Review | Fabulosa! The Story of Britain’s Secret Gay Language by Paul Baker

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Derek Jarman and a Sister of Perpetual Indulgence (London branch) during his canonization, Dungeness, 1991. Photograph courtesy and © Gordon Rainsford from his Archive at the Bishopsgate Institute.

Fabulosa! The Story of Britain’s Secret Gay Language, Paul Baker, Reaktion Books, 2019, pp. 320, £15.99 (Hardcover)

Polari is a language that was used mainly by gay men— camp gay men— in the first half of the twentieth century. They were a group of people living on the margins of society, at risk of attack or prison— or worse.  During those decades, thousands of gay people were convicted for their sexuality. There are stories of attractive policemen luring men into sexual contact and then clocking up the arrests. In January 1952, Alan Turing, the man who had cracked Germany’s Enigma machine codes in the Second World War, was prosecuted and forced to accept chemical castration as an alternative to prison— he grew breasts and became impotent. It was from this climate of state oppression that Polari, a flamboyant language of laughter and fun, came into its own. It was a safe space, writes Baker, ‘a careful way of coming out of the closet, or at least of opening the closet door a crack.’ Code words could be shrugged off as a misunderstanding if someone got the wrong idea— you could quickly start speaking about a tent if talk of ‘camping about’ was met with confusion.

Fabulosa! dives deep into Polari’s colourful linguistic and historical roots. It’s likely that what later became known as Polari, Baker informs us, was influenced by earlier forms of language from Lingua Franca to prostitute’s slang. Baker also touches on its criminal origins— one secret form of language known as cant, which was used by criminals in the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries. Compound terms such as ‘bevvy omee’, a drunkard, and ‘kosher omee’, a Jewish man, link cant to Polari (omee meant man).

A group existing alongside cant speakers were known as Mollies— a group of men interested in sex with men who existed around spaces known as Molly Houses. Baker informs us that some Molly words can also be traced through to Polari slang, including trade (a masculine sexual partner) and to be picked up (to find a partner). Mollies also used the term queen to refer to each other— which is also used in Polari. ‘Where have you been you saucy queen?’ is apparently attributed to a Molly.

Baker also examines Polari’s usage, and its cast of drag queens, sailors and prostitutes. Polari was thrust into the limelight in the mid 1960s by the Julian and Sandy sketches. In the sketch ‘Rentachap’, Baker informs us that the seemingly innocent phrase ‘we couldn’t wash up in here. All the dishes are dirty’ takes on a different and much ruder meaning revolving around the word dish (take a guess) in Polari. Baker dedicates a whole chapter to ‘How to Polari Bona’, fleshing out different types of words that were used, and touching on intonation, accent and grammar. Dragged out vowel sounds and exclamations were an essential part of speaking Polari. It was a language of drama. As Baker puts it, Polari was “a parody of how women talk taken to a hilarious extreme– a linguistic form of drag”.

But if Baker captures the humour at the heart of Polari, he also delves into its problematic politics and limitations. Linguistic drag, with its pronoun switching, raised questions of what role gay men had for women in their world view. Were gay men parodying women in a way that bordered on the offensive? Did it make them complicit in their own oppression? There was also the problem that Polari made a joke out of everything— did it have limitations when it came to serious topics? Baker attempt to deal with these questions.

Polari began to fizzle out with legalisation in 1967, and in the struggle for equality, camp was seen as reductive. Instead, the Gay Liberation Front Manifesto of 1971 argued gay people should be outside the boundaries of the gender system. However, if Polari was seen as silly and even politically incorrect in the 1970s, it made its comeback in the 1970s. Baker’s later chapters explore its resurgence in gay rights campaigns and as a protest during the HIV-AIDS crisis. Baker uses the example of camp being deployed at funerals of gay men who had died of HIV-AIDS. It was a combination of outrage and celebration— a fabulous deployment of humour to get the message across.

Baker tells the history of Polari with pride, passion and humour, making clear that camp can be ‘deliciously political’. Fabulosa! is an important celebration of Polari’s message— which is about laughing at your flaws, creating hope from tragedy, and seeing humour in the face of cruelty and oppression. That was the message of Polari speakers in the 1950s, and one that the activists of the 1990s reclaimed. Polari was a funny and filthy language of protest. More recently, it has been deployed in highbrow literary circles, graced the menus of the hippest cocktail bars in London, and is on the lips of authors and playwrights. As Baker puts it: “As dead languages go, Polari is having a pretty fabulous afterlife and is now mixing with a much swankier set of posh queens”.


Fabulosa! : The Story of Britain’s Secret Gay Language is out now from Reaktion Books.
Words by Molly Moss.


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