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198 × 129 × 22 mm
320 pages
39 illustrations
01 Jul 2020

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

A Times Literary Supplement Book of the Year 2019

‘Richly evocative and entertaining.’ – Guardian

‘A delightful read.’ – Tatler

‘An essential book for anyone who wants to Polari Bona!’ – Attitude

Polari is a language that was used chiefly by gay men in the first half of the twentieth century. It offered its speakers a degree of public camouflage and a means of identification. Its colourful roots are varied – from Cant to Lingua Franca to dancers’ 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 hello Mr Horne, how bona to vada your dolly old eek!’)

Paul Baker recounts the story of Polari with skill, humour 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 – a fascinating and fantastically readable account of this funny, filthy and ingenious language.

‘One of the most enjoyable books on the subject this year was Paul Baker’s Fabulosa!, an excavation of the now pretty well lost gay language of Polari, richly evocative and entertaining.’ — Philip Hensher, The Guardian

‘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

‘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

‘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

‘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 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

‘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] 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

‘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

‘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 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

‘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

‘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

‘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

‘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’

‘Typesetters and designers have used what’s called a fleuron for centuries: a small printed flower to denote a division between sections of text . . . As I read Fabulosa!, Paul Baker’s erudite and witty chronicle of the language Polari . . . my eyes slithered straight past the fleurons at first. They were just wonky flower stems, I thought. But towards the end I suddenly saw the fleuron for what it really is: a teeny tiny moustache. Turning to the back cover to look at the author’s photograph it made me laugh to see that the one used repeatedly in the book is an exact replica of Baker’s own, right down to the length and angle of incline . . . Add to that the camp, capitalised title with its perky exclamation mark and the picture is complete – text is design.’ — Disegno

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

‘This is the secret language of Polari, spoken almost exclusively by gay men in the UK during the beginning of the 20th century. In a fascinating exploration, Paul Baker tells the story of this secret language and its history in his new book, Fabulosa!’ — .Cent Magazine

‘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. His books include American and British English (2018) and, with Jo Stanley, Hello Sailor! (2003).

1 What Is Polari?
2 Something Borrowed, Something Blue
3 How to Polari Bona
4 A Bad Time to Be Gay
5 ‘I’m Julian and this is my friend Sandy’
6 The Lost Language
7 She’s Ready for Her Comeback
8 In Conclusion

Further Reading
Photo Acknowledgements