Varda Bona Ecaf – A Short History of Polari


It has always seemed strange to me that an act of giving pleasure and joy could be so vilified and despised that in many parts of the world, both past and present, the death penalty has been used. If one looks at the bare facts there are a few differences between male and female. In fact, until about the thirteenth week of pregnancies all embryos are female. In spite of what small-minded people would say a kiss is just a kiss and we are after all human. However, as I have just intimated a large percentage of people still find the idea of ​​same sex love hard to handle. Furthermore, the further back we go in history the harder they find same sex love to handle.

What is interesting, for the purpose of this article, is the various means that men have used to explore their desires and create a supportive and creative community. One of the most enlightening books on this subject is the erudite and well-researched Strangers: homosexual Love in the Nineteenth Century by Graham Robb. An in depth review of this work too much to do here but suffice to say Robb shows us how gay men in the nineteenth century would use a different means to meet like-minded souls and enjoy each other's company. For example, one of the typical ways to subtly inform the object of your desire would have to slip the word 'primeval' into your letter. Any gay man of the time would be well aware that you would be quoting from the Leaves of Grass the poetry of Walt Whitman an American poet who also happened to be gay. Other ways would be to wear green or red, have your hair centrally parted, or if you were educated to a standard of Oscar Wilde have a complete library of gay literature.

Actually, while we are on the subject of Oscar Wilde his trial at the end of the nineteenth century appeared to usher in a period of increasing lack of acceptance of 'the love that shall not be named'. On the other hand it was in this period that the Victorians, in their scientific need to classify everything, gave the gay man his official sobriquet of sexual. The minute you give something a name (or even, as Robb suggests, a disease) then you give people an easy way to say 'I do not like' homosexuals ''. So the history of gay men in the twenty century was in many ways a contradiction. The naming of something in some ways recognizes the existence of that something. It in effect validates it. On the other hand, the reality was that gay men were beaten, bashed, blackmailed, jailed and humiliated. A little-known British film of the late 1950s called Victim explores many of these themes and show how much society has changed in little over fifty years.

Therefore, for many gay men a certain modes of being were created in order to circumvent the degree of hostility that occurred in the first sixty years of the twenty century. One of the most unusual and fascinating was the gay slang language Polari. It was a combination of 'rhyming slang, backslang (saying a word as if it's spelt backwards), Italian, Occitan, French, Lingua Franca, American air force slang, drug-user slang, Parlyaree (an older form of slang used by tinkers , Beggars and traveling players) and Cant (an even older form of slang used by criminals) '. Its main purpose seems to have been the degree of anonymity that it offered the gay man in an aggressively homophobic society. It is also, in a small way, a celebration of the human spirit and its unerring propensity for survival. It is a shame though that much of this 'hidden' history will remain lost. By its very nature, it being clandestine and cryptic, gay history can not talk back to us. At least, there is Polari, and that is a "fantabulosa, Jew's eye my cull" [that's a thing of great worth my friend].

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Hayley Anne Parfett


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