Rambling Roads: Alan Sillitoe

By George A. Hancock

OK, who the heck is Allan Sillitoe? And, why does he earn a mention in this running column? These are both good questions. Hopefully, this column provide some answers.

We live in a highly visual 24/7 365 day world. Our smart phones and iPads alert us to the latest trend, news item, sporting event, or myriad other activities. Newspapers and magazines are a dying commodity. Unless, of course, in a digital version. Few folks read print publications anymore. Many urban communities lack a daily newspaper. Many communities like mine converted to an either three- or five- day print newspaper. Newspaper subscriptions are at historic lows.

Yet, many folks are well informed. Today, news arrives in a different and faster venue. Many folks are utilizing the latest technology. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this point.

So, what about Allan Sillitoe? Alan Sillitoe was born on March 4, 1928. He lived his early years in the Nottingham section of England. Later on, he lived in London. Sillitoe was 82 when he died on April 25, 2010.

Sillitoe was an accomplished writer specializing in stories about post-war working class life. His dad worked in a tannery plant. Sillitoe himself worked in various factories before a two-year stint in the British Air Force. He served as a radio operator in Malaya.

Sillitoe contracted tuberculosis shortly after his release from the Air Force. His treatment and cure involved living in Spain from 1952 through 1958.

Alan Sillitoe became an accomplished writer. Sillitoe is routinely identified as one of the angry young men of the 1950s. Sillitoe hated that phrase. Yet, his stories captured that era.

Sillitoe’s debut novel was titled Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. He also wrote children’s books, poetry, and several plays. And in 1995 he published his autobiography Life Without Armor.

However, we will focus on his highly regarded 1959 short story. The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner brought Sillitoe critical acclaim. This short story won the 1959 Hawthorn Prize. It was included with eight other short stories in his bestselling book with the same name.

The main character is known as Smith. This story is told from his perspective. Smith grew up in a poor working-class neighborhood. Smith turned to petty crimes as he grew older. Break-ins, robberies were commonplace for Smith and his best friend, Mike.

However, Smith’s activities attracted attention. Smith was always a suspect for these local robberies. He was frequently questioned by the police. One robbery placed Smith in Borstal, a juvenile detention facility.

The first line of this short story sets an interesting tone for this story. The line reads “As soon as I got to Borstal they made me a long-distance cross-country runner.” Smith describes himself as long and skinny. The perfect attributes for a runner. Smith also states, “I’ve always been a good runner, quick and with a big stride as well.”

The gist of this story is simple. The Borstal administrators will give Smith special treatment if he trains hard and wins a championship distance race. The prize is the Borstal Blue Ribbon Prize Cup for Long Distance Cross Country Running (All England). 

I recently reread The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. My thoughts about this story haven’t changed. I never did like the ending. And, it’s really not an accurate portrayal of a long-distance runner.

Many literary critics state Sillitoe uses running as a metaphor. Smith runs to escape from his bleak working-class upbringing. One critic stated he “uses running as a way to mentally reflect, allowing Smith to give clarity to his political insights and share them with the reader.”  Or, in other words running is Smith’s physical and mental escape.

Smith does state on Page 11 of my Penguin edition “It’s a treat, being a long-distance runner, out in the world by yourself with not a soul to make you bad-tempered or tell you what to do…”

Well, perhaps.

Our new running generation could never identify with Smith or the loneliness running concept. Group runs are so popular today. Few young runners run alone today.  Runners today like running together. Running is a social activity with physical and mental benefits.

I’m a veteran road runner in my 48th year. I do run alone and right from my home. Yet, I never felt alone or lonely on any run. I run with the morning traffic, birds, critters, plus the occasional morning walker.

OK, spoiler alert if you never read this story. Should you read this short story? Of course, read this story. Sillitoe does create a decent picture of growing up in the 1950s as the proverbial angry young man. We gain insight to what happens if that young man is a decent runner and trains well for his race.

The ending. The race was between two other similar institutions. Each “school” had their best runner compete. The five-mile course was cross-country style on the Borstal grounds. Smith was physically and mentally ready for this race.

Smith led the race easily because he was the better trained runner. Smith decided to teach the Borstal administrators a lesson. Smith stopped running before the finish allowing his competitors to catch up and cross the finish before him.

Nope, that’s not the ending for me and most runners today. We run, train, and race to the best of our ability. Crossing the finish line after a good race is a satisfying reward.

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner is a historical period story. Keep that context in mind if you read this story. Then, go out and run your best. Run smart, run well!

Categories: Features

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1 reply

  1. My gosh, George, time for me to read Loneliness, again. He did stick it to his Borstal but Gunthorpe couldn’t take much satisfaction in that he so obviously let them win. A classic.



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