Google Analytics

Thursday, 26 September 2019

Review - Alan Sillitoe: The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner

Sillitoe: The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner
Alan Sillitoe
The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (4*)

What made me pick this volume of nine Alan Sillitoe short stories so soon after reading Saturday Night and Sunday Morning? I must be a glutton for punishment. Most of the characters are distinctly unpleasant.

Best known is the title-story filmed in 1962 by Tony Richardson with Tom Courtenay in the leading role as shown on the cover. As with Saturday Night…, it is a bleak, post-war, working-class Nottingham story in which a difficult-to-like hero is in other ways admirable. Borstal boy Colin Smith explains his personal philosophy around events leading to his incarceration and the emergence of his natural athetic talent. Selected to compete in a race he is sure to win and thereby enhance the reputation of the borstal, he throws it in the home straight to spite the Governor because he believes it the right thing to do. What was there for him to go back to? Nothing: not even running.

The same sense of hopelessness runs through the whole collection. All the stories are set in similar sad and underprivileged backgrounds. Some might better be described as vignettes. This is the suffocating world of working-class people before post-war consumerism and expansion of opportunity. You wonder, like Ian Dury or Kate Atkinson perhaps, how close you came to any one of these lives being your own.

Like the penniless schoolboys in Noah’s Ark who swindle and steal to afford the rides at Nottingham’s Goose Fair. Did one of them later become Colin Smith? Or the boy who watches impassively as a man attempts to hang himself On Saturday Afternoon. Or Frankie Buller, a young man with what we would now call a learning disability, who leads an “army” of younger boys in military games.

Or, later in life, what about Uncle Ernest, a damaged and solitary middle-aged man who befriends two undernourished schoolgirls in a café simply because he is lonely and wants to help in exchange for friendship? Of course, no one trusts his motives, especially the police. Or Mr. Raynor the School-teacher, who ogles girls in the draper’s shop across the road from his classroom window? Or the postman in The Fishing-boat Picture who lives alone after his wife leaves him for a housepainter but years later returns to visit every Friday evening, leaving so much unsaid that she never reveals her true circumstances? Or Lennox, whose wife walks out with the kids when he comes home in a mood and picks a fight after watching Notts County lose? Or Jim Scarfedale, a working bloke, who, after the breakdown of his marriage across the class-divide, returns “to his mother’s apron strings” and turns to molesting little girls?

There but for the grace of God! But I was born as the world began to open up, and passed to go to Grammar School, which created chance after chance despite poor exam results and false starts. The trouble is, contest it as you might, it can turn you into something of a snob. Is that why I don’t like the characters?

Not a comforting read, but a strangely satisfying one.


Key to star ratings: 5* would read over and over again, 4* enjoyed it a lot and would recommend, 3* enjoyable/interesting, 2* didn't enjoy, 1* gave up.  

Previous book reviews 

11 comments:

  1. Great kitchen sink dramas and a glimpse of post war provincial England. Barry Hines is another superb writer who championed the English working class. Great post.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I've been catching up with a lot of 'angry young men' working class stuff recently, and Barry Hines is on my list. Have never read anything of his but have seen 'Kes' the film. They sometimes have special showings at Penistone Paramount cinema when the local people who played extras get back together. Also, we recently played at a ceilidh to raise funds for a statue of Barry Hines to go somewhere yet to be decided in Barnsley.

      Delete
    2. Thanks for telling us about the Barry Hines statue. I will send them something! Have you heard of Pomona Books? They published a wonderful Barry Hines book called: This Artistic Life. It's full of football stories. A great little book publisher.

      Delete
    3. That's good. Thank you. Glad I mentioned it. Just looked on Goodreads and the book sounds interesting.

      Delete
  2. Sounds like the author's speciality was peering into the dark, twisted and damaged parts of people's souls.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think I agree with that. I've heard it said that Sillitoe wrote about the real lives of ordinary people, as opposed to D H Lawrence for example, which is clearly true, but his characters are thankfully not ordinary ordinary people.

      Delete
    2. But see YP's knowledgeable contribution below.

      Delete
  3. I've read of these childhoods. Keith Richards, for instance, and what sent him down other paths, though his was by more strange paths. Even some of our fellow bloggers. Perhaps we should be thankful not to be doing it over again.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes. I guess if we're happy with our lot then (assuming we could change it) we should stick rather than play because next time it could be worse. Like you, I would stick (although maybe at 25 I might have had another go).

      Delete
  4. “I'm me and nobody else; and whatever people think I am or say I am, that's what I'm not, because they don't know a bloody thing about me.”

    And here's another quote - "Sillitoe wrote about the real lives of ordinary people, as opposed to D H Lawrence for example, which is clearly true..." Certainly not clearly true to me. For example have you ever read any of Lawrence's early short stories such as "Odour of Chrysanthemums" or "Tickets, Please"? Also I would argue that novels rooted in the reality of his Nottinghamshire upbringing frequently focus upon the "real lives" or ordinary people such as "The Rainbow" or "Sons and Lovers".

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I am corrected. You're the English specialist. I'm just a nerdy know all.

      Delete

I welcome comments and usually respond the same day (unless it looks like you are trying to advertise something).