Tuesday, 15 January 2008

The Borribles – Michael de Larrabeiti

I read The Borribles when it was first published in 1976. And then wondered why it didn’t appear in paperback. It did eventually, seven years later. Which says a lot about the publishing industry’s lack of confidence in a strong and important work. The book was controversial at the time, considered violent and subversive. It certainly has strong anti-authoritarian and anti-materialist themes, and the central characters live in an anarchic society (in the true sense of the word). Nor does it gloss over violence and the consequences of violence. Yet it is no more graphic than many other children’s fantasies, and certainly has a stronger moral approach than many violent adult novels written at that time.

Although I have never found any suggestion, one wonders if there was not a degree of nervousness about the target of the Borribles’ violent exploits.

Borribles are much like the Lost Children of Barrie’s Peter Pan. They live in tribal communities in London (and other cities). Each tribe is identified with a London borough, but the main social unit is a street or house. Living wild on what adult society throws away (or doesn’t keep its eyes on), with companionship and story telling the most important aspects of their social existence, Borribles earn their names from an adventure. Most Borribles have one name, but some yearn for more.

The book is a quest. Eight nameless Borribles are trained for a pre-emptive raid against the Rumbles, sworn enemies of the Borribles. These highly acquisitive and militaristic creatures live in bunkers beneath Wimbledon Common. They are furry with long snouts and have trouble pronouncing the letter ‘R’, articulating it as ‘W’. Now sit down and think about it.

Told that the Rumbles are planning to invade Borrible territory, the eight set out on a mission to destroy the Rumble high command. With them are two extra companions: Adolf, German Borrible along for the adventure to earn himself a fourth name, and Knocker, one of the Borribles who trained the eight. His official position is that of historian (much as Celtic bards often accompanied armies), to witness and write up the official history of the Raid. But he also has another mission, tempted by the opportunity of gaining a second name.

That mission, based on the greed of others, leads to the death of half the Borribles on the quest and leaves open to question the motives of those who said the Raid should take place. For all that Borribles remain children forever; some of them do a lot of growing up.

For all the serious undertones and the important themes, this is an exciting adventure. The world of the Borribles and the Rumbles is created with great conviction, existing alongside the ‘real’ world. The characters are wonderfully drawn and the ways in which they are torn by different loyalties are handled with subtlety.

All three Borrible books are now available in a single volume, and anyone serious about quality children’s fiction should give this a try. It is an adventure worth taking. But remember. Don’t get caught!