Category Archives: 1920s


Hallo, and it’s bona to varda your dolly old eeks again after so long!

As I sit here in my bijou lattie, with my morning mangare and buvare, recovering from being totally daffy last night, I thought it was time to screeve a bit on the fabulosa lingo that is polari. Now, I know what you’re going to say: What’s a young striller like me know about the parlare of the omi polones of yesteryear? But new lingos of any sort fascinate me, and to be honest, I’m just a little bit bold…

If you’ve not listened to a lot of 1960s radio, you probably won’t have any idea what I’m talking about, which is quite fair enough – Polari (parlare, parlyare, polare, parlaree) is a language that faded out almost completely in the latter half of the twentieth century and, but for a few hardy souls determined to do all they can to preserve it, might have vanished completely but for the occasional airing on BBC Radio 4 Extra, when they choose to re-run Round The Horne. It’s an intriguing cant slang made up of bits of English, Italian, Yiddish and various forms of slang – back slang, thieves’ cant, rhyming slang and theatre jargon – and the main period of use was between the 1920s and 1960s, mostly in the cities of the UK. It was also an extremely secretive language, used by homosexuals both male and female as a way of communicating without being detected by those who oughtn’t to know (the police, for instance).

The social history is the main thing that attracts me to Polari, of course, being both an historian and a bit “versatile” myself – and since one of the main characters of my novel is a homosexual living in London in the 1920s, I feel I ought to learn some of his lingo – but aside from those interests, I am primarily a linguist by profession and cant slangs of this sort fascinate me immensely. It may have flourished in the mid 20th Century, but its history is considerably longer, deriving from the cant used in London in theatres, fairgrounds, circuses – hence the many borrowings from Romance/Italian and from Romany. The evidence is quite murky, as one would expect for a private slang existing between those working in a small range of trades, and even when it became more widely used, it still never achieved the status of “language” – people working in theatrical circles would most likely have picked up a handful of the most regularly used words and incorporated them into their own speech. It has been estimated that there were only 20 or so core words, but Polari was expanding and changing all the time to incorporate new bits of slang and jargon as they came and went, as it was taken up by new groups – the Merchant Navy, and the city-based gay “subculture”.

So how did Polari go from being a theatrical/showman cant to taking on the role of private lingo for sailors and homosexual men and women? The answer, of course, is equivocal – it’s hard to be certain of how these slangs transfer between groups – but it is probably reasonable to observe that homosexuality and the theatre do tend to go hand in hand. However it happened, by the early 20th century Polari had been adopted by the gay subculture of London as its own private slang and the vocabulary expanded accordingly, though it still maintained its old links with the theatre. As for how it stowed away on board ship, apparently that is thanks to the young gay men who joined the Merchant Navy and brought their cant slang with them. However it happened, it spread rapidly during the early-mid 20th century, until the decriminalisation of (male) homosexuality in 1967 (that is, the decriminalisation of homosexual acts in private between two consenting men over the age of 21, which was not lowered to 18 until 1994 – just throwing that in there for the sake of queer history and a small amount of anger!) did away with the need for a secret code to discuss such matters. It was also rejected by gay liberationists, and the fact that Polari had been used extensively on Round The Horne a few years before the decriminalisation of homosexuality had changed it irrevocably from secret slang to popular culture – even if the listeners didn’t know the precise meanings of the phrase, the tone of voice was often pretty clear! Polari’s decline was perfectly natural; a lack of necessity led to its decreasing usage, and but for academic interest, it might have died out completely.

Now, though it’s tremendous fun to write in a secret code, it is not appropriate for me to nick other people’s work and provide a vocab list here – the basics are widely available. I think, however, that it is better in context. Since Polari was a spoken language, seldom a written one, it seems most appropriate to link to some recordings, and the best place to start there is with Julian and Sandy. I’d like to use some BBC-authorised versions, but there are none, so here are some privately posted clips of them on YouTube, such as this clothing gem. And if you ignore the video, this is a brilliant rendition of a very famous Shakespeare speech in Polari.

There are not many clips of Polari being spoken outside of Round The Horne, but I have long enjoyed this little except from Velvet Goldmine, which is, I think, rather splendid. There is also a not especially good quality video which is worth it just for Kenneth Horne talking about Polari in an interview in the first minute or so of the vid.

