REVIEW: Fabulosa! Paul Baker’s the Story of Britain’s Secret Gay Language

REVIEW: Fabulosa! Paul Baker's the Story of Britain's Secret Gay Language

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! Paul Baker, The Story of Britain’s Secret Gay Language, Reaktion Books, 2019, 320 pages (Hardcover)

Polari was largely spoken by homosexual men, particularly camp gay men, during the early half of the twentieth century. They were a group of individuals who lived on society’s margins, subject to violence, incarceration, or worse. Thousands of LGBT persons were convicted for being gay over those decades. There have been instances of hot officers seducing men into sexual intercourse before arresting them. Alan Turing, who cracked Germany’s Enigma machine codes during WWII, was prosecuted in January 1952 and compelled to choose chemical castration as an alternative to prison—he developed breasts and became impotent as a result.

Polari, a colorful language of laughing and joy, sprang from this oppressive state atmosphere. Baker refers to it as a “safe area,” as well as a “careful manner of coming out of the closet, or at least of opening the closet door a bit.” If someone misinterpreted code phrases, they might be dismissed as a misunderstanding—you could swiftly start talking about a tent if mention of ‘camping around’ was received with uncertainty.

Fabulosa! delves deeply into Polari’s rich linguistic and historical roots. Baker argues that Polari was inspired by older types of language such as Lingua Franca and prostitute’s slang. Baker also addresses cant, a hidden type of language employed by criminals from the fifteenth through the eighteenth century. Cant and Polari are linked through compound phrases such as ‘bevvy omee,’ a drunk, and ‘kosher omee,’ a Jewish guy (omee meant man).

Mollies were a group of males who wanted to have sex with other men and gathered at Molly Houses, which existed alongside cant speakers. According to Baker, numerous Molly terms, such as trade (a manly sexual partner) and to be picked up, may be traced back to Polari slang (to find a partner). Mollies often referred to one another as queens, a term used in Polari. ‘Where have you been, saucy queen?’ is said to be credited to Molly.

Baker also looks at the usage of Polari, as well as its ensemble of drag queens, sailors, and prostitutes. Polari shot to fame in the mid-1960s because to the Julian and Sandy drawings. In the sketch ‘Rentachap,’ Baker reminds us that the seemingly harmless remark ‘we couldn’t wash up in here. The phrase “all the dishes are dirty” takes on a new and more ruder connotation in Polari, based on the word dish (take a guess).

Baker gives an entire chapter to ‘How to Polari Bona,’ delving into the many sorts of words employed as well as intonation, accent, and syntax. Polari speech was distinguished by lengthy vowels and exclamations. It was a theatrical language. Polari was “a wonderful caricature of how women talk—a linguistic type of drag,” according to Baker.

Polari’s hilarity is captured by Baker, but he also goes into its problematic politics and constraints. Linguistic drag, with its pronoun flipping, prompted concerns about the position of women in the worldview of homosexual males. Were homosexual guys making sexually explicit jokes about women? Was that enough to turn them become collaborators in their own oppression? Polari also made a comedy out of everything—did it have any limitations when it came to serious subjects? Baker attempts to address these problems.

After legalization in 1967, Polari began to disappear, and camp was regarded as reductive in the quest for equality. The LGBT Liberation Front Manifesto of 1971, on the other hand, claimed that gay people should be free of the gender system. Polari, on the other hand, which was deemed ridiculous and even politically wrong in the 1970s, made a resurgence in the 1970s. Baker’s latter chapters examine its resurgence in LGBT rights movements and as a form of protest amid the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Baker uses the funerals of homosexual men who died of HIV/AIDS as an example of a camp being set up. The use of comedy to express the message was wonderful, blending fury with joy.

Baker narrates 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 of laughing at your shortcomings, finding hope in tragedy, and finding comedy in the face of violence and persecution. That was the message of Polari speakers in the 1950s, which activists regained in the 1990s.

Polari was a filthy, funny protest language. It has recently been utilized in highbrow literary circles, adorned the menus of London’s hippest cocktail establishments, and has novelists and playwrights salivating. “As dead languages go, Polari is enjoying a fairly wonderful afterlife and is now associating with a far swankier bunch of rich queens,” Baker writes.


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