Small boys - of course - have aspirations. Nobody has convinced them yet that the world may not be entirely their oyster. They are still happily certain that they can achieve whatever they set their mind to.
I had several boyhood projects myself that may have been in the land of improbable dreams, but such ambitiousness only made them more attractive. I wasn't going to be deterred. Not immediately, anyway.
I was going to build a model of the Houses of Parliament entirely out of matchsticks. I was going to stage a puppet show. I was going to climb to the very top of the ropes in the gym. I was going to train myself to peel and eat a large navel orange with the same scrupulous efficiency and, above all, dry relish as John Sharples.
I admired this older boy. His way with oranges signified his undoubted merit in my eyes. But when I tried peeling one, the skin refused to disengage from the flesh in neat quarters, the pith stuck, the segments tore apart chaotically, and juice spurted everywhere. Yet I persisted, and these days I can peel an orange quite niftily.
And I wanted to be a professional whistler.
I knew there were such people because I had met one. She was, I think, the school secretary. Her name was Miss Wooldridge, though she was affectionately nicknamed "Woollie," and nobody discouraged us from calling her that to her face. She was happy about it, too.
I was fascinated by the whole notion that Woollie had, in a previous life, been a whistling pro. However, it was a few years after I first knew of her prowess before she was persuaded to give us a little whistle. I pleaded periodically, and she would always smile secretively and put off the day.
By the time she gave in, I had already abandoned the Houses of Parliament (there seemed to be an inexplicable dearth of spent matchsticks), had organized a puppet show, had mastered the gym ropes, had messed up numerous oranges, and had - whistlewise - done little more than master "Greensleaves" and "Rose-Marie" to a standard adequate only for private performance. I had, however, discovered how to whistle, and I was proud of that. Learning to whistle is up there with learning to swim or ride a bike.
Woollie's eventual snatch of fluent whistling, done for our benefit, was marvelously impressive. But that was that. She waved away my enthusiasm with a gesture that clearly meant "The past is past." I suppose she was right, from her point of view. She was never going to take up that life again. She was on to other, more down-to-earth matters. But she may have been right to relegate it to the past for another reason. Whistling as a performance art had been largely a feature of the old music halls and concert parties, and they were older than old hat by that time - the late 1940s. They belonged to another era, another entertainment universe.
Then, a few weeks ago, I saw a British musician named David Morris being interviewed on TV because he'd become the world's whistling champion in 2003. To achieve this honor, he explained, he had traveled from his home in northern England to the small town of Louisburg, N.C. - where whistling is very much alive and well. For 31 years now, the International Whistling Convention has taken place there. Americans, Canadians, and a smattering of whistlers from around the globe have converged there each year.
The TV interviewer asked Mr. Morris if he could demonstrate his whistling skills. He launched into an astonishing few minutes of sheer brilliance. From his mouth issued a sparkling lucidity of sound, a kind of audible glistening, a stirring (for me) of an old memory, a long-forgotten childhood ambition. Yes! That was it! What I had dreamed of ... but had not achieved.
Whistling is for Morris a perfectly serious art. But he can also let his hair down. His repertoire spans both classical and popular music. And his whistling still contains within it the relaxed charm of one's own nonchalant whistling in the bath or halfway up a hillside. I have a strange urge to whistle along with him - because, after all, I can whistle even though I wouldn't know one end of an oboe from the other.
Morris's prowess convinces me that he can also peel an orange in an extraordinarily efficient, magnificently artistic, way.