“The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner,” the title story of Alan Sillitoe’s (4 March 1928 – 25 April 2010) first collection of short fiction, quickly became one of the most widely read stories of modern times. Its basic theme, that one must be true to one’s own instincts and beliefs despite intense social pressure to go against them, is echoed in many of his best-known stories, including “On Saturday Afternoon,” “The Ragman’s Daughter,” “The Good Women,” and “Pit Strike.” Such an attitude strikes a responsive chord in modern readers who feel hemmed in by the dictates of “official” bureaucracies and by government interference in their personal lives. It is important for Sillitoe’s characters to establish their independence in a conformist world, yet at the same time they often subscribe to a class-oriented code of values which pits the disadvantaged working class against the rest of society.
Many of Sillitoe’s stories are located in urban working-class slums and reflect the environment he knew himself. In story after story these ghetto-dwellers are seen as society’s underdogs, as victims of a series of injustices, real or imagined, which undermine their sense of personal dignity and self-esteem. Ernest Brown, for example, the protagonist in “Uncle Ernest,” is a lonely, aging upholsterer who befriends Alma and Joan, two young schoolgirls he meets at a local café. In a series of encounters, always at the café and in public view, he buys them food and small gifts and takes pleasure in learning something of their lives. He asks nothing of the girls in return, and they come to think of him affectionately as “Uncle Ernest.” After a few weeks, however, he is accosted by two detectives who accuse him of leading the girls “the wrong way” and forbid him to see them again. Unable to cope with this “official” harassment, Ernest Brown retreats into alcohol and despair.
In one sense “Uncle Ernest” is an anomaly in Sillitoe’s short fiction, for although it illustrates the victimization his characters often face, it chronicles a too-ready acceptance of the larger society’s interference and power. For the most part his characters remain defiant in the face of directives from those in positions of authority.
On Saturday Afternoon
“On Saturday Afternoon,” the story of an unnamed working-class man’s attempt to commit suicide, offers a sardonic example of this defiance. The man first tries to hang himself from a light fixture, but before he can succeed the police arrive and arrest him. In response to his bitter comment, “It’s a fine thing if a bloke can’t tek his own life,” the police tell him “it ain’t your life.” They take him to a psychiatric hospital and unwittingly put him in a sixth floor room and fail to restrain him. That night he jumps from the window and succeeds in killing himself.
“On Saturday Afternoon” is typical of Sillitoe’s stories in its assumed attitude to social authority: Although “they” interfere and place controls on an individual’s right to act as he pleases, they can usually be outwitted. Here and in other stories Sillitoe’s workers place great stress on “cunning,” the ability to preserve individual freedom of action in a restrictive or oppressive social environment.
The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner
This attitude of cunning is well illustrated in Sillitoe’s best-known story, “The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner.” The protagonist in this story is simply called Smith, the modern equivalent of Everyman. He is a seventeen-year-old boy who has been put in a Borstal, a reform school, for theft from a baker’s shop. He is also an accomplished long-distance runner and has been chosen by the governor, or warden, to represent the Borstal in a competition for the All-England Championship. As the reader meets Smith, he is running alone over the early-morning countryside, and as he runs he considers his situation. It soon becomes apparent that he has rejected the warden’s platitudes (“if you play ball with us, we’ll play ball with you”) and has seen through the hypocrisy of his promises as well. He recognizes the difference between his own brand of honesty, which allows him to be true to his own instincts, and the warden’s, which rejects the needs of the individual in favor of social expediency. Smith’s only counter to the warden’s attempt to use him for his own ends is cunning. As he sees it, the warden is “dead from the toenails up,” living as he does in fear of social disapproval and manipulating the inmates of his Borstal to gain social prestige. Smith, however, resolves to fight against becoming swallowed up in social convention, to be true to his own concept of honesty. Adopting such a stance means recognizing “that it’s war between me and them” and leads to his decision to lose the upcoming race.
