Give a whistle for the old street sounds

Jack O'Sullivan applauds the police for shooting from the lip
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The Independent Online
The news that police officers are to be reissued with their whistles will be music to the ears of many. Symbolising the return of the friendly bobby on the beat, it is a relief that someone, at last, can blow the whistle on those who drop litter, foul the footpath and hog the road - offences for which the walkie-talkie Robocop is ill-equipped. Like referees and schoolteachers (who generally opt for the model with a pea in it rather than the constabulary's tubular version), police officers have at last recognised the effectiveness of the short, sharp blast.

The initiative, being pioneered in the Kent towns of Ramsgate, Margate and Broadstairs, may also restore the lost confidence of those, like myself, who love nothing more than to form a perfect O with our lips and cheer everyone up with a tune. After all, the most famous whistling, on the police series Dixon of Dock Green, was achieved without any mechanical assistance.

I have often wondered where my fellow whistlers have gone. Have they been shamed into silence by the wolf whistlers who debase our art? Have they perhaps given up trying because the demands of modern pop (try doing the Spice Girls' Wannabe) are so much greater than the melodies of Cole Porter and Frank Sinatra?

Yet there is a fine tradition to be reclaimed. We whistlers were once the great romantics: remember the steamy scene in which Lauren Bacall, in her 1944 movie To Have and Have Not, tempted Humphrey Bogart with the drawled line, "If you want me, just whistle." And then there was Jiminy Cricket, guardian angel to Pinocchio, whose advice to his charge was, when in trouble, "Give a little whistle." Sadly, which of us today still enlivens our daily toil by whistling, like the seven dwarves, while we work?

The demise of the whistler - condemned as out of tune and drowned out by the juggernaut - is just one barely noticed part of our fast-disappearing aural environment. Who now gives a second thought to that once familiar "der-der-der" of ambulances, police cars and fire engines as they went about their business? Instead we suffer the wailing of sirens imported from New York's streets. And what about chatting at bus stops? All we have today is sullen silence. Yet, if we can bring back the whistle, then couldn't those electronic countdowns at bus stops encourage the queue with today's topic for talk? How about, "Isn't the weather awful?" or, on Friday nights, "Thank God it's the weekend."

And why stop there? Let's bring the cacophony of the past back. Can't we reinforce the clinking gold tops and humming float of the endangered milkman with the chorus cries of the muffin man, the rag-and-bone-man and the scrap-metal merchant? What about the now silenced grunts of the evening newspaper sellers? We could have them back too. Who knows, if this latest police initiative really caught the imagination and the old echoes of Britain's neighbourhoods returned fortissimo, we might even hear again that loveliest of lost sounds - children playing in the street.

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