Paper, scissors, stone. Grinning poster boys
for Winston’s bona home front, the flashing sky
pink as a boudoir. Sid’s craggy martinis thump

away with a powder puff to the gramophone
trills of ‘There’s a Small Hotel’. My eek hovers
above Lady B’s sink, bleach storming my scalp.

Open your aunt nells, dear. No beauty
without agony. Bitch. A zhooshy recruit,
I have plucked and plucked to prove devotion,

my fitness for trolling and jitterbugging
in prearranged gloom. Kohl, rouge, bronze lipstick.
Steadfast sisters, we camp like Fates on the periphery

of guest-houses where bonaroo forces are stationed,
B stitching sequins to maroon gloves by the light
of a tissue-papered torch. Sid bats ogle riahs

in ten minute spells. We’re the bang they want
to go out with, saintly omi-palones who fall
with a stroke of the Polish navy’s smooth serge.

Cackle is ruthless: weather, duties, family –
buvare at mine? My favourite’s a Yank.
Ed Paxton, his fluent hands unknotting the rope

of my body, loosening dreams that have never been,
will never again be freer. Between his legs
I’m the right shape, intrepid, all-seeing.

The horrors of peace are many. Street lamps slam on
beside cod snapping bunting, thrashed Union flags.
What’s wrong with your eyebrows? brother says.

I stare blankly back, incapable of irony,
laughter. Sid moves to Orkney – Bless her
Chatsworth Road heart – has five dolly feeles.

Belladonna signs up for the merchant navy.
She screeves, praising bijou striped curtains,
black sailors, the Atlantic’s sharp smell

though I do not reply. I linger here, still paper
but folding, folding. The streets swarm with mammoth
skirts, decency, bedsits. I’ve used the last smudge

of American shampoo. Each dusk I vada
the ripped-open, scattered rose sky and pray
to God for the safe return of my blackout.

John McCullough

Poet’s Note: Glossary of Polari Words

Polari is the English homosexual and theatrical slang prevalent in the early to mid 20th century.

bona – lovely; martinis – hands; eek – face; aunt nells – ears; zhooshy – tarted up; trolling – mincing; bonaroo – wonderful; ogle riahs – eyelashes; omi-palones –effeminate men (literally ‘men-women’); cackle – talk; buvare – drink; cod – vile; dolly – beautiful; feeles – children; bijou – small; vada – look at

I’ve failed. I can’t even get by one day without veering off in to a serious mood.

If a poem in Polari can be considered serious. Polari is such a camp language that even a serious poem can seem a bit, well… fantabulosa. It’s not that hard to find a song or two in Polari. Bona Eak by Lee Sutton comes to mind, as well as the songs that Julian and Sandy sing, from time to time,  in Round the Horne, but finding a poem in Polari is no easy task. I’m sure it was hearing Kenneth Williams recite You Are Old Father William yesterday that did it. Williams’ talent for voice work is outstanding whether he’s reading a poem by John Betjeman with Maggie Smith, or if he’s doing character work like J. Peasmold Gruntfuttock,  Rambling Sid, or Sandy of the Julian and Sandy sketches.

Just this Monday I was listening, on BBC 4 Extra on-line, to Beyond Our Ken (a British radio program) and I noticed just how much of that program is further developed in Round the Horne. Clearly it’s because the same cast and writers worked on both programs, but last week there was even a couple of actors camping about speaking Polari. The actors were played by Kenneth Williams and Hugh Paddick. These two were, of course the two who played Julian and Sandy: the first, and surely most popular, homosexuals to ever assault the ears of gentile old grandmothers on a Sunday afternoon radio program, and all before homosexuality had been decriminalized.

The BBC broadcasts old Round the Horne episodes and has them up for a week after their airing. They are inconsistent and sometimes replace it with Beyond Our Ken, or Stop Messing About; the program hurriedly created with the cast of Round the Horne after Kenneth Horne died unexpectedly.

