6: York Minster/French House


49 Dean Street

The French House has nearly always been called the French, but the name on the sign between the First World War and 1984 was York Minster. In 1984 a fire broke out at the real York Minster and the York Minster pub started receiving donations through the letterbox to help with the rebuilding. To stop this from happening again the York Minster pub finally came out of the closet and officially called itself the French House.

Landlord Victor Berlemont, which sounds very French but actually he was Belgian, had only two rules: treat everyone with courtesy and sell beer in half-pints.

To this day not many British men are comfortable with drinking halves, and so the York Minster managed to attract a mixed crowd of social outsiders: painters, writers, prostitutes and men looking for more than a bromance. “Going to the French” became code for those who wanted to be discreet about where they were heading, but it wasn’t just Queer-friendly venues that they wanted to be coy about. Around the turn of the century, Queer men adopted a form of slang called Polari to disguise their conversation from Queer bashers and undercover policemen.

Popular with actors, showmen, merchant navy sailors and members of the underworld, Polari had been around since the 19th century (possibly even earlier) and didn’t fall out of fashion until the 1960s and 1970s. Some Polari words have made it into common usage - it’s where we get naff, drag, dish, camp, butch, trade, cottage and scarper. (If it’s blown your mind that there was a whole nother language then look-up “nada to vada in the larder” or, if you really want to fall down a Google hole, translate: “Ooh, vada well the omee-palone ajax who just trolled in. She’s got nanti taste, dear, cod lally-drags and the naff riah but what a bona eek. Fantabulosa!”)

How gay men used to speak

A short film in Polari, London, 1962. Two strangers strike up a conversation on a park bench about life, sex and the hostile world they find themselves in as gay men.

For translation and analysis of the screenplay: genius.com/Brian-and-karl-putting-on-the-dish-annotated Written & Directed by Brian Fairbairn and Karl Eccleston

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