Don’t get caught… (or A Political Awakening Through Literature)
Ageing folky popster, Crouch End resident and sometime actor, Bob Dylan once said “to live outside the law you must be honest” or somesuch – he then strummed at a passing electric guitar and thousands of his fans exploded.
Leaving behind the question of his nasal singing and unfortunate hair, it can be conceded that with those words the Bobmeister struck a chord of truth; a C diminished 5th of verisimilitude; an annoying whine of exactitude; for as we have seen through the ages from the Tolpuddle Martyrs to UK Uncut, to partake in actions such as civil disobedience, going off the grid, or distributing seditious underground pamphlets in school usually requires a certain amount of fortitude and integrity.
This brings me to The Borribles.
Imagine a younger me, early teens, happily clutching his beloved library tickets and browsing the shelves for something to excite and inform. What’s this? A book with a cover design of a red brick wall, a pair of fleeing bovver boots, and written on the wall in a facsimile of dripping graffiti, the title of the book: The Borribles. Yup, that’ll do nicely, the young me says, books it out, and toddles off to play conkers and listen to The Specials.
One week later…
Mind blown. Senses awakened. Vocabulary of rude words enhanced. Life changed?
The Borribles was written in 1976 by South London resident and sadly/wrongly little known author Michael de Larrabeiti. It’s set in the streets that he knew well and can perhaps best be categorised, if needs must, as a work of urban magic realism. It is possibly the best ‘children’s’ book ever. It knocks Harry Potter into a cocked hat and pisses on him.
Borribles are children, or, rather, were children. A disparate group of runaways who have disappeared from society, they live in all the cities of the world. Once a child becomes ‘borribled’, signified by their ears becoming pointed, they cease to physically grow but continue to age in terms of knowledge, wisdom and, most importantly, cunning – some are said to be more than 100 years old. The cunning is needed as Borribles are targeted by the authorities for being a threat to social order that must be eradicated. The worst fate for a Borrible is to be caught by the police (the ‘woolies’) and have his ears literally clipped – he will then begin to age normally and have to live in the adult world so vehemently eschewed in Borrible lore: this is a fate worse than death as illustrated by the Borrible proverb (of which there are many): “It is better to die young than to be caught“. In keeping with the desire to live a life out of the ordinary, to gain your Borrible name you must go on an adventure – your name is a matter of pride and those that have more than one are looked up to.
Borribles live by stealing and scavenging what they need, often haunting street markets and taking what’s left at the end of the day (“Fruit of the barrow is enough for a Borrible“). They have no use for money, in fact they despise it as a symbol of the adult world left behind, and, through choice, have very few possessions. In London they are organised into ‘tribes’ by dint of the boroughs they live in, and have a healthy suspicion of other tribes (“The Borrible who ain’t suspicious long ain’t long a Borrible“): while the fundamental lore is universal, each tribe will have its own characteristics and a great sense of self and place. Well organised, the communities have ‘specialists’ in all areas and work together to live as comfortable a life as they can.
The Borribles is concerned with the historical enmity between all Borribles and the Rumbles of Rumbledon. Living in well appointed and luxurious burrows underneath Wimbledon Common, the Rumbles are the upper class of this fantasy world – they live in a strict social order, are pompous and arrogant, and extremely materialistic. When Rumbles are seen digging burrows in Battersea Park it becomes clear that they intend to mount a takeover of the area. The Battersea Borribles call a meeting and in order to stop this potential colonisation it is decided that an attack too should be made on the Rumble high command thereby leaving them in disarray. Eight Borribles are chosen from different boroughs, their mission each to kill one of the eight most senior Rumbles and take their name. The adventure begins…
The second and third books in the trilogy (The Borribles Go For Broke; Across The Dark Metropolis) move away from the battle with the Rumbles and focus more on the constant threat from the authorities, the Met having set up the Special Borrible Group (SBG), and other elements of the adult world. We also see that unwelcome elements of adult society have crept into Borrible life, and the pernicious effect this has. The Borribles themselves were well characterised and leapt from the page, each with their own idiosyncrasies and flaws, but united in a common cause for the greater good. However, looking back on it now I begin to see that the books may also have had a more profound effect, that of my nascent politicisation.
