Paul Baker celebrates a record breaking reading from the Bible … in your actual Polari.
It is a cold Friday night and I am somewhere in Manchester in a huge converted mill building occupied by Rogue Art Studios in an attempt to break the world record for the longest amount of time anyone has read from the Polari Bible, ever.
Before Polari became the name of this online magazine it was a secret form of language, spoken mostly by gay men and lesbians, with a complex and eclectic history encompassing drag queens, actors, travelling circus people, sailors, Italians, American airforce men and even Punch and Judy entertainers. In the 1950s, dropping a Polari word into casual conversation allowed LGBT people to identify each other, while friends used it to gossip in public places without anyone being the wiser. It’s not so common these days, ever since a couple of camp characters called Julian and Sandy used it in a weekly comedy radio programme in the 1960s and hilariously shared the secret with everyone. Then homosexuality was decriminalised, so there was less of a need for secrecy in any case. The new Gay Liberationists viewed Polari as too camp and a reminder of unhappier times so Polari quickly vanished from the UK gay scene.
But you can’t keep a good bitch down – and Polari keeps coming back to life in a variety of guises. First, it was reclaimed by the British branch of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence who used it in their blessings and ceremonies – in the same way that Latin is used in Catholic ceremonies. Then academics (including me) got wind of it, labelling Polari as an important aspect of British gay social history, while bandying around words like “heritage” and “performativity”. I did my Phd on it and compiled a Polari dictionary which was subsequently used in the creation of a Polari Bible by computer wizard Tim Greening-Jackson. Tim used perl scripts (although in Polari we’d probably call them pearl scripts) to convert the King James Bible into a Polari Bible. To give you a flavour, here’s the first part of the Book of Genesis:
In the beginning Gloria created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was nanti form, and void; and munge was upon the eke of the deep. And the fairy of Gloria trolled upon the eke of the aquas.
And Gloria cackled, Let there be sparkle: and there was sparkle. And Gloria vardad the sparkle, that it was bona: and Gloria medzered the sparkle from the munge.
Artists Joe Richardson and Jez Dolan have formed Polari Mission, which uses Polari “as a starting point to examine how contemporary LGBT groups and individuals view, understand, appreciate, utilise, or see reflected in their own ‘communities of language’ the influence of Polari, and its impact on how we communicate today”. One aspect of their work is to highlight and redress how LGBT people have tended to be ignored by many aspects of society – such as education, and Joe was previously involved in an art project called EXAM which got volunteers to sit an exam (under strict conditions), where all the questions were written from an LGBT perspective. Appropriately, the language part of the exam was about Polari.
For their present project the boys have created a beautiful bound copy of the Bible which has been on display at the John Rylands Library in Manchester, and so when they asked for volunteers for a Polari Bible Readathon, I jumped at the chance. It’s the sort of thing I’ll be telling my imaginary grandchildren about years later.
At the art studio, the Bible had been placed on a podium with a dramatic spotlight above it. Because the oil secretions from human hands can damage delicate paper forever, we were all required to wear a pair of white gloves while reading from the Bible. We did the reading in a relay, much to the bemusement and enjoyment of other visitors to the art gallery. I wondered what my childhood hero Roy Castle, the host of Record Breakers, would have made of it all.
Breaking the world record for reading the Polari Bible is not as difficult as you’d expect, because nobody has ever attempted it before. So once Jez, who kicked off, had uttered the first few lines, we’d already won. But we decided to see how long we could last, with seven of us doing it in shifts, spurred on by drinks from the bar. I felt sorry for the chap who went before me, who got the bit with all the begetting, but I lucked out with the more dramatically exciting story of Sodom and Gomorrah and poor Lot’s wife – the one who got turned into a condiment. I am normally very very very ‘straight-acting’. Some people might even call me aggressively butch, but something strange came over me when I started reading from the Polari Bible – and I felt possessed by the ghost of Kenneth Williams, who forced me to make strangulated nasal “oohs” and theatrical hand gestures. I will never be able to live any of it down.
There is something beautiful and poetic about how Polari sounds when it is infused into religious discourse. Everyone who participated that night put a different interpretation into it – one reader spoke as a kindly Anglican Bishop giving a reassuring Christmas message on the BBC, another, who is an actor in real life, performed it with élan as if he was reciting a piece of well-rehearsed Shakespeare or Chaucer. In the end we managed three hours before repairing to Taurus Bar on Canal Street. We worked out that if we’d continued to the end, it would have taken around 72 hours. I suspect that we also broke the record for the most Polari, Bible-related or not, that has ever been spoken in one evening. So now the gauntlet has been thrown down. Does anyone want to break our record?