Fabulosa!: The Story of Polari by Paul Baker — Thom Cuell

In the beginning Gloria created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was nanti form, and void; and munge was upon the eke of the deep. And the Fairy of Gloria trolled upon the eke of the aquas.

In the beginning was thieves cant, a criminal slang dating back to Elizabethan times. Then Molly slang, from the Georgian period, and Parlyaree, primarily spoken by peddlars and circus people, which had a strong Italian influence, thanks to an unusually high number of Italian Punch and Judy professors and organ grinders arriving in Britain in the mid nineteenth century (yes, really. Imagine what the Daily Mail would say). Polari borrowed from all these sources, adding in bits of rhyming and back slang, terms from the theatre and from Mediterranean sailors.

I first learned about polari when I was 9 or 10, listening to tapes of the radio comedy Round the Horne. The sketch show, originally broadcast in 1965, featured Kenneth Williams and Hugh Paddick playing Julian and Sandy, a polari-speaking pair of stereotypical ‘resting actors’ who embarked on a series of doomed ventures, appearing as travel agents or circus empresarios. Later, when polari phrases cropped up in songs by Morrissey (before he was Bad) and scenes in Velvet Goldmine, I felt an instant connection to a hidden lineage. Recognising the phrases meant being in the know, part of a group; for someone who was experimenting with make-up and cross dressing in a grim northern industrial town, it was a connection to something bigger, a secret history to carry inside.

***

‘We’ve got a criminal practice that takes up most of our time… we’ve handled the most unusual briefs’

Polari is a vocabulary of alertness, whether to beauty (‘varda the bona omi’s dolly eek’) or danger (‘gardy loo – nanti polari, charpering omi ajax’). It uses compounds which are playfully literal – spectacles become ‘oglefakes’ or fake eyes, a policeman is a ‘charpering omi’, a man who searches. Some phrases are pleasingly musical (a poorly endowed man has ‘nada to varda in the larder’), others are utterly obtuse (‘order lau your luppers on the strillers bona’ – I’ll leave that translation for later). Much of the language is functional, and physical; by Paul Baker’s estimation, around 20% of polari nouns refer to body parts, and of these, one third relate to the face, and another third to the genitals. The grammar is idiosyncratic at best, often relying on context; for example, the word ‘dowry’ is used as a magnifier. If a lattie is a house, a dowry lattie is a big house and the dowriest lattie would be a palace. It’s also not terribly precise; distances, for example, are limited to ‘ajax’ and ‘nanti ajax’.

There is a debate as to whether polari is a language at all. Baker suggests it might better be understood as an anti-language, ‘used by people who are somehow apart from mainstream society

There is a debate as to whether polari is a language at all. Baker suggests it might better be understood as an anti-language, ‘used by people who are somehow apart from mainstream society, either residing on the edge of it, perhaps frowned on in some way, or hidden away or even criminalised, with attempts from the mainstream to expel or contain them’. Anti-languages typically encode a counter-cultural or subversive attitude, with mocking words for the police, and members of ‘straight’ society. In this way, the anti-language also encodes an attitude, and a way of being, as well as a lexicon. The use of polari pre-supposes a set of shared interests and experiences, whilst also acting as a shibboleth.

While we might now see polari terms as an adornment to our speech, and focus on the wit encoded within it, it is vital to remember that it developed at least in part as a defence mechanism, a way for members of a persecuted group to communicate. Polari was most prominent in the 1950s and 60s, during which time homosexual acts between men were criminal, even in private. Although use of polari waned after the Sexual Offences Act of 1967, it was still employed by groups whose activities brought them into contact with the law after this time: for example, Jeremy Reed records the use of an evolved form of polari by male sex workers in Piccadilly during the 1970s, a time of intense police surveillance.

As previously noted, polari works to both enlighten and conceal. This is particularly notable when looking at its most famous exponents, Julian and Sandy. With an audience of millions, Julian and Sandy performed a version of counter-cultural identity for a mainstream audience. While the pair were presented as amusing rather than threatening, their portrayal is distinctly more subversive than that of, say John Inman’s Mr Humphreys in Are You Being Served. Baker notes that the pair are ‘daring in their suggestions of relationships with other men, and offer hints regarding a network of fictional gay establishments’. This is even bolder as, at the time, the BBC, and in particular Director General Hugh Greene, was under severe pressure from Mary Whitehouse, who scrutinised their output for the merest hint of indecency.

Julian and Sandy demonstrate the subversive strength of polari, using the language as a trojan horse to sneak risqué content past the likes of Whitehouse, to the (unofficial) delight of Greene. And some of their output was genuinely bold; heavily reliant of double entendre, the pair make numerous references to their illegal status. In one sketch, in which the pair are acting as solicitors, they refer to their ‘criminal practice’; in another, in which they are homeopaths, they declare that they are ‘not recognised by any doctors’. In a third, they ask literal straight man Kenneth Horne whether they can interest him in a wig; he responds ‘not me, but you might interest the chief of police’. These sorts of barbs undercut the image of camp comedians as ‘Uncle Toms’, presenting an acceptable form of sexuality for a mainstream audience. Even more surprisingly, Baker learns that the pair often improvised their dialogue, meaning that queer performers were dropping in phrases that the show’s writers didn’t understand, shaping their own presentation. While Julian and Sandy used a fairly abridged version of polari, around 40 words or phrases understandable through context, they would occasionally employ more complex language, such as Paddick telling Williams to play something nice on the piano: ‘order lau your luppers on the strillers bona’.

