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.

Nancy Drew (Ron Koertge)

Today’s Writer’s Almanac poem made me smile, though I hate that I can’t remember whether the poem’s referencing an actual case-file from one of the books or not.

Nancy Drew (Ron Koertge)

Merely pretty, she made up for it with vim.
And she got to say things like, “But, gosh,
what if these plans should fall into the wrong
hands?” and it was pretty clear she didn’t mean
plans for a party or a trip to the museum, but
something involving espionage and a Nazi or two.

In fact, the handsome exchange student turns
out to be a Fascist sympathizer. When he snatches
Nancy along with some blueprints, she knows he
has something more sinister in mind than kissing
her with his mouth open

Read the rest

PC Gaming

While Alec was cooking up a scarily elaborate Chinese feast for my family on Sunday, I decided not to get in his sweating, cursing way, and started cleaning up the guest room for Russ. Since my sister and I used to share the room, a fair amount of our stuff is still in the cupboards so I was going through them to clear space for Russ to hang his clothes.

The thing about cleaning my old flat is that no matter how much I remember about my childhood, there’s always something I’ve completely forgotten, until it resurfaces, that brings me some delight amidst the dust. Sunday’s treasure trove was a box of old card games, some well-known like Old Maid and Go Fish, and others I couldn’t remember for the life of me.

I have no idea what card game these were from, but they’re amusing throwbacks to a time when Mind Your Language was my favourite comedy and I’d never heard of the word “stereotype”.

Indian boy, Red Indian girl
Two little Injuns
Scots girl, Welsh girl
Man, even then people were mean to the Welsh
Irish boy
People are always surprised I don’t keep my boyfriend’s photo in my wallet. Think I’ll start showing them this instead.

After my family had left and we’d finished cleaning up, we sat out on the balcony for a well-deserved rest. I drank my coffee, and Alec smoked his pipe. We were the very picture of yuppie sophistication – apart from the Top Trumps. My sailing ships totally kicked his sailing ships’ asses. Next time we’re playing combat aircraft, and after that, racing bikes.

BMW Side Car Outfit Top Trumps card
Dude, where’s my lower half?

Each pack came with some teaser cards for other Exciting! packs you could own in the Top Trumps series. This is where I realized that my childhood, and indeed my life so far, has been woefully incomplete.

Fabulous Buggies Top Trump pack cover card
Coolest. Top Trump pack. Ever. I want this so bad.

Youngest Fag Hag In The World

My two oldest guy friends are Ken and Roy. (Well, I had a good friend called Cavan Wee in kindergarten, but we lost touch once we entered primary school. Email me if you ever read this, Cavan!) We all lived in the same condo. I spent countless hours of my childhood with them.

Last night, the following exchange of text messages took place:
Ken (Think I deleted this message, so I’m paraphrasing): Am at Mox now and you’ll never guess who I’ve just run into. Roy! He’s gay and out!
Me: My childhood just got a lot weirder.
Ken: He says you’ve been a fag hag since five.
Me: When we were kids I was totally more manly than you guys.
Ken: We agree.
Me: Our repeated viewings of Ms Universe are easily understood now. Less easy are our SMALL METAL PLANE MODEL BEAUTY PAGEANTS…ask him to explain.

(You can read Ken’s account here.)

It is somewhat ironic, in hindsight, that at our condo playground neither of them dared to slide down the pole.

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.

Old Friends

Boxes and dust have been the order of the day, or rather, the order of the early morning hours between midnight and six, which is when I do the most of anything useful.

My family moved house while I was in London, and I’ve been going through the boxes from the old house bit by bit. I’m doing books first, deciding which ones actually get to live on shelves in the new room, and which ones get consigned to a box high up in a cupboard. It’s not always easy. Dealing with stuff at home is always immensely more complicated than in England, because here I have to make decisions about the accumulated sentimental junk of twenty years rather than four.

Childhood books are an issue. Some books get Shelf Status with little or no agonizing involved: the Narnian Chronicles, which I really must reread now adulthood informs me that Aslan’s meant to represent more than just a really noble lion; the Borribles books, certainly the darkest and bloodiest children’s books I’ve ever read, but also the most gripping and imaginative by far. But what about the Roald Dahls? Do I concede that I only reread them once every couple of years, and box them up, or do I grant them a precious place just because we go waaaaay back? And if I let the Roald Dahls onto the Shelves, how can I then deny space to the Dick King-Smiths, the Joan Aikens, the Enid Blytons, the E. Nesbits, the Colin Danns, the Judy Blumes, the Nancy Drews? How can I, with a clear conscience, banish I Am David and Malgudi Days and The Secret Garden and My Side Of The Mountain and White Fang and Grimble to the Box of the Unloved and Abandoned?

