Older readers might remember the radio comedy Round the Horne which featured the rather camp Kenneth Williams and others, which had a regular nine million listeners. One of the features was the performance of “Julian and Sandy”, specialists in the double-entendre, who included some words that were strange to the average listener. These words were Polari, the series marking the high point of public acknowledgement of the language, but also the period during which Polari went into near terminal decline thanks to changes in public acceptance of gay people. And I do mean gay men as Polari was largely a gay male patois though it was understood but rarely used by many lesbians.
Fabulosa! is probably the last word in writing about Polari, the author here acting as a linguist and a historian. Polari was never a full, inflected language, which drew on Cant, Yiddish, Romany, backstage dialect and navy slang, but was primarily a cultural expression of a then marginalised community and a way of communicating secretly to exclude the outsider. A well-known example of a full sentence is “How bona to vada your dolly old eke” (How lovely to see your face/see you again).
Paul Baker analyses the language’s history and its development in the dark days of the first part of last century, giving a useful outline of gay life before partial legalisation and the Gay Liberation Movement.
Polari was particularly strong in gay bars, among camp men and in the drag scene. It hangs on as an historic memory, appearing now and then in documentaries of the period and is honoured by modern mentions including the Polari literary salon and the deliberately outrageous Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, one of whom is pictured here with Derek Jarman.
The author acknowledges that some Polari is at least dated, arguably racist and misogynist by modern standard but for a lot of gay men it was important and was something of its time.