by Alison Flood)
Michael de Larrabeiti's classic stories of anarchic, pointy-eared street children the Borribles, which were judged to be so lawless in the 1980s that their publisher pulled out of releasing the third book, are set to enjoy a new lease of life through Tor Books.
First published in 1976, when the Times Educational Supplement called it "Battersea's answer to Watership Down, The Lord of the Rings and The Guns of Navarone", The Borribles tells of a shadowy version of London, where children who run away from home begin new lives as elfin-eared tricksters, or Borribles. Streetwise and feral, daring and loyal, the Borribles wear woolly hats to hide their giveaway ears from the police and live by their wits, with their chief law being: "Don't Get Caught."
The stories have drawn fans from China Miéville to Neil Gaiman and Cory Doctorow, who told the Guardian they were "one of the origin nodes of urban fantasy, a trilogy of books that are always wicked and never nasty, and a love poem to London". But in 1985, following riots in Brixton and Tottenham, publisher Collins reneged on releasing the third book in the trilogy, The Borribles: Across the Dark Metropolis, saying "the present climate of urban Britain is not the climate in which we would wish to publish this book".
"It is a novel that pits a gang of lawless young people against the police," wrote the publisher in a letter reproduced by Doctorow on his blog Boing Boing. "The battle between the law and lawlessness is glamourised and given a status, which we cannot appear to condone in children's literature now that Britain has entered a new era in which this battle is a daily reality."
The letter was sent on 8 October 1985, just two days after policeman Keith Blakelock was stabbed to death in a riot in Tottenham. On 6 October, described by the BBC as "a night of horrific violence between the police and hundreds of black and white youths", 58 policemen and 24 others were taken to hospital.
The book was published in 1986, a year later, but by Pan.
The three books had been out of print as individual titles for over 10 years, with an omnibus edition the only version available. Tor is now releasing the three titles as individual ebooks for the first time, with an effusive introduction from Miéville. And the late De Larrabeiti's daughters believe the anti-authoritarian titles are just as relevant today.
"The books were a response to the political climate of Thatcher's Britain, and today here we are wrestling with many of the same issues: jobless young people and a deepening mistrust of the police. Yet the gap between rich and poor grows ever wider, and perhaps, even more dangerously, is becoming more accepted," said Rose de Larrabeiti.
The Borribles, she believes, "give voice to that experience of the other London, living poor in the big city, making good with nothing. The experience my dad had growing up. Yes, there's thieving and violence, but there is also loyalty, friendship and a profound understanding of the corrupting power of money … You'll never rid London of the Borribles; that London is and always will be there. One you can belong to without the piles of money or the suit and tie."
"What hasn't changed is that children spend so much time fettered by rules and being told what they can't do that The Borribles offer them a wonderful taste of freedom and fantasy we all need sometimes," added Aimee de Larrabeiti. "The Borrible trilogy was ahead of its time, unnerving a lot of people, and now it is having to fight for a place amongst the success stories of today."
Tor Books has just released the first and second books in the series, The Borribles – in which the children battle their enemies, the giant rat-like Rumbles – and The Borribles Go for Broke, with The Borribles: Across the Dark Metropolis out in March.