In the second part of his three-part story the reader shares Smith’s reminiscences about his boyhood in a Nottingham slum. He first engages sympathy by telling how he impulsively took part in the theft for which he was sent to Borstal, and then moves quickly to describe the confrontations with police who investigated the robbery. In this section Sillitoe manages a difficult feat by maintaining support for his protagonist even though readers know the boy is guilty of theft. He does this by turning the investigation into a series of skirmishes between Smith and the authorities which allow the reader to be caught up in admiration of the boy’s ability to outwit for a time a vindictive, slow-thinking policeman. Not unexpectedly, persistence pays off for the investigators, and in a highly original and amusing climax the stolen money is found and Smith is taken into custody. The facts are less important here, however, than Sillitoe’s narrative skill in sustaining the reader’s sympathetic involvement with his protagonist. Having manipulated the reader into becoming Smith’s ally by allowing conventional notions of right and wrong to be suspended, he also paves the way for the acceptance of Smith’s dramatic gesture in the final section of the story.
The third part brings the reader back to time present and the day of the race. The warden, anticipating Smith’s win and the reflected glory it will bring to him, has invited numbers of influential friends to witness the competition. Ironically, none of the boys’ parents is present, their invitations having been worded so that they would be likely to mistrust or misunderstand them. Details such as this add to the impression of the callousness of the Borstal authorities and help to confirm Smith’s conviction that they are using the boys as pawns in a selfish social game. The purity of Smith’s intentions, however, is underscored during the race by his sense of communication with the natural surroundings through which he runs and his Edenic perception of himself as “the first man ever to be dropped into this world.” As he runs, his thoughts alternate between lyrical commentary on the physical satisfaction of running well and consideration of his decision to lose the race and the punitive consequences this will bring him. Nevertheless he remains firm in his decision, committed to showing the warden “what honesty means if it’s the last thing I do.” In the end he does lose the race and makes his point, but in much more dramatic manner than he had foreseen. Arriving at the finish line well in advance of the other runners, he is virtually forced to mark time in front of the grandstand until one of his competitors passes him and crosses the line. Smith has made his point: Like so many other of Sillitoe’s protagonists, he refuses to be manipulated.
The Good Women
The fierce independence espoused by Sillitoe’s workingclass characters, and the rejection of what they see as unwarranted interference by society’s authority figures in their personal affairs, is also evident in “The Good Women.” The heroine of this story is Liza Atkin, a vital and earthy woman whom one critic called “a Nottingham Mother Courage.” Liza’s life, like that of Bertolt Brecht’s protagonist, is plagued by economic hardship and marked by injustice and the stupidity of war. Although the story has no real plot—readers are shown a series of disconnected events which take place over a period of years—they are caught up in the problems of Liza’s life and come to applaud her feisty, tough-minded manner of coping with them.
Dogged by poverty, she ekes out a precarious existence supporting her out-ofwork husband and two young boys by filling a decrepit baby carriage with old rags and bits of metal from local dumps and selling them to scrap dealers, and by taking in washing from troops stationed nearby. When the means-test man attempts to deny her welfare payments because of her “business,” she shouts him down so the whole street can hear. She makes her gesture of protest against war by harboring a deserter; and standing up for workers’ rights in the factory where she eventually finds work, she quickly becomes known to management as “the apostle of industrial unrest.” Later, when her son dies because Allied planes bombed his unit by mistake, she is devastated. She recovers, however, to become a passionate advocate of violent revolution at a time in life when most women would be settling into comfortable grandmother roles.
“The Good Women,” like many of Sillitoe’s stories, has strong didactic overtones. Liza Atkin, along with Smith, Ernest Brown, and the unnamed protagonist in “On Saturday Afternoon,” finds herself in a world in which the dictates of society at large often contradict her personal convictions. Yet she is able to resist the pressure to conform, partly because of her strong belief in what is right (harboring the deserter to protest against war, for example), partly because she shares the habitual workingclass mistrust of “them” (the authority figures who come from outside and above her own social station) and their motives. From her perspective, and from Sillitoe’s, society is badly flawed, and it is up to the individual to strive for a new order in which the unjust exercise of power and the suffering it can cause are eliminated. Memorable characters such as Liza Atkin are meant to show the reader how to begin.
