Whistling at the Burlington Arcade

Paul McCartney gets a companion

A schoolboy has become only the second person in the world who's allowed to whistle in the Burlington Arcade. Chatting the other day to one of the beadles (the Piccadilly shopping arcade's beautifully-uniformed security force), I learned that Paul McCartney - until now the only person allowed to break the ban - has been joined by a young chap from East London.

Whistling at the Burlington Arcade

The story of how the ban came to be introduced in the 19th century was covered in a previous blog post, but essentially it was because the whistle was a coded signal to pickpockets warning them that the beadles were approaching. One day in the 1980s a beadle asked a shopper to stop whistling, only to discover that it was Paul McCartney. He granted Macca a lifetime exemption from the ban. (The beadle I spoke to the other day told me that when McCartney was first showing his current wife Nancy around London he brought her to the arcade and said: ‘Go on - tell her I'm allowed to whistle here.')

So the Beatle was the only person permitted to break the ban ... until now. In 2011, a young boy was brought to the arcade by his uncle. ‘He was only a strip of a lad,' the beadle told me, ‘about six years old. He was going through a tough time on the family front, and because of that things weren't going too well for him at school either. We started chatting to him, telling him about the arcade and its history and everything, and he loved it. Eventually we said to him: “Tell you what - if you can get a good report at school, you come back here and we'll give you a permit to whistle."'

Then earlier this year the boy's uncle returned to the arcade. He told the beadles that the boy (by now about ten) had indeed been working hard, and had received a good school report. So the arcade printed up a document with his name on it, confirming that he is allowed to whistle while on the premises. ‘His uncle brought him along again, and we reminded him what we'd promised. Then we gave him the permit. You should have seen his face. Lit up, it did. '

Well played, Burlington Arcade. And well played that boy.  


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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.