Alan Sillitoe’s 1959 story about rebellion won’t be new to you, but the pleasure it takes in describing the ‘barmy runner-brain’ makes it a classic. I’ll be writing about various books on running for this blog, so please add your comments, and suggestions for future books, below
The loneliness in this short story belongs to those who instead of runningto win a race, run just for the hell of it. Alan Sillitoe 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, Smith, 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, forcing the hated governor to watch him throw victory away.
The same question – race to win or just run senselessly? – gave rise toCake’s 1996 pop song The Distance (“No trophy, no flashbulbs, no flowers, no wine”). And while we’re about it, Sillitoe’s story 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).
For Smith, “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 postwar austerity Britain, where clothes are threadbare but the rare successful “job” allows a few months of living like kings. Smith is a reactionary outcast, refusing to internalise liberal narratives of rehabilitation. Indeed, even prison is too soft for him: “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, 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 – if he had been writing a decade or two later, Sillitoe would probably have called this “meditation”. Witness what he says here: “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.” If we are going to take Sillitoe at his word here, perhaps this is less of a book about running than one writtenby running, by that trusty, painful feeling of “grinding near me ticker”.
source: Guardian By John McKeane
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