1976’s The Borribles is the first volume in Michael de Larrabeiti’s Borribles trilogy.
Their pointy ears betray Borribles as having become something more than hard-faced street children. They keep the ears hidden and avoid the attention of the police who would crop their ears and steal their independence. Each Borrible must earn their transformation from runaway child into Borrible by means of sharpness of wit and strength of will. They win their names with thrilling adventures.
Eight Borribles will be offered the chance to become legends.
Borribles fear the police but they utterly loath the ratlike Rumbles, whom the Borrible see as sneaky, predatory, and unjustly rich. When chief lookout Knocker spots a Rumble lurking near Battersea, he and his companions fall upon the unfortunate Rumble and carry the prisoner off to their hideout for interrogation.
In short order, local Borrible chief Spiff reveals the worst: the Wimbledon Rumbles have plans to conquer Battersea. The Rumbles have the numbers. They are autocratic and organized for conquest. The Borribles have only their courage and wits. The Borribles would lose a conventional street war. But, if they were to mount a bold strike and kill the eight members of the Rumble High Command before a war could start, they might avert it.
This is a grand opportunity for young Borrible volunteers who want to earn their names.
London’s Borrible communities each provide a nameless Borrible volunteer. Ordinarily, they would have to complete their quest before learning their adventure to learn their new names. In this case, each of the volunteers is granted the name of the Rumble in High Command they must kill: Vulgarian, Bingo, Chalotte, Torreycanyon, Orococco, Stonks, Napoleon Boot, and Sydney. After brief but vigorous training, they are sent on their mission.
Accompanying them: Knocker. His official role is historian. Knocker has a second, covert mission given to him by Spiff. Perhaps the volunteers would not approve of this side mission, if they knew of it. They will not learn of it until they are in the midst of the enemy.
Not all of the brave volunteers will return. That is a sacrifice Spiff is more than willing to make.
Books read decades earlier often surprise on a second reading. What surprised me in this book (something I entirely missed in my younger days) is the bigotry of the Borribles. They despise Rumbles just as millions of humans despise their fellow men. Hatred based not on real knowledge, but on stereotype and mass hysteria. Bigotry makes Borribles manipulable. I found myself thinking that Borrible leader Spiff would fit right in with the Brexit crowd. Who knows? Perhaps in the Borrible universe he did. Has anyone checked Boris for pointed ears?
This novel is full of references that British readers of the era would have easily caught.
● There’s a reference to the Black and White Minstrel Show (I suspect that if you follow that link, you will be upset by what you read).
● The Rumbles are very thinly disguised Wombles (book, TV show). Each member of the Rumble High Command corresponds to one Womble:
Vulgarian: Great Uncle Bulgaria
Chalotte: Madame Cholet
Napoleon Boot: Wellington
Sydney: Miss Adelaide
● Two of the villains who oppose the strike force are based on the TV show Steptoe and Son (the source for Sanford and Son).
Readers unfamiliar with British TV can nonetheless enjoy a thrilling adventure featuring mean, homicidal protagonists. You may be surprised that adults ever thought that this was suitable juvenile reading1. But they did. (Perhaps they bought it to read themselves; the book turned out to be popular with all ages.) The book sold well enough that two dark sequels were published.
The Borribles seems to be out of print.
1: But then remember that other children’s classic.