The Borribles by Michael de Larrabeiti is a trilogy of books first published in the early 1980s: The Borribles, The Borribles go for Broke, and Across the Dark Metropolis. They are a superb read but are increasingly anarchic throughout the series. Proceed with caution, but remembering the potential for great rewards!
Borribles are children who, like Peter Pan , will never grow up. They usually come from a "bad start", run away, then they find their ears grow pointed and they are "borribled".
Borribles are generally skinny and have pointed ears which give them a slightly satanic appearance. They are pretty tough-looking and always scruffy, with their arses hanging out of their trousers. Apart from that they look just like normal children, although legions of them have been Borribles for more than a lifetime – as long as a Borrible remains at liberty he or she will never age.
Most of them have sharp faces with eyes that are burning-bright, noticing everything and missing nothing. They are proud of their quickness of wit. In fact it is impossible to be dull and a Borrible because a Borrible is bright by definition. Not that they know lots of useless facts; it’s just that their minds work well and they tend to dislike anyone who is a bit slow.
The Borrible children live in groups around London and the Borribles of different areas of the metropolis, which have slightly different characteristics, are fiercely loyal to their own. Borribles can only grow up if they are caught by the police and have their ears clipped by the police surgeon. They live by petty theft and in fear of the police and being clipped. Their greatest enemies are the Rumbles of Rumbledom Common, creatures described like "a giant rat, a huge mole or a deformed rabbit" with a "long snout". The Womble parady is complete with the names like Timbucktoo, Sydney, Bingo, Chalotte, etc.
The first volume is the easiest to recommend. In fear of invasion by The Rumbles a special group is formed and trained by chief lookout Knocker. Borribles love adventures and they are granted their names on completion and this is to be the biggest adventure of all. Eight new no-name Borribles are called up, one from each London district (Battersea, Neasden, etc) and each is give the name of a chief Rumble. Their task is break into the Rumble strong-hold and kill their assigned Rumble to deprive them of their leadership and break their power for a generation. The experienced Knocker is to go with them as "historian" but he has his own secret task given to him by one of the oldest Borribles, Spiff. Though the Borribles set off with murderous intent, their lives are under threat and the Rumbles themselves are not alive in the way we think. When killing the Rumbles the Borribles are relieved to find only straw inside the Rumbles (a metaphor for the ruling classes perhaps? There is a lot of class conflict going on in these books). The Rumbles' greatest fear is horses. Horses, those committed herbivores, eat Rumbles. In this it doesn't feel like real violence, as the Rumbles don't seem to be truly present, though the battles fought in this war feel pretty real.
Each book can be read as a story on its own but there is an over-arching plot, and the books do benefit from being read in order.
The anarchic element gets more evident as the books progress. The last book was hindered in its publication because it involves violence against the police (not all police as such, but particularly the cartoon-like pair of idiots assigned to catch and clip the Borribles and their nameless constabulary back-up) and it was due out at the time of mid-80s riots in the UK.
There are some wonderful characters in this trilogy. The most prominent Borribles Knocker, Spiff, Napoleon, Sydney are all fascinating. The controversially named Adolf Wolfgang Amadeus is a brave and eccentric later addition to their group. The disastrously drunk tramp who helps them is a brilliant creation and the description of his abode in the dump is a wonderful piece of writing. By the final book, the impossible has happened: an adult who sympathises with them, who respects and shares their Borrible values, starts to become Borrible, pointed ears and all... The Borribles have never heard of such a thing but loyalty in this world is rewarded.
Plot and characterisation are excellent throughout the three books as is the lively written style. These are undoubted quality pieces of literature but many parents will like neither the plot nor occasional bad language. In their defence I would say that they may be anarchic but they're not nihilistic. The Borribles have strong values: they're just not necessarily always our values (though they have many unarguable qualities like bravery, kindness, empathy, loyalty and selflessness), but this makes it such a fascinating book to talk about with children. How do we form our values? Whose values are right? Can one value trump another?
I loved these highly original and intelligent books as a child and fell for them all over again re-reading them this year.
Peril: lots of fear and excitiment as these are adventure stories. The peril is real but the Borribles, and their opponents the Rumbles are not, which places the peril at one remove from the child-reader. There are scary moment of capture including by a Fagin-like character who forces them to steal for him, and by the police in the later books. There are scenes of imprisoment in all the books, and some of slave labour.
Death: in the first book it is mainly Rumbles but they do lose one of their number in the Great Rumble Hunt and others, it is implied at the last, on the way home. By the second book their situation has become more complex, the police are now their enemy and stakes are higher. The second and third books contain much more death, and main characters die within the narrative, not implictily or behind the scenes. At one point they fall in with some vicious tramps and the murder of an adult human takes place.
The Rumble deaths are quite dramatic - drowning in a vat of boiling soup, electrocuted in a bath, etc.
Relationships: no romantic relationships as they never grow up.
Politics: there are a lot of class warfare undercurrents. The violence against the police is part of this.
Anything Else: taboo or coarse language occurs intermittently (arse and twat in the first few pages for example). Several adult characters are alcoholics. The horse is treated cruelly by his first owners and is under threat of being sent for slaughter when held by the police.
Other reviews and useful sites:
Some interesting background on The Borribles by YA writer Cory Doctorow.
Tor Books have a page on archive covers for the series. Those 1980s Pan ones are the ones that I remember.
This link to a tweet should show a picture of an old review which you can just about read!
Michael de Larrabeiti's estate have a page marker here at the moment which should be where their website eventually appears. Try it and see!