The Borribles first appeared in 1976 to a great deal of critical acclaim (shortlisted for the Whitbread Award, and The Other Award, voted onto the American Library Association’s Best Books for Young Adults List) and a lot of noisy controversy.
Given that the book has a generous ration of bad language and violence and is morally ambiguous, it’s amazing that it was so well received by the children’s book establishment from The Times to Time Out via the TES. Nevertheless it didn’t get paperbacked – too strong a meat for Puffins” – and the Borribles went underground again.
In 1981 the Young Vic staged The Great Rumble Hunt with a cast of London schoolchildren, and Bodley Head published a second book The Borribles Go for Broke starring the fearless girl Borrible, Chalotte. Now Piccolo have released The Borribles in paperback.
Who are these Borribles`?’ And what is known about the man who invented them’
“Borribles are generally’ skinny and have pointed ears… They are pretty tough-looking and always scruffy, with their arses hanging out of their trousers, but apart from that they look just like normal children. “
The ears are important and Borribles always hide them under woolly hats when they are out and about. If a Borrible is caught by the police his ears are clipped and he starts to grow like any ordinary child.
“Normal Kids are turned into Borribles very slowly, almost without being aware of it; but one day they wake up and there it is… A child disappears from a school and the word goes round that he was ‘unmanageable’; the chances are he’s off managing by himself “
The most famous Borribles come from Battersea. It was the Battersea Borribles who set up the Great Rumble Hunt. The Rumbles (who can’t pronounce their ‘r’s’ and refer to themselves as Wumbles!) live on Rumbledon Common. They look like huge moles or deformed rabbits, with long snouts and beady red eyes. They are the enemies of the Borribles, who hate them for their riches, their power, their haughtiness and their possessions. When it looks as if the Rumbles are planning to colonize Battersea (what price the rest of London then’ ) the Borribles answer is a plan to smash the Rumble High Command – Bingo, Torreycanyon, Orococco, Stonks, Chalotte, old Uncle Vulgarian and all.
A small highly-trained hit squad (including two girls) set out on a mission that simultaneously draws on and sends up the fantasy quests of Hobbits and the rabbits of Watership Down, James Bond, The Magnificent Seven and The Guns of Navarone. Excitement, violence, low cunning, class warfare, betrayal, loyalty, solidarity, bravery, exist side by side and are all called in question by a story that remains ambivalent to the end.
The person responsible for all this is Michael de Larrabeiti.
He was born in Lambeth, brought up in Battersea and went to school in Clapham after failing the eleven plus. His father was a Basque from Bilbao who married a girl from Lavender Hill and settled down there.
The ground over which the Borribles fight and travel is the territory of his childhood.
“In those lazy days hardly anyone had a car so the grown ups couldn’t take you anywhere, they were too busy at work anyway. When I had an adventure I had to invent it for myself. My favourite adventure was the trek to Wimbledon Common and the other kids in my street would sometimes come with me. It was my favourite because Wimbledon Common was so rough and wild and exciting and you could explore it for hours and never get to the end of it.
“Wimbledon was a long way. Even if we put our money together, and the others never had any, we couldn’t raise enough to pay the fares both ways, so we used to walk there and ride back if we didn’t spend our money on ice-creams. A long trip but we used to invent adventures every step of the way. You could break into two groups and one chase the other or run into shops and hoot at people and knock off an apple and have a good laugh if they chased you. Pulling faces was good as well – they just couldn’t understand us at all.
“However much we got separated we always waited for each other at Southfields because that’s where everything changed. Climbing those steep hills towards Wimbledon felt more strange than anything else. The streets were wider and cleaner, there was no paper blowing about and there didn’t seem to be the slightest speck of dust or dirt; just large tidy lawns spreading out before immaculate houses, detached houses too with all those rooms for only one family. I was awed by it and hated it too, I suppose, but in a way you couldn’t define.
“Luckily there was something that we could define and that was kids with posh voices. It rarely, if ever, came to physical warfare, but, taking courage from our numbers and fleetness of foot, we saw to it that all Wimbledon children, with or without the protection of their parents, caught the jagged edge of our vulgar tongues. And heaven help any large house, a fortress to our eyes, that had fruit trees visible. In we would dash in a quick breathless foray to scrump and steal. It was everything: danger, fear, effrontery, bravado, pride and revenge.
“Once on the common, and if not too exhausted, we would push ahead and explore further. One day we decided that it was time we crossed the whole wild expanse of green, a real adventure, into the unknown. We had no maps and without maps all land is unexplored; all we had was a vague idea that we were on the fringes of known London and that beyond the horizon was a strange country, so strange that it verged on the foreign, it was near abroad.
