Book of the Week, LGTBQIA+, non-fiction

Book of the Week: Fabulosa!

A few options under serious consideration from last week, but in the end I settled on Paul Baker’s Fabulosa! because it was really, really good and I’m not sure it will have come onto people’s radar. So this week’s BotW could be seen as the latest in a line that has already included Legendary Children and Diary of a Drag Queen – and also Art of Drag – which you can actually see in the background of my photo below.

In case you don’t already know, Polari is a language that was used mostly by gay men in the first half of the twentieth century. It had a brief moment in the limelight in the mid 1960s when it featured in Julian and Sandy sketches on the radio show Round the Horne, and then dropped away again. In Fabulosa! Paul Baker examines the language’s roots – in Cant, dancers’ slang and Lingua Franca – the reasons why it was spoken and the reasons for its decline. Baker is a linguistics professor and the foundations for the book are from of his PHD research – and interviews conducted with surviving speakers of Polari.

This is part linguistic study, part social history and really very enjoyable. There are a fair few word which crossed over into common usage from Polari – as well as the origins of a few of the words you may have encountered in Drag Race. One of the main roles for Polari was a means of communicating with a level of camouflage – but it’s hard to work out at this distance how successful that was. Baker is very frank that it was hard to find people who spoke it to interview, and there is very littl documentation about it and so it’s hard to work out how Polari was actually used – and whether it ever reached the level of a language rather than a variety, and whether people who didn’t speak Polari would have recognised it as something spoken by the gay community and been able to expose this and thus defeat the object.

IF you’re interested in language or social history – or both, this is well worth a look to discover a hidden part of the recent past. I bought my copy from Foyles – where the hardback is now out of stock but they do have the paperback, but it’s also available on Kindle and Kobo. You’ll probably need a reasonably large or specialist bookshop to be able to wander in and pick up a copy.

Happy reading!

And one last bonus – here are Kenneth Williams and Hugh Paddick reviving Julian and Sandy – on camera for a BBC programme in the late 1980s, shortly before Paddick’s death. Both this and the clip above are discussed in the book.

Book of the Week, non-fiction

Book of the Week: Dead Famous

Another week, another Book of the Week post, but first another quick reminder about the Escapist Reading post from the end of last week. Anyway, back to today and taking a break from the romance and crime picks of most of the month (and last month to be fair), this week’s pick is Greg Jenner’s latest book – Dead Famous: An Unexpected History of Celebrity from Bronze Age to Silver Screen. I’ve got a whole stack of history books on the to-read pile and I’m hoping that my head is getting back to a place where I can concentrate on more serious reading now – I love history books, but I’ve had trouble getting my concentration going for them the last couple of months (gee, wonder why) but this broke through.

Hardback copy of Dead Famous

First up, I should say that I went to the same uni as Greg – and what’s more we both “worked” at the same student radio station – and although we weren’t in the same teams or social groups we do follow each other on Twitter.  Anyway since then, Greg has gone on to be a successful public historian – he worked on the Horrible Histories series, hosts a two podcasts for the BBC, You’re Dead To Me (currently on hiatus in the middle of it second series) and the brand new Home School History (which I was listening to part of the time while writing this post) and done all sorts of exciting history stuff including his first book, A Million Years in a Day. Dead Famous came out last month and examines where the modern concept of “celebrity” comes from – how old is it, is it different to fame (or infamy) and how one goes about acquiring it. Over the course of the book he tells the stories of celebrities through history and works out how we got to where we are.

This was one of my hammock reads last week (as the sharp-eyed amongst you may noticed in yesterday’s bonus picture!) and it’s really good. I won’t spoil Greg’s thesis, but it’s well made and with a lot of really great historical figures to illustrate it. Greg has done some serious research into this – 1.4 million words worth on his laptop according to the Acknowledgments – but his writing style makes it so accessible and easy to understand. There are some history books that are scary and hard to read for the layman – sometimes even though they have a funky cover and an enticing blurb. But if you’ve ever heard Greg on radio, podcasts or seen him on TV, he writes exactly as he talks – which makes his books funny and chatty but with impeccable researching to back it up. Greg narrates his own audiobooks and they’re a fabulous listen – that’s how I read Greg’s first book and it was a real treat. As the title suggeests, this stops at 1950 – because Greg says everything after that has already been covered. If you’ve read books on modern celebrity – like Anne Helen Peterson’s Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud – this would make a really good companion piece to examine how we got here.

I pre-ordered my copy (its signed!) from Kirsty at Fox Lane Books – and as you can see from the tweet above she is still taking orders and if you message Greg to tell him that you bought from her, he’ll send you a signed bookplate. It’s also available on Kindle and Kobo – and as an audiobook read by Greg.

Happy Reading!

non-fiction, Recommendsday, reviews

Recommendsday: Reel History

Need a book that comes in bitesized chunks?  Try Reel History: The World According to the Movie by Alex von Tunzelmann, which is based on her long-running Reel History column in the Guardian.  The basic idea is to compare the movie versions of history with the actual historical fact and the results are frequently hilarious.  Movies are graded on entertainment and on history, because it’s perfectly possible for a film to be both entertaining and historically accurate, although it’s rare.  That’s not to say that she expects films to be slaves to historical accuracy because she’s well aware that what is good history doesn’t always make good watching, but it’s a lovely way of finding out where the truth is behind the films and makes a great jumping off point if you want to disappear down an internet (or library) rabbit hole or two when you find out the truth.

Cover of Reel History by Alex von Tunzelmann
I do love a nice bright cover – and this one is so much fun

Von Tunzelmann has a wicked sense of humour on her, without resorting to cheap shots very often. In fact there’s so much good stuff to giggle about in this that what started out as me reading bits out loud to Him Indoors turned into me reading the whole book out loud to him!  This meant that the book took a lot longer to read than if I’d just been reading it myself, but made for a lovely shared experience as we chuckled together as the movies moved in time from prehistory until the nearly present.  He’d seen a lot more of the movies mentioned than I have, but I still enjoyed the book even the films that I haven’t watched.

I don’t think we can expect many/any more columns – as von Tunzelmann has turned her hand to script writing (she wrote the recent film Churchill) and, as she told Dan Snow’s History Hit podcast, she doesn’t think it’s quite cricket to be on writing films and criticising them.  I’m sad that there won’t be a sequel to this, because I enjoyed it a lot, but I’m off to enjoy the back catalogue on the Guardian website.  I’m also off to take a look at her book Indian Summer, which is about the liberation of India in 1947, which is a subject I know woefully little about and would like to remedy with the 70th anniversary coming upon us next month.

Reel History is available in paperback from all the usual sources and was a bargain £3.49 on Kindle  at time of writing and is also available on Kobo.

Happy Reading!