Polari - English gay slang
Researching Polari A sunny morning in September finds me sitting in the below stairs kitchen of Rowland House, Brighton waiting to interview David Raven (also known as Maisie Trollette) about Polari. Forget The Lost Language of the Cranes (whatever that was), The Lost Language of Polari is far more interesting, and it's part of the topic of my PhD - The Language of Gay Men in the UK, 1750-1996. It's not the easiest thing in the world doing a PhD which immediately makes you "out". Whenever people ask me what subject I'm studying I still say it with an apologetic shrug. There's no need to say afterwards "So that's my topic sweet-heart, and if you don't like it then that's your problem, and you're gonna have to live with that, OK?, in-yer-face-queer-rights-NOW!" The message is implicitly stated anyway. Reactions I've received have ranged from an incredulous "You gotta be kidding me" from a very loud American to the PC-interest of "That is soooo interesting". Is it interesting? Is it useful? Well I think so. The exact origins and mechanics of Polari are still a linguistic mystery, and language is an area where gay people are given free rein to flex their creative muscles and create social exchanges that although might not be very friendly (to outsiders or to each other) it at least allows them to communicate on their own terms. Such was the motivation behind Polari, although it could also be to do with the fact that in the 1950s if you so much as wore white socks in those days the police would have you clapped in irons for being "deviant". Polari, as the language came to be known was a collection of words, which when strung together by those most proficient at it, were incomprehensible to those who didn't understand it. It was mainly used for conversations that were high in gay "content", so if you wanted to point out to your friend that the man on the tube train next to you seemed to be particularly well-developed in the "menswear" department, you could say "vada the bona cartes on the ommee ajax" and your friend would know what you meant. If the man with the big "cartes" was also gay, he'd know what you were talking about too, and Polari would serve as an "introduction" which could lead to "other things". Because Polari died out in the 1960s when the Wolfenden Report legalised homosexuality (to an extent) in England, the only people who remember it tend to be distinguished older gentlemen, just like David Raven, who has agreed to tell me all he can remember about it. I am armed with a tape- recorder, a pen, some bits of paper and a posh northern voice (although I can flatten my vowels if necessary). David still frequently performs as Maisie Trollette in Brighton, and is something of a "doyenne" on the gay scene there. He greets me with "Who’s the chicken?" and then starts arguing with three of his employees who are dubbed "evil witches." When things have calmed down I am taken into the dining room where we can conduct the interview in peace. However, his friends don't seem to want to leave us alone, and are constantly passing through to offer their opinions and questions ("Who is he? Is he an actor?") . Polari is never what it first appears. Before Kenneth Williams was a household name with Carry-on Whatever, he was a household name in the radio series "Round the Horne" which every week featured the antics of Julian and Sandy and their latest attempts at trying to earn a bit of trade with Bona Homes and Gardens, or Keep Britain Bona. In one episode, J + S are domestic helps and have been shown into a kitchen where they are expected to get to work. "I can't work in 'ere," complains Julian. "All the dishes are dirty!" "Speak for yourself ducky," remarks Sandy, to audience mirth. However, this is a very clever (and smutty) triple innuendo. The audience would probably "get" the use of the word dish as an attractive young man, as in "Isn't he dishy", but hardened Polari speakers also know that dish means anus, which would afford them an extra laugh. It's a shame that Polari did go out of fashion, even though its demise coincided with the beginnings of gay liberation in England. Still, it's nice to hear the odd Polari word occasionally: Julian Clary on his BBC2 show sometimes says "Let's have a vada" and a crop of new gay businesses are opening up around the country, with fondly-devised names like Bona Videos. As Julian and Sandy would say "Fantabulosa!" _____________________ This is a copy of an article Paul Baker wrote for Lancaster University's student magazine "Scan" dated 15th November 1996.