Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Finished: "Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner" by Alan Sillitoe

Finished: Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner by Alan Sillitoe, 1959, 0452269083 (1992 paperback).

Is this forgotten?  Maybe it is.  I first heard of the title 20+ years ago when I regularly read film commentary. Sillitoe was of the "Angry Young Men" school of British writing.  Sillitoe dismissed the label even though one fan and reviewer of a 2008 biography of Sillitoe called him "the angriest".  Loneliness and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958 novel) made Sillitoe's reputation and career.  His career had middling success after those two books (if you can call any 50 year career as a working writer as "middling") until 1989's autobiographical The Open Door which brought much praise.

Sillitoe's autobiographical based work seems to have had the most power.  His stories used the neighborhoods, slums, and families he grew up in.  Sillitoe was one of five kids raised by a sometimes prostitute mother and a violent, occasionally employed father.  The family moved from slum to slum evading landlords seeking rent. Loneliness is set among the working class and dole-taking families of industrial England.  The stories are set from the '30s through the '50s and often told from the perspective of adolescents and children.  Sillitoe had a great feel for kid characters and I am not surprised he wrote several books for children.

The kid narrators in some of the stories are often small time, opportunistic crooks.  They are threatened with Borstal schools (youth detention centers), are hungry, barely tolerating school, and faced with a life sentence at the local factory.  The families are often violent or drunk.  Pawn shops take in Sunday suits so people can buy food before pay day.  

The title story in Loneliness brings all the above elements, and Sillitoe's own rebellious nature, together.  Loneliness's main character is sent to a Borstal and taken with cross country running.  He keeps winning races and is allowed to leave the Borstal by himself for early morning training.  The Borstal's administrator talks up the runner as the next Borstal champion, but the runner wants nothing of it.  The runner rejects Borstal and most of society.  The runner identifies himself as a crook and wants to stay that way.  After trouncing the competition during the championship race he throws the race right at the finish line by stopping short, in full view of the crowd and administrator, and letting the other runners pass him by.

Sillitoe's background and early work history could have pegged him into the same life as one of his ne'er-do-well characters.  He quit school at 14.  Worked in factories a couple years and joined the Air Force.  He caught TB and spent 16 months in a military hospital.  After his discharge in 1949 he traveled Europe off his service medical stipend and started writing in earnest.  Sillitoe was an autodidact whose writing matured and improved over his career (or so I read).  Sillitoe escaped the slums but never gave up the memories or tried to join the upper class.

1.  My favorite story was Fishing-Boat Picture.  A postal worker relays his failed marriage, love of books, simple life alone, and the strange return of his wife who asks for money every month.
2.  I like semi-colons.
3. The above mentioned reviewer of the Sillitoe biography says Sillitoe's work was "entirely free of the miserable fatalism" of working class stories.  But, the work is hard-edged.  These stories are as much part of a "this is life, suck it up" school than "angry young man." The characters see a future - one kid studies maps for a future escape once he gains maturity - but know things are never easy.
4. Only 176 pages long and worth the effort with it's look into an unsentimental, but not overwrought, look at being poor in mid-20th Century England.
5.  Sillitoe's work had a double effect on England as his movie adaptations joined the "Angry Young Man" revolution in film of '58 to '65 (or so).

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