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Gay Cultural History in the UK. Polari: The language of homosexuality.
What's it all about?
Don't know your aris from your ogles, your omees from your palones? It's not particularly suprising.
Polari is a form of communication that was used chiefly by gay men, but also by other lgbt persons at the turn of the last century. It developed as a way of speaking and identifying others at a time when homosexuality was illegal and blackmail was rife. It was rarely recorded, and certainly not in the public domain, until the 1960s, when it was broadcast on a BBC comedy series, used by the campest couple on the airwaves, the characters Julian and Sandy.
Origins of Polari
Until 1967 it was illegal for anyone to commit "homosexual acts", even in private, in the United Kingdom. Even when homosexuality was decriminalised, it still carried a heavy weight of social stigma and ostracism. The Sexual Offences Act in 1967 decriminalised homosexuality only because it had increasingly become seen as a psychological disorder; a disability or weakness, with the homosexual to be more pitied than jailed.
Is it any wonder, therefore, that as in any climate in which a group of people are oppressed and excluded from mainstream culture they developed their own counter-culture, their own language, dress sense, codes and ways of being?
Polari's origins, as a gay language, are ostensibly London based- many of the words found in use come from cockney rhyming slang, for example:
Aris: Arse - comes from Aristotle or, in rhyming slang "glass and bottle- bottle and glass= arse"
It also contains within it a sense of the theatrical. From very early on in the construction of a gay identity, homosexuality has been linked intrinsically with the theatre. It is almost impossible to converse in polari without 'camping' about as one does so. Polari is all about flamboyance and double entendre whilst never, ever saying something that could get one in trouble with Betty Bracelets (the police).
Round the Horne
Even in its heyday, those outside of certain queer circles in London most likely first heard Polari on the BBC Radio comedy programme Round the Horne, the descendent of Beyond Our Ken.
Round the Horne ran from 1965 until 1968, when its lead, Kenneth Horne, died in February 1969. The show consisted of a series of humorous sketches and comedy characters played by Douglas Smith, Kenneth Williams, Hugh Paddick, Betty Marsden and Bill Pertwee and was written by the great comedy writers of the age, Barry Took and Marty Feldman. Kenneth Horne played the 'straight man' who tied all of the sketches and action together.
The characters Julian and Sandy (and one never appeared without the other) appeared in sketches as 'out of work actors' and used the language polari to exceptional comedy effect. Even those who might not know all the terms themselves would laugh at the double entendre expressed merely by their vocal inflection. Although they were never referred to as a gay couple, it is hard to read them as anything but, and with their use of this relativley little-known slang, Julian and Sandy could 'get around' the BBC's censors, where any serious programme on or starring homosexual people would not be able to do so.
“Sandy: Oh, well gorgeous I used to specialise in cigarette adverts- I was never alone in the Strand [audience laughter]. And then whatever the pleasure I completed it [audience laughter]. I used to sit on this horse all butch and dominatin’ [audience laughter]…and then I’d take a puff and gallop off…” - SIMMONDS, J. 1968 Round the Horne “Bona Prince Charlie” UK: BBC
Whilst the effeminate 'camp' gay man was still not considered part of an acceptable society, in comedy and theatre 'camp' allowed gay men an outlet and a visibility they would otherwise be denied. People laughed at them, but also along with them, amused by their double-entendre based humour.
Out of Fashion
Polari is little known to many people now for a variety of reasons. Ultimately, in many ways its appearance on Round the Horne signified the beginning of the end for the language. On the one hand, the popularity of Julian and Sandy signified a change in the cultural mood of the time. Along with the decriminalisation of homosexuality, their presence on the airwaves connected people who otherwise would not have been in a position to know of or meet the homosexual groups in the capital.
Although innuendo and euphemism would remain a popular form of humour for both gay and straight comedy acts for many decades to come, for gay comedians the humour developed in the subsequent decades until it was no longer based on the knowing wink to the audience that the speaker was gay, and more about ways to 'get away' with saying and implying increasingly more 'scandalous' things past the television censors.
This in many ways is a positive sign: no longer was the simple fact of a character's homosexuality bound to make them either funny or tragic, and a patois which was ultimately developed in order to prevent blackmail and imprisonment was no longer required.
Additionally, 'camp' itself, in many ways also fell out of fashion, both in the more macho gay movements of the late 70s and 80s, and in more recent years, in which the image of the 'sad, aging queen' - closeted and effete- has gained increasing prominance in gay potrayals.
The negative side to this, however, is a loss of knowledge: most gay men now do not speak Polari and would not know it. The academic Richard Dyer once expressed that the key shame of this move in the gay community to shun the camp and the effete as old fashioned or outdated is that, ultimately, without it we would not live in the world we do at present and, camp - whatever you may think of it- provided gay men with the only history we have.
Several words, which have their origins in Polari have however become a part of national consciousness, most notably the term 'naff' which is used in the UK to mean something that is without value or a disappointment (so people might use it as an adjective to decscribe an outfit or a bad party as 'a bit naff' or else to descibe a mood-response as a verb: to be 'naffed off' or be told to 'naff off'). In Polari, it is generally believed to be a derogatory term for a straight man, taken as an acronym for: Not Available For F***ing (or Not Available For Fornication).
Mentions in Popular Culture
In the 1998 film Velvet Goldmine starring Jonathan Rhys-Myers and Ewan McGregor, there is a short scene towards the beginning of the film in which Brian (Rhys Myers) is 'discovered' by his first agent whilst performing at a bar. The agent sits at a table with two camp gentlemen who refer to each other by female pronouns and speak entirely in Polari. Subtitles on the screen translate their words, as they pass comment on Brian's performance on stage. This scene is set at the beginning of the 1970s and already these men are seen as throwbacks to an earlier age, about to be replaced by a new era- of which Brian Slade will become a part of.
In 1990 the artist Morrisey also released the single 'Piccadilly Palare' in which it is described as "just silly slang between me and the boys in my gang". In many ways, that is a relatively accurate description of the can't, provided one recallls that said slang was once known almost exclusively by homosexuals and those within their social circles.
For Further Information
The most comprehensive work I can recommend on Polari is Fantabulosa: A Dictionary of Polari and Gay Slang by Prof. Paul Baker.
For further reading about homosexual subcultures during the era of Polari's heyday I would also suggest:
On Queer Street: A social history of British homosexuality 1895-1995 by H. David
Queer London: Perils and Pleasures in the Sexual Metropolis, 1918-1957 by M Houlbrook