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Dimensions:
225 × 145 × 30 mm
320 pages
Format:
Hardback
ISBN:
9781789141320
Illustrations:
39 illustrations
Published:
01 Jul 2019

Fabulosa! The Story of Polari, Britain’s Secret Gay Language Paul Baker

Polari is a language that was used chiefly by gay men in the first half of the twentieth century. At a time when being gay could result in criminal prosecution – or worse – Polari offered its speakers a degree of public camouflage, a way of expressing humour, and a means of identification and of establishing a community. Its roots are colourful and varied – from Cant to Lingua Franca to prostitutes’ slang – and in the mid-1960s it was thrust into the limelight by the characters Julian and Sandy, voiced by Hugh Paddick and Kenneth Williams, on the BBC radio show Round the Horne (‘Oh Mr Horne, how bona to vada your dolly old eke!’).

Paul Baker recounts the story of Polari with skill, erudition and tenderness. He traces its historical origins and describes its linguistic nuts and bolts, explores the ways and the environments in which it was spoken, explains the reasons for its decline, and tells of its unlikely re-emergence in the twenty-first century.

With a cast of drag queens and sailors, Dilly boys and macho clones, Fabulosa! is an essential document of recent history and a fascinating and fantastically readable account of this funny, filthy and ingenious language.

‘Polari, like some admirably resilient weed, will not die . . . It is as much for its vocabulary as for its sociological vagaries that we read Baker’s always illuminating book . . . Fabulosa!’ — Jonathon Green, The Telegraph

‘Baker intersperses his account with snippets of interviews with Polari speakers, whose first-hand recollections are invariably arresting and funny. He is partial to a spot of innuendo himself, and manages to slip one in every now and then . . . [T]here is some evidence that the language persisted into the 1980s and ’90s in theatre circles, and it continues to enjoy a healthy afterlife as a cultural curio – of which this delightful book is just one manifestation.’ — Financial Times

‘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 . . . [he] 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 . . . And Baker’s interviews radiate warmth and good humour.’ — The Spectator

‘Brilliant, readable nonfiction is out there too . . . for those who want to be in the know, Fabulosa! The Story of Polari, Britain’s Secret Gay Language by Paul Baker is a compelling history of the linguistic lengths to which gay people had to go to hide in plain sight within an aggressively homophobic culture.’ — Observer Summer Reading chosen by David Bloomfield of Golden Hare Books

‘A funny and joyous insight into the story of Polari . . . Fabulosa! Is a fascinating and fantastically readable account of this funny, filthy and ingenious language . . . This is an essential book for anyone who wants to Polari bona!’ — Attitude

‘Though a language smacking of Carry On films and saucy seaside postcards, it’s the tragic torment and harassment that gave rise to Polari in the first place that must not be forgotten and which is why this book is important.’ — Daily Mail

‘For anyone interested in finding out more about Polari – Britain's "secret gay language", Fabulosa! Provides a thought-provoking look at how the language came about and fell in and out of favour with the gay community from the days when homosexuality was illegal . . . Paul Baker details how Polari was based on a mixture of sources, including the common sailors' language of lingua franca and thieves' cant.’ — i newspaper

‘Baker tells the history of Polari with pride, passion and humour, making clear that camp can be “deliciously political”. Fabulosa! is is an important celebration of Polari’s message – which is about laughing at your flaws, creating hope from tragedy, and seeing humour in the face of cruelty and oppression.’ — London Magazine

‘As a fag-hag of some vintage, I 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 it 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".’ — The Bookseller, Editor's Choice

‘Paul Baker’s exuberant, richly detailed history of Polari, a “secret” language used chiefly by gay men in the 1940s and 1950s, is a delightful read.’ — Tatler, ‘Best Books for Late Summer/Autumn 2019’

‘For anyone interested in finding out more about Polari, Fabulosa! provides a thought-provoking, in-depth look at how the language came about and fell in – and out – of favour with the gay community.’ — Press Association Reviews

Fabulosa! is a witty, charming and informative insight into Polari’s linguistic origins, where and by whom it was used, and how it fell out of fashion post-1967 . . . The level of analysis provided by Baker is incredible given just how little recorded queer history exists in the world.’ — The Queerness

‘[Baker] is especially strong on the changing attitude towards polari within the gay community in the 70s and 80s, and on the important reclamation performed by the The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. While the subject of Julian and Sandy is well-trodden ground, his approach feels fresh, and the personal interludes add to the narrative without being overly intrusive. Fabulosa! is also an excellent primer for would-be polari speakers.’ — MinorLiteratures.com

Fabulosa! is important, informative and engaging. A multifaceted foray into the roots, uses and contexts of Polari is hardly something you see published very day . . . it makes for informative and entertaining reading.’ — Medium.com

‘The story of Polari – or at least of the world of Polari and the people who spoke it – is gripping in its own right.’ — The Oldie

‘A fascinating and complex story, beautifully told with clarity, passion, and humour.’ — David Crystal, author of 'The Stories of English'

‘By turns deeply edifying and hugely entertaining and unusual for succeeding at being both – a future classic!’ — Damian Barr, author of 'Maggie and Me'

‘Shot through with his nicely dry wit, this is a fascinating and important study . . . Yes, Polari might seem a camp relic, but it’s a precious linguistic trace of generations for whom taking refuge in camp was a matter of survival.’ — Patrick Gale, author of 'A Place Called Winter'

‘Glorious! This fascinating account of Polari, the Lost Language of Queens, is utterly absorbing. It's history at its best: alive, vivid, fluid, warm, human and humane, and it gets as close as any book I've read to penetrating the mystery-wrapped-in-an-enigma that is camp. Not just fabulous. Not just fabulosa. But completely fan-tab-u-losa!’ — Neil McKenna, author of Fanny and Stella


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Paul Baker is Professor of English Language at Lancaster University. He has written 16 books including American and British English (2018) and, with Jo Stanley, Hello Sailor! (2003). He regularly gives talks and workshops about Polari and is a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.