Radiant; Polari Bona with Paul Baker

By Mary Wheelehan

“Vada that fortuni molly ajax the cottage.”

“Nanti that. He’s too bona vardering. Must be NTBH.”

“Aunt nell! I’m gonna go polari to the number.”

“Good luck! Meshigener!”

Maybe you understood this conversation between two people discussing the attractive man by the bathroom and whether or not he’s available. More likely, however, you couldn’t make out the meaning behind the code and were left wondering what in the world was going on. That is intentional! This is the secret language of Polari, spoken almost exclusively by gay men in the UK during the beginning of the 20th century. In a fascinating exploration, Paul Baker tells the story of this secret language and its history in his new book, Fabulosa! The Story of Polari, Britain’s Secret Gay Language.

This year is a significant one for the LGBTQ+ community. June marked the fiftieth anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, which took place in Greenwich, New York City in 1969. Patrons of Stonewall Inn overwhelmed an NYPD raid on the gay bar, resisting as the police attempted to arrest them for illegal activity: being gay, trans, or otherwise “deviant”. The riots sparked a new era of the LGBTQ+ rights movement, galvanizing grassroots forces across the world, culminating in the radiantly rainbow Pride movement we recognize today and celebrate each June.

A London Pride event near Regent Street in 2017
Courtesy of MangakaMaiden Photography

But before this, before Stonewall, the LGBTQ+ community existed in a very different way: hidden and disguised, but extravagant nonetheless. Published in August 2019, fifty years after Stonewall, Paul Baker’s new book Fabulosa! The Story of Polari, Britain’s Secret Gay Language reveals a significant part of this underground community: the language of Polari, primarily spoken by gay men in the UK during the first half of the 20th century to conceal their sexual identities.  When non-straight activity was illegal, Polari provided a way of meeting up with some “shamshes”—attractive men—without attracting the attention of the “Betty Bracelets”—the police.

Fabulosa! is a work of nonfiction, academically exploring the origin and linguistics of Polari. The book also offers a more personal story, detailing Baker’s own relationship to the language both as a scholar and as a gay man born well after the need for a secret code had passed. Using interviews, personal testimonies, and artifacts, Baker allows the voices of the past to reconstruct the reality of British gay life in the early 20th century.

 Although Baker provides a compelling history in Fabulosa!, he is still unable to answer a few questions, leaving some of Polari a mystery. We know that Polari existed and was spoken in the UK, but the necessary concealment of LGBTQ+ communities and activity means that it is difficult to estimate exactly how many people used it. This is especially true because, as Baker writes, Polari was different for each of its speakers, used as a few words of bawdy, colorful slang to an entire language of complex code.

Consistent with each use, however, is Polari’s playful tone and what Baker describes as its “anti-language” qualities: its us-against-them rhetoric. Polari is a language created specifically for a marginalized community; speaking it often meant that the ideology of that community—a wariness toward the dominant homophobic society—was communicated as well.

Baker’s Fabulosa!, like Polari itself, is an allusion to another era. Although Polari was widely broadcast as part of a BBC comedy, Round the Horne, in the later 1960s, it is virtually unrecognizable today. Round the Horne actually contributed to Polari’s decline, despite its attempt to include LGBTQ+ representation; as on-air characters Julian and Sandy spoke the language to millions of listeners, it lost its air of communal secrecy. Male homosexuality was decriminalized in 1967, shortly before the end of the show, and time passed on. Slow but significant improvements to the legal and social status of the LGBTQ+ community meant that Polari, with all its deception, might not have been needed any longer.

Decades later, in 2019, many of Polari’s original speakers have died. With so few contemporaneous records of its use, the language was on the verge of oblivion. And yet, sixty-six years after the imagined Polari conversation that opens Baker’s book, fifty years after Stonewall, we are reading Fabulosa!, and learning the story of the UK’s secret gay language. This, perhaps more than anything else, is the goal of Fabulosa!: to tell the stories of Polari speakers, welcoming them and all of their creative speech into the new, radiant world of Pride.

Photo courtesy of Michael Ruiz

Fabulosa! The Story of Polari, Britain’s Secret Gay Language is available wherever books are sold, and here at Reaktion Books.

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