Bigging Up The Borribles

While randomly surfing Facebook groups after first joining, I found and immediately joined “The Borribles would kick Harry Potter’s bourgeois arse“, a view which I heartily subscribe to and have hinted at here before too.

From that group I discovered the author’s official site and this article by Peter Lyle for TANK magazine which captures much of what I really love about these books, as well as my usual experiences in trying to tell people about them.

“They’re called the Borribles.”

(Blank look)

“It’s this children’s book from the ’70s.”

(Blank look)

“They’re these oiky kids with pointy ears who live in all the shitty bits of London and fight the grown-ups and the Wombles and…”

“Do you mean the Borrowers?”

Except that for me, no one brings up the Borrowers either. (Which is fair enough really, they were pretty lame.)

Anyway, I just wanted to encourage anyone who’s done with the latest Harry Potter and feels a sense of loss or whatever to give the Borribles a try. They are some of the most memorable and gripping children’s books I have ever read, and I really don’t understand why no one seems to know about them.

Reading the books again as a grown-up living in London gave me new insights into what made them so great (Lyle likens the presence of London in the books to its presence in the writing of Dickens, and to the Dublin of Joyce’s Ulysses) and the rest of the article continues to open my eyes to things I hadn’t thought about before: that the areas in which London’s Borribles choose to make their home – Battersea, Tooting, Wandsworth, Stepney, Whitechapel, Neasden and Hoxton – are today an “index of then down-and-out, since gentrified, bits of the city,” and that “in an era when children’s books about chosen ones, picturesque and ethnically-cleansed boarding schools, timeless English architecture and the universal use of received pronunciation dominate the entire fiction market, The Borribles is a celebration of everything that doesn’t fit with that vision.”

You can read the first chapter of each Borrible book at the site, though if you’ve never read any of them then I recommend (in case of spoilers) that you only read from the first book.

Harry Potter Can Kiss Their Arses

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.