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Fabulosa! by Paul Baker review: a bona history of Polari, Britain's secret gay slang

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Kenneth Williams popularised Polari words in the Sixties BBC radio comedy Round the Horne
Kenneth Williams popularised Polari words in the Sixties BBC radio comedy Round the Horne Credit: BBC

Slang, throughout its history, has given a voice to the margins of language and of society. But it has its own margins too. Beyond the founding vocabulary of criminality, or the vast playground focused on our giblets and their interactions, the form has thrown up such subsets as rhyming slang and back slang (the former still reasonably lively, the latter now wheeled out for cameo appearances only). Alongside them, as further evidence of slang’s intrinsic sedition, is Polari. As Paul Baker subtitles his history of the style, Polari represents “Britain’s secret gay language”.

British? Undoubtedly: of the 1,900-plus terms that appear in Bruce Rodgers’s authoritative (and primarily American) gay lexicon The Queens’ Vernacular (1972), Polari contributes a scant 11. Gay? In looking for its origins, Baker casts his net wide, but as for its users, he agrees that male homosexuals seem to have always had claim to the speech. And secret? Perhaps excessively so: the lexis has rarely been studied. Though quite how secret can a language be when the several million who tuned in weekly to the BBC radio comedy Round the Horne (1965-68) did so to hear the Polari-tinged pleasures of the top-of-the-bill sketch that featured those camper-than-thou actors declaring chirpily: “I’m Julian and this is my friend, Sandy”?

Round the Horne brought Polari to the masses. Yet its popularity came with its decline. By the mid-Sixties, the gay men who had used the slang were beginning to discard it. Its role as a source of rebellion had been usurped. The imminent dawn of unashamed gay liberation saw it off; a world of macho clones (think the Village People) had no time for what Baker terms “a linguistic form of drag”. The Polari world (and words) had been of queens (“the hairdressers, chorus boys and cruise-ship waiters”): clones (“out and proud”) were their antithesis.

Yet Polari, like some admirably resilient weed, will not die. It had a bad Eighties and indifferent Nineties, but the new century has seen a resurgence. Repurposed, perhaps, but far from supine. There is a Polari Bible, a Polari café (sadly defunct), references in pop lyrics, drag queens and a Polari-speaking cult: Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, who in 1991 canonised Derek Jarman.

Polari’s most likely origins lay in the trade jargon, known as lingua franca, literally “language of the Franks”. British sailors, meeting it abroad, brought it home and thence to such onshore workers as pedlars or circus performers. The link between sailors and the stage was certainly established by the 19th century, and can still be seen in a variety of backstage terminology – “flying”, “rigging”– as sailors, with their skills at climbing to precarious heights, were much in demand. The automatic union of the stage and homosexuality (hello, Julian and Sandy), and likewise of sailors (“rum, sodomy and the lash”) and the gay world, is clichéd but unavoidable. So when gay society, driven underground, sought out a secret language, Polari, whether from sailors or scene-shifters, came purpose-built.

It is as much for its vocabulary as for its sociological vagaries that we read Baker’s always illuminating book. Here I would pose a problem. The use of Polari ticks slang’s established boxes: clandestine and little-known, group-orientated (thus drawing a line between the “ins” and “outs”), and offering a way of challenging state oppression. But there is a difference between Polari as a lexis and Polari as a badge of identification: the former has never really taken off, while the latter served a wide constituency. Baker seems to have elided the two: the glossary with which he concludes the book ranges far beyond “core” Polari. “Auntie”, for an older gay man, dates to at least 1910, and while doubtless used in queen-land, is not Polari in the same way as such staples as “bona”, “carsey”, “dolly”, “eek”, “lallies”, “omee-palone” and “riah”.

But slang, wherever its application, doesn’t do ring-fencing. The core bleeds over categories, and adopts what it needs. So bring it on. “You’ve got the campest little bona eke/ And when you vada me it leaves me weak/ Bona eke/ My heart starts a racket every time I see your packet.” Thank you Lee Sutton, queen of Sixties drag. Fabulosa!

Fabulosa! is published by Reaktion at £15.99. To order your copy for £13.99 call 0844 871 1514 or visit the Telegraph Bookshop