Fabulosa!

The Story of Polari, Britain’s Secret Gay Language

Paul Baker

Fabulosa!

Paul Baker

Distributed for Reaktion Books

320 pages | 39 halftones | 5 1/2 x 8 1/2
Cloth $27.50 ISBN: 9781789141320 Published August 2019 For sale in North and South America only
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 humor, and a means of identification and of establishing a community. Its roots are colorful and varied—from thieves’ Cant to Lingua Franca and 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!”

In Fabulosa!, Paul Baker recounts the story of Polari with skill, erudition, and tenderness. He traces its historical origins and describes its linguistic nuts and bolts, exploring the ways and the environments in which it was spoken, the reasons for its decline, and its unlikely reemergence 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.
Review Quotes
Financial Times
"Baker intersperses his account with snippets of interviews with Polari speakers, whose firsthand 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 theater circles, and it continues to enjoy a healthy afterlife as a cultural curio—of which this delightful book is just one manifestation."
Telegraph
"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!"
Daily Mail
"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."
Spectator
“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 milieu in which Polari flourished—the theater and the merchant navy. He is especially acute on the political uses of vulgar innuendo. . . . And Baker’s interviews radiate warmth and good humor.”
Observer, "Summer Reading"
“Brilliant, readable nonfiction is out there too. . . . For those who want to be in the know, Fabulosa! by 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.”
Caroline Sanderson | Bookseller, "Editor's Choice"
“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 twentieth century. There's a fascinating look at its 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.”
minor literature[s]
"[Baker] is especially strong on the changing attitude towards polari within the gay community in the seventies and eighties, and on the important reclamation performed by The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. . . . 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."
London Magazine
“Baker tells the history of Polari with pride, passion and humor, making clear that camp can be ‘deliciously political.’ Fabulosa! is an important celebration of Polari’s message—which is about laughing at your flaws, creating hope from tragedy, and seeing humor in the face of cruelty and oppression.”
Attitude Magazine
"Funny and joyous. . . . Fabulosa! is a fascinating and fantastically readable account . . . This is an essential book for anyone who wants to Polari bona!"
Tatler, "Best Books for Late Summer/Autumn 2019"
"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."
Oldie
“The story of Polari—or at least of the world of Polari and the people who spoke it—is gripping. . . . The focus of the language is on body parts and appearances—so that you can discuss the trade at the bar. But it also encompasses other necessities for a night’s entertainment, such as ordering a bevvy.”
Press Association Reviews
“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 favor with the gay community.”
Medium.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.”
Michelle Nijhuis | @nijhuism
"Highly recommend Fabulosa! . . . A great story about language and subcultures, and about creativity in the face of oppression."
Damian Barr, author of “Maggie & Me: Coming Out and Coming of Age in 1980s Scotland”
“By turns deeply edifying and hugely entertaining, and unusual for being both—a future classic!”
David Crystal, author of “The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language”
“A fascinating and complex story, beautifully told with clarity, passion, and humor.”
Patrick Gale, author of “A Place Called Winter”
“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.”
Neil McKenna, author of “Fanny and Stella”
“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!”
For more information, or to order this book, please visit https://www.press.uchicago.edu
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