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The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner

This is the title of  a short story by Allan Sillitoe

IT chronicled the hopeless prospects, drunkenness, casual fights and lives of young working class men of that era. In so doing, they captured the desire of readers to experience the dramatic possibilities of a world that had remained unseen.

In his earliest work, before his powerful sense of social injustice began to dominate his fiction, Sillitoe created plausible, complex youths who rebelled against the establishment, epitomised by parent, policeman and boss. Inevitably his work chimed at a time when youth culture and adolescent anger were beginning to dominate the media through the work not only of  Brando, James Dean, JD Salinger and the still-embryonic pop music.

Among his further novels, collections of poetry, screenplays, essays, plays and children’s books, Sillitoe developed his themes and understanding of humanity and began to internalise injustice, to reflect oppression on the workings of the human psyche. If his life’s work forever explored the privations of his upbringing, in his maturity his singular characters were touched by the universal.

Alan Sillitoe was born in Nottingham on March 4 1928. His father was an unskilled labourer, often unemployed, and the family were perpetually moving to avoid the ministrations of rent collectors. He was educated at local elementary schools from where, despite an early enthusiasm for English Literature, he failed to pass the entrance exam for the local grammar school and he left at 14.

He walked out of his first job, at the Raleigh Bicycle works, after three months over a wage dispute. The following year he enlisted in the RAF.

Although he was initially accepted as a pilot, the cessation of hostilities with Japan had rendered further pilots unnecessary, and Sillitoe served his time as a telegraphist and radio operator in Malaya. In 1948 he was diagnosed with tuberculosis and spent 16 months in an Air Force hospital, where he began educating himself by reading Greek and Latin classics in translation.

In 1952 Sillitoe and the American poet, Ruth Fainlight, moved to Europe and lived for six years in France, Spain and Majorca, surviving on his limited RAF disability pension. He wrote steadily — short stories for magazines and unpublished novels — even writing on book covers when money was too tight for paper.

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning was an instant critical and commercial success. Its portrayal of Arthur Seaton, a rebellious factory worker and amoral adulterous lover, was praised for its unsentimental evocation of working-class existence. The novel established many of the themes that were to occupy Sillitoe throughout his life; social injustice, the “bunker” mentality of the working-class, the mindlessness of their only realistic employment and the consequent banality and ephemerality of their lives.

Having moved to London, Sillitoe published, to great acclaim, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and Other Stories which won the Hawthornden Prize. The collection included some of his finest work, but it was the title story, in which a Borstal boy deliberately loses a race he is capable of winning in order to spite the governor and thus retain his self-esteem, which won particular praise.

After The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner was successfully filmed with Sir Michael Redgrave and Tom Courtenay in 1961, Sillitoe moved his family to Morocco.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s Sillitoe continued to expand his range as a novelist. Although he mined working-class Nottingham for Out of the Whirlwind (1987), he wrote a traditional adventure story in The Lost Flying Boat (1983), in addition to further volumes of poetry and stories for children. In 1994 he published his autobiography, Life without Armour, which enabled his readers to attempt to establish where the young Alan Sillitoe ended and the young Arthur Seaton began.

If Alan Sillitoe never regained the fame and focus of his early years, he nevertheless produced a substantial and variegated body of work that was, when taken as a whole, probably as underrated as his initial success, though undoubtedly merited, was excessive.

Sillitoe was a mild-mannered man who remained committed to political causes and social justice throughout his life. A workaholic, he relaxed by travelling, taking bicycle rides in the Kent countryside and tuning into foreign stations on his radio transmitter.

He married Ruth Fainlight in 1959. They had a son and a daughter.

 

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