Tales from the Local

There was a character I remember some years ago, who the lads in the pub by the name of the ‘Rags’on Halliwell, called Whistler. Despite his appearance, worsted trousers, rough jacket, and the usual working man’s union shirt without collar that he wore buttoned up to the scrawny neck, he was an engaging fellow. His bright blue eyes would fix you, particularly if he was without money and in need of a drink, and he would come up to you and chirrup at you, his beak of a nose moving up and down when speaking on whatever subject was topical for the day. It might be the score, either good or bad of the Bolton Wanderers or the state of cricket team, whether it was Lancashire or the local club Heaton. And he would hang in there as you bought or were buying your drink, and wait for: "What are you ‘aving Whistler?" and, depending on the circumstances, it would be "A pint of mild," or "A half please."

He would take a gulp or two, and then suddenly, he would exclaim: "Why there’s so and so, I’ve got to ‘ave a word with him," and the next second he was gone. Of course, many of the men had got wise to him, and would get out of his way, but they would acknowledge him, and put up with him, because now and again Whistler would have brought his little case along, and would show watches with chains or straps at 5/- or 7/6d, or some likely looking ladies’ brooches, or vanity cases and when asked where they were from? Be told that they had "dropped off a lorry".

This would go on through the week, and usually in the tap‑room, but at weekend, in the Parlour or Best Room, Saturday and Sunday nights, the evening enjoyment came from what was known as someone doing a turn. Either one of the men or the ladies would get up and sing along with the piano, and the rest of the company, if they were so inclined, would join in the chorus. However, one of the regular turns was always Whistler, and here the ladies would insist that he do his turn, which was to whistle or imitate the sounds of birds, all kinds of birds both land and sea. He was an expert and there was no one else to touch him. And this was, I suppose, how he paid back for all those pints and halves he’d had during the week.

Sometimes, particularly during the week, Whistler would meet someone just outside the pub, or near the pub’s front door, a few words would exchange, and the stranger, or so he would appear as such to the Rag’s ordinary clients, usually handed Whistler something and either receive money or a shake of the head from Whistler who gave the item back. If one of the locals asked who the fellow was or why doesn’t he stay and ‘ave a drink. Whistler usually said, "Oh him! No he doesn’t drink." Or, "He’s a bookie’s runner, I don’t want owt to do with ‘im."

The locals reckoned though, that Whistler was a fence, and these chaps that came from time to time were probably burglars or had something sold to them cheaply, and then decided the best bet was with Whistler. However, Whistler kept them away from the life of the pub, he would not involve them or tell of activities that brought them near the pub. For this, he was respected, so much so, that if a policeman, called at the pub to check on closing time, or whatever, Whistler always got a warning and would go and hide himself until the law had left.

He had even been known to have hidden once or twice in the Ladies Toilet which wasn’t so bad in the working week, but would of course, have been frowned upon at weekend. Some of the women, those who happened to be single, or widowed, now and again, might chat about Whistler, how old was he, where did he, or had he ever worked. Why did he wear those stupid clothes even at weekend and Lily who fancied him, would say: "Well yon shirt he wears suits him and his whistlin’, ‘ave yer ever noticed how his Adam’s apple goes up and down when he’s imitating t’ birds, and especially the seagull. Anyway, I reckon there’s a bit of gypsy in him."

"Well, if he’s a gypsy, why does he always look as if he works in a mill, like a side-piecer or a little-piecer," asked one woman who had come to play in the Ladies dart match, "Ee, hey up, there’s a bobby just come in to men’s bar." They were just considering this when Whistler hurried through the Best room’s door and one of the women dragged him across and told him to get in the corner and then half a dozen of them crowded round him as he crouched down. Two of the ladies started to play as a policeman looked in and around. He smiled and said: "All right ladies?" He then departed. "Thanks girls!" said Whistler. "Why are they after you?" He headed for the door and said, "He’s just confusin’ me with someone else."

The following Friday night however, one of the strangers was seen talking to a policeman, and he had pointed up the road at the Rag’s. About half an hour later the police entered the pub, and the police sergeant was asking around in the Rag’s if anyone had seen him. In fact, Whistler was in the Best Room hiding under a corner table, for he had been too late to hear the warning to escape out by the rear door and through the yard. The regulars swore they hadn’t seen him that night, and did their best to divert the law’s attention. Eventually, after searching under several tables, the police sergeant dragged him out.

He addressed him thus: "Are you the one as they call the Whistler?" Whistler nodded his head sadly. And the sergeant said: "Then tha had best come wi’ me, we’ve

By Gordon Sanders