Round the Horne ended suddenly in 1969 after the death of Kenneth Horne, and polari itself didn’t last much longer; the passage of the Sexual Offences Act in 1967 had removed much of the imperative for using the language, and while its use was still habitual among older speakers, it fell out of step with the Gay Liberation movement. In the 1970s, camp, and by extension polari, became seen as problematic; following Susan Sontag’s definition of camp as disengaged or apolitical, the Gay Liberation Front Manifesto, published in 1971, declared that ‘those gay men and women caught up in the femme role must realise… that any security this brings is more than offset by the loss of freedom’. This was reinforced by writers such as the feminist Mary McIntosh, writing for Lunch magazine in 1972, who called camp ‘a form of minstrellisation’ and Polari ‘a product of a culture that is deeply ambivalent’. While polari had bite in the hands of some speakers, it was seen as overly defensive, while terms such as ‘omipalone’ or ‘manwoman’ to denote homosexual was criticised for portraying gay men as necessarily feminine. While the shifting political landscape, and newfound confidence of the Gay Liberation movement played a part in polari’s loss of popularity, Baker also identifies the effect of ‘cultural cringe’ – the language was seen as old hat, the preserve of fusty and out of date characters.

***

And when she thus had cackled, she screeched with a loud cackling fakement, Lazarus, troll forth.

One test of a language is the range of emotions and artistic ideas which they can be used to express. LL Zamenhof, the creator of Esperanto, published translations of Shakespeare as a means of promoting his language, and gaining cultural capital for it. Similarly, in recent years the playwright Ken Campbell translated Macbeth into Pidgin, as part of an effort to have it adapted as a global lingua franca. Although polari was previously known in the mainstream as a source of light entertainment in Round the Horne, and in other circles as a means of evading police, in 2003 the Manchester branch of drag activists The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence began work on a grand scheme to elevate polari: a full translation of the King James Bible.

In the introduction to the polari bible’s first edition, Sister Matic de Bauchery notes that the King James Version ‘has become a watchword for the majesty and power of its language. Vulgarising it by translating it in to Polari would be an act of cultural vandalism akin to translation in to Scots. But good taste has never yet limited the Sisters’ activities, so we did it anyway.’ Working with a crack (addled) team of linguists and computer scientists, the Sisterhood created a program which used over 800 rules to transform the language of the KJV into something approaching that of Julian and Sandy. This required a degree of formalisation, and a certain amount of borrowing from other sources, leading to the creation of a new strain, High Polari, which is also used by the Sisters in their subversive rituals (which included the canonisation of Derek Jarman, described by Baker in one of Fabulosa’s most moving sections).

Although the Polari bible is presented with the Sisters’ trademark irreverence (the frontispiece notes that it is ‘appointed to be used in Turkish baths and discotheques’, and that it was produced in Manchester, ‘a notorious hotbed of the sin of sodom’), it also performs an important cultural function. In 2012, a bound volume of the Bible was created and displayed in John Rylands Library, alongside a 1455 Gutenberg Bible and a fragment of John’s Gospel from circa 457 CE, placing it in a continuum of holy texts. And although high polari might bear as little relation to the spoken language as Shakespeare’s soliloquies did to day-to-day Elizabethan conversation, there is beauty and sophistication in verses like ‘And Gloria screeched the sparkle journo, and the munge she screeched nochy. And the bijou nochy and the morning were the first journo’, or ‘And her name through faith in her name hath made this homie butch, whom ye varda and know: any road up, the faith which is by her hath parkered her this absolutely fantabulosa soundness in the presence of you all.

This coincided with a wider revival of interest in polari; as a young academic, Baker published a polari dictionary, and the artist Jez Dolan used polari in a series of events in the North West, including projecting polari phrases onto Bury Town Hall. There is a long-standing LGBT literary salon names Polari, which has also given its name to a prestigious annual award, and next year the author Richard Milward is scheduled to publish a novel in polari. Baker also notes the appropriation of the language by high end fashion labels and London bars, in an unlikely reversal of fortunes for the clandestine language. That’s not to say that polari had become totally rarefied; The Polari Lounge was a welcome addition to Stoke-on-Trent’s gay scene in 2010, acting as a bar, meeting place and community hub. Although Baker’s account of his own visit there was not a happy one, it’s hard to overstate how important its presence felt in the middle of the decaying high street. Polari was proudly visible at last, its reach extended beyond the major cities and ports. As the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence say, ‘if decades of homophobic pressure had failed to defeat camp, what chance did a mere reorganization of subcultural priorities stand?’

***

And Gloria vardad every fakement that she had made, and, varda, it was dowry bona. And the bijou nochy and the morning were the seyth journo.

Fabulosa attempts to bridge the gap between Baker’s academic work and a more popular approach to Polari, and largely succeeds. He is especially strong on the changing attitude towards polari within the gay community in the 70s and 80s, and on the important reclamation performed by The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. While the subject of Julian and Sandy is well-trodden ground, his approach feels fresh, and the personal interludes add to the narrative without being overly intrusive. Fabulosa is also an excellent primer for would-be polari speakers. To test the theory, I went to a party last weekend and tried to give a couple of doctors the basics of the language. I think the lessons went well; if your GP ever asks you to take your shirt off so they can nellyarda your thumping cheat, you know who to blame.


Paul Baker is professor of English language at Lancaster University. He has written sixteen books, including American and British English and, with Jo Stanley, Hello Sailor! He regularly gives talks and workshops about Polari and is a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.

Thom Cuell is a bona screever with a dolly eek. You can varda the fruits of his acting dickeys at 3am Magazine, the dowry anthology We’ll Never Have Paris, and the cottage at the Star and Garter. He is co-founder of the bijou publisher-ette Dodo Ink, where he parkers nouveau fiction, and that’s your actual French.

Image: Hello Sailor, John D Fisher, Creative Commons