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