Thursday, 16 April 2015

Legacies

This past month has seen the passing of two influential lgbt people, Ike Cowen and Marc Naimark. I don’t usually write tributes after someone’s death but as I had personal connections to them both I hope you won’t mind if I do so today.

Ike Cowen (1917-1915)
Harold E. Cowen was one of the pioneers of the UK’s Campaign for Homosexual Equality (CHE). Not only was he a co-founder of the CHE but Ike, as he was always known, also co-founded the Association of Law Teachers and became its Secretary. Law was Ike’s profession. He lectured in law at Sheffield Hallam University, and it was law which brought Ike permanently to teach in Nottingham in 1969.

Ike was no stranger to Nottingham. He served in the RAF during the last year of World War II and was stationed at RAF Wymeswold about 20 miles away in Leicestershire. He gave a lecture on Air Force law at what was then the Nottingham Regional College of Technology, now part of Nottingham Trent University.

Even though he recognised his homosexuality during the war he thought it was “just a phase” and that marriage might “cure it”. He married his American wife Peggy when stationed in Egypt. They had a son but the marriage didn’t last and they separated after his move to Nottingham. When his son was 18 Ike decided to come out to him. On a night out in a pub Ike announced he had something to say. “If it’s about you being gay,” his son said, “everybody at school knows. I’ve known for ages”.

Ike became involved in the formation of the CHE through people like Nottingham journalist Ray Gosling. With his legal training Ike wrote CHE’s first constitution and became its Legal Officer. In 1975 he drafted a bill on Sexual Offences Reform for the CHE which they presented to MPs. Even though it was praised in Parliament it was not adopted.

In 2000 Ike was interviewed by Nottinghamshire Gay and Lesbian Switchboard for their millennium history project. Ike was frank about his gay life, both in and out of the RAF, and provided much information on Nottingham’s gay community in the 1960s.

Ike’s legacy remains with the CHE and is part of the history of sexual reform acts in the UK. In 2007 I helped to found Nottinghamshire Rainbow Heritage. One idea which came from me was to present Certificates of Recognition to people and organisations in Nottinghamshire who have played significant parts in lgbt history in the county or nation. Ike was the first name I nominated. He was too frail to attend the presentation ceremony but my colleagues presented it to him in his home.

Ike would have celebrated his 98th birthday on May 6th. He died on 19th March 2015.

Marc Naimark (d.2015)
Last weekend the world of lgbt sport lost one its most dedicated advocates. Marc’s involvement with the Federation of Gay Games began in 1998 and continued through to the end with his involvement in preparations for the 2018 Gay Games to be held in his adopted home city of Paris (Marc was originally from Michigan). Marc enthused others around the world and encouraged them to pursue their dreams.

As well as his contribution to the Gay Games Marc will be remembered as a leading voice in the establishment of Pride House International. Several unofficial and small-scale volunteer groups had set up lgbt centres in Olympic host cities during the course of the games (Barcelona and Sydney), but the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics saw the creation of a formal Pride House organised by several local lgbt groups which was recognised by the Vancouver Olympic organising committee. Marc offered much support to the London 2012 Pride House.

His was one of many voices which called for a fully international response to the Russian anti-gay legislation prior to the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics. This became Pride House International which created many Pride Houses around the world during the course of the Sochi games. Today Pride House International is a thriving organisation and is planning to be present at most major international sporting events around the world.

My first contact with Marc was in 2012 when I compiled my first list of lgbt Olympians. He was very enthusiastic about it and asked if he could publish it on the Gay Games blog. Of course I said yes, and he encouraged me to send the list to other organisations. After that Marc became one of my few Facebook friends.

Marc also showed a keen interest in this blog and several times asked if he could put some of my articles on the Gay Games blog, especially ones which centred on the Gay Games, and I never turned down his request.

Marc’s active support in many lgbt sporting events was immense. Each one will feel his loss. Perhaps the biggest legacy he leaves me is a celebration of lgbt sport and the Gay Games.

Monday, 13 April 2015

Coded Lives : The Hanky Code

One of the most well-known of all the lgbt codes which helped to keep gay lives secret except from those “in the know” is the hanky code. Many people will have heard of it and know something about it, but these days fewer people actually know the original code and how to use it. Just how popular it is today is hard to say, though it seems to be popular on the internet and as a “theme” night in many clubs.

