Lead book review

Polari, the secret gay argot, is making a surprising comeback

22 June 2019

9:00 AM

22 June 2019

9:00 AM

Imagine you’re a gay man living in the year 1950. Not unnaturally, you would like to meet another gay man. How to identify yourself to a potential partner? A confession might bring the police; dressing and carrying yourself in distinctive ways will invite ridicule or violence in the street. The solution is this: you casually remark to a stranger that the pub you are both in is ‘naff’. He looks up, and before you know it, you’re talking like this:

‘Pauline? Can’t swing a cat but hit a cove. She’s had nanti bully fake. Dyed her riah, her end’s a right mess.’
‘Nanti bona. I hope she vaggeried straight to the crimper.’
‘Well that’s where she’d been. The palone tried to give her an Irish. Moultee palaver.Pauline told her to shove her shyckle up her khyber.’

This is taken from Putting on the Dish, a brilliant 2015 short film recreation by ‘Brian and Karl’ of the secret speech of gay men before 1960. Known as Polari, it flourished as an initial signal between outlaws and as a method of talking intended to be unintelligible to outsiders. It is, in linguistic terms, a criminal argot, like Verlan in French; probably not quite a language, and certainly nobody ever spoke it exclusively.

Nevertheless, the ways it has reached us, in occasional performances by the now very old, don’t quite convey the extent and improvisational quality that took it well beyond a mere collection of slang terms. We know that gay men could hold long conversations in it, shaping grammar in unusual ways and creating new lexical items on the hoof. The fact is that nobody tried to describe it until it had almost died, and then most attempts amounted merely to lists of vocabulary.

It might be best not to think of it as a language, nor just as a collection of abstruse slang words, but as what linguistics calls ‘a pidgin’; a version of a language improvised for a particular functional purpose, and in time turning into a ‘creole’, or language spoken by its users from birth. Obviously this would never have happened to Polari; but just as Tok Pisin, a Papuan creole, describes the Duke of Edinburgh as ‘oldfella Pili-Pili him bilong Misis Kwin’, so an adept Polari-speaker might express ‘that woman is giving me dirty looks’ not by substituting slang for orthodox vocabulary but by reconstructing the grammar as ‘palone vadas omee-palone very cod’. There are other glimpses of grammatical innovation. ‘Nanti’ is a sort of general negative that can also be used as an imperative — ‘nanti polari’: ‘don’t say anything’ — as well as ‘nanti dinarly’: ‘I don’t have any money’, and, concisely but irrationally, ‘nanti that’: ‘forget it’, or perhaps ‘sod it’.

Where did it come from? There are elements in the preserved vocabulary that suggest connections with immigrant communities, especially Yiddish (‘shyckle’ for ‘wig’), Italian (‘omi’ for ‘man’) and Romany (‘vada’ or ‘varda’ for ‘look at’ — from ‘warda’, ‘take care’). There is a staggeringly implausible anecdote in Paul Baker’s Fabulosa! about two queens in a Roman shoe shop discussing the sexy assistant in (they thought) impenetrable Polari, only to be greeted with ‘grazie mille, signori’.

Some other elements were taken from cockney, including rhyming slang and back slang, in which words are spelt backwards. ‘Eek’ (or ‘eke’) for ‘face’ is short for the original ‘ecaf’. But where Polari begins and ends is a vexed question. A lot of its characteristic flavour comes from the use of ordinary English vocabulary with specific secret meanings, and particular, apparently orthodox, turns of phrase — such as ‘That’s your actual French’.

The facetious talk of urban gay men goes back a long way. Peter Ackroyd has drawn our attention to a trial in 1726 in which the men are reported to have said things like ‘Oh, you bold pullet, I’ll break all your eggs!’ and ‘Where have you been, you saucy queen?’. Polari, however, probably only started to emerge in the late 19th century — Dickens would surely have been interested in it had it been around much earlier. But the period of its most general use was between the second world war and the 1970s, when active persecution of gay men was at its height and the need for secrecy and coded identification at its most urgent.