“We marched on; up and down hills, through woods and across heaths that seemed endless. It was certain that we should have turned back at Richmond Park, but we went on and discovered the deer. Dusk fell and this was a park that we might get locked in and we didn’t know which way to go but we carried on. Suddenly it was pitch dark and the younger kids were crying because they were tired and we hadn’t eaten much that day.
“I cannot remember what time it was when we eventually turned the corner into our road but all our families were out and they had a policeman with them. They were standing in groups under lamp-posts, watching, waiting, swearing and losing their tempers.
“I got clipped round the ear of course and the neighbours started on me as the ringleader. My mother got so annoyed with the lot of them that she stopped telling me off and told the neighbours that if their kids didn’t have the sense to stand the right way up then they should stay indoors and it was their fault and not mine. It developed into a really good row and I enjoyed it especially because it saved me from getting a really good hiding. My mum just pulled me indoors, gave me a good meal, soaked my feet in a bowl of hot water and laughed at me while I ate. After that I always travelled on my own.
“I suppose, though I wasn’t to know it for years to come, that was the way THE BORRIBLES began.”
Piccolo. 0 330 26857 0, £1.50 Bodley Head. 0 370 10898 1. £2.95
The Borribles go for Broke
Bodley Head. 0 370 30413 6, £3.75 (paperback)
Use that book! No.1 The Borribles
Dennis Woodward, headmaster of Broadwater Junior School in Wandsworth, a confirmed Borrible fan, recommends using the book as the basis for work across the curriculum.
“I read the book to the school in serial form. It was the longest story I have ever presented in this way but it so captured and sustained the interest of the children that there was never any feeling of it dragging. The ten and eleven year olds produced a lot of follow-up work in exploring the Wandsworth and Battersea setting of the story and in discussions about friendship qualities and attitudes and group loyalties. Some fine artwork and drama resulted. Many of these older juniors bought their own copies of the book. Now that it is at last available in paperback I hope more people will want to use it in this way”.
Here are some ideas for things to do and talk about
There are Borribles in every city – not just London. Where would you find the nearest Borribles to you?
“It was a typical Borrible hideaway, derelict and decaying. Borribles live where they can in the streets of the big cities but they like abandoned houses best of all. When a house is already occupied then will often use the cellar and they camp in schools at night too if they are left empty and unused. “
Invent a tribe of Borribles for your locality. What would they be called?
Visit or look at pictures of derelict, decaying houses. Why are they like that? Could you manage to live like a Borrible? What would it be like”
A Borrible has to win a name by going on an adventure. In the Great Rumble Hunt eight Borribles were chosen to get their names. But
“Those who were not known for their bravery kept very quiet for there are Borribles who go right through life without ever earning themselves a name. “
Which sort would you be?
Write to Spiff explaining why you ought to go on the Rumble Hunt.
How did Knocker and Spiff get their names? Invent a story. What adventure would you choose to go on? What name would you have at the end of it? Write about it.
Are people’s names important? Why do some people get nicknames? Invent nicknames for the class. What do our names mean? Research the origin and meanings of surnames, first names, place names.
Freedom, Rules, Leadership
“Borribles delight in feeling independent and free and it is this feeling that is most important to them. They have no real leaders, though someone may pop into prominence from time to time, perhaps because he has had a good idea and wants to earn’ it through. Thee manage without authority and they get on well enough together, though like everybody, they quarrel. “
Is this a good way to live? What are the advantages and disadvantages’.
How do you think Borribles settle their quarrels?
Do the Borribles really have no leaders’. What makes a leader? What use are rules?
Did you feel sorry for them” What, if anything, is wrong with the Rumbles’?’ Could there ever be peace between Rumbles and Borribles?
In The Book
Which Borrible did you like best? Which would you like to be? Describe yourself. What are you like inside? What do you think of the others”
Is the ending the right ending’. Would you change it? How? Do you prefer happy endings or sad?
What was your favourite bit’.
Do an illustration. Act it out.
Make a map of the area and the journey from the book. Read a map of London. Make a wall map or frieze with illustrations as the story progresses.
Why do people hunt for treasure? How many sorts of treasure can you think of’ Find stories of treasure hunting – fact and fiction?
Why did Knocker want the treasure? Why did Spiff? What will the Rumbles do now?
“If a Borrible doesn’t look alive he’s very soon dead” – Vulge
“It’s as easy to drown in soup as in water” – Knocker
“He’s got more than enough neck to look up his own earhole” – Chalotte.
Make a list of Borrible proverbs from the book. What do they mean? What do our proverbs mean’? Find out where they come from.
Write a Borrible song or poem.
Make a Borrible play.