Watch any English movie made before 1940 and set in London, and at some point one of the male characters will start whistling a tune. It could be the milkman on his rounds, the delivery boy on his bicycle, or the shady character loitering on a street corner; but you can guarantee that before long, someone will start to whistle.
Yet now nobody whistles in London. The habit has entirely died out here, although it remains more popular in the English regions. Why should this be? A group of sociologists noticed this phenomenon in the 1970s and decided to investigate. Their theory was that whistling can be seen as an expression of individual public confidence, and its absence showed that Londoners were now more fearful in public places, not wanting to draw attention to themselves.
The newspapers took this up and filled pages with the opinions of commentators and politicians, deploring the lack of social confidence. A ‘bring back whistling’ campaign was started, with famous Londoners, including the writers Will Self and Julian Barnes, deliberately whistling around town in the hope that it would catch on.
However the discovery of a diary kept by a milkman in the East End of London during the second world war threw a quite different light on the matter. During the blitz, when London was bombed every night for three months, he wrote of the ‘nasty whine and whistle’ of the bombs, and of being told to ‘shut up that whistling’ by neighbours as he delivered the milk in the morning. ‘You’ll bring them on’, he was scolded.
So the latest academic theory is that whistling is absent from London for the same superstitious reason that it’s discouraged on board ship: it brings bad luck. It seems that three months of wartime bombing did away with whistling for Londoners, and the habit has never returned.
Visitors of a humorous disposition might like to whistle a tune in public to see what happens. Be ready to receive some strange looks and muttered comments from locals, especially those from the East End, who still carry the folk memory of high explosive bombs whistling down from the night skies.
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Extract from my book 'How Not to Be a Tourist in London'