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