It’s the end of the Easter holidays, and the Ribblestrop pupils are returning for the summer term. You’ve probably heard of Ribblestrop. ‘It’s the place where the chaplain got eaten by a crocodile, and before that the deputy head was killed by a train’. The children are partial to rum, and all handy with fire arms. The school motto is ‘Life is Dangerous’ and if you haven’t yet spent time there, you don’t know what you’re missing. In the Ribblestrop books Andy Mulligan has created probably the best school stories since the days of Jennings, and certainly the wildest.
It’s difficult to summarise the plot of this third adventure, which opens magnificently with one lot of Ribblestrop pupils crash-landing a plane onto the top of a bus driven by a group of fellow students (fortunately skilled circus stars). Later, when they have been evicted from their school by one of the many adults who loathe or are actively trying to kill them, the Ribblestrop pupils and teachers set off to build their own tree-top settlement on Ribblesmoor, living life as their ancient ancestors did, working together as a community, and thoroughly enjoying the freedom and sense of peace it gives them.
For no matter how breakneck the plot, nor how vast the cast of eccentric characters clamouring for attention, there’s always time to appreciate the points Mulligan is making about life, and about childhood. Ribblestrop Forever is a powerful blast against our health-and-safety-gone -mad culture; a celebration of the importance as well as the sheer joy of running wild. In one episode, a planned football match against another school turns instead into a chariot race (homemade chariots pulled by rum fuelled donkeys). Weapons are involved and it’s certainly dangerous. Little Barney ends up running the course in sheer, undiluted terror. He falls but is quickly hauled up by the Ribblestrop boys – only as they check him for broken bones does he realise that he’s just had the most exciting experience of his life.
After the climax which involves explosives and a fight in a hot air balloon as well as some genuinely spiritual and rather touching episodes involving the spirits of Ribblesmoor’s original inhabitants, there’s one final task for the children: to rescue their teachers from the long arm of the law. This is achieved through a junior flash mob – Tiverton Park station and the surrounding area brought to a complete standstill by swarming children. ‘In the distance blue lights were flashing, but every emergency vehicle was covered in children, and everyone was dancing’. It’s the perfect image on which to end.