If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.

- George Washington

Monday, 21 March 2011

An Ode to Woad

The existence of the internet, and Wikipedia in particular, have made a significant change to my life and the way I think. What I like, in the absence of any term more accurate, to call my 'brain' has a habit of randomly recalling tiny scraps of memory - a few words from a book or a poem, a few notes from a song - and then moving on to more important matters, like lunch. Before the interwebs, I would give a half-smile and then forget it. Nowadays, I rush to Google or whatever, and look it up. I then find - if I am lucky - every single detail of the memory, and more besides, and I feel that life isn't quite so transitory as I thought. Or that I wasn't imagining things, which is just as important.

When I was doing a year of teacher training, I shared a house with (amongst others) a very interesting chap. He was small, bespectacled and impressively-bearded, and had studied Music at Edinburgh. He was prodigiously talented and had (memory tells me) conducted choirs at the Three Choirs Festival, working with Donald Hunt OBE. He was also good company, in an undemanding and faintly academic way. He had a repertory of songs with which he used to accompany himself while performing routine tasks like washing up - mainly things like Flanders and Swann, but occasionally more recondite material. He had one, a parody set to the tune of Men of Harlech, which had me in fits every time he sang it, but I could only remember one line. That line, of course, barged unannounced into my forebrain this afternoon and I had to look it up.

It was written (thank you, Wikipedia) by an Etonian schoolmaster called William Hope-Jones in about 1914, and was later published in the 1921 Hackney Scout Songbook (if you want to check your copy, feel free; I'll wait). I think it's a minor masterpiece.

What's the use of wearing braces?
Spats and hats and boots with laces?
Vests and pants you buy in places
Down on Brompton Road?

What's the use of shirts of cotton?
Studs that always get forgotten?
These affairs are simply rotten,
Better far is woad.

Woad's the stuff to show men.
Woad to scare your foemen.
Boil it to a brilliant hue
And rub it on your back and your abdomen.

Ancient Briton ne'er did hit on
Anything as good as woad to fit on
Neck or knees or where you sit on.
Tailors you be blowed!!


Romans came across the channel
All dressed up in tin and flannel
Half a pint of woad per man'll
Clothe us more than these.

Saxons you can waste your stitches
Building beds for bugs in britches
We have woad to clothe us which is
Not a nest for fleas

Romans keep your armours.
Saxons your pyjamas.
Hairy coats were made for goats,
Gorillas, yaks, retriever dogs and llamas.

March on Snowdon with your woad on,
Never mind if you get rained or snowed on
Never want a button sewed on
If you stick to woad.
Normal service, etc.


  1. Yesterday, I had the unique pleasure and excitement of dying with woad in Elysian Park in Los Angeles and taught by a French woman visiting from Toulouse. All you need is woad!

  2. I truly hope that was a typo, and you meant 'dyeing'. It sounds like a great day.

    French women and body-painting. What's not to like, as they say?

  3. How embarrassing...yes, dyeing. No body-painting...just lots of white cloth turned many shades of gorgeous blue.

  4. Heh. The body-painting reference was to the Celts, who seem to have the Frenchwoman issue sorted.


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