * Contact! A Book of Encounters (2010)


  • * The Road to Huddersfield: A Journey to Five Continents (1963)
  • * The Outriders: A Liberal View of Britain (1963)
  • * Cities (1963)
  • * Places (1972)
  • * Travels (1976)
  • * Destinations (1980)
  • * Wales; The First Place (1982, reprinted 1998)
  • * Journeys (1984)
  • * Among the Cities (1985)
  • * Locations (1992)
  • * O Canada! (1992)
  • * Contact! A Book of Glimpses (2009)


  • * Coronation Everest (1958)

History – The Pax Britannica Trilogy:

  • * Heaven’s Command: An Imperial Progress (1973)
  • * Pax Britannica: The Climax of Empire (1968)
  • * Farewell the Trumpets: An Imperial Retreat (1978)


  • * Fisher’s Face (1995)


  • * Conundrum (1974)
  • * Wales, The First Place (1982)
  • * Pleasures of a Tangled Life (1989)
  • * Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere (2001)
  • * A Writer’s House in Wales (2002)
  • * “Herstory” (1999)

Fiction | Novels

  • * Last Letters from Hav (1985: shortlisted for the 1985 Booker Prize for Fiction)
  • * Hav (2006; shortlisted for the 2007 Arthur C Clarke Award)

Short stories

  • * The Upstairs Donkey, and Other Stolen Stories (1961)


  • * Manhattan ’45 (hardcover 1987, paperback 1998)
  • * Fifty Years of Europe: An Album (1997)
  • * The Oxford Book of Oxford (editor)
  • * The Matter of Wales: Epic Views of a Small Country
  • * Lincoln: A Foreigner’s Quest (2001)
  • * Our First Leader


Jan Morris | Photo by Peter Foley




10 responses

23 11 2010
Alice D'Alessio

I have to agree with her; I used to whistle through washing the dishes every night as a teenager- rendering the entire Hit Parade from last to first place. I find that I can’t do it anymore; the whistling muscles have deteriorated from lack of use.

23 11 2010
carl hecht

and the earthly sound that resounds within the heart, soul and ether that encompasses us all. the joyful cry that I am forever as ever as ever more,
the rise and fall the undulating movement of lovers who eternally rock to and fro from and the waves rising and falling within the triphammering of their heartsfused and forged in the eternal lathe and lather of their fomenting fulminating culminating joy as one

23 11 2010
Barbara Vroman

love her. love her blue car, love her hands jammed in her pocket, which
affirms I’m sure that she is whistler.

When ever I feel afraid I whistle a happy tune, and tell myself that I’m not AFRAID!

23 11 2010
Chick Peterson

I am reassured to find myself whistling as I head into the house for lunch, and often I whistle as I begin to think the painting might “work.” And, incredibly, though I have trouble remembering things like my zip code, I remember hearing over the radio the wonderful Elmo Tanner who whistled for Ted Weems (sp?) orchestra back in the 30’s….. full time!

23 11 2010

I’d forgotten about whistling until I read this. I remember people whistling when I was a child in the 40s. I wonder if the war had anything to do with people putting on a brave front. I never did develop any whistling muscles, but I could sing all the songs on the hit parade.

23 11 2010

Bing Crosby used to whistle in his songs, remember?

23 11 2010
David Zep Dix

Thou has done it again!
I shall attach your link to the next issue of the Waukesha Sewer Raccoon News, and will personally deliver a reprint to my hardward store man, who constantly penetrates the air in his store with his whistling. It is cheery, and customers look forward to it. Olson’s Ace Hardware, Waukesha WI Go there for steady whistling.
Thank you for this!

David Dix

23 11 2010

Thank you Jan for writing that great piece in the Wall Street Journal. I looked up Pedro the Fisherman and it is quite an excellent song to whistle. It offers plenty of challenges to the whistler. I’d love to hear you whistle on Youtube.

For those of us who do have a good ear, bad whisling is quite a shock. Sometimes I’ll be whistling along and someone will chime in. After a few notes, I’ll stop if the ear is insulted.

Anyway, it is hard to whistle when you’re sad, but you’re sure not to be as sad when you’re done with your song.

23 11 2010
Gloria Drummond

Loved this. Especially the James/Jan Morris story and The Car!

26 11 2010
Carol Doty

I’m belatedly opening e-mails, so It’s a bit late to respond to this.
I was always an everyday mediocre whistler, and was often told the old proverb, “whistling girls and crowing hens always come to some bad ends.” Now, at 77, I see the bad end is an abundance of wrinkles surrounding my mouth. I still whistle a little, sometimes almost soundlessly, and unconsciously. A sign of time passingt?

I wonder if you know Mary Oliver’s “The Whistler”? Her it is:

All of a sudden she began to whistle, By all of a sudden
I mean that for more than thirty years she had not
whistled. It was thrilling. At first I wonder, who was
in the housem, what stranger? I was upstairs reading, and
she was downstairs. As from the throat of a wild and
cheerful biurd, not caught but visiting, the sounds war-
bled and slid and dopubled back and larked and soared.

Finally I said, Is that you? Is that your whistling? Yes, she
said. I used to whistle, a long time ago Now I see I can
still whistle. And cadence after cadence she strolled
through the house, whistling.

I know her so well, I think. I ought. Elbow and a-
kle. Mood and desire. Anguish and frolic. Anger, too.
And the devotions. And for all that, do we even begin
to know each other? Who is this I’ve been living with
for thirty years?

This clear, dark, lovely whistler?

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