It’s an easy code to use even if its not easy to fully remember, because like gender and sexuality flags the code has expanded to include just about every sexuality and sexual interest there is. All you have to do if you’re out on the town and clubbing is make sure you’ve got the right colour hanky in the correct pocket. Imagine the embarrassment all round if you were a bit colour blind and a man sees the colour of your hanky and invites you to join him in some “action” you’d never do in a million years.

There are much too many hankies in the code to reproduce here today, so let’s try to find out where and when it originated. This has been a problem for researchers for many years. Being a secret code no-one wrote it down when they started using it, it was all learnt by memory and word of mouth.

There hasn’t been a definitive study of the history of the hanky code, as far as I can tell. This is my personal interpretation of the evidence and information I’ve found and is my own theory. I don’t claim this to be an authoritative theory and hope others will conduct a proper study in the future.

There’s no real doubt, however, that it began in the USA. Perhaps the heyday of the hanky code was in the decades of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. This period coincided with greater activism for lgbt rights. As underground gay bars across America began to become more visible communities coalesced along defined sexualities and sexual interests.

The hanky code may have begun as a secret code among gay men looking for casual sex in any location, mostly public spaces, but when the 1940s leather culture began to grow the lgbt community developed its own subculture of leather/BDSM which still flourishes today. The hanky code was seen most frequently in the leather bars and clubs as an open system of finding sexual partners.

But the hanky code has never been just about the leather community. It was used and seen in many gay bars across America and Europe. It is probable that the code is an amalgamation of several earlier gay codes. The most recent of these being the use of keys fastened onto belts (I don’t suppose it mattered if they were actually ever used to unlock anything). Keys fastened on the left (front or back) indicated that the wearer was a dominant sexual partner, and keys on the right indicated a passive partner. This system was used a lot in the early biker/leather/bdsm subculture.

The left/right position is echoed in the older practice of tying a bandana or handkerchief around the neck or head. When positioned to the left or right the knot indicated the dominant/passive nature of the wearer.

The hanky code may have developed from these with hankies rather than keys gradually being used in back pockets.

Going further back into the 19th century we may find the ultimate origin for the hanky code with the early Wild West cowboys. The stereotypical image of the American cowboy has etched its way into popular culture through Hollywood films, and into the lgbt culture through the Village People.

The history of gay men in the American frontiers has been emerging in recent years as a potential gold mine (pardon the California Gold Rush allusion) for historians and the lgbt cowboy-loving and rodeo subcultures. I don’t think this is the right occasion to go into the history of gay cowboys and the like, as I want to concentrate on the hanky code.

When we picture a Wild West cowboy we often see them sporting a knotted handkerchief or bandana. This was an essential item of clothing in the dusty arid states where dust storms were frequent. Worn over the nose and mouth it stops them choking, and we often see cowboy villains wearing it so when they hold up the stage coach.

The California Gold Rush was a particularly male-dominated environment. Very few women travelled that far west unless it was to settle properly. Even the saloons had very few barmaids and female entertainers. In this environment social events such as dances were often all-male occasions and men would dance with each other. The need for female company was ever present and some men who couldn’t afford a prostitute often turned to other men for sexual comfort.

Most of the sexual activity was undoubtedly situational and casual and not truly “gay” in nature. But there is never a society totally devoid of true homosexuality, and recent research has shown that the Wild West was no exception.

I can imagine how the hanky code could have begun. With sodomy in the US outlawed at the time gay men had to be sure how far they could go with another man. It was very confusing, because research has also shown that close physical contact, affectionate hugs and sharing beds for the night, etc., was common in all sections of society in the 19th century.

I can imagine a gay cowboy meeting another gay cowboy for casual sex and realising there are more like them around. But to keep their sexuality secret they developed a code, and the hanky/bandana/key code may have originated as a means of spreading the “knowledge” among the secret community of gay men in the West. Once gay cowboys knew how to recognise another by the way they wore their hanky/bandana/key more diverse meanings of colour and which side they were worn developed.

As I say, that’s only my theory and is based on the very few facts that we know. Perhaps we never will know.

Friday, 10 April 2015

The Leather Women Return


Two years ago I wrote a brief history of the International Ms Leather (IMsL) contest. Reading it again recently I thought it could do with being expanded upon. So, to celebrate this year’s IMsL contest taking place this week in San Jose here is a bit more about it’s origins.

