Alan Sillitoe: The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner

(8852 words)

The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner (1959), Alan Sillitoe’s second book, consists of nine short stories. He had made his debut as a fiction writer the previous year with a novel, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, and might have been expected to follow this up with another novel, in accordance with the usual pattern for emergent British novelists in the 1950s. But in that period, the “second novel” was often seen as a hazardous hurdle where a promising writer could come a cropper [as John Braine (1922-86) did when The Vodi (1959) flopped following the stellar success of Room at the Top (1957)]. Sillitoe did in fact have a second novel ready for publication, The General (which would appear in 1960); but Jeffrey Simmons, chief commissioning editor at Sillitoe’s publishers, W. H. Allen, had advised that this would be too different from Saturday Night. Although Sillitoe wanted to escape his categorization as a “working-class writer” and was thus reluctant to provide his publishers immediately with more in the Saturday Night vein, he quickly cobbled together a collection of short stories he had written over the past ten years [only one, “The Match”, had previously been published, in a French translation in the magazine Carrefour (15 September 1954)] (Bradford (2008), 109, 160).

Despite their hasty assembly, the stories in Loneliness cohere remarkably well. They are all set in working-class milieux (sometimes shading into criminal ones); they all have working-class protagonists (apart from “Mr Raynor the Schoolteacher” and the narrator of “The Decline and Fall of Frankie Buller”); and they all deal with different kinds of isolation. With Loneliness, Sillitoe, thanks to the pressure from his publishers, avoided the second-novel hurdle by entering a different kind of race and staking his claim to recognition as a short story writer as well as a novelist. Staking his claim as a short-story writer, however, focused a critical question which is still active: was the short story better suited than the novel to Sillitoe’s talents? Saturday Night could be seen as rather episodic, more a collection of stories and sketches than a novel. Loneliness suggested that Sillitoe was perhaps less a long-distance runner than a master of the short sprint.

Certainly the title story of Loneliness, the longest in the volume, is masterly. In contrast to the third-person combination of omniscient narration and free indirect discourse in Saturday Night, “The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner” is told in a vivid first-person vernacular which immediately establishes the presence of the narrator (he is known only by his surname, “Smith”, in the story though dubbed “Colin Smith” in the film) and sustains it to the finishing line. When the story starts, Smith is a seventeen-year-old inmate of Essex Borstal (“Borstal” was the generic name for the custodial institutions for young offenders which existed in Britain from 1902-82 and derived their name from the village of Borstal in Kent, the location of the first such institution of this kind). Smith still has six months to serve but is being groomed to win “the Borstal Blue Ribbon Prize Cup for Long Distance Cross Country Running (All England)” (12, 35) and his victory would, as he realizes, vindicate the system and society which has confined him.

They’re training me up fine for the big sports day when all the pigfaced snotty-noised dukes and ladies – who can’t add two and two together and would mess themselves like loonies if they didn’t have slavies to beck-and-call – come and make speeches to us about sports being just the thing to get us leading an honest life and keep our finger ends off them shop locks and safe handles and hair-grips to open gas meters. They give us a bit of blue ribbon and a cup for a prize after we’ve shagged ourselves out running and jumping, like race horses, only we don’t get so well looked-after as race horses, that’s the only thing. (8)

This kind of vigorous verbal defiance is Sillitoe’s most original contribution to literature and the narrator of “Loneliness” echoes and amplifies the rebellious resilience of Arthur Seaton in Saturday Night. Near the end of Sillitoe’s first novel, Arthur reflects: “it’s a good life and a good world, all said and done, if you don’t weaken” (191). Near the start of “Loneliness”, Smith says to himself: “[i]t’s a good life […] if you don’t give in to coppers and Borstal-bosses and the rest of them bastard-faced In-laws” (11). But while Arthur in Saturday Night, for all his waywardness, stays within his community and avoids (if sometimes narrowly) falling foul of the law, Smith in “Loneliness” locates himself outside any law-abiding community; he makes a distinction between the inhabitants of the latter, whom he calls “In-laws”, and people like himself, who are “Out-laws”. There are thousands of In-laws, “all over the poxeaten country, in shops, offices, railway stations, cars, houses, pubs – In-law blokes like you [i.e. the reader] and them, all on the watch for Out-law blokes like me and us – and waiting to phone for the coppers as soon as we make a false move” (9-10).

In the first section of this three-part story, Smith evokes his situation in the Borstal and, in particular, on the training runs which he is allowed to make on his own; although he is released from the Borstal three mornings a week for these, he does not try to escape, feeling it would be “a mug’s game” to abscond and get caught (7). Like Arthur Seaton at his lathe in Saturday Morning, he uses the hours he spends in confinement, and the time employed in the regular rhythm of running, to think – and it is implied that the reflective capacity he develops through taking thought will eventually lead him to write the story we are reading.

