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.







57 thoughts on “Whistle

  1. Blow me down! Another great post!
    Now you leave us dying to know what happened to the professor.
    Have you ever sampled the sound made by blowing into the gap between two thumbs placed together with nails facing you, and with a blade of grass stretched vertically in the gap? The noise is earsplitting. The simplest of reed instruments. Don’t show the trick to Felix.

  2. I can’t whistle. I can obtain a squeaky noise on the in-flow, but the outflow either delivers no sound or some resembling small boys pretending to be rude.

  3. What a delightful image, you singing and Felix accompanying you. ‘H’ can do one of those really loud whistles with his fingers to call a dog, perhaps because he grew up on a farm.

  4. How good of you to provide a link to the story. I’ve added to my pile of ‘things to read’. I look forward to it. Thank you.

  5. You’re right, there is a trick to it which I finally learned as an adult (before that I was like Sidey and Cin). I like your full explanation… Can you imagine, though, if Bacall had used those words in the movie? 😉

  6. An enjoyable read, Kate. (Also loved Bogey with Kate Hepburn in The African Queen – although that has nothing to do with whistling. :=)) Thanks for the link to the ghost story….I’ve bookmarked to read it later.

    Since Felix has now mastered the art, he probably doesn’t need further instruction, but as a youngster I loved the lesson(s) here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DOZzNOkcEgM

    1. Funny, isn’t it? Totally non-essential, yet infuriating if you can’t. I bet you enjoyed your whistle when MTM bought it though 😀 You strike me as someone who would enjoy that very much indeed….

  7. …and I do NOT whistle well. Not sure why, but I can do a mean beckoning if I put four fingers in my mouth and very “un-lady-like” –BLOW! I can make an amazing sound that way! G-daughter Sophia whistles better than I…and when I picture Bacall in that glorious scene, you’re so right…no one compares. Fun post, Kate…and great suggestion. A back-to-back black and white movie weekend. How fun would that be! It’s been a LONG time…and that would be a delightful pastime. Great idea! Debra

  8. Thanks for this Kate.
    I heard “Oh whistle and i’ll come to you, my lad” as a Man in Black story on BBC radio, before TV ever got under way in Britain. I dreamed about that story for years, it was so scary.
    Congratulations to Felix for learning to whistle.

    Love Dad

  9. I can do the regular whistle thing just fine, but my Dad used to do the version where you put 2 fingers in there in a triangular fashion and the whistle could be heard for up to a mile. That was usually the final warning to get our butts home! I never have been able to get that one down.

    I think the trick to regular whistling is to not tighten up the lips too much… 😉

    1. You’re right, Brett. You need to be relaxed to create the vibration I think. I can do the loud one….I love bringing it out in the theatre. Makes the people around me shoot about six feet in the air in surprise.

  10. Ahh! Whistling…
    I can whistle, but can’t hold a tune! The singing grass one I can do too.

    My Pa had a very special warbling whistle for our dog when I was small… I have never heard anyone reproduce one like it, though my sister can do one of those whistles where you put a finger and thumb into a ring (I think what Brett describes) and use it to produce a workman like whistle that I’ve never mastered! VERY loud.

  11. Wonderful post, Kate. I felt quite accomplished as a child when I (1) learned to whistle, (2) learned to whistle with the blade of grass stretched taut, and (3) learned to snap my fingers . . . but I never mastered skipping stones across the surface of a still pond.

  12. I used to envy those not-very-ladylike girls at school who could do as the boys whistling very loudly with two fingers in their mouths – it’s a useful skill to have at times

  13. I’d give anything for a publically acceptable whistle, and even more for one of those ear-splitting two-fingered whistles. O the dogs I’d call! The cabs I’d hail! The men I’d tease! Honestly, wouldn’t you think something as simple as whistling could be learned in 68 years?