Faced with difficult decisions like these the other night, I dealt with the situation like an adult. I piled the books back in the boxes, found my old collection of Asterix comics, and read them till 6 AM, at which point my mother woke up for work, saw the light under my door, came in horrified, and nagged me into bed.

Rereading White Fang

The only thing that’s keeping me reading Life A User’s Manual (Georges Perec) are these effusive Amazon reviews, which promise that if I just stick it out a bit longer all will become clear and wonderful and no longer stupefyingly boring. I’ve been reminding myself of all this for 78 pages now, which is not unreasonably long for a book to get going (many others have wonderful beginnings and then meander into mediocrity), but I must say that much of what’s keeping me grimly soldiering on is the need to believe that I’m still an intellectual being in fields other than the law.

Another obstacle to my making headway with the book is the presence of White Fang on my bedside table. Somewhere in Spain, talking about childhood reading, we discovered that we both really loved White Fang but were less enthused with The Call Of The Wild, because White Fang was way cooler than Buck, who sometimes tended towards wussiness. But despite the fact that I knew I’d always had a definite preference, and I’d probably read both books over ten times each when I was younger, I couldn’t actually remember distinct plotlines for each one any more. These memory lapses tend to trouble me quite a lot, less because of the simple argh-it’s-on-the-tip-of-my-tongue aspect of trying and failing to remember, more because of that old worry I have about how much I’ve forgotten – that I haven’t just forgotten particular nuggets of knowledge, but that I’ve also forgotten I ever possessed the knowledge at all.

So I got the book out of the UCL library the other day, and it’s honestly been like a homecoming. What’s fascinating is that standard aspects of narrative like plot and the names of characters are still hazy. What swims back to me with startlingly familiar clarity are little, relatively insignificant things. At the beginning, the revelation of the lone man battling the pack of wolves with firebrands, of the wonderful intricacy of his being – the way his little finger, too close to the flame, automatically re-adjusts itself on the wood. I used to be able to see that little finger shrinking from the flame, the wolves skulking in the darkness out of the corner of my eye. When the puppy later named White Fang first ventures out of the den where he was born, tumbles into a nest of baby ptarmigans, picks one up in his mouth and naturally begins to eat it, I could always taste the salt of its blood, feel the splintering of delicate bones.

Packrat Blues

I decided to make a start on tidying things in readiness for the move to a new family house. It’s only scheduled to take place after I’ve returned to England, but I thought I’d do what I could now to reduce the amount of my junk my family will have to pack up.

I started with the lowest compartment of the cupboard – relics from childhood – and had to conclude after going through it all that I am a packrat of the highest order; the combined effect of the dual considerations of sentimental value and but-it-might-come-in-handy-some-day is that the eraser collection (I’m not kidding) can’t be thrown away despite the fact that I would have to write out the Encyclopedia Britannica in pencil and then rub it all out again in order to actually use all of it, the Sea Monkey pamphlet can’t be thrown away even though those little ripoffs are long dead, and Strawberry Shortcake (unfortunately naked) also has to stay, because you don’t throw away Strawberry Shortcake.

But some things had to go, and so I made painful choices.

Thrown: Generic toy cars
Kept: A MicroMachines tune-up station cleverly disguised as a can of motor-oil. A small, rather pathetic Transformer-wannabe truck that in its robot form strangely resembled Duke Nukem. Five metal replicas of commercial airlines. My neighbour Roy and I used to combine our collections of planes and have plane beauty contests. We’d trundle the planes down the length of the “runway”, they’d do a turn at the end and get trundled back, and we’d score them out of ten. My Korean Air plane won many times because it was this lovely sky-blue.

Thrown: Balls of knitting yarn
Kept: Squares of knitting which I knitted every time I learnt a new stitch; a practice scarf rendered unusable by an inexplicable foray into stocking stitch three-quarters of the way through it. An unfinished square was still mounted on the knitting needles. I tried to continue it. I could remember how to knit, but not how to purl.

Thrown: Whoopie cushion, with deep regret – its rubber had melted and stuck to the box and it was a pale shadow of the fart maelstrom it once was. I loved that whoopie cushion. Sigh.
Kept: Fake bloodied bandage with nail, calculator that squirts water when you press the keys, sweet tin with leaping snakes when opened, rubber centipede, two snakes (one rubber, one plastic), replica revolver which shoots a flag saying “BANG!!!” when you press the trigger.