‘Sorry Paul’, began a comment from a ‘friend’ on Facebook recently. ‘But I see no cultural value in Polari whatsoever’.
Leaving aside the fact that I hadn’t actually asked for his opinion, I was lost for words. So I did what writers normally do in these circumstances: I turned to my Collins English Dictionary. And there it was: ‘Polari: an English slang derived from the Lingua Franca of Mediterranean ports, brought to England by sailors from the 16th century onwards. A few words survive, especially in male homosexual slang’.
And just to make sure my friend and I were speaking the same language, I checked the meaning of ‘cultural’ too: ‘Cultural: of or relating to artistic or social pursuits’.
So there you have it. Polari is a language, itself the product of a particular subculture, with a tradition that goes back centuries. It’s a gay slang that was adopted during a time of oppression, when homosexuality really was the love that dared not speak its name and to say you were gay could easily land you in prison. It’s a gay form of expression that informed the work of everyone from Kenneth Williams to Stephen Morrissey. And according to my friend, it’s of ‘no cultural value whatsoever’. I wonder, would he have dared say the same thing about the blues?
Polari, the gay cultural tradition, has a long and noble history. Polari, the gay literary salon night, is somewhat newer in origin. It began in November 2007, when myself and a fellow author were bemoaning the lack of opportunities for us to promote our work. Bookshops generally aren’t keen to stock books by gay authors, let alone invite them along for a glass of wine and a book signing. Out of that somewhat bitter conversation the idea for a gay literary salon night was born. It is billed as ‘an evening of gay words and music’. ‘Gay words’ because the vast majority of our authors are gay and words are their favoured form of expression. Music, because even literary types like to let their hair down sometimes – even if, like me, they don’t have a lot of it left.
But what I’ve lost in hair follicles and inhibitions I’ve more than made up for in hats. Hats are an essential part of the Polari experience. As indeed are silly ties, frilly shirts, cravats and as much foppery as one can get away with. And get away with it we have. In twelve months we’ve gone from strength to strength. We’ve outgrown two venues, first The Green Carnation and more recently Trash Palace. We’ve had up-and-coming talents like David Llewellyn and Jacqui Applebee, and award winning authors like Neil Bartlett, Charlotte Mendelson and Will Self. We’ve even taken Polari to the South Bank Centre, where we joined the House of Homosexual Culture for a season of gay literary events as part of the London Literature Festival. On our busiest night we had over a thousand people in the Queen Elizabeth Hall. And just last month Polari was described by the Independent on Sunday as ‘London’s peerless gay literary salon’. Not bad for an event ‘of no cultural value whatsoever’.
Did I think Polari would take off the way it did? Did I think people would come and show their support for gay literature at a time when the height of gay cultural ambition seems to be getting the latest remix from Kylie? In all honesty, no. But I’m glad they did – if only to prove that snotty queen wrong.
In some ways, we’re not so different from this magazine, which also offers an arena for discussion of ideas, and also happens to be called Polari. What a great name.