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The Lean and Unwashed Tiffy

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Cyril Tawney sang The Lean and Unwashed Tiffy in a recording made by Peter Kennedy in 1963 on his EFDSS album Between Decks: Songs and Shanties of a Sub-Mariner.

He recorded it again in 1972 for his Argo LP In Port. It is also on his Neptune cassette Sally Free and Easy (1989; reissued in 2003 on his Ada CDs Navy Cuts and The Song Goes On).

He also sang The Lean and Unwashed Tiffy live at the Holsteins folk club in Chicago on 31 May 1981. This concert was published in 2007 on his CD Live at Holsteins.

Cyril Tawney wrote on his now defunct own website about his song:

Though I did go to sea for a living, I’m no sail freak. Don’t ask me about knots and splices or a sailing ship’s rigging. For twelve years I was a ‘tiffy’ in the Royal Navy. Our full title was ‘artificer’. We were tradesmen who, in addition to our technical training, served a full apprenticeship, usually within the Navy itself and most commonly as a fitter and turner. The main idea was that, on a ship far from a maintenance base, we should be able not just to diagnose what’s gone wrong but have either the skill to manufacture a replacement or the ingenuity to improvise one. We ‘Tiffy Boys’ joined straight from school at around the age of sixteen and were bound to the Navy until our thirtieth birthday. Even at 16 we were regularly mustered and reminded that there was a string of offences for which we could “suffer death or such other punishment as is hereinafter mentioned”. We were not taught seamanship. If we wanted to take up sailing little boats as a hobby, that was our affair, but it was not part of our four-year syllabus. Even on the electrical side, as I was, our job had more to do with oil, grease and carbon dust than with sea-spray and billowing canvas.

Now I wouldn’t want you to think I was ever a student of Shakespeare in my Navy days, but a Dictionary of Quotations did once pass through my hands, and I was amazed to find that in King John, Act IV Scene 2, Shakespeare has Hubert refer to “Another lean and unwash’d artificer”. I’ve often wondered why the editor should have regarded this as quotable. Maybe he’d been a tiffy too. As always the Bard has found just the right words. As young men most of us were built like greyhounds (though, at recent reunions, time seems to have played funny tricks with our silhouettes) and, caught during working hours at least, we were often very grimy.

As a songwriting tiffy it was a chance too good to miss. I wrote a verse using the quote, with ‘tiffy’ substituted for ‘artificer’, and I usually employ this not only as the first verse, but as the chorus too. It’s quite arbitrary, though. If you’ve plenty of time you sing it after every verse as a chorus, if there’s not so much time you use it to top and tail the song, or just bung it in whenever you feel like it. This was yet another 1958 composition, and about that time I’d just picked up a graphically bawdy verse of The One-eyed Reilly, a couplet that expanded into a four-line verse and softened, so that the young lady is only kissed standing and lying.

Portland gets a mention simply because my ship at the time was based there. Although the spirit of the song is light-hearted the storyline follows the well-worn jilted lover theme. In the last verse the sailor declares his intention of returning to Devonport Barracks for the remainder of his Naval career. This is nonsense, of course—it’s the Navy that makes these decisions, not the individual. Early in the last century a warrant officer named Alphonso Jago introduced a new system of messing at Devonport Barracks which was a great improvement on the earlier system and was later adopted throughout the Navy. With waste and corruption reduced to a minimum the quality and quantity of the food became such that Devonport Barracks earned the nickname ‘Jago’s Mansions’.

However, until the introduction of computerised central drafting in the 1950s there was still a lot of corruption in certain quarters. Each time a sailor returned to barracks he couldn’t help noticing many faces that were still there from his previous spells ashore. Even in wartime, perhaps especially in wartime, there were some people who earned the nickname ‘barrack stanchions’, the suggestion being that if they were moved away the barracks buildings would collapse. The sailor in the song is resolved to join this happy band.


Cyril Tawney sings The Lean and Unwashed Tiffy

I’m a lean and unwashed tiffy,
I come up from Plymouth Town.
I can fix it in a jiffy
If you’ll hand that spanner down,
If you’ll hand—that spanner down.

Portland girls are raving beauties,
’Specially in the summer time.
They make you curse these week-end duties,
Making love to grease and grime,
Making love—to grease and grime.

I kissed her standing, kissed her lying,
And I called her, “turtle-dove”.
If she’d had wings I’d have kissed her flying;
That’s the way I won my love,
That’s the way—I won my love.

(repeat first verse)

She left me for a wardroom chappie,
She said, “He’s the better man.”
She needs wine to keep her happy,
All I drink is Black-and-Tan,
All I drink—is Black-and-Tan.

I’m going back to Jago’s Mansions
There to end my life on shore.
Join up with them barrack stanchions,
Go R.A. forevermore,
Go R.A—forevermore.

(repeat first verse)