"Oh Mr Horne, how bona to vada your dolly old eke!" As a fag-hag of some vintage, I much enjoyed this illuminating look at Polari-a language used chiefly by gay men in the first half of the 20th century. There's a fascinating look at its origins, from Cant to lingua franca, and from Italian to Romany; and its usage, from slang spoken by prostitutes to perhaps its most celebrated outing, by characters Julian and Sandy in the classic 1960s radio show "Round the Horne".
Polari’s heyday spanned from the late 1940s to the early 1960s, its defiant exuberance an antidote to the fusty repressiveness of 1950s Britain. It was a bantering and performative patter, steeped in blithe irony, bawdiness — one in every five of its nouns is anatomical — and black humour. As Paul Baker explains in his engrossing book Fabulosa!, a large number of Italian migrants joined the community of travelling entertainers in the mid-19th century, which probably accounts for the prevalence of Italianate words in the Polari lexicon, such as bona (good) and nanti (no or none, derived from niente).
Yet Polari, like some admirably resilient weed, will not die. It had a bad Eighties and indifferent Nineties, but the new century has seen a resurgence. Repurposed, perhaps, but far from supine.... It is as much for its vocabulary as for its sociological vagaries that we read Baker’s always illuminating book. Here I would pose a problem. The use of Polari ticks slang’s established boxes: clandestine and little-known, group-orientated (thus drawing a line between the “ins” and “outs”), and offering a way of challenging state oppression. But there is a difference between Polari as a lexis and Polari as a badge of identification: the former has never really taken off, while the latter served a wide constituency.
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.’