Fabulosa!: The Story of Polari, Britain’s Secret Gay Language
Paul Baker recounts the story of Polari with skill, humour, and tenderness. He traces its historical origins and describes its linguistic nuts and bolts, explores the ways and the environments in which it was spoken, explains the reasons for its decline, and tells of its unlikely reemergence in the twenty-first century.
Hi Paul thank you for talking to TNC, how are you holding up during the lockdown?
I work from home half the time so I’m lucky to have an established routine there. I’m buying too much stuff online but at least I’m not missing any parcel deliveries at the moment. I’m lucky to be locked down with the man I love (whose Dorothy Zbornak-like wisecracks appear a few times in Fabulosa) and he is keeping me grounded very nicely.
Is this time providing you with some new creative inspiration or challenges?
I wish I could say I had invented a new flavour of ice-cream or philosophical concept but I’m afraid I’ve been rather uninspired these last few weeks and have been taking refuge in novels, old sitcoms and computer games when not working. Managing my ever-growing hair has been quite the challenge though.
Last year you released your latest book Fabulosa! The Story of Polari, Britain's Secret Gay Language and the response was amazing, did you imagine you would get the reaction you got for this book?
I was pleasantly surprised as people wrote such bona things about it in newspapers and I got invited to give lots of talks on it. My favourite involved a sort of soirée at the British Library which was hosted by old lady Cockney drag queen Ida Barr who performed an amazing rap in Polari and brought the house down. My calendar got so full at one point that I had to splash out on a new suit from somewhere called Banana Republic (the sort of thing that Henry Cavil wore in The Man From UNCLE) – which is unusual as academics aren’t really supposed to think about clothes.
As a linguist what is it about Polari that interests you so much?
Several things – the variety of sources that the speakers liberally borrowed from, and how to tease them all apart; the creativity of the speakers in combining words to refer to new concepts; the fact that it died off so quickly and in such unique circumstances, then it had this strange revival of interest; the puzzle over whether it was a proper language or not and why nobody I spoke to could really agree on all the words, what they mean and how they were pronounced or spelt. The book tries to address all those issues.
When did you first discover Polari?
I was in my early 20s and a friend called Julian put on a cassette of some 1960s radio sketches featuring Julian and Sandy from Round the Horne (the camp characters who introduced Polari to the public). It was charming and silly and demonstrated a very British kind of mid-century humour – surreal mixed with outrageous innuendo, at once both utterly safe and but also rather dangerous if you can decipher the hidden meanings. I’m listening to an episode of Round the Horne every evening at the moment during lockdown. It’s a great way to relax before bedtime. They inspired me to find out more about the language.
Can you tell me how Fabulosa! come about, did you know much about Polari before you started your research for the book?
Well, I did my PhD focussing on Polari in the late 1990s/early 2000s and published my thesis as an academic book, along with a dictionary around 2002. Then I became a lecturer and moved on to look at other stuff, but funnily enough, people kept wanting me to talk about Polari so I’d been giving public talks and workshops on the subject over the last decade. When Reaktion Press got in touch with me to write a book aimed at a wider audience I jumped at the chance – almost 20 years had passed since I’d finished the PhD, and people had been doing a lot of interesting things with Polari over that period. I’d also been able to find out even more about the language too through people getting in touch with me. So it was good to write a more “chatty” sort of book with lots of pictures and also talk a bit about what it was like to research it over all these years.
During your research what was the interesting thing you discovered about Polari?
It was really the discovery of this secret gay world of the 1950s and 1960s and how Polari helped to facilitate that by allowing people to engage in secret conversations in public places - how learning Polari and being “christened” with a camp name was a way of joining that community. I was also struck by the creativity and sense of humour of the people who spoken it, they laughed in the face of very difficult circumstances and showed remarkable sang froid.
There is a similarity between Polari and Cockney Rhyming Slang did this similarity help to keep this secret language under the radar?
There are a few Cockney Rhyming Slang words that some Polari speakers used, like minces (eyes), plates (feet), Irish (wig). I think they’d have to be a bit careful about having too many, especially if they were speaking Polari in London, because a lot of Londoners would have known those words too. The trick to Polari was throwing in words from lots of different origins – that way hardly anybody would be able to translate all of them.
How much a role did the popularity of Julian & Sandy from Round the Horne play in help in the decline of Polari's use in the 1960s?
I think that by the late 1960s Polari was already starting to be seen as a bit old-fashioned among gay circles and in some ways Julian and Sandy helped to give it a bit of a mini revival, although at the same time, hastened its demise because it spoiled the secret by revealing Polari to the public. The late ‘60s were a time of immense social change in the UK and there was less of a need or desire for secrecy after decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1967. Polari was starting to be seen as a bit silly and politically incorrect too.
"...I think it’s still very much associated with a camp, gay identity – that might be one which wider numbers of people are more accepting of now, but I don’t think that will necessarily mean they will all start adopting it themselves."
Though Polari might not be used as a secret language anymore it has continued to be used and adapted, what is the appeal of Polari for creative people?
It harkens back to quite a glamorous yet also secretive world that held dangers so there’s a kind of retro appeal to it. It conjures up a long gone forgotten world which is different from 21st century gay life in so many ways but also contains a few recognisable qualities. Linguistically, it’s a very adaptable language that speakers were constantly changing and updating, inventing new words all the time, so it kind of has this inbuilt expectation of creativity. It’s funny and entertaining but can also be used in hurtful, objectifying and offensive ways so there are contradictions to it. A lot to get your teeth into.
Is there a risk that the more popular or mainstream Polari might become with its continued insurgence the further away from the gay community it could become?
I’m not sure it will ever become mainstream – it still has the power to cause trouble. A religious ceremony conducted in it a few years ago resulted in an official apology from the church! And I think it’s still very much associated with a camp, gay identity – that might be one which wider numbers of people are more accepting of now, but I don’t think that will necessarily mean they will all start adopting it themselves.
Finally, do you have a favourite Polari expression?
“Your corybungus is covered in fungus” is one of the lines from the rap song that Ida Barr did in Polari. It always makes me laugh.