If it’s reading material you want, the most active academic on the subject is Professor Paul Baker, who has published two books on the topic: Polari: The Lost Language of Gay Men, and Fantabulosa: A Dictionary of Polari and Gay Slang (both published in 2002) – and there is also a clip from The One Show in which the Prof discusses the subject of Polari; but if you’re into your technology, then I have to mention that recently there has been a project to rescue the language, run by Jez Dolan and Joseph Richardson, a couple of artists, working with a number of academics, including the aforementioned Prof. Baker. It’s called the Polari Mission – and if you’re an iPhone or iPad user, they’ve written this brilliant little app which you can download from their website.

If, like me, you have downloaded the app, you may see from browsing through the index that quite a number of the words are common in “ordinary” English as well. Terms such as barney = fight are quite common and have probably moved from English to Polari, and terms concerning sexuality, such as butch, camp, drag etc. are logical transitions, but when you come upon such words as ajax, bevvy, bijou, the well-known “fantabulosa”, and my own favourite phrase, “That’s yer actual…”, then…well, it’s difficult to say whether they entered normal English via Polari or via some other form of slang (words bled between Cockney and Polari slangs to a great extent in the early 20th century). But there is a certain pleasure in hearing Princess Anne tell photographers to “Naff off,” and knowing that she is, perhaps unwittingly, using slang that was once reserved for people who lived in very different circumstances…

Visual vs. Non-Visual Writing & Multimedia Fiction

‘On a warm afternoon in the middle of May, 1925, when the butterflies flitted from daisy to cowslip and the grasses danced lightly in the breeze, Susie Smith sat and threw stones at the sea.’

Susie meets Rosie

Writers can be very visual creatures. Some of us know what our characters look like, from the colour of their eyes and hair down to the size of the nose or the distance between their eyes; and can be very clear on the kinds of clothes they are wearing. These writers know the layout of the rooms of their house, the furnishing and even the pattern of the paper on the walls. This trait has a tendency to come across in their writing, of course – there are plenty of novels which leave you in no doubt as to what you are supposed to be seeing…

…and then there are those writers to whom the appearance of their characters is more of a mystery than it is to most of their readers, who sketch the vaguest picture with one or two principal characteristics and leave you to guess the rest. And usually, it works.

It sounds counter-intuitive, I know. Writing is such a comprehensive creative art, requiring the creation not only of plausible stories, but also of images, sounds, even smells, and all using only the imagination of the writer and, subsequently, that of the readers. I recall one fellow writer saying to me, ‘I can’t imagine not being able to see my characters clearly. How am I supposed to describe them, if I can’t see them?’.  A sensible question, and one which could be expanded to include the readers – how are they to experience the same sense of place, character and style as the writer, if the writer is a non-visual sort and gives them no visual clues?

The answer is quite simple. To the writer who says, ‘How can I describe them?’ I say, ‘Don’t.’ It really is as simple as that. A myriad excellent writers have got through their books without sketching any more than the barest detail – Terry Pratchett is a fine example – and yet that doesn’t stop the reader from conjuring up as much of a picture as their imaginations can manage. After all, imagination is not the preserve of writers and other creative artists – it is common to all of us, and no two people imagine the same (fictional) scene in quite the same way. Therefore it is that my solution to the descriptive problem is to let my readers get on with it. Dickens is ‘out’ and spare prose, with plenty of show-not-tell, is very much in fashion these days, so why waste precious words on hair texture, nose shape, flowerpot contents or number of rugs when you could be using them to muck on with the plot? Sit back, relax and let your readers do the hard work!

As I’ve intimated, I’m pretty non-visual – I have a vague idea of height, hairstyle, body shape and gait, and sometimes I can get an idea of clothing into my mind (but not very often) – so when I’m describing characters, description tends to be pretty limited and often comes out in the course of conversation. I cite an examples below from my series Tea And Militancy, set in 1925.

[Susie] turned to see her colleague, Rosie Meredith, standing on the cliff path, a brown hat with a most unfortunate brim crammed down over her heavy roll of hair and an anxious expression on her face.

This is Rosie’s first entrance into the story, and the sentence above is intended to demonstrate one salient point about her: that she is unfashionable. (In fact, it goes a little further, because the narration in this chapter is from Susie’s point of view and the sentence therefore demonstrates that Rosie is unfashionable and that Susie has noticed, ergo she must be at least aware of fashion herself.)

But just how the hat’s brim is unfashionable is left entirely to the reader’s imagination, because the point does not need to be laboured any further. It is an ‘unfortunate’ brim and that describes Rosie’s sartorial habits far more neatly than a whole paragraph of description could achieve.