In 1987, in the run-up to the first IMsL contest, lgbt bars and clubs in major US cities held their own contest to choose their representative for the new title. Many of these were held in men’s bars as there were not that many female leather bars around at that time. What there WAS around at the time was a growing sense of identity and community among female leather/SM enthusiasts.

Several members of the IMsL steering committee were no strangers to the world of title pageants. Chuck Renslow was owner of the International Mr Leather franchise, and Patrick Toner had been International Mr Leather 1985. Another committee member, Gayle Rubin, was involved in the organisation of perhaps the earliest female leather contest.

Gayle Rubin was co-founder of Samois, the first women’s leather/SM group in the USA, formed in San Francisco in 1978. I only mentioned Samois briefly in my earlier article, and because Samois and its members have been such a significant influence on the development of the female leather and SM communities, let’s take a closer look at its history.

Samois was formally founded on 13th June 1978 when a group of lesbian leather enthusiasts met in San Francisco. Most of the founder members had attended a previous leather group called Cardea, including the leading lights of Samois, Gayle Rubin and Pat Califia.

Gayle Rubin is a cultural anthropologist. Throughout her university studies she wrote and spoke on feminist and women’s issues. In 1970 whilst at the University of Michigan studying for her doctorate, Gayle co-founded a feminist group called Radicalesbians.

In 1975 Gayle wrote an essay titled “The Traffic in Women: Notes on the ‘Political Economy’ of Sex”, which was to play a large part in feminist debates during the late 1970s and early 1980s. In particular the essay encouraged female SM practitioners to define their own identity and place in SM culture in the face of opposition from radical feminists who denounced SM as degrading to women.

With this background in feminist theory Gayle moved to San Francisco and began to study the leather culture among gay men for her dissertation. She joined the female leather scene just as the Cardea group was disbanding and she met Pat Califia. Between them they came up with the idea of the first independent female leather/SM group that became Samois.

Pat Califia had been active in the SM community in San Francisco since the early 1970s. Just as Gayle’s “The Traffic in Women” essay was creating debate Pat was urging lesbian SM practitioners to stand up for their rights to express themselves. There was no female-only SM bar or club in San Francisco, and out of the debates arose the female support group called Cardea. Pat became one of its first members.

In 1978 Pat and Gayle co-founded Samois. Their aim was to create a social, support and activist group, and to raise awareness of SM practice. Education was part of this programme of awareness and Pat and the Samois group wrote several articles and books detailing lesbian SM practices.

Three years later, still battling against the anti-pornography feminist lobby, Samois decided to emulate their male counterparts by organising the first female leather contest. This was held on 5th September 1981in a lesbian bar called Ollies and attracted several hundred attendees. Unfortunately, I can’t find any record of the winner’s name, the first Ms Leather.

Samois was at the height of its popularity. But just a few months later and the pressure began to take its toll. The unexpectedly high production costs (in both money and time) of publishing a ground-breaking book of SM writing by group members, the pressure of combating constant anti-SM criticism, and internal differences within the committee, all contributed to the slow demise of Samois.

Fortunately, by now Samois had created a large network of female lesbian and supportive members that ensured that lesbian leather/SM would continue. The community was now becoming a nationwide movement and new local groups were being formed.

This was a crucial time for the whole leather/BDSM community. The emergence of AIDS was to effect them as much as anyone. A lot of SM practitioners were reluctant to adhere to safe-sex messages that its most prominent members were promoting. Most practitioners were straight and they saw AIDS as a “gay man’s disease”. The gay male SM community quickly adapted to the new threat and led the promotion of safe-sex practices in BDSM.

In San Francisco the community was fundraising for AIDS charities since the early days of the epidemic. In 1986 nurse Joann Lee and Alan Selby, owner of a popular leather store, gathered together a group of enthusiasts to form the first committee for the International Ms Leather contest. Gayle Rubin, co-founder of The Outcasts, the successor to Samois, agreed to become a member.

As with the earlier Ms Leather contest held by Samois a full list of entrants of the first IMsL is difficult to locate so I’m unable to name the pioneers of either contest. Only the winners’ name of the first IMsL is known – Judy Tallwing McCarthy.

Whoever wins IMsL this coming weekend she will join a distinguished and diverse group of women whose work for the SM community will always be respected.

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Around the World in 80 Gays : 7 - A Marriage

Last Time : The murders in Boston of 16) Rita Hester and 17) Chanelle Pickett led activists like 18) Nancy Nangeroni to organise vigils which paved the way for the Transgender Day of Remembrance. Boston also paved the way in same-sex marriage legislation with a court case headed by 19) Hilary Goodridge and 20) Julie Goodridge.

