I had the great joy last week of getting in person to a Folklore Society Council meeting again, after my previous attempt was thwarted by finally catching COVID. The meeting was followed by a quite bracingly excellent Katharine Briggs lecture by Katherine Langrish, and the announcement of the Katharine Briggs book award winner – Folklore, Magic, and Witchcraft: Cultural Exchanges from the Twelfth to Eighteenth Century, ed. Marina Montesano (Routledge). I have read a couple of the shortlisted books and can confirm their excellence, so anything that beat them must be worth a look. Edited collections don’t always do so well in the final placings, so it’s impressive to see such volumes both winning and making it to runner-up (the outstanding The Routledge Companion to English Folk Performance, eds Peter Harrop and Steve Roud (Routledge), which I reviewed highly favourably in the Folk Music Journal).
Not the least part of the joy of the evening was socialising again, catching up with dear colleagues I hadn’t seen in an age. I may have some moderately gregarious tendencies, even though I am quite happy beavering away at my desk, with the result that I do not always realise that I have actually accomplished stuff unless I tell other people.
Which may be where the title comes in. Kenneth Horne, usually seeking commercial assistance of some more or less ludicrous kind, would call out the introduction in his fruitily suggestive tones in episodes of the 1960s radio comedy series Round the Horne. What followed was an encounter with the latest hilarious and rather risqué business venture of sometime theatrical couple Julian and Sandy (played by Hugh Paddick and Kenneth Williams), with Horne a game and delighted straight (in every sense) foil to their camp.
The scripts and performances are hilarious and still stand up, but they are lent considerable extra power by their context. These two evidently gay characters appeared regularly at a time when homosexuality was only just in the process of being decriminalised. There was no pretence here: as Noel Coward once told Nancy Spain about her frock, they ‘wouldn’t fool a blind child of nine’. But they also spoke in an argot cultivated both as defence mechanism and as a means of disguising their criminalised conversation: Polari.
Polari was a specific language usage by gay men, but it had common roots with other argots and street languages, including among theatre and carnival people. (It’s always amused me that the rather macho and aggressively straight Ewan MacColl included in one song a slang word he’d obviously heard from truck drivers which is also well known in Polari). This was where I mostly heard it, and still do to some extent.
Times change, and usages change, and it is possible that the appearance of Polari in Round the Horne marked some sort of decline in its necessary use as a defensive measure even as it popularised some parts of it. Enter linguist Paul Baker, whose charming and readable history of Polari, Fabulosa!, charts its early life but also follows a more stubborn persistence. It’s a terrific book, and I had the great pleasure of talking to Paul about it and about Polari. I’d all but forgotten I’d done this, in fact, but it is now finished as part of a Folklore Podcast episode on the subject. Clap your Polari lobes on it here.
This is what I mean about forgetting things I have actually done, perhaps because they were entirely done at my desk without direct personal contact. I was delighted to be reminded of my conversation with Paul at about the same time I was reminded of another online conversation I’d had. This was about a longstanding interest of mine – cannibalism at sea. A while back, those lovely people at Casting Lots: A Survival Cannibalism Podcast got in touch via Twitter. In the course of the correspondence they even called me a ‘cannibalism celebrity’, and then appeared pleasantly surprised that I had immediately put this on all of my biographical material.
For their final mini-season they wanted to have a chat with some people they’d cited along the way. I am always happy to talk cannibalism with anyone, and we spent a fun afternoon chatting about the Custom of the Sea. This has been worked into one of their ‘Dinner Guests’ episodes, and is now available. I think between us we must have done every pun on cannibalism that has ever existed, so I won’t repeat any of them here. All I will say is that it’s out now, and it turns out I haven’t just been locked away to no purpose.
As it happens, another long outstanding piece of work has also finally seen the light of day, but that is for another time. For now – just tuck in. (Oh. I said I wasn’t going to do that, didn’t I?)