It’s surprising how well this sort of hinting can work. Physical descriptions are really not my forte, and yet recently I’ve been startled at the correlation between my view of the characters and the views of my readers. Susie was introduced in her original story as ‘slight and fair’, and though she was later described as pretty and her fashionable style of dress was hinted at, they were never explicitly stated. 100,000 words later, I did a quick quiz of readers on their views on her appearance, and they came back almost exactly the same: smallish, slim, fair hair in a short cut (bob or crop), and very fashionably dressed. I then looked back through the hundred thousand words I’d written and realised I’d described her clothing a total of four times, and only once in detail. The character had done her own work, and pretty effectively! For reference, here’s what I came up with when I sketched her last night.


My comment is therefore, essentially, that big descriptions of characters aren’t necessary*. If the characters really live, people tend to see them almost exactly as intended. Sticking in the salient points and letting the reader do the rest makes for more elegant – and more rewarding – writing. After all, it can be quite helpful to the reader not to have too much to go on. One comment I was going to make on the subject of description comes from my perspective as a reader, and a non-visual reader, which is that when one is non-visual, large amounts of description can be, not simply distracting and unhelpful, but a source of some stress! I jest not – when presented with so much facial detail that the police would be able to construct a realistic e-fit from the prose alone, I tend to panic a little and shut my eyes, because I simply don’t have the visual memory to conjure up such a precise image – and yet I feel it is my responsibility to try, because the author clearly wants me to understand what it is they are seeing. It may seem insignificant, but it can make reading more a chore than a joy – and makes me more likely to put down the book in permanent fashion.

*I’d make the exception for very peculiar characteristics. One of my chaps has long hair, which is fairly unusual now but was very unusual in the 1920s – so it’d be a little mad of me to expect readers to anticipate that particular characteristic!

Now, having said all of that, I’m about to contradict myself. As you will have seen, I consider myself to be one of the non-visuals – or, rather, I thought I was. The revelation that, actually, I can see what I’m writing about came quite suddenly, when a friend mooted the possibility of collaborating on a sort of mixed-media fictional project (yes, I know it’s called television, but we don’t have that sort of budget). I jumped at the possibility, as it was something I’d been considering all along for my novel, which is very heavy on both music and art and would really suit both artwork and a soundtrack, but it turned out that neither of us was artistic (in the drawing sense), which was something of a disappointment until I picked up a pencil the other night and started to draw my people.

I didn’t expect to be any good at physical representations of my characters, given that I can barely call my own mother’s face to mind when I want to, let alone people who don’t exist in the physical realm (shh! Don’t tell them!), but I was pleasantly surprised at the results. They aren’t going to win the Turner prize, but there’s something tremendously exciting about seeing one’s people and places set down on paper for all to view. The sketch right at the top of this article is a digitally enhanced (by which I mean the faint pencil lines have been given more contrast!) photo of one of the sketches I did yesterday evening, to show Susie and Rosie’s first scene in Tea And Militancy.

Thus it is that this post finishes on a poignant note – at least, it is for me, because yesterday on my lunchbreak I did a sketch of my two soldier boys, Ambrose and Archie, ready to go off to war. I’ve not seen either of them in the flesh, as it were, before now, so this is lovely but as I said, it saddens me, mostly because I know what’s going to happen to them! (I’ve done a little more photo-manipulation to this one to make it a smidgen more like an Edwardian photograph. Hopefully it works).


The tradition of authors illustrating their own works is long, though some did it rather better than others. I was always rather taken with Arthur Ransome’s illustrations for his Swallows and Amazons books – even though they are little, simply done and contain no facial features to speak of, they are no less charming and evocative than Beatrix Potter’s far more elaborate paintings – and what would Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day be without those lovely line drawings? As Alice once said, ‘What is the use of a book without pictures?’ I’m looking forward to doing more sketches of my people and places, though I suspect the idea of an illustrated adult litfic book is enough to put a publisher off their quinoa and pineapple so it will probably end up as a harmless little diversion, but no less fun for that. However, I doubt this will be my last post on the subject of multimedia fiction.

That’s all for now. I shall try to stick more faithfully to my resolution to update this more in future!

It Started With Harper’s Bazaar…

So, it started with Harper’s Bazaar…

Harper's Bazaar May 1915

Well, actually it started with sleeveless evening gowns.  No-one worries about underarm hair when other people can’t see it, and until the 1910s women’s fashion had concealed that particularly racy area of the body from the foul gaze of men (and, more pertinently, other women). Nary a one was bothered by it – it was ignored, disregarded, a private family matter, until along came the sleeveless evening gown, and suddenly hairy pits mattered rather more than once they had.