19) Hilary Goodridge (b.1956) and 20) Julie Goodridge (b.1958) were one of 7 same-sex couples in long-term relationships whose applications for marriage certificates were refused by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health in March and April 2001. Julie lived and had studied from Boston University and ran an investment consulting firm. Her family name was Wendrich, and after being in a relationship with Hillary (formerly Hillary Smith) for about 8 years she and Hillary changed their surname to Goodridge after the birth of their daughter.

The Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders (GLAD) filed a lawsuit against the Department of Public Health with the Goodridge’s names a lead plaintiffs (a list of the other plaintiffs can be found in the Wikipedia entry). The court decided against the plaintiffs but GLAD appealed and on 18th November 2003 the appeal went in their favour. The appeal court decided it was unconstitutional for same-sex couples to be denied marriage.

All of the plaintiffs in the case got married on the day same-sex marriage in Massachusetts became legal. Hillary and Julie were married in the headquarters of the Unitarian Universalist Association in Boston where Hillary was a director of their funding programme.

2001 was a significant year in the history of same-sex marriage. On 14th January two couples were married in Toronto, Canada. However, as I explained in my article on Toronto last year both marriages were challenged by the court and they were not legally validated retrospectively until 2003.

The first legally unchallenged same-sex marriage took place on 1st April 2001 in the Netherlands. They came about as a result of the world’s first same-sex marriage act that was passed on 21st December 2000.

Inside Amsterdam’s city hall 4 couples arrived for a mass wedding conducted by the mayor, Jon Cohen. Three couples were male and one was female. As the married couples mentioned so far have been female I’ll continue the trend and look at the first lesbian couple to marry with the full authority of the law. Their names are 21) Helene Faasen (b.1967) and 22) Anne-Marie Thus (b.1970).

In true romantic style Helene and Anne-Marie Thus met on a blind date in 1988. They joined the other couples in Amsterdam city hall in front of television and media cameras as well as families and friends. It was a huge media event and the ceremony was broadcast live immediately after the chimes of midnight finished striking the end of 31st March 2001.

Mayor Cohen conducted all 4 marriages ceremonies simultaneously, with all of the couples becoming legally married at exactly the same moment. A special cake was baked for all of them – a large pink cake on which stood the little figures of 3 male groom couples and 1 female bride couple.

At the time of their marriage 21) Helene Thaasen and 22) Anne-Marie Thus were the parents of a baby boy. A year later they also had a daughter. Throughout the 14 years that they have been married Helene and Anne-Marie have avoided too much publicity, always portraying themselves (and other same-sex couples and families) as just an ordinary family. Anne-Marie has been involved in several lgbt family groups over the years and is currently a board member on the Network of LGBT Families Associations. Helene is a notary with her own business partnership in Amsterdam.

With same-sex marriage still being such a political football in many countries it is always good news when an lgbt politician announces his/her intention to marry his/her partner. Most of the countries that permit same-sex marriage have lgbt politicians who have married their partners. At the moment, though, there have been no married lgbt Head of State, but there has been (and still is) an lgbt married Head of Government and, like the other couples mentioned so far, is female.

In 2009 Iceland appointed the openly lesbian MP 23) Jóhanna Sigurðardottir (b.1942) as its Prime Minister. The following year the Icelandic coalition government introduced same-sex marriage. Jóhanna was among the first to marry. Next time I’ll tell you how she was appointed as Prime Minister as a result of West African asylum seekers.

Saturday, 4 April 2015

The Seven Deadly Gay Sins : Going Orange With Gluttony

In February I began this sinful series with the Deadly Red Sin of Anger, symbolically represented in Medieval folklore by the colour red, the top stripe of the Rainbow Pride flag. Today we move one stripe down to orange. In medieval Christian folklore Orange was assigned to the sin of gluttony. I find it amusing that the colour used for gluttony is named after food (the colour was named after the fruit, not the other way round), and with tomorrow being Easter Day when the long weeks of fasting during Lent come to an end what sin could be more appropriate? So what parts of lgbt heritage can we find that illustrate the Deadly Sin of Gluttony?

First of all, let’s define “gluttony” as it applies to sin. The most obvious definition is “over-eating”, as exemplified in the character of Mr. Creosote in Monty Python’s “The Meaning of Life”. Mr Creosote eats so much that he explodes. Sinful gluttons would get their punishment in Hell, of course, and the particular punishment Medieval popular folklore believed gluttons received was, appropriately, to have lots of little horned demons force-feeding them with rats, toads and snakes (whether until they too exploded or not isn’t certain).

