Speaking in code: Polari Mission: Bona Eek at John Rylands Library

Robert Cutforth

Through visual artworks and digital interventions, the Manchester Weekender exhibition explores the secretive language of Polari and its impact on the LGBT movement.

History is not my strong suit. I get a bit of a buzz when I see a particularly old bridge in Manchester but that’s about where my interest in the subject begins and ends. When someone describes something as “Victorian” or “Edwardian,” I just kind of go “ah” and think about Nintendo until someone changes the subject. For me, time started in 1971 with the release of Led Zeppelin IV.

So as Polari Mission: Bona Eek at John Rylands Library begins with artists Jez Dolan and Joseph Richardson assuring us that “this will not be a history lesson,” I whisper a tiny “hooray” and give the air a quick fist punch. I am a tad skeptical about their announcement considering we are about to enter a historic library, but hey, I’ll take their word for it. Fast forward ten seconds and we’re standing in front of a giant poster with the Norman Conquest on the top and a bunch of dates underneath. I’m no expert, but this looks like history. In fact, the next hour and a half would be nothing but history. What’s Polari for, “goddammit”?

Polari became prominent during the 1950s when it was used primarily by the gay community to keep from being tossed in the clink. Homosexuality was only decriminalised in 1967, forcing gay men and women in early twentieth century Britain to think of ever more inventive ways to communicate without attracting the attention of the law. Happily, the idea that you could be arrested for simply existing is a foreign concept these days but if you really think about it; 1967 wasn’t that long ago. It makes you wonder if there’s a Russian version of Polari we can ship over.

This is a history lesson about getting it on and sticking it to the cops

Polari Mission features magazines, artwork, video and, of course, a bit of Round the Horne, but artifacts from the wider gay rights movement are also on display: everything from stories of police spies infiltrating 18th century Molly houses to blackmail reports in the sixties and Morrissey’s coded “coming out” message. One of the most interesting pieces is the only surviving copy of the St. Jame’s Bible translated into Polari:

“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.”

I love a bit of sacrilege, me.

Visitors to Polari Mission have to work for their exhibition. Exhibits are scattered throughout the library with very little in the way of direction. The idea of someone finding a gay magazine with a half-naked man (the bottom half, no less) on the cover whilst perusing the shelves for an early edition of On the Origin of the Species is a delight, but I’m not sure whether I could’ve tied it all together without Dolan and Richardson’s tutelage.  If I was viewing it on my own, I would have needed a bit more direction (but perhaps that’s just me being a bit “naf”).

Orientation issues aside, this was the first time that I’d visited the library and spent longer looking at the displays than at the ceiling. It is indeed a history lesson, but thankfully, it’s one completely devoid of gnarly old dudes shooting at each other with cannons or druids placing big rocks in circles. This is a history lesson about getting it on and sticking it to the cops – with a bit of blasphemy thrown in just for fun. John Ryland’s Library, 150 Deansgate, M3 3EH, 1pm-3pm, until Sunda 2 February, free. The Polari Mission Bibleathon runs as part of Manchester Weekender on Sunday 13 October, free.

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