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Fabulosa! The Story of Polari, Britain's Secret Gay Language by Paul Baker - Review

Sunday, May 2, 2021


I had heard of this book a while ago, but then got reminded of it because someone I know read it recently, so I thought I would buy it when I had some credit to use. I picked it up quite soon after it arrived, because I wanted to read it.

So if you don't know what Polari is, it is as the subtitle says, a language used by primarily camp gay men throughout the 40s, 50s, 60s, and then it went into decline in the 70s. The author started his PhD on Polari in the late 90s, and he interviewed Polari speakers then. Since then he has become an expert on the subject, and he's written this witty, accessible, fun book about it. I was thinking it would be quite dry, but it's really not. I found the book really easy to read and raced through it. 

You will have heard some Polari words, like 'naff' and 'clobber' and maybe someone even complimented your 'dolly old eke' (your pretty face). I have heard some words, but it was nice to learn more. Plus there's lots of the history of Polari. It's a mixture of Thieves Cant, backslang, Italian, some words from Romany gypsy, and a few other bits. The history is fascinating, showing how all different groups of men, some who identified as gay and some who did not, added bits to it and made it their own. It was used as a secret language when men having sex with other men was literally illegal, and when the need to hide yourself was high. A lot of the words are focussed on looks, so you could talk about someone without them knowing about it, or on sex, which also makes sense. 

The author talks about how and why Polari faded from use, and why people are interested again now. He talks about the maybe most famous speakers of Polari - Julian and Sandy on a radio show called Round the Horne, which was broadcast in the 60s. He talks about the speakers in the 40s, 50s, and 60s and who they were. I really enjoyed the book and would recommend it to anyone with an interest in queer history. I'm giving this five out of five. 

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