There’s a Small Hotel


21 thoughts on “GEORGIE, BELLADONNA, SID

  1. Julian and Sandy had an interesting gestation. Paddick and Williams had done two-handed sketches in ‘Beyond Our Ken’, the predecessor to ‘Round The Horne’. Notably they had portrayed ‘Rodney and Charles’, two young men with upper-class voices. When ‘Round The Horne’ started they were first of all asked to portray two unemployed, middle-aged actors, but it suddenly struck the writers and producers that their sketches were tragic rather than comic, so their characters were changed to the outrageously camp Julian and Sandy.

    ‘Polari’ or ‘Palare’ was originally known as ‘Carni’, short for ‘Carnival’, and was the pigin-Italian spoken by circus and carnival people. I have spoken it for many years, nothing to do with my being gay, and actually I didn’t pick it up from Julian and Sandy – I have no recollection of where I actually did pick it up, but it was when I was a kid.

    All great fun. 🙂

    Marie Marshall

    • Thanks for supplying the names of the characters that Paddick and Williams voiced on Beyond Our Ken. I don’t think it’s just Julian and Sandy that had their gestation on Beyond Our Ken though. There were always two musical interludes on the program, but at some point in the series they introduces the Fraser Hayes Four, which, as you know, filled the musical guest spot for most of the run of Round the Horne. I think it was in the final series that, due to budgetary reasons, I believe, the Fraser Hayes Four was cut and the rest of the cast took up the mantle of song. I think the first appearance of a “Horne-o-graphic” adaptation of a film was also on Beyond Our Ken, but I could be wrong.

      For me Round the Horne was the pinnacle of that creative team’s output. (The actors: Kenneth Horne, with Kenneth Williams, Hugh Paddick, Betty Marsden and Bill Pertwee as well as announcer Douglas Smith. The writers: Barry Took and Marty Feldman.) Although I enjoy Beyond Our Ken, and Stop Messing About the former seems to be a revving up toward something, and the later, without Kenneth Horne, is lacking. Perhaps the rest of the cast was feeling the loss, and that may be an underlying current in their performances.

      As far as Polari goes, I’ve been teaching myself Polari, and it is indeed a lot of fun. I use it in my printmaking. Unfortunately there aren’t a lot of Polari speakers in the USA, and my partner and I mostly get to use it around the home. There is one Englishman at Church who remembers julian and Sandy and we will exchange a “So bona to varda” from time to time. Clearly, I get most of my Polari from Round the Horne, but also from the Polari Bible, and the Paul Baker Book Polari – The Lost Language of Gay Men (Routledge Studies in Linguistics). If you’ve not read the Baker book, it’s quite good for an academic book, very readable. He addresses the “pigin_Italian” as well as many other languages and slangs that go into making Polari including: Theives Cant, Molly Slang, Lingua Franca, Cockney Rhyming Slang, Backwards Speak, and even Yiddish. I’m fascinated that you didn’t learn Polari from the radio, nor from the homosexual subculture. It seems like a strange thing for a child to “pick up”.

      You mention some of the alternate spellings: Are you familiar with the Morrissey album Bona Drag? One of the songs is Piccadilly Palare. There’s also a song about the Krays on it, speaking about Mid Century homosexuals.

  2. I can recall Polari from a children’s book about circus folk I read when I was very small, from odd bits of London slang, and from an old episode of Dr Who (John Pertwee era) as well as from Julian and Sandy. I seem to have been aware of it before I ever heard a J&S sketch, although the Dr Who episode I’m talking about is post J&S. I can remember being hushed (by someone) with the words ‘Oi – Nanty palari!’ (‘nanty’ from ‘niente’, Italian for ‘nothing’). ‘Nanty munjari’ meant ‘there is nothing to eat’ (‘munjari’ from ‘mangiare’, Italian for ‘to eat’). At all stages of my picking it up I was (made) aware of its prevalence amongst itinerant Italian circus and sideshow folk and its high Italian content. I think that the Yiddish, Cockney Cant, and other elements are accretions that came about from its urbanisation, particularly in London, which was a place already rich in argot. I always call it ‘Carni’ and say to people ‘Palari da Carni?’ if I want an answer. For a long time I have been wondering how to work it into some fiction-writing… I have an idea on the back burner.