But over-eating is only one of several definitions that the Medieval church put forward. Here are 6 definitions of gluttony listed by Pope Gregory the Great (d.604) and St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274):-
Eating before proper meal times,
Desiring luxury foods,
Adding seasoning and sauces to meat,
Having too much to eat,
Eating too eagerly and quickly,
Eating food that is too elaborately prepared.

Judging by that list, every food programme on television can be called sinful to the Medieval mind!

In later centuries gluttony came to be equated with any sort of over-indulgence, whether it was spending, gambling, playing, working, or just enjoying yourself too much. During Britain’s only period as a republic under Oliver Cromwell every activity except work and prayer was seen as sinful! But let’s get back to food.
Let’s get sinful and see who those evil lgbt agents of the devil are, who tempt good folk like us into sin with their elaborate, delicious, pleasing, yummy, and often too expensive, food. In other words, let’s look at some lgbt chefs and cooks.

I’ll begin with James Beard (1903-1985) who, as far as I have been able to tell, is the only lgbt chef who has a culinary award named after him. He was, according to Thomas McNamee in his 2012 book on Beard, a man who sums up everything the old sin of gluttony represented: “Beard, a man of stupendous appetites – for food, sex, money, you name it…” wrote McNamee.

James Beard was one of the first media personalities in the food world. He had one of the first regular cookery programmes on American television and championed good American food as well as French cuisine. Although he is not that well-known outside America his influence was enormous. After his death the James Beard Foundation was formed which offers scholarships in the culinary arts.

Every May the Foundation presents awards to chefs, venues and organisations who have been significant in the food industry in the past year. Some of these winners are openly lgbt, including 3-times winner Corby Kummer, Art Smith (writer and ex-chef to Oprah Winfrey), and restaurateurs such as Clark Fraser and Mark Gaier.

Cookery programmes are very popular on tv, otherwise there wouldn’t be whole channels dedicated to the subject. This means that many lgbt chefs have become familiar faces, due mainly to the increase in cookery contest shows and “reality” programmes. The most recent “celebrity” to come out is Rudy Tandoh, a contestant of 2013 series of “The Great British Bake Off” who came out 2 days ago.

In my youth I watched a lot of cookery programmes, and the lgbt chefs I remember watching regularly were Robert Carrier, Richard Cawley and Ross Burden. Even Rabbi Lionel Blue would occasionally don a cook’s apron and rustle up some food on breakfast tv. Later there was “Greg and Max”, the first openly gay partners to have their own cookery series on British tv in the 1990s.

One programme I’ve always enjoyed is “Ace of Cakes”. In recent years the increase in same-sex unions and weddings has seen many couples being turned down from cake makers because of their homophobia. Duff Goldman, the genius behind the fantastic “Ace of Cakes”, has recently teamed up with the afore-mentioned Art Smith to form the 101 Gay Weddings Campaign. The aim is to promote same-sex marriage by helping 101 lgbt couples to produce their dream wedding. 

Although I can never call myself a chef I have dabbled in the profession myself. While I was duty manager at a hotel for 4 yeas I prepared food and room service meals for the many guests, including (shamelss name-dropping) Lady Gaga, Colin Firth, Ian Thorpe, Sven Goran Erickson, Gok Wan, the entire South African, Indian and England cricket teams, and the Chinese Ambassador to the UK.

At the hotel’s restaurant there was (and still is, I believe) an openly gay colleague, a chef called Thomas Buhse. Because of the popularity of cookery programmes Nottingham hosts its own food and drink festival every year. Last year Thomas, as a chef from the leading restaurant in the city, was invited to co-present a demonstration with a local butcher Johnny Pusztai. And what were they billed as? “The Gay Chef and the Merry Butcher”. Here's a promotional video.

I don’t know about you, but I’m getting hungry, and there’s another 4 hours before lunch time!

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

A Corrupting Influence?

Tomorrow is International Children’s Book Day. A couple of years ago I wrote an article celebrating Tove Jansson, one of the winners of the biennial Hans Christian Andersen Award. When the next award is announced next year I’ll look at some of the other lgbt writers and illustrators who have either won that award or have been nominated for it.