Thus it was that the May 1915 issue of Harper’s Bazaar, in running an advertisement that dared to mention ‘objectionable hair’ (what appallingly direct words. Bunter, ready the fainting couch!) and how to effect its removal, began – or perhaps resumed – a trend which persists to this day. The advertisement was for depilatory powder, but soon enough razors aimed at women were appearing on the market and women the world over were learning that, to avoid being an embarrassment, they were obliged to tidy up their unsightly areas (quiet at the back).

Although – wait a minute. What was it that the advert said? ‘Summer Dress and Modern Dancing combine to make necessary the removal of objectionable hair’. So it was that modern sinful jazz that started it! I should have known. As my character Ambrose Meredith will be happy to tell you, nothing good ever came of jazz.

So much for underarm hair – but what about the legs? A much more frustrating task altogether, as any woman will tell you, and yet for many years it was less of a concern than the aforementioned unmentionable underarm hair. This was partly due to hemlines. In the twenties skirts went up, but not as quickly as many people imagine they did: it wasn’t until 1925 that hemlines rose from the lower calf to just above the knee, and they went back down to almost ankle length in 1929 and remained low throughout the thirties. With legs by no means as much on show as is frequently thought to be the case, it is not surprising that leg shaving was of a somewhat sporadic nature until the 1940s, when skirts rose permanently and women became far more aware that all that hair pressed against one’s stockings does look somewhat inelegant.

That said, women of the twenties did remove leg hair – just not with such regularity as we do these days. But regardless of whether the hair they wished to remove were on their shins or under their arms, they had a remarkable number and variety of products available to achieve the goal.

Depilatory powder

Zip depilatory powder
This was the first product for hair removal that was given widespread advertising, as we have seen above. There was many sorts, including Zip, produced in the States, which helped you get rid of ‘offending hairs’ on your arms and limbs, and which makes a brief appearance in a short story I’ve written on the subject of shaving.

There was also depilatory cream, such as the one manufactured by Veet (established in England in 1922 and still going strong) or Ashes of Roses, sold around the world. Advertised as easier, less painful and less unsightly than razors, depilatory creams proved immensely popular with the fashion-conscious of almost every class.

Veet Ashes of Roses


Gillette were the champions of women’s shaving, calling it the ‘safe and sanitary way to the smooth underarm demanded by both good grooming and good dressing’ (no manipulation there, then). Men’s razors were available to women (though this advert suggests that Gillette razors were a guinea a time, so perhaps not the most accessible implements), but companies were not backwards in coming forward with feminine versions; for example, Gillette’s Milady Décolettée, especially designed for a more comfortable underarm shave (translation: it’s small).

Here is a lovely collection of photographs of a Milady razor set.

Wilkinson Sword were in on the act too, but I can’t find a picture of a twenties razor. Here, however, are some amusing and innovative razor styles from the 1930s:

razorgood12011934205 ed105

That said, shaving was discouraged (albeit mostly by manufacturers of depilatories) as leaving ‘unsightly stubble’, which was presumably not up to the standards demanded by good grooming and good dressing.


Oh goodness, yes. Scour away that hair with a pumice stone, girls. That’ll make your underarms look pretty.

The Tweaker

Here’s a charming blog about beauty in the 20th century, in which you can see for yourself the implement known as The Tweaker. It is slightly less alarming than it looks (and sounds), though its method appears to be hauling the hairs out by the roots. Yowch.

If you think any of the above sound bad, imagine using this: the Cornell Tube, an x-ray machine. Removes hair and acne, adds cancer. Lovely.

In conclusion…

The main thing I have observed in the course of this investigation into hair removal is the insistence on the embarrassment women must face if they appear with one stray strand of hair in an unseemly part of their body. Such brow-beating, image-conscious sentiments are, of course, still with us in the ‘modern’ age, albeit often rather subtler in form, but it is nonetheless intriguing to see how early into the history of the ‘body beautiful’ these pressures on women to be physically perfect began to emerge in advertising material.

(Now that you’ve read all of this, I recommend you nip over to my other blog and have a look at my short story on the subject of shaving, ‘It Started With Harper’s Bazaar…’)

This post was written to the tune of Dvorak’s Ninth Symphony, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and Marin Alsop conducting. I’ve been looking forward to listening to that all day and it was certainly worth the wait – best recording of the New World Symphony I’ve heard, and I’ve heard a few. Available on Naxos for a ridiculously low price.