    I didn’t know about the Morissey album, but then I never could stand the guy.

    I’m thinking that rather than ‘Horne-o-graphic Productions’ it was ‘Horne-o-rama’ in ‘Beyond our Ken’. I was very small when this programme came out, so I must remember it from re-runs or something. There were characters such as Arthur Fallowfield (same voice as Rambling Sid Rumpo, but a horticultural/agricultural expert based on Ted Moult, and played of course by Kenneth Williams – catchphrase “I think the answer lies in the soil…”), Ricky Livid (a Cockney rock ‘n’ roll star whose catchphrases were ”’Ullo an’ ‘at” [‘… and that’, meaning ‘… and so on] and “I like the backing”, played by Paddick), and Fanny Haddock (based on BBC cookery expert Fanny Craddock and played by Betty Marsden).

    Incidentally, one of Hugh Paddick’s best-loved performances was as a Georgian actor in an episode of BBC’s ‘Blackadder the Third’–HR7PWfp0 Here he is partnered by another veteran comic actor Kenneth Connor. Also in the scene are Tony Robinson, Rowan Atkinson, and Hugh Laurie. Enjoy!


    • I did enjoy!

      Thanks for the clip.

      In addition to my printmaking I also write. I’ve been working on a theatre piece for a couple of years that is mostly in Polari. I’m not so sure how it’ll work out, especially here in the States. There are so few people who’ve even heard of Polari, let alone speak it on this side of the pond. I think the key to writing in Polari is to do what Took and Feldman did. They had Kenneth Horne, a straight man: someone to whom the audience can relate so that the language doesn’t seem too foregin, and that person can translate, or respond in a way that makes the person speaking Polari understood. Took and Feldman also only used a smattering of Polari; a phrase here; a word there. I’ve found it’s fairly easy to figure out.

      I pulled out my copy of the Baker book I mentioned above. I wanted to refresh my memory of some of the origins of Polari. (Once again, I highly reccomend this book.) There’s a fair amount of etimology in his glossary, but it’s no OED. In perusing his opening chapter I found that he writes about a couple of different early variants of Polari. It seems that the version that actors, circus, and carnival performers use/d was called Parlyaree, or Parlaree, and this was as you’ve noted rooted in Italian. However there are some other significant differences in this variety and the Polari used in the homosexual subculture. Much of these differences have to do with an urban environment, and exposure to “the Other.”

      The Polari of the London homosexual scene in the early 20th century is surely rooted in the theatre slang and its deeper Italian roots. (I don’t remember where I was exposed to the story of a gay couple on holiday in Italy who were openly talking (in Polari) about the young attractive shop clerk; who, much to their surprise, thanked them for the complamentary remarks.) There are, however many words that are not of an Italian, or Lingua Franca orientation. I can think of words like eek/eke which is short for ecaf, or face backword; used in the phrase “dolly old eek.” Dolly is another one. It comes from Cant, and according to Baker from as early as the seventeenth century. Riah for hair is again backwords talk. I was watching Nevermind the Buzzcocks series 25 episode 10. Cilla Black was the host, and she used the word lallies, a word often used by Julian and Sandy. She said it was a theatre word meaning legs. The Baker glossary has many variants on lallie, lally, lall, lyle, and lally-pegs. He claims that it’s possibly of Rhyming Slang origin as well.

      Really what I find most interesting about Polari as used in the gay community is its connection to being an outsider; to living on the fringe. Theives, prostitutes, actors, sailors, different ethnic groups, imigrants all live on the fringe. They all keep their own culture as they also interact with the dominant culture, but there is one fringe group that touches all of the other groups: homosexuals. The Polari used by homosexuals incorporates the idioms and the slangs of all of the above. Speakers of this Polari also create their own words. Most of these are specifically sexual in meaning.