Many children’s books have been written in recent years using lgbt issues as the main subject. Quite often these books have been banned from public libraries and denounced by some misguided, self-appointed guardians of children’s morals as being corrupting influences. These books are a subject deserving of an article on its own.

Today’s article is about general children’s fiction (novels, picture books, verse) which have no lgbt content but have been written by lgbt authors. Tove Jansson, and indeed Hans Christian Andersen, is a perfect example of what I mean. Other writers I’ve mentioned in this blog have been J.M. Barrie and Edward Lear. Two other lgbt writers I’ve mentioned before, Lionel Charlton and Dan Billany, wrote adventure books for boys.

Some of the greatest characters in children’s literature have come from the pens of lgbt writers. Of those created by the writers above there are the Moomins, the Little Mermaid, the Ugly Duckling, Peter Pan and the Owl and the Pussycat. I haven’t heard of any serious denunciation of any of them being a corrupting influence on children. On the contrary, most of them have been used to illustrate the issues that life brings to us all.

There is another addition to the pantheon of famous characters from children’s literature that have come from the pens of lgbt writers – Mary Poppins. Unfortunately, all that most people know about Mary Poppins, created by P. L. Travers, is what was created by Disney. P. L. Travers was never really happy with the musical comedy version that Walt Disney came up with. Had she lived to see the Disney studio’s recent film “Saving Mr. Banks”, a fictionalised version of the events surrounding the creation of the Mary Poppins film, Travers would probably be equally unhappy. But we’re not talking about the film today, but books.

What we can see is that lgbt writers have been writing for children since the genre’s evolution from folk tales and nursery stories. Hans Christian Andersen was a pioneer in this cross-over. The Victorian era has been seen as the Golden Age of children’s literature (though I’d argue that we’re in one now). Andersen’s classics were aimed at a younger audience, but most of Victorian literature was aimed at older children.

The Victorian era was very moralistic and optimistic. Classics such as “Oliver Twist” brought the plight of the poor working classes to the front of fictional writing. Philanthropists and politicians championed the rights of the poor and a rosy view of a society where people believed that everyone was capable of going from “rags to riches”.

One American writer who built a career on writing “rags to riches” stories for children was Horatio Alger jr. (1832-1899). Alger’s novels were incredibly popular in the late 1860s and early 1870s. He wrote many books telling essentially the same story, so you can imagine that after a while they became stale and “samey”. They did, however, contribute to the 19th century concept of the American Dream.

The Victorian era produced female lgbt writers as well. One of the most well-known in the USA was Katherine Lee Bates (1859-1929). Although better known as the writer of the words to the patriotic song “America the Beautiful”. Katherine wrote books of verse and edited several volumes on folk and fairy tales. One character she made popular was Mrs. Santa Claus. I’ll return to Katherine Lee Bates in my Advent series in December.

At the beginning of the 20th century there were very few lgbt writers of children’s literature. There was, however, an explosion of new illustration. Not all writers of literature are artist. For example, the bisexual author Margaret Wise Brown (1910-1952) wrote many picture books which were illustrated by other artist. Other writers emerged during the mid-20th century who illustrated their own work, such as Tove Jansson and Maurice Sendak.

In recent years the value of children’s literature has been highlighted, most recently in its success of the Harry Potter books and their contribution to literacy. Many children have started reading literature as a result. Each generation has provided influential children’s authors, both lgbt and straight, and their books have provided enjoyment to millions. How can anyone say any that books by lgbt authors corrupt children any more than those written by straight authors? Even though I’m in my 50s I still get great enjoyment out of reading children’s classic literature. I urge every adult to not abandon children’s books just because you are no longer a child. So pick up a kid’s book tomorrow.

Saturday, 28 March 2015

Coded Lives : 50 Years of Being Fantabulosa

Well, how bona for all you dolly omis, palones and omipalones to vada my bijou blog again and hope there’s nanti naff in today’s fantabulosa piece from my luppers.

In other words, how nice it is to all you lovely people to read my blog again and hope there’ nothing bad in today’s wonderful piece I’ve written.

It’s a pleasure to write today’s article because it brings back so many happy memories of sitting at the table as a child for a traditional family Sunday lunch and listening to one of the BBC’s equally traditional Sunday lunchtime comedy programme. The comedy in question today being “Round the Horne”. You may have heard of it. It was a sketch and review comedy with lots of eccentric characters and situations, silly names and a song or two.