The overriding theme of the trilogy is one of being anti-establishment, of looking at the world and its systems and deciding that they are not for you. The adult world is seen as being drab, regulated and consumerist with its enforcers ruthless and merciless in their quest to maintain order at the behest of those at the top. The Rumbles are a microcosm of this with their strict hierarchy and focus on material wealth, and their incursion into the Borribles’ world signals a threat to a way of life in the name of order and progress, or progress at least for Rumbles. This can perhaps be seen as a prescient comment by the author on gentrification and the ‘easing out’ of established communities as an area becomes subject to rising house prices and a more ordered, establishment based existence. The Rumbles themselves are a thinly veiled parody of The Wombles, a particular bête noire of the author.
Another strong theme is that of anti-consumerism. Money is despised and possessions unwanted: as long as you have what you need to be comfortable, why want for anything else? With the emphasis in the Borrible communities of each contributing what they can, there is almost a direct reflection of Marx’s “From each according to their means, to each according to their needs“. The proxy governance of Borrible life is from the Borrible Book of Rules, but beyond that they live what can be seen as an anarchistic lifestyle, with loose groups living together under a functionary ‘house steward’ who sees to the needs of the community in an organisational sense: decisions are taken at meetings with all having an equal say.
In sociological terms Borribles are a diverse entity. The group we follow through the trilogy are multi-ethnic and gendered, although there are some small clichés to be found in their representation. They are extremely territorial, but beyond that there is a fierce group loyalty among the protagonists and Borrible society as a whole. This is only threatened when notions of adult society such as leadership and materialism creep in, possibly even greater threats than the Rumbles. The origins of becoming a Borrible are described thus:
Normal kids are turned into Borribles very slowly, almost without being aware of it; but one day they wake up and there it is. It doesn’t matter where they come from as long as they have had what is called a ‘bad start’. A child disappears from a school and the word goes round that he was ‘unmanageable’; the chances are he’s off managing by himself.
Within this paragraph we see an implicit criticism of the way in which children are failed by the ‘system’, and more worryingly acknowledgement of abuse within the phrase “a ‘bad start’”. Society has failed these children, so they choose to make one of their own.
There are direct parallels to be made with outsider groups in our own society. The scavenging for leftover fruit and food is a form of freeganism, a term that wouldn’t be coined until three decades after the first book was written. The Borrible way of life itself can be seen as a form of anarchy, and the idea of diverse groups of people coming together and building something through their joint efforts is happening all over the world now with the Occupy movement. Even the infighting between different Borrible tribes has a resonance within the left wing/anti-establishment milieu. As regards the establishment, the formation of the SBG to eradicate Borriblism can be seen as a direct pastiche of the notorious Special Patrol Group (SPG) of the time, and we now have the Territorial Support Group (TSG) keeping an eye on ‘disorder’.
The books themselves received much critical acclaim but were treated with disdain by the establishment, both perhaps for the fact that they were genre literature, but also due to their grittiness, language, and, despite the fantasy element, depiction of a reality ignored by the elite. Indeed, in the aftermath of the Tottenham and Brixton riots in 1985, publishers Collins pulled out of a deal to publish the three books in one volume citing the protagonists’ battles with the authorities as being unsuitable due to Britain entering “a new era where this battle is a daily reality”. Quite absurd, of course, and de Larrabeiti responded with a pastiche of the publishers’ letter in City Limits making King Solomon’s Mines the subject of censorship. Copies of both letters can be found on Flickr under ‘The Borribles’.
So there you have it, a trio of exciting and brilliantly written adventure stories, but also a socio-political commentary of the times which can be seen as being just as relevant today. It is a sad thing that these books have been somewhat marginalised and I would urge you: beg, steal or borrow them. Just remember, as a Borrible would say, don’t get caught.