A Beatle at the Burlington

Why Sir Paul McCartney is allowed to break a London tradition

It's horrible when cherished bits of trivia turn out to be untrue. The web has recently been fizzing with pieces pointing out some famous London facts that aren't facts after all. The ever-excellent Londonist had this list of impostors, while Peter Berthoud has debunked the ‘cells under the Viaduct Tavern' story. Well, I'm afraid I've got another one for you - BUT the reason for the fact not being true is just as delightful as the fact itself. Actually you could say it's even more delightful. It concerns the old custom that you're not allowed to whistle in the Burlington Arcade.

A Beatle at the Burlington

The beautiful little shopping arcade off Piccadilly has been there since 1819. Lord George Cavendish, then owner of the neighbouring Burlington House (which is also still there, though you probably know it as the Royal Academy), had the arcade built to stop people throwing rubbish into his garden. So successful did it become that copies sprang up all over Europe, including the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II in Milan. (That's worth a visit too - it contains the most stylish McDonald's in the world.)

The first floor rooms above the shops were used by prostitutes, who as well as practising their chosen profession kept a look-out on behalf of the pickpockets working the crowds below. Any sign of police and they'd give a whistle so the pickpockets could scarper. And to this day you're not allowed to whistle in the arcade. The uniformed beadles do enforce it - as evidence of which I give you this story, confirmed to me by one of the beadles recently.

In the 1980s a male shopper was looking into one of the windows, admiring something on display. As he stood there he started to whistle, so a passing beadle cleared his throat and proceeded to issue the standard polite request about refraining. The shopper turned round, ready to apologise and go about his business whistle-free. It was none other than Paul McCartney. ‘Oh, Mr McCartney, I'm very sorry,' said the beadle to the Beatle. ‘I didn't realise it was you. You are hereby given a lifetime exemption from the rule. You can whistle here any time you like.'

And to this day Macca likes to visit the arcade every December, as part of his Christmas shopping. He always gives a little whistle and a wink at the beadles, and they tip their hats in return. (This isn't the first time, incidentally, that McCartney and whistling have been linked - he says he first knew the Beatles had really made it when he woke up to hear the milkman whistling From Me To You.) 

So as and when Sir Paul departs for the great Cavern Club in the sky, this famous piece of London trivia will once again be true. For now, though, it's filed under ‘myth'.


* UPDATE: Just to prove how small the world, or at least Piccadilly, is: as I was about to mention this on the Piccadilly Line walk yesterday evening (23.5.12), who should walk past but Paul McCartney. He was with his wife, and even though the arcade was closing up for the night they let him take a shortcut through it. This visit, possibly because it was in non-shopping hours, was a whistle-free event. Turned out he'd been at the Royal Academy to meet the Queen. As had the other people who passed us: Vivienne Westwood, Robert Harris, Andrew Lloyd-Webber ... (NB: celeb appearances not guaranteed on every walk.)

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Big Ben

On a visit to Big Ben, I was told that if you stand at the bottom of the tower with a portable radio and listen to the chimes on Radio 4 (they still transmit them live), you hear them on the radio before you hear them ‘for real’. I couldn’t believe it – but was intrigued enough to try it for myself. And you know what? It’s absolutely true. The bongs come out of the radio a fraction of a second before they reach your ears from the top of the tower. It’s something so silly, so counter-intuitive, that you have to tell people. (Well, I did.) Researching the explanation, I found that it’s because radio waves travel at the speed of light (186,000 miles per second) rather than the 700 or so miles per hour at which sound waves travel. The signal travelling down the wire from the microphone to the BBC goes at the speed of light too. Hence the radio version overtaking the real one.

I realised that this would be the perfect way to teach the principle in school physics lessons. Instead of a boring teacher droning on that ‘radio waves travel at the speed of light’, illustrate it with this beautiful and quirky little fact. The kids will remember it then. I certainly would have done if my physics teacher had taken this approach. As it was I had to wait until I heard a piece of so-called ‘trivia’ in my thirties.