Baker’s intriguing and often amusing book is the work of a writer interested in language who has been led by his subject to think about social oppression. The relationship between the argot and attempts to eradicate its speakers is inescapable, and Baker writes well about the milieux in which Polari flourished — the theatre and the merchant navy. He is especially acute on the political uses of vulgar innuendo. When the popular radio programme Round the Horne created the two chorus boys Julian and Sandy, they escaped the attentions of Mrs Whitehouse because their worst obscenities were couched in perfectly innocent English. In the sketch ‘Bona Law’, featuring them as lawyers, Julian remarks: ‘We’ve got a criminal practice that takes up most of our time.’ They certainly deserve an award for succeeding in getting a reference to the recherché sexual practice of bukakke on to the radio in the early 1960s with the innocent remark: ‘The party’s over, it’s all over my friend.’

There are glimpses of Polari elsewhere. Rodney Ackland’s fascinating 1951 Soho play Absolute Hell contains a flash of unmistakable bad-taste Polari wit when Maurice, a queen bored by a soldier talking earnestly about what he saw in Belsen, says:

Someone minced up to me the other night and said ‘Ooh, I couldn’t sleep all night for thinking of that ghastly horror camp.’ I thought he meant Cyril Clatworthy.

(In reality, Maurice would have said ‘she’, of course.) It surfaces in some very unexpected places, including in a 1970s episode of Doctor Who, as intergalactic theatrical types chatter boldly. Baker has done well, too, to excavate some long-ago drag acts and to extract convincing accounts from reliable witnesses, of whom Paul O’Grady, the man behind Lily Savage, is one of the best.

The truth of the matter is that Round the Horne, with its huge audience, played a large part in killing off Polari. After Julian and Sandy, the man behind you on the bus might not follow exactly what you were saying but he would understand very well what you were. After the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1967, Gay Liberation had no time for concealment and dissembling; many gay men in the 1970s took the view that it was best to behave exactly as the heterosexual world. The argot fell largely into desuetude.

Strikingly, one of the most brilliant records of the way urban gay men talked in the early 1980s, a book called Queens by ‘Pickles’, published in 1982, has hardly any use for Polari; the characters might call each other ‘she’, but almost all the classic vocabulary had by then quite disappeared.

Baker’s story takes a curious final turn. In recent years, the community has rather taken up the idea of camp as a radical gesture, and some quite serious efforts have been made to bring Polari back from the dead. Paul Burston’s gay and lesbian literary salon at the Southbank Centre is actually called Polari. People have tried to learn the language and discourse in it, much as Hebrew or Irish Gaelic were revived for reasons of political identity. Attempts have been made to broaden its application, including, astonishingly, to religious and sacramental functions. A Polari Evensong was held in Oxford in 2017, causing a terrible row, and the Bible has been rendered in it:

And Gloria cackled, Let there be sparkle: and there was sparkle. And Gloria vardad the sparkle, that it was bona: and Gloria medzered the sparkle from the munge.

Criminal argots are always fascinating and peculiar, and this one, with its astonishing verve and lewdness, its harmless and insistent lechery, has a ludicrous charm too. Its witnesses and practitioners clearly still feel it, and Baker’s interviews radiate warmth and good humour. Even if, like me, you are exactly the wrong age to be speaking it, it’s quite possible, walking in the street, to remark to your friend, ‘Don’t fancy the one you’re getting, dear’, or to mount the occasional small-scale revival of the deathless banter in Round the Horne:

Sandy: ‘We got it from our special charcuterie.’Mr Horne: ‘Charcuterie?’
Sandy: ‘Hm.’
Mr Horne: ‘Your butcher?’
Julian: ‘Oh, do you think so? It must be the way I’ve had my hair done.’

Fabulosa! The Story of Polari, Britain’s Secret Gay Language
Author: Paul Baker
Publisher: Reaktion Books
Page count: 320
Price: £15.99

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