The books of The Borrible Trilogy (Michael de Larrabeiti) are full of theft, swearing, treachery and murder. Decapitation, electrocution, catapult blow to the head, crushing, burning, and innumerable stabbings are only some of the ways in which various characters, both good and bad, meet their deaths. And they’re among my favourite children’s books ever.
The London of these books is bleak, ugly, and riddled with decay and brutality. Borribles live in derelict buildings in rough parts of the city like Tooting and Peckham, and live off what they can steal. On their adventure, they travel by night, paddling up discoloured, viscuous rivers, wading through dank sewers, and seeking refuge in vast rubbish sites and industrial wastelands. It’s the London you glimpse through the window of the train half an hour before it pulls into King’s Cross, before you shudder delicately and return to your book. It isn’t the London I knew, but in my hopeless irrational love, even this London is intriguing.
Some points are perhaps made a little less subtly than some adults would like. As a child, I never picked up on the fact that the Rumbles of Rumbledom were a dark piss-take on the Wombles of Wimbledon Common, or that their arrogance, wealth and speech inflections (e.g. “I’m tewwibly sowwy, old bean”) were meant to satirize a certain class of English society. I also didn’t know enough about London to understand why the author chose to make the Borrible from Brick Lane a Bangladeshi, or the Borribles from Brixton black. (The German Borrible, for what it’s worth, is called Adolf.) Perhaps my political correctness hackles are supposed to rise in response to this, but they don’t, because none of these characters are ever confined to a stereotype, or a caricature.
There is no magic in these books. There is no train departing from platform 13 and a half at King’s Cross. The stories are as riveting as any good action thriller I’ve ever seen, and I remember many late nights spent as a wild-eyed hostage to distrust, suspense and genuine concern for the welfare of the characters, who live or die solely by their wits, courage and indomitable spirit. If the most recent children’s books you’ve read are the Harry Potter ones, step out of your comfort zone and meet the Borribles. Rated PG.