A Journal of The Plague Year, And Other Tales

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Whistle-Stop Tour

Whistle-Stop Tour

My home lies opposite the Old Deer Park in Richmond-on-Thames and I tramp around it for my morning constitutionals. Nowadays, it is no longer the pleasure ground of royal stag hunters and their favourites. It is, however, a space dominated by sports clubs which snootily claim the ‘royal’ moniker.

Here are located the Royal Mid-Surrey Golf Club, the Royal Mid-Surrey Bowling Club and the Royal Richmond Archery Association. One is not allowed to approach the royal golfers, nor the royal bowlers. They put CCTV cameras and ‘no trespass’ signs on the lanes leading to their strongholds. For what is the point of belonging to an exclusive club if the riff-raff can stare in?

The Royal Richmond Archery Club is more democratic. They put up their butts and practice on the open playing fields of the London Welsh Rugby Club, when there are no matches in progress. You may watch them in their ancient art, if you wish. None of them will sneer at you. They even have a sign saying that new members are welcome.

I have often considered taking up their offer. It might prove useful in case civil war breaks out between the feuding boroughs of West London. My heroic death might be mentioned in dispatches in the Richmond Times.

“Lance-Corporal Howell was leading a contingent of the Royal Richmond Archers around the back of Tesco to bring flanking fire on the marauders from Hounslow when he stopped to stare at a magpie in a nearby tree which was putting an empty toothpaste tube in its nest. At that point, he got it in the neck from a sniper.”

With such dreary thoughts of mortality in mind, I passed by the Richmond bowmen this time with my eyes on the ground - until I heard a whistle ring out.

I had heard this before, at the butts. It is the signal given by the captain of archers which means everyone should stop firing so people can go and collect their arrows.

What is interesting about this is that way back in the Hundred Years War - at the battles of Crecy, Poitiers and Agincourt - whistles were used to by the captains of the English army to give orders to the bowmen to put down enfilading fire at a hundred paces on the massed, galloping ranks of French cavalry.

This is why the emblem of the Royal Richmond Archery Club is a motif of two dead Frenchman, crossed, on a mound of more dead Frenchmen. It isn’t, of course, but that is because they don’t listen to my ideas. Suffice to say that whistles and archery share a history going back seven centuries.

Strangely, the whistle only came to be used in other sports much more recently. Up until 1878, football referees used to wave a handkerchief to stop play, presumably hoping that the Vinnie Joneses of that era might stop hacking and gouging their victims to look up and check whether someone was waving a piece of white cloth their way in an ineffectual effort to restore order.

The first use of a whistle in league football was in a match that year between Nottingham Forest and Sheffield. Forest won that game 2-0, in case you’re wondering.

No one at the Football Association had the initiative to think of this. The FA’s notion of a good idea is to appoint the likes of Steve McLaren as England manager and then wonder why the national team has won sweet FA for the past fifty-four years.

The man behind the referee’s whistle was, instead, an eccentric Victorian entrepreneur from Staffordshire called Joseph Hudson. Sensing the call of destiny, he moved to Birmingham in the latter half of the nineteenth century, set him himself up in a back-to-back house in the Great Barr district, and started moulding nickel into whistles on a hotplate in his bathroom.

Hudson’s other triumph was to sell a tubular whistle to the Metropolitan Police Force in 1884. Up until that point, officers had shaken wooden ‘corncrake’ rattles if they needed to call for back-up. What the Peelers liked about Hudson’s whistle is that it could be heard up to a mile away.

Hudson established the Acme Whistle Company and housed it in a suitably Dickensian, red brick factory in Barr Street. A stickler for quality control, he insisted on personally testing every single whistle which sprang from the moulds.

Hudson’s really great idea was to put a small wooden ball inside the casing of a whistle, which he called a ‘pea’. This made the sound of them louder and more ear-piercing, and it is the technology behind the most prolific sports whistle of all time: the Acme Thunderer.

The Thunderer has been used consistently by referees in the Football World Cup. There is a version which is used by rugby referees which is a touch more mellow. That is presumably because rugby crowds are more restrained and the ref does need to make the blast of his whistle heard over 40,000 fans telling him he is a wanker. The Acme Thunderer has even had a poem written in its honour by the Liverpudlian bard, Roger McGough. It is called ‘He Who Owns The Whistle Rules The World’. The second verse goes:

In the playground

kids divebomb, corner

at Silverstone or execute

traitors. Armed

with my Acme Thunderer

I step outside,

take a deep breath

And bring the world

To a standstill.

Hudson’s Acme Whistle Company is still going strong in that Dickensian factory on Great Barr Street, turning out over a million whistles a year and raking in an annual twelve million quid. One of its biggest sellers is the plastic whistle attached to the lifejackets stowed under seats on airliners. It is possibly the most superfluous item known to modern man.

Acme took a slight hit when police forces dispensed with whistles in favour walkie-talkies. Lately, however, they have brought them back. They are also being adopted by security guards in shops. The reason is this. If an electronic alarm goes off, no one pays it any heed any more. Alarms go off all the time, mostly because of some glitch. But a whistle? It is a hundred decibels shrill and someone has blown it in earnest.

Whistles have a primal sound. People are instantly alerted to the possibility of an emergency, or that someone has perpetrated some evil deed in their vicinity. A whistle brings the world to a standstill. Then, of course, a band of archers appears and executes the perpetrator. After that, all is right with the world again.

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