In “Pit Strike,” which was filmed for British Broadcasting Corporation Television, Sillitoe offers yet another working-class hero, a champion of fairness and integrity. Joshua, a fifty-year-old Nottingham miner, journeys to the south of England with a number of his friends to support a strike by fellow colliers. In a well-organized program of action, the men race from one coal-powered generating station to another to form picket lines and halt deliveries of coal. In a number of cases they are confronted by policemen whose job it is to see that deliveries are uninterrupted. Clashes between the workers, who feel they are being treated unjustly, and the police, representing the power of society as a whole, are almost inevitable in such circumstances. Although Joshua acts to restrain his more belligerent companions in these confrontations, he makes his own mark in a dramatic and courageous manner. When a fully loaded coal truck is seen crawling up an incline away from a picketed power station to make its delivery at another, Joshua daringly and at great personal risk runs after it and forces open the rear gate safety catches, allowing tons of coal to fall on the highway. Although he narrowly escapes death, the gesture seems worth making, and soon after this the strike is settled in the miners’ favor.
Like Joshua, the characters in Sillitoe’s other stories are usually agitators, passionately and defiantly reaffirming the value of the individual spirit in a world that too often encourages unthinking conformity to social norms. Sillitoe’s audience may not always concur with the views his characters express, nor wish to accept the methods they use to further their aims, but their stories nevertheless touch readers and stay tenaciously with them disturbing, provoking, and making them more aware of the imperfect world and of themselves.
Children’s literature: The City Adventures of Marmalade Jim, 1967; Big John and the Stars, 1977; The Incredible Fencing Fleas, 1978; Marmalade Jim at the Farm, 1980; Marmalade Jim and the Fox, 1984.
Plays: All Citizens Are Soldiers, pr. 1967 (adaptation of Lope de Vega; with Ruth Fainlight); Three Plays, pb. 1978.
Novels: Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, 1958; The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, 1959 (novella); The General, 1960; Key to the Door, 1961; The Death of William Posters, 1965; A Tree on Fire, 1967; A Start in Life, 1970; Travels in Nihilon, 1971; The Flame of Life, 1974; The Widower’s Son, 1976; The Storyteller, 1979; Her Victory, 1982; The Lost Flying Boat, 1983; Down from the Hill, 1984; Life Goes On, 1985; Out of the Whirlpool, 1987; The Open Door, 1989; Last Loves, 1990; Leonard’s War, 1991; Snowstop, 1993; The Broken Chariot, 1998; The German Numbers Woman, 1999; Birthday, 2001.
Nonfiction: The Road to Volgograd, 1964; Raw Material, 1972; Mountains and Caverns: Selected Essays, 1975; The Saxon Shore Way: From Gravesend to Rye, 1983 (with Fay Weldon); Nottinghamshire, 1986 (with David Sillitoe); Every Day of the Week, 1987; Leading the Blind: A Century of Guidebook Travel, 1815-1914, 1996; Life Without Armor, 1996.
Poetry: Without Beer or Bread, 1957; The Rats, and Other Poems, 1960; A Falling out of Love, and Other Poems, 1964; Love in the Environs of Voronezh, and Other Poems, 1968; Shaman, and Other Poems, 1968; Poems, 1971 (with Ted Hughes and Ruth Fainlight); Barbarians, and Other Poems, 1974; Storm: New Poems, 1974; Snow on the North Side of Lucifer, 1979; More Lucifer, 1980; Sun Before Departure, 1984; Tides and Stone Walls, 1986; Collected Poems, 1993.
Screenplays: Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, 1960 (adaptation of his novel); The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, 1961 (adaptation of his novella); Che Guevara, 1968; The Ragman’s Daughter, 1974 (adaptation of his novel).
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