Sunday, 8 January 2012

Yes, you guessed it, my blog’s title refers to Alan Sillitoe’s 'Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner' (1959). This loneliness is the preserve of those who instead of running to win a race, just run for the hell of it. The short story illustrates this difference with the figures of the director of a young offenders institution, ‘our doddering bastard of a governor, our half-dead gangrened gaffer’, and an inmate who is encouraged to run both as self-improvement and for the glory of the institution. He will eventually stop short of the finishing line so that the governor can see him throw the victory away.

The same question – race to win or just run senselessly? – gives rise to Cake’s The Distance (‘No trophy, no flashbulbs, no flowers, no wine’). And while I’m about it, Sillitoe’s book has the rare merit of being referenced by both Iron Maiden (‘The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner’) and Belle and Sebastian (‘The Loneliness of the Middle-Distance Runner’). Who knew?

For our young offender, ‘running had always been made much of in our family, especially running away from the police’. We learn about a life of poverty and crime in post-WWII austerity Britain, where clothes are threadbare but the odd successful job allows a few months of living like kings. Our hero is a reactionary outcast, refusing to internalize liberal narratives of rehabilitation. Indeed, even prison is too soft: ‘I’d stick them up against a wall and let them have it’. All this translates into a narrating voice that is part Northern, part working-class, and – for us – part plain old-fashioned (‘I can go my five miles round better than anybody else I know’).

It is difficult to resist the pleasure this voice takes in rounding out its sentences, for instance describing the pain of running (‘something’s happening inside the shell-case of my guts […], a grinding near me ticker as though a bag of rusty screws is loose inside me’), or the euphoria (‘it’s the only risk I take and the only excitement I ever get, flying flat out […], crazy like a cut-balled cockerel’).

But the most notable thing about this voice is how it sees itself as the creation of a runner’s consciousness, of ‘my barmy runner-brain’. The story doubles as a manifesto for thinking deeply – had it been written a decade later, Sillitoe would probably have called this ‘meditation’. Witness this interjection: ‘By God, to say that last sentence has needed a few hundred miles of long-distance running. I could no more have said that at first than I could have took a million-pound note from my back-pocket’. This can be taken two ways: either looking backwards, where running provides the conviction supporting a given thought; or looking forwards, where by continuing to run, we are building up a store of conviction without yet knowing what thought to attribute it to. So there’s both uncertainty and danger. Better be careful what we read.

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