Allan Ahlberg, in my view, is a national treasure. No: a National Treasure, the honorific capitals fully and unequivocally deserved; let me, as a declaration of interest, make that clear right from the start. Burglar Bill, Happy Families, Each Peach Pear Plum, The Jolly Postman, Peepo, Woof, Please Mrs Butler… the list of his work goes on and on, each book a unique jewel in the rich treasury of British children’s literature. He’s just fab.
The Boyhood of Burglar Bill is likewise fab, but in many ways almost entirely unlike any other Ahlberg book I know. It’s a memoir, for one thing, not about Burglar Bill at all but about Ahlberg’s own childhood, or one particular part of it. The part, to be precise, when he formed a football team.
Before half of you sigh disappointedly and move on, let me say that this is not a book about football, any more than Animal Farm is a book about agriculture or The Diary of Anne Frank a book about attic-rooms.
In 1953, when an under-twelves tournament, the Coronation Cup, is organised, Ahlberg and his friends - clever, loyal, sickly Spencer, and Ronnie, the “Frankenstein of Frogs” - are not chosen for the official school teams, and decide to enter their own. The story of how they do it - the recruitment process, the unexpected hurdles, their progress against the odds - forms the backdrop for a much bigger story which manages to be funny, engaging, exciting, enthralling, entertaining, and ultimately moving. It’s a story of true friendship and brief alliances, authority and rebellion, love and betrayal; and a marvellously real depiction of childhood, told in a voice that’s warm and wise.
Above all, it’s heartbreakingly honest. Or is it? For it may not be a memoir at all. It reads like one; it should be one; and yet the publishers describe it as a work of fiction - but a work of fiction “in which Allan Ahlberg explores his own childhood”. I suspect it’s truer than that, an unreliable memoir at most; if it’s a fake, then Ahlberg is even more of a genius than I already believe.
Whatever the truth, you’ll love this story. And when you reach the end, and suddenly discover what the story was really about, it will stay with you for days.
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