In Part 2 of “Loneliness”, Smith recalls the circumstances which led to his detention in Borstal. He used to work on a milling-machine in an unnamed city (presumably Nottingham, since Alfreton Road is mentioned) and lived with his parents and five brothers and sisters. But after his father died from throat cancer and his mother received £500 in insurance and benefits from the factory where he had worked, the family went on a spending spree (buying new clothes and a new carpet and one of the prize domestic luxuries of the period, a twenty-one-inch TV set). The money soon ran out but Smith did not return to work; instead he roamed the streets wondering how he could obtain another £500 and continue the consumer lifestyle tantalizingly offered by the adverts on their new TV. One foggy autumn night, he and his friend Mike steal a cash box from a local bakers in Papplewick Street, off the Alfreton Road, about a mile from where they live. When they break it open and count the cash they find that they each have seventy-eight pounds fifteen and fourpence halfpenny (approximately seventy-seven new pence) between them. They do not spend the money at once, realizing that to do so might arouse suspicion, but they extract the coins and stuff the notes into a drainpipe outside the back door of Smith’s house. Some days later, a plainclothes policeman calls and questions Smith. He calls again in the afternoon and searches the house but finds nothing. The plainclothes man makes two more visits with a colleague and they search the house twice more but Smith holds out against questioning and their searches prove fruitless. Then the plainclothes man calls once more at five to nine one wet morning; although it is raining, Smith does not ask him in “because I wanted him to get double pneumonia and die” (32), but, as he recognizes, this spiteful act proves his undoing. While he is bandying words with the plainclothes man, the rainwater starts to wash the stolen notes out of the pipe and the plainclothes man sees them. Smith and Mike are convicted. Mike is put on probation because it is his first offence and it is felt that Smith has led him astray; Smith, who has already been in a remand home for theft, is sent to Borstal.

The third and final part of “Loneliness” is set on the day of the race. The governor tells Smith he will help him to become a professional runner if he wins and Smith, concealing his true intentions, thanks him. The race starts and once Smith gets into his stride he feels he is in his element, “knowing that nobody could beat me at running but intending to beat myself before the day was over” (38). Smith reaches the stage where only one man is ahead of him and when the latter turns out of sight into trees and bushes Smith achieves a full apprehension of his condition:

I knew what the loneliness of the long-distance runner running across country felt like, realizing that as far as I was concerned this feeling was the only honesty and realness there was in the world and I knowing it would be no different ever, no matter what I felt at odd times, and no matter what anybody else tried to tell me […] You should think about nobody and go your own way […]. (39)

Smith pulls ahead of the leading man and is out on his own. As the race proceeds and he feels he could win it with ease, he affirms “that there ain’t another long-distance cross-country running runner in England to touch my speed and style” (44). At the place where the drive turns into the sportsfield and where he knows he can be seen by the waiting crowd, especially the governor and his guests, he slows down to let the man behind him, from another Borstal called Gunthorpe, catch up. He determines that he will not cross the clothesline stretched across the winning post under any circumstances: “the only time I’ll hit that clothesline will be when I’m dead and a comfortable coffin’s been got ready on the other side. Until then I’m a long-distance runner, crossing country all on my own no matter how bad it feels” (46). He finally stands still and lets a Gunthorpe youth overtake him and win the race.

For the last six months of his sentence, the governor imposes hard, menial duties on Smith: emptying dustbins and scrubbing floors. But his fellow-inmates realize the significance of Smith’s action in refusing to win the race and commend him for it. After his release he is due to enter the Army but is diagnosed with pleurisy and exempted. He returns to crime and is currently living off the £628 proceeds of his latest robbery and (supposedly) writing the story we have been reading, which he gives to a friend who will “try and get it put into a book or something” (48) if Smith gets caught by the police again but who will otherwise keep silent. Since we are reading the story, the implication is that Smith has been caught again – but he has also clearly, in writing the story, struggled through to an enhanced level of self-articulation.

“Loneliness” is a story which can be read on several levels: as a powerful portrait of an intransigent criminal who nonetheless sometimes seems more admirable and honest than the authority figures whom he rejects; as what Stuart Laing calls “a kind of existential parable” (Laing (1986), 80) about the assertion of autonomy against the attempts of others to make you into the person they want you to be; as an embodiment of the existential idea of “loser wins” (qui perd gagne), particularly associated with the philosopher, novelist, short-story writer and dramatist Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-80); and as an image of human existence. On his early morning training runs, Smith reflects that “every run like this is a life – a little life, I know – but a life as full of misery and happiness and things happening as you can ever get really around yourself” (18). The seed of the story was apparently a phrase Sillitoe jotted down, as two lines of verse, on seeing a runner from a cottage window on a brief stay in England in 1957; the story itself came when he rediscovered the jotting in Alicante a year later (Bradford (2008), 160-1). The publication of the story and the subsequent film launched the phrase into cultural circulation so that it could be applied, even without knowledge of its source, to anyone who persists, in isolation, in a demanding course of action.

