If you can whistle, you’re not tone deaf


My late father’s only sister, my Aunt Hetty, died last month.

My earliest memories of her are of Kenya and a different world. For the first 17 years of my life, ‘home’ was Hong Kong where I was born. From the age of nine, I was sent away from home to a godforsaken Roman Catholic boarding school near a maggot factory in Nottinghamshire. Not the happiest days of my life. In fact, the most miserable.

One summer, my father announced that rather than fly straight from Hong Kong to school in England, he had arranged for me to stop off in Kenya on the way. As you do. I was fifteen. 

There cannot be a much greater contrast than Hong Kong and Kenya. One, a tiny island crammed with five million people, the other offering mile after mile of pure, natural, African beauty.

In Kenya, people would drive a hundred miles to go to a party. In Hong Kong, you would be in communist China if you did that. Or adrift in the Pacific Ocean.

In Kenya, my uncle managed a coffee plantation for a wealthy landowner. In Hong Kong, my father worked for a shipping company. Both men had fought a war for their country and were now getting by on whatever life offered them in the outposts of what used to be the British Empire.

Aunt Hetty was a brave, strong, forceful lady – as, perhaps, you need to be to survive in Africa – and she had a loud, hearty, infectious laugh which her three daughters seem to have inherited.

Poignantly, at her memorial service, we heard how heartbroken, as a teenager, she had been at the death of her younger brother. Hugh Salmon was killed at the age of 17 in the explosive sinking of HMS Barham on 25 November 1941. I was named in his memory.

Nowadays, it is easy for us to forget how young many of our oldest living compatriots were when they lost their parents and brothers and sisters. Now in their eighties and nineties, they have suffered – mostly in silence – for a long time haven’t they?

It is fair to say that, in one particular way, Aunt Hetty changed my life.

One day, it may have been in Kenya, she asked me if I was learning to play a musical instrument.

No, I was not.

Did I sing in a choir?

No, I didn’t.

Really? Not sing at all?

No, Aunt Hetty. I am tone deaf.

That can’t be true, she said. You come from a musical family. You can’t be tone deaf. Can you whistle?


Whistle for me.

I can’t do that!

Yes, you can. Go on. Whistle Colonel Bogey. Did I say she was forceful?

I whistled Colonel Bogey.

‘There you are!’ she said. ‘That was perfect. You’re not tone deaf at all!’

And, do you know, my life has been much richer for knowing that.

Little things mean a lot, don’t they?


About Hugh Salmon

Business leader. Adman. Writer.
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