Michael de Larrabeiti: Creator of the Borribles

An author of impeccable, old-style Bohemian credentials, Michael de Larrabeiti with his best-known novel The Borribles brought class war into children's fiction as never before. A writer who turned his hand to many different genres, he was also a seasoned travel writer.

The son of an émigré Basque father and an Irish mother, de Larrabeiti was one of five children brought up in a cold first-floor flat in Battersea with little money to spare. Left free to roam South London, he and his gang of friends sometimes walked out to Wimbledon, gazing at its clean streets and opulent houses while always ready to steal the odd apple or challenge any local child "talking posh". These memories and the resentment behind them were to serve him well as an author in the years to come.

Failing his 11-plus exam, he was educated at Clapham Central School, which he left in 1950 aged 15. The hero already of a cycle journey to and back from Paris, de Larrabeiti now threw himself into travelling big time. Journeys included accompanying Provençal shepherds several times on the transhumance, whereby thousands of sheep were transferred from their winter to summer pastures. He also enlisted on Oxford University's Marco Polo expedition as its official photographer, which involved four months on a motor-bike, ending up travelling through India and Afghanistan.

After time spent working sometimes in France, but more often in London, as a library assistant, delivery boy, cinema projectionist, waiter, shop worker, cameraman, tour guide, night-watchman and garage hand, de Larrabeiti enrolled at Trinity College, Dublin, to read French and English. Excelling in his studies, he was accepted by Keble College, Oxford for a doctorate in French literature after an abortive year at Bangor University gaining a Diploma in Education. But as always short of money, de Larrabeiti – now joined by his wife Celia – decided instead to concentrate on writing and restoring the rambling, dilapidated Cotswold house they bought in 1969.

The Redwater Raid (1972), a Western written under the pen-name Nathan Lestrange, was published in the same year as the birth of the first of the couple's three daughters. His next novel The Borribles (1976) caused a sensation. Well reviewed by the Morning Star but condemned by the esteemed children's author Philippa Pearce as a compound of "huge beastliness", it was written as a coruscating rejoinder to Elisabeth Beresford's determinedly placid series about the Wombles of Wimbledon. In de Larrabeiti's book these characters now appear as the barely disguised Rumbles of Rumbledon, intent on gentrifying nearby Battersea. But their mistake is also to take on the ancient home of the Borribles.

These beings start out as ordinary humans but slowly change once they are judged "unmanageable" at school after experiencing a compulsory "bad start" in life. Childlike in form except for their pointed ears, they never grow up. Foul-mouthed and fiercely territorial, they are expert in stealing, fighting dirty and getting the better of the local police force. Their favourite weapon is a steel catapult, and throughout this story they kill all the Rumbles they can, while burning and destroying as many of their possessions as possible.

The plummy voiced Rumbles, who habitually pronounce "really" as "weally" while lacing their dialogue with phrases like "old bean" and "frightfully sorry" are equally horrible, but without the raging envy that make the Borribles such dangerous enemies. Loyal to each other and to the traditional cockney area where they live, the Borribles see changes happening in front of them that echoed the social revolution actually happening in Battersea and other formerly working-class districts during that time. A dark and subversive urban amalgam of Richmal Crompton's "William" stories, J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan and J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit, the novel proved an unexpected critical hit both in Britain and in the United States. But getting it into paperback took some time, with publishers still nervous about a possible public backlash.

These first adventures were followed by more of the same with The Borribles Go for Broke (1981). But the next novel in the series, Across the Dark Metropolis (1986), proved too much. Anxious about the book's continuing anti-police message following the riots in Brixton and Tottenham, Collins withdrew from publication at the last moment, with the book eventually published by Pan Books. Reviews were still respectable, but de Larrabeiti never wrote about the Borribles again.

A crime novel, The Bunce (1980), written some years before, was short-listed for the Golden Dagger Award, but otherwise there were no further outstanding literary successes. Beryl Bainbridge found his novel Foxes' Oven (2002), in which he drew on his memories of being evacuated as a child, "compelling and atmospheric"; it was long-listed for the Booker prize. But de Larrabeiti's final fantasy novel, Princess Diana's Revenge (2006) was published by himself after 30 rejections.

By now he was getting his main income from travel articles commissioned over the years by the Sunday Times, allowing him at last to live relatively comfortably in his beautiful house in Great Milton. He was amiably eccentric, at the age of 52 gatecrashing an exclusive charity ball dressed as a woman, just to see if he could get away with it.

Nicholas Tucker

Michael de Larrabeiti, writer: born London 18 August 1934; married 1967 Celia Whitehead (died 2003; three daughters); died Oxford 18 April 2008.

News
The clocks go forward an hour at 1am on Sunday 30 March
news
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor finds himself in a forest version of London in Doctor Who episode 'In the Forest of the Night'
TVReview: Is the Doctor ever going stop frowning? Apparently not.
Sport
footballMatch report: Real fight back to ruin Argentinian's debut
News
Bruce, left, with Cream bandmates Ginger Rogers, centre, and Eric Clapton in 1967
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Money
Welcome to tinsel town: retailers such as Selfridges will be Santa's little helpers this Christmas, working hard to persuade shoppers to stock up on gifts
news
News
i100
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Architect Frank Gehry is regarded by many as the most important architect of the modern era
arts + entsGehry has declared that 98 per cent of modern architecture is "s**t"
Arts and Entertainment
Soul singer Sam Smith cleared up at the Mobo awards this week
arts + entsSam Smith’s Mobo triumph is just the latest example of a trend
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Maths Teacher

£110 - £200 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Maths Teacher for spe...

Business Analyst - Surrey - Permanent - Up to £50k DOE

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***ASP.NET Developer - Cheshire - £35k - Permanent***

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***Solutions Architect*** - Brighton - £40k - Permanent

£35000 - £40000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

Day In a Page

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker