Most of my heroes still don’t appear on no stamps

I bought a new notebook and pen for myself for New Year. It’s my reading journal, where I am listing my to-read books and ticking them off, making notes as I’m reading and summarising the books. Most recently I re-read Michael di Larrabeiti’s The Borribles, a book from 1976 about runaway street children who become Borribles, pointed-eared beings who survive by thieving and trickery who go on an epic quest across London to defeat the Rumbles of Rumbledon, avaricious territorial creatures who live underground (this really makes me chuckle, despite being a Wombles fan). It’s violent, there is swearing and the Borribles do not get adopted by kindly elderly millionaires at the end- they go back to their squats in Whitechapel, Hoxton and Battersea, mourning the loss of some of their friends. Think The Hobbit in pre-gentrification London.

I did not read these books in the 1970s and 80s. I wish I had. I’m reading the second book at the moment, The Borribles Go For Broke, which has a Bangladeshi Borrible from Stepney. The protagonist is Chalotte from Whitechapel, first seen scrumping apples from a stall on Petticoat Lane. I can picture it precisely. The Borribles walk everywhere, and the walks are so precisely described I feel I could follow them- like I have followed Oliver Twist and Dodger’s walk from Angel to Saffron Hill (yes, I’m a nerd).

The books do feel nostalgic to me. They were written in the era In which I was growing up, when London was decaying, before the mid-80s Yuppie property boom, when abandoned buildings were plentiful in post-industrial Zone 2. Squats were easy to find. The books feel punk, anarchic and anti-materialistic. They are a huge contrast to today’s young adult books, where characters, even in fantasy books, are often defined by their consumption. Most of all, these characters are celebrated, when working class characters in many fantasy novels are side kicks or Red Shirts. The Borribles trilogy was recently reissued. Seek them out, especially if you’re a Londoner. They’re fantastic.

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