I woke up to something of a controversy this morning, and it concerned the Church of England (a familiar feeling…) Apparently ordinands at Westcott House in Cambridge have been reproved for holding an Evensong in Polari, and the college itself itself has apologised that the event took place.
Like a lot of people of my generation, I probably have a fondness for Polari which is out of all proportion with my acquaintance with it. Growing up I listened to tapes of the radio show Round the Horne, with its two Polari-speaking characters Julian an Sandy, who have variously been credited with sustaining Polari and with destroying it by allowing outsiders to understand the code and thus breaking it. I was familiar with “omis” and “riahs” via their segments on the programme, though at the time I had no idea of the real significance of this splendid argot. It wasn’t until I got to university that I heard Deborah Cameron lecture on Polari, and realized that when I suggested that “we all troll down the bar later” or called something “deeply bona” I was using a very particular kind of slang.
Polari, as presumably most of you reading this post know, is a collection of slang and codes which draws on Yiddish, Italian and other sources, and was most famously used by gay men as an in-language. (I apologise to Polari speakers and linguists for my clumsy use of terminology here, and indeed if I’m misunderstanding the origins and functions of Polari.) Having a code in which, for example, an “omi palome” was an effeminate man, or “trolling” meant cruising, allowed them to communicate without saying things publicly which might be dangerous in early and mid- twentieth century society. It also, of course, allowed Polari speakers of recognise each other by subtle (and not-so-subtle) use of the vocabulary. Polari, as I understand it, isn’t a language in itself (again, apologies if I’m getting this wrong), it’s a collection of slangs and codes which deliberately run parallel to, and intersecting with, more standard forms of English. I believe Deborah Cameron called it an anti-language in that it does not have a complete grammar and vocabulary, and isn’t intended to: it’s intended to confuse and obscure as much as it is to communicate and explain.
So I feel that Westcott is in the wrong to apologise for this Polari Evensong, and to suggest that the service was itself wrong. I’m aware that my perspective may be under-informed, and clouded by my personal feelings, but I think there are serious theological and religious reasons why the Polari Evensong was suitable, and right.
Firstly, if God cannot be prayed to in Polari, I don’t see how God can be prayed to in any language. The English liturgies that I use for morning prayer regularly declare at the moment that Christ’s light must be seen by “the nations”, and his “dawning brightness” by “the peoples”. I understand that to mean that God is not a particular or local deity, but brings salvation to everyone. If Polari is a form of speech people use, then it must be capable of connecting with God’s presence: if not, I worry that this calls into question the universal scope of God’s action in Christ.
Secondly, liturgical prayer seems the ideal form to use in this situation. wouldn’t pray privately in Polari, because it’s not a language I naturally use to express a lot of my thoughts and feelings. It would feel rather forced and even pretentious to me. But liturgical prayer, like Evensong, isn’t just people praying their own personal feelings together. It uses forms and phrases with a certain distance from our everyday thoughts. The elevated language of the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Prayer Books is valuable because they express a range of emotion and devotion in poetic and resonant language. But they also encourage us to explore echoes and images which are rather different from our personal dialect.
This isn’t a question of sixteenth-century English being more suitable for talking to God (see above!) but of expanding our horizons into centuries of devotion and theology which Christians have used before us. When we speak phrases like ‘devices and desires’ or ‘Glory be’ we put ourselves inside another kind of language, and it can allow us to see the world, and ourselves differently. We become aware of the ways in which this expresses our own feelings, and offers us other possibilities of thinking and feeling in God’s presence.
So liturgical prayer seems ideal as a way to explore Polari prayer. It holds us in the tension between what we say privately in our own mind, in our everyday language, and the verbal shapes and emotional landscapes offered by the liturgy. I’m not familiar with the Polari Bible, but I would be very interested to experience the religious world in which the Son of Omi stood with angels descending and ascending, or in which the patron of our church, John the Baptist, was forbidden to zhoosh his riah or enjoy a buvare. This is not a question of decanting the ‘correct’ meaning as expressed in standard English into a less prestigious form. All language about God is incomplete, an attempt to account in human words something which is beyond our capacity to capture in speech or writing. (Even ‘something’ in that last sentence is inaccurate, if it implies that God is a thing in the way other things in the universe are.) Polari is as inadequate as standard English in this sense, but it might give another turn to the kaleidoscope and present another refracting vision of the glory.
Thirdly, Polari strikes me as a very suitable language for Anglican prayer. It is a language (or an anti-language) devised by outcasts and oppressed people. It is the vocabulary of people who were excluded and persecuted, and its relationship to English reflects that history. Just as the language of the Book of Common Prayer disrupts our modern language with its ingrained assumptions and patterns in one way, Polari seems likely to disrupt it from another angle. The idioms and patterns of Polari were formed in solidarity and attempts to make connections in a dangerous situation, by people whom respectable society regarded as dirty and unsuitable. This strikes me as a linguistic source that the Anglican Church could benefit from exploring, given how well it connects with the Gospel narratives. I might be romanticising the slang and its potential here, but I think it’s worth considering.
Polari is also a physically-focused slang. Inevitably, given the situation in which it was used by gay people, it contains a lot of words for the body. The Christian theological tradition has laid a great deal of stress on the body, in ways which Anglicanism has not always fulfilled or lived up to. The medieval mystics were very emphatic about what a Polari liturgy might call the “cartes Christi”, and the Psalms speak of our soul soothed “like a babe at the willets”. I can’t be alone in thinking that a slang which draws heavily on Italian and Yiddish to talk about the body might be entirely appropriate to explore Christian devotion in. If we think that a mode of speech which frequently circles around the glory and otherwise of the body is unsuitable to phrase Christianity in, then we might have another theological problem.
Finally, Polari is a kind of speech concerned with secrets and revelations. Just speaking it was a sign of membership of particular groups, and it reveals and obscures at the same time. It subverts and ironises, it parodies and scrambles, it promises and hints. Speaking Polari calls attention to the very act of speaking, throwing attention on what commitments and risks attend theological language It calls to our attention what language can enact as well as what it can point to. “Vada” is the one of the words I’m most familiar with in Polari – “look…!”
So I think the Polari Evensong was a terrific idea. I don’t ether condemn it, or shrug it off in sophisticated boredom. I would like to attend one myself, and I think there are valid theological reasons why Polari is suitable for liturgical prayer, on both universal and particular principles. I hope I haven’t travestied Polari in what I’ve written above, and I apologise again to those who have far more right than me to speak on this question, if I’ve done so inaccurately or frivolously. But (perhaps naively) I find something exhilarating in the idea of the hymn “Vada, She Comes With Clouds Descending”, or the exhortation of St Theresa of Avila that the Son of Omi “has nanti ogles than yours, nanti martinis than yours”. Ecce homo! Vada the Omi!