This month sees the 50th anniversary of the first broadcast of “Round the Horne” and even though I was probably too young to remember the original series I certainly remember the reruns.

Two of the most popular recurring characters in the show, probably the most popular characters ever created on BBC radio in the 1960s, were Julian and Sandy. They made their first appearance 50 years ago this very day on 28th March 1965 and were an instant success. And their appearances thereafter brought to the attention of the general British public a secret language used my large portions of the gay community in those days when homosexual activity was illegal. The language is called Polari, and it’s the language in which today’s opening welcome was written.

Julian and Sandy were characters who were out of work chorus boys doing various other jobs in between theatre work. Each week they sprinkled their sentences with words form Polari, words which were unknown to the general public but the script was written in such a manner that the meanings were easily guessed. Even though Julian and Sandy were extremely camp and intended to be gay men their homosexuality was not the object of the comedy. It was the situation and the double entres that Polari implied that made them funny (“big bulging lallies and whopping great thews”), not to mention the unsuspecting use of Polari words like “cruise” and “cottage” which were “overlooked” by the BBC bosses. This was still during the time of state censorship (the Director General of the BBC once told the writers, with a twinkle in his eye, why he let them get away with it – “I like dirty shows!”, he said). Strangely, one of the rules laid down by the BBC was that there should be no jokes about effeminacy in men!

As the name Polari suggests, the language has Mediterranean roots. No-one is quite sure where or when it originated but many different influences may have converged. It is generally believed that the Italian Comedia dell’arte is the main source.

Polari was spoken mainly among circus, theatre and performing communities. In the pre-20th century period these professions were not considered “legitimate” and they often found themselves victimised by locals when they travelled the country. This attitude was similar to that directed against the travelling communities – Romani, gypsy and even vagabonds.

All these communities contributed to the vocabulary of travelling and performing communities during the late 19th century which became known as Parleyree, and this developed into the Polari of the 20th century. With slightly different emphasis on meanings and uses the gay community became the final influencers in the last stage of Polari’s evolution.

The creators, the writers, of the Julian and Sandy characters were two very heterosexual men – Barry Took and Marty Feldman. They had originally envisaged two elderly out-of-work actors as recurring characters, but the “Round the Horne” producer found them more sad than funny. Took and Feldman them came up with the young chorus-boys Julian and Sandy.

Barry Took had been a comedy performer on the theatre circuit back in the 1950s and had contact with many young chorus-boys who spoke Polari regularly so he understood some of the words. Fortunately the two actors who played Julian and Sandy (played respectively by Hugh Paddick and Kenneth Williams) were both gay actors with musical comedy backgrounds who also spoke Polari between themselves.
Kenneth Williams was well-known to audiences by the mid 1960s through his comedy work on radio on the “Carry On” films. He always had problems accepting his homosexuality and was deeply insecure, despite the extrovert persona he displayed in his many later appearances as raconteur and chat show guest.

Hugh Paddick, on the other hand, was less well known and preferred to stay out of the limelight and private. I still can’t believe that he would have been 100 years old this year! Even though he was an all-round character actor Hugh played many camp characters on television, radio and film, one of the campest being as Robin Hood in “Up the Chastity Belt”.

Finally, I must say a word or two about Kenneth Horne, one of my heroes, the genius around whom “Round the Horne” was created. Kenneth, a straight man in both comedy and sexuality terms, was a star of British wartime radio comedy, and his progression into the “Swinging 60s” was extraordinary successful. He looked more like a businessman or MP than a comedian. Indeed, he was head of several big national companies in the 1950s until a heart attack almost killed him. His doctor told him he wouldn’t survive long with both his business and comedy careers and he must drop one. Fortunately he dropped his business career. Horne was a talented comedy writer himself, though “Round the Horne” was written for him by Took and Feldman. His sudden death while presenting an award ceremony in 1968, ironically moments after the presentation of an award to Took and Feldman, was a loss which has never been replaced.

Julian and Sandy and Polari continued on vinyl, books and cassettes. In 1988 BBC television hosted a special celebration of radio comedy in which many iconic performers from the Golden Age of Comedy reappeared. Barry Took wrote a brand new sketch for Kenneth Williams and Hugh Paddick as Julian and Sandy. Sadly Williams died three months later and Julian and Sandy died with him. Hugh Paddick died in 2000 at the age of 85.

I’ll leave you with this clip of Julian and Sandy at their best, which also illustrates just how many Polari words are now part of everyday speech (butch, camp, queer, cottage).