Quotation of the Week: Alan Sillitoe’s The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner

Colin (Tom Courtenay) stops running in "The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner."

  Tom Courtenay in “The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner.”

The critics labeled the English writer Alan Sillitoe one of the Angry Young Men, a group of working-class and  lower-middle-class writers of the 1950s who mocked the hypocrisy and constraints of upper-class society.  Among these writers were John Braine, Kingsley Amis, John Osborne, and Philip Larkin.

Perhaps you do not know Sillitoe’s books, but you may have seen the 1962 film, The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner. The screenplay was written by Sillitoe and based on his short story of the same title. The hero is a Borstal boy who has been recruited by the governor to run a long-distance cross-country race on Sports Day.

Alan Sillitoe loneliness of book 81yM5TwPOxLThe title story of his brilliant collection of short stories, The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, is a remarkable study of class warfare as practiced by the 17-year-old narrator, Colin.  He  explains he is no race horse for the “snotty-nosed dukes and ladies” who give speeches on Sports Day.  The governor chose him because of his skinny build. He adds,  “…I didn’t mind it much, to tell you the truth, because running had always been made much of in our family, especially running away from the police.”

Class enmity with the police is no exaggeration.  The police and the governor are enforcers of the rules of upper-class society.  After the death of Colin’s abusive father, the family receives insurance money and for the first time has enough to eat well and buy a telly.   When the money runs out, he hates being poor.  He and his friend Mike stare in the windows of the shops at all the things they want.  They steal a cash box from the baker’s.  When the police catch him, he ends up in Borstal and finds it a cushy berth.  But he hates it and especially the people who run it.

The governor thinks the race will make Colin one of them.  If he runs a good race, they’ll help him get a start in the world.  Colin explains that the out-laws (like him) and the in-laws (like the governor) are always on opposite sides.

And I’ll lose that race, because I’m not a race horse at all, and I’ll let him know it when I’m about to get out—if I don’t sling my hook even before the race. By Christ I will. I’m a human being and I’ve got thoughts and secrets and bloody life inside me that he doesn’t know is there, and he’ll never know what’s there because he’s stupid.

The other stories in this collection are equally stunning.   Sillitoe’s style and subject matter are often reminiscent of  D. H. Lawrence.  In “Noah’s Ark,” two boys cheat and steal to get into a fair and buy food and ridesin the surprising story,  “On Saturday Afternoon,” a young boy witnesses a man’s determination to commit suicide; in “Mr. Raynor the Schoolteacher,” a bored teacher stares out the window of the classroom at the girls in the draper’s shop across the street, but when raucous boys act up, he automatically disciplines them to keep in charge; in “Uncle Ernest,” a homeless, shell-shocked veteran, once a war hero,  buys lunch for two hungry children and is warned off by the police; in “The Fishing-Boat Picture,” a postman’s ex-wife repeatedly visits him and admires the fishing-boat picture that was a wedding present; and  in “The Decline and Fall of Frankie Buller,” a mentally disabled man  in his 20s leads a group of boys in warfare against a slum neighborhood;

In April, Open Road Media will reissue The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner as an e-book, and several of his novels in April and May.  Most have long been out-of-print in the U.S.