As part of the British Library’s Evolving English series (and exhibition) and LGBT History Month [London] Paul Baker, Senior Lecturer (Lancaster University) gave a lunchtime talk in the British Library’s Conference Centre (February 2011).  Introduced by the BL’s Adrian Edwards, who referred to the Library’s “unique collection” on the subject of the English language, it was entitled Fantabulosa: Gay Languages from Polari to the Bear Code.

His conclusion was that Polari while it had an internal consistency, and was not particularly comprehensible to outsiders, was not a full-fledged language.  Polari was to an extent based on Italian.  He recounted a (surely apocryphal?) story concerning two London queens. They discussed a particularly handsome Italian waiter’s charms, in Polari.  He thanked them for their appreciation of said charms… one assumes there was a follow-up to this tale…

Fantabulosa is the title of a play about the late Kenneth Williams, which is probably why most of the audience turned up (my ticket, ‘No. 1’, was bought shortly before the advertised time for the talk – 1.00 pm).  Dr Baker gave us a minute and a half of Julian and Sandy from the Round the Horne the BBC Light Programme radio series.  Even in that short out-take a lot of the words that went to make up Polari were used.  Some were Italian or cod-Italian, and some inversions of Standard English ‘riah’ for hair ‘eek’ (from ecaf / face) and so on.

Paul mentioned differences in Polari.  Some words meant slightly different things in Manchester.  Manchester had its own version of the lingo.  In the 1960s (and before) Manchester was far enough away from London for such a thing to have happened.  And was big enough to have a fairly openly queer population.  My companion was slightly aggrieved that Birmingham appeared not to have had the same.  Manchester is nearer to Dr Baker’s Lancaster location than is Birmingham.  And the latter place is only a hundred miles from London.  Even in the days of steam trains that was not a great distance.  And the fares were not larcenous, as they are today.

My own impression had been that Polari was unique to London.  But it was a partly theatrical cant.  It was brought around these islands by touring dance, drama, and opera companies.  There were many of these prior to wireless (‘steam radio’) and telly.  They sort-of survived the early onslaught of cinema, when films were shown in former music halls.  But the luxuriantly comfortable custom-built cinemas of the 1920s and ’30s rather put paid to them.  Allegedly visits by large companies were regarded as high days, (if not quite holy) days, by Belfast’s queer male community until the balloon went up in 1969.

We got on to the Bear Code (meaning the ‘hankie code’), some of which Paul Baker found mind-bending.  The use of what used to be called ‘telegramese’ on the internet was noted.  Like Polari neither of these things amounted to a separate free standing language.  But as means of communication they are fascinating.  Gay Liberation killed off Polari.  Julian and Sandy’s outings, (to coin a phrase), probably contributed to the state of mind leading to the setting up of GLF (Gay Liberation Front) and CHE (Committee, then Campaign for Homosexual Equality) UK wide, very shortly after they strutted their stuff on the steam wireless.

Paul mentioned the ‘Molly houses’ of the 18th Century – in a slightly detached way – it is pretty tangential to his own field in (essentially socio-linguistics).  Alan Bray (Homosexuality in Renaissance England) discussed the popular linkage of ‘perversion’ and Popery.  And the theatrical profession was very Papist until the twentieth century.  (It was also heavily Irish – but that may be starting a hare of a different colour, so to speak).

There was a discussion of the means of communication used by Gay people (it appeared to be mainly a male phenomenon, probably due to stringent legal restrictions on male homosexual behaviour.  Female homosexuals were hardly cheered to the echo.  Gay women could be persecuted by the tabloid press (The People, edited by Hugh Cudlipp, was fond of ferocious fairy hunting in the 1950s) but were usually the objects of snickering innuendo on the part of journos).  The men – largely – carried the can for everything from child-molestation to destroying the moral fibre of England.  (The ‘moral fibre’ of Scotland, Wales and Ulster did not concern the tabloids).  I mentioned that as a baby-queer, I got the impression that queers in Belfast communicated in a sign language.  Paul Baker had not encountered a similar situation anywhere else.

Seán McGouran

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