Cyril Tawney (1930-2005)

Article excerpt

'The brother, son, grandson, and great-grandson of navy men, Cyril Tawney was born at Gosport on 12 October 1930. By the age of nine, thanks to Sunday evening strolls with his father, 'a true denizen of Old Portsmouth', he was steeped in local lore: 'I would jeer with derision at the historical inaccuracy of the famous painting of Nelson's last departure down the steps of Sally Port. Any Pomponian knew that the great man actually made a "pop star" exit out the back of the George Hotel and cut across to a waiting boat on Southsea Common. I knew that Ratsey's had made the Victory's sails and the local rumour held that their loft contained what was left of the mainsail.' With such a background, it is not surprising that Cyril, a week before his sixteenth birthday, joined the navy himself, as an artificer apprentice. (At the outbreak of war he had been evacuated to Hambledon, and returned three and a half years later to complete his education at Gosport Grammar School.)

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In 1949, having been captivated by the songs and singing style of Burl Ives, whom he had seen in films, Cyril started writing songs, of which the first to find an enduring place in his repertoire was 'Five Foot Flirt' (1950), an attempt at an English counterpart to the American 'Cigareets and Whisky' (by Red Ingle). In 1955, two years after being drafted into submarines, he was posted to Malta, where he wrote for and took part in naval shows, and began singing to his own guitar accompaniment. On a visit to London in 1956 he sang at an EFDSS folk festival, and as a result was invited to make his radio debut--singing 'I wonder as I wander'--in a nationwide hook-up on Christmas Day 1957, presented by Alan Lomax and produced by Charles Parker, himself an ex-submariner. A good deal more radio and television followed, accompanied by a remarkable surge of songwriting, which produced 'Cheering the Queen', 'Diesel and Shale', 'The Ballad of Sammy's Bar', 'Chicken on a Raft', 'Grey Funnel Line', and 'Sally Free and Easy' (the last of these partly inspired by W. …