  14. It’s been ages since I’ve watched this; and now that I can almost see the scene in my head….must check if it is in at work tomorrow. Smile, thank you for the fun read, Kate ~
    (btw, are you playing? NaNoWriMo)

  15. I have a special whistle for my puss, Duc le Chat. The call has three distinct sections to it. If I don’t do all three together, he doesn’t come home.

    After several sessions of expensive dentistry, I’m thrilled that my whistle is even stronger. When it alluded me, I had to use Tibetan cow bells to bring the cat home.

    I ignore any and all superstitions about women whistling and indulge frequently!

      1. I suppose the nobility needs a complex three tones whistle, Amy 😀 Duc Le Chat! I have to take my hat off and salute someone who names their cats with such aplomb!

        MR James is such a consummate storyteller. He used to write stories especially to entertain his friends at Christmas. I never read too many at once. He was rather too good sometimes.

  16. You know, I had never been able to do it so a few years back I set it as my New Year Resolution. I’d learn to whistle. Well, I found it far more complicated that putting my lips together and blowing but I felt so accomplished when I did it. Haven’t had a lot of practice though…

  17. Delightful, Kate. I will watch Lauren Bacall any old day and that has to be one of the most suggestive movie lines of all time.

    I’m sitting here, giggling. Our daughter, Jennifer, still can’t whistle. She makes this odd sound, like a hum, mimicing a whistle “who, who, who, who” ishing around. Now, she’s an adult, gainfully employed, yet, just can’t whistle. tee hee

    I think maybe I’ll see if I can teach Kezzie to whistle while I’m here. tee hee

  18. I’m a huge Bogie/Bacall fan, too, and that line is my favorite! I’ve never been able to whistle, though I’ve tried until my lips are frozen in an ineffective purse. Just don’t have the knack. Whistle and I’ll Come To You is a favorite James story for me, too. Just reading your post brought back the eerieness and raised the hair on my arms!

  19. I’ve never been able to whistle, Kate. My lips form the correct shape, I blow the correct way, and only the highest pitched whine emerges. I am envious of anyone who can whistle a happy tune… I’d love to be able to whistle a little note! 😦
    Great post by the way! 😀

  20. Great! An old relative of my Dad’s used to say, “A whistling woman is not fit for man nor beast.” I find this hilarious because I whistle like billio, so I’m sure I would have been heavily disapproved of by this relative. 😀 It’s funny, though, I have a specific short tune I always whistle to our dog – I feel it’s like his leitmotif! Which reminds me of something else…have you seen any of the episodes of “Joanna Lumley’s Greek Odyssey”? Why this comes to mind is because one of the episodes featured a small community which have a whistling language. Every intonation, or group of them, means something which can be translated into words. Unfortunately, it seems to be dwindling, but that community is determined to pass their treasured tradition down through their generations to keep it alive.

    1. I haven’t seen that, Heather, thank you! I’ll chase it up on iPlayer. It was considered unladylike to whistle at our convent school, but I found my way round that somehow 😀

      1. I think it was in the first or second episode, but probably first. But personally I think all four are worth watching. 🙂

  21. Did you know Sr Concessa? If anyone was caught whistling in the ‘halls’ she would haul them in front of the class, look extremely fierce and say

    ‘Whistling women, crowing hens……..’ while wagging her finger furiously

    It was a long time before I discovered that there was more to that phrase..

    1. 😀 I never met the good sister: how hilarious! I was stopped for whistling in the sixth form (different school. different order by that time) but retorted that the whistle was a beautful instrument and that I was just about half way through writing my second whistling concerto.

      I was nothing of the sort.

      It worked a treat.

  22. She is a beautiful woman (stands out from the many Hollywood faces) – I fell in love with Humphrey Bogart when I was quite young (about 10 I think 😉 ) so I was always jealous of Lauren Bacall – haha

  23. And don’t forget that ear-splitting noise you can get from running your finger around the edge of a glass, depending on the level of liquid in it, you can get different sounds!

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