Is there anything steamier than Bacall and Bogart?
Lauren Bacall has held my gaze from that first time I saw To Have and Have Not, many years ago when a Saturday in August had one purpose only: to watch black and white films back to back.
I had never seen anyone so stunningly beautiful: the monochrome accentuated the perfection in that face, the soft, low voice, the languid grace of her movements.
Since that time she has proved herself an accomplished actress: and grown old with such astute intelligence she remains the one film star I would love to meet.
But that scene in her breakthrough film, with her future spouse: electric.
“You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve? You just put your lips together and ….blow…”
Except that Felix found this was not the case.
He has been practicing for a very long time, following Bacall’s instructions with long hours of studious practice: but for a very long time it was to no avail.
Because it’s like blowing across a milk bottle, isn’t it? You can blow as hard as a gale, but if it’s lacking that one vital element it’s sound signifying nothing.
We have all the elements we need to whistle: lips, the ability to create air flow, a perfect chamber in which the air can vibrate and a tongue to moderate pitch.
But put your lips together and blow? I don’t think so.
Here’s what Bacall should have said: “You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve? You form your lips into a small hole . That’s right. Now direct a flow of air through the resulting hole to create turbulence, using your mouth as a chamber to create resonance.”
Doesn’t have the same ring to it, does it?
It has taken Felix years to perfect his whistle but he has finally done it. I know this, because he whistles all the time: this small childlike sound sometimes copies what I am singing, sometimes branches out on its own.
“Felix,” I exclaimed in delight yesterday: “You’ve learnt to whistle! When did that happen?”
He assumed that studied carelessness in which little boys specialise. It’s nothing, Mum, but in fact it’s everything. “Oh, I’ve been doing it for a while,” he told me: ” but I’ve just learned to change the note so I can whistle a tune.”
Now, his whistles are everywhere. Whereas Felix usually disappears into corners of the house with beloved toys to play, totally silent and absorbed, now I hear small disembodied snatches of experimental melody emerging to signal where he is.
That feeling of resonance, the vibration of air, is addictive. We began with milk bottles and graduated over the years to Stella Artois bottles; I hear wine bottles have an admirable melodic range.
Sometimes we use more than just a bottle: a pipe, maybe. Whistle, and I’ll come to you.
The words were used as the title of a ghost story written by that clever gothic academic, M.R.James, a perennial port of call within these cyber pages. He was an extraordinary writer, treading the line between the ghostly and the horrific and always maintaining the trickiest of balances between the two.
It is one of my favourite ghost stories for this time of year, concerning as it does an out-of-season holiday in which a fustian professor has come away to a seaside hotel to get some work done.
His holiday landscape is one of vast lonely beaches, sandy Norfolk dunes and grass-hummocks. One day he takes a walk along the beach, full of seaside optimism, to visit the site of an ancient site which used to belong to the Knights Templar which has become subsumed by the dunes.
He makes a rather unusual find there: an old whistle. And it has an inscription: “Whistle, and I’ll come to you.”
Delighted, he begins tracking back towards the hotel: and notes that behind him, never drawing any nearer but relentlessly there, is an indistinct figure, following.
James is nothing if not suspensful. Of course, the professor cleans up the whistle, and of course he blows it. To the sound of the sea winds howling, James builds up to an unthinkable climax.
The whistle: we can make it alone or with a bottle or pipe; it can be a come-hither, a sign someone is there or a simple melody. Whatever it’s for, and wherever it is used, it never fails to bring a frisson of recognition, an answer from the heart.
So the next time you need a little excitement in your life, you know how to do it, don’t you?
You just put your lips together…..and blow.