      I especailly like it when Polari words make it into the vernacular. Consider naff. I’ve heard so many etimologies of naff, but going back to Baker, he gives a possible nine different origins of the word naff; most of which relate to some sort of sex; whether its a phrase like “not available for fucking” (borrowed from American servicemen in WWII) or back slang for fanny. The etimology of naff always minces a path through the gay community before finding it’s way into the culture at large.

      I wonder how close the Polari da Carni you speak is to the earlier versions. I wonder if it’s more rightly Parlyaree, or Parlaree, and how much those have added words from other origins to their lexicon. I find it all terribly fascinating.

      I also must tell you that I’m amazingly impressed with your memory as you say it’s been a long time since you’ve listened to Beyond our Ken, and Round the Horne. I think I mentioned that I listen to those programs on the computer, on BBC 4 Extra. They play re-runs. I just adore them along with some of the clasic and long-running pannel shows like Just a Minute, and I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue. Are you up fr a game of Mornington Crescent?

  3. The ‘Carni’ I speak/know is very much the pigin-Italian version, though I have now picked up such a lot of accretions from Polari that I can’t rightly define the boundaries because they are so blurred. Plus my late father was quite a linguist and could speak not only Italian but Neapolitan dialect too. Plus I had a few London Jewish friends with whom I would speak snatches of Yiddish, and so it goes on. I would really love to see the pure ‘Carni’ preserved, but I think it is too late.

    Like I said, the idea I have on the back-burner might make good use of a lot of the slang(s) of 19c London. I think that modern ‘Polari’ is a product of Carni borrowing from other discrete argots. I am not entirely convinced that Took and Feldman did not build other elements into Julian’s and Sandy’s speech that might not have been there before and in doing so left us a fuller legacy. I well recall Sandy declaiming Shakespeare’s seven ages of man, rendering ‘… sans teeth, sans eyes…’ as ‘… nanty hampsteads, nanty mincers…’ which mixed in pure Cockney rhyming slang (‘Hampstead Heath’ – teeth; ‘mince pies’ – eyes).

    The origin of ‘polone’ or ‘palone’ for a young woman always intrigued me. I always found the ‘mattress’ derivation unconvincing and thought that it might come from the word ‘pallone’ meaning a ball or balloon, or from ‘Bologna’ sausage, known as ‘polony’ in English, either from commoditisation of a woman as a piece of meat, or by back-derivation from the shape of what a man might want to insert in said young woman.

    Onwards. ‘I’m sorry I haven’t a clue’ derives its name from the earlier ‘I’m sorry I’ll read that again’ (one or two of the cast of the former were panel members on the latter).

    Okay… um… Ladbrooke Grove.

    • Well, you know that language changes and evolves new words are added, old words fall into disuse. Dandyprat is one of my favorites that nobody uses today, well, except me. I’m sure your Carne is just what’s in use today. There really never may have been a “pure Carne.” Even in Polari, after it’s “death,” in the 1970s new words adapted from the drug culture were added. I came up with calling my bicycle my lallygoround. I doubt that it’ll catch on though.

      I hate to keep going back to Baker, but he has an interesting etimology for palone, polone, polony, pollone, paloney, polonee, palogne. There are so many variations, some I think clearly come from Italian, but Baker speculates that palone comes from blowen: a seventeenth century word for wench or prostitute. I think this is a bit of a stretch. If it does come from a word meaning balloon, might it have something to do with being full of air? The way it’s used seems to have some negative connotations, perhaps it’s a kin to airhead. I was also put in mind of being inflated, pregnant, perhaps.

      Your back burner project sounds interesting. I started working on my Polari project when I was contemplating the Beggar’s Opera one day. It came to me that although Gay wrote it in English his characters would have been speaking Thieves Cant. It made me want to write something about the gay scene in London in the 50s in Polari. Lots of State side research.

      I’ve listened to a couple of episodes of I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again, but I’ve not really gotten in to it. I don’t know why.

      So… Ladbrooke Grove?


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