The second story in the collection, “Uncle Ernest”, is also about isolation, but the title character is a figure of pathos rather than defiance. Told in the third person, it is a concentrated, closely observed tale of a traumatized First World War veteran who is now middle-aged. Ernest lives in a single room in a provincial town; his wife has left him and his brothers have moved to other towns. He is an upholsterer by trade and each night he leaves his tools with a public lavatory attendant for fear they might be lost or stolen, thus depriving him of his livelihood, if he took them home. In the café where he eats breakfast, he befriends two girls who inadvertently sit at this table while he is at the counter: Alma, aged about twelve, and Joan, who is younger. They are drinking tea, but when he hears they do not have enough money for a cake, he buys them a plate of pastries and two more cups of tea. From then on, Ernest, Alma and Joan meet at the café almost every day after the girls come out of school and he buys them food and gives them presents. The inevitable result is that he is suspected of having improper designs on them:

certain customers of the café who came in every day could not help but see how the girls asked him to buy them this and that, and how he always gave in with a nature too good to be decently true, and without the least sign of realizing what was really happening. He would never dream to question their demands, for to him, these two girls whom he looked upon almost as his own daughters were the only people he had to love. (57)

Two plainclothes detectives turn up at the café and, after observing Ernest, warn him off, plunging him back into an isolation from which drink provides “the one and only best kind of oblivion” (60).

The title character of “Mr Raynor the Schoolteacher”, the third story in Loneliness, is also isolated, but not in the way that Smith or Ernest are: he has a wife and family and is a teacher with twenty-five years’ experience whose classes are large and sometimes unruly. His isolation is evident, however, in his enmeshment in fantasies based on voyeurism; his most intense life seems to be lived, not through actual relationships, but in a series of grand passions, conducted only in his imagination, for girls selected from the assistants at Harrison’s drapers, across the road from the school, whom he can see from his classroom window: “the girls who went to work there when they were fifteen and left at twenty to get married”. He is “a connoisseur of young suburban womanhood” and “the fluctuating labour and marriage market” makes him “a fickle lover, causing him too often to forget each great passion as another one walked in to take its place”. Raynor is particularly preoccupied with the most recent of these great passions, “an unexpected beauty backdropped against the traffic artery of squalid streets” (65), who is now dead (the cause of death is withheld until the end of the story). When the class distracts him from his dreams, he takes it out on them by physical violence.

Told in the third person like “Uncle Ernest”, “Mr Raynor the Schoolteacher” focuses on Raynor as he takes a “C” stream class of forty-five pupils whom he sees as “fourteen-year-old louts rearing [sic] to leave and start work at the factories round about” (62). His lesson is on chapter six of the Old Testament book of Exodus but after he sets one of the boys to read aloud, he becomes absorbed by images and thoughts of the draper’s girls, particularly the one who recently died. The particular quality of this last girl is crystallized when Raynor recalls line fourteen of the poem “Les Métamorphoses du Vampire” [“Metamorphoses of the Vampire”], one of the six poems censored from the original 1857 edition of Les fleurs du mal [The Flowers of Evil] by Charles Baudelaire (1821-67) and first published in Les Épaves [Flotsam] (1866):

The boy on the front row was reading like a prophet, and an agitated muttering sea began to grow about him, and the curtain of Mr Raynor’s memory drew back upon the runners of a line recalled from Baudelaire: “Timide et libertine, et fragile et robuste” [“Timid and licentious, frail and robust”] – revealing the secret of her classical beauty and nubulity [sic], which vanished when the blood-filled phrase was dragged away by the top deck of a trolleybus laden with rigid staring faces. (65)

When Raynor’s attention returns to the class, it is to find that Bullivant, the rowdiest pupil, has started to hit the boy at the desk in front. Raynor summons Bullivant to the front of the class, takes out a stick and orders him to hold out his hand. Bullivant refuses. Raynor repeats the order but Bullivant stands firm. Raynor’s temper breaks and he strikes Bullivant several times across the shoulders with the stick. Bullivant lashes back with his fists and they struggle until Raynor grabs and twists Bullivant’s arm then releases him. Both Bullivant and Raynor have held their own, and a kind of truce prevails. Raynor warns Bullivant to behave himself and spends the last five minutes of the lesson reading aloud from Exodus.

The next class that comes in is a younger one and he sets them some arithmetic exercises. While they are doing these, his eyes and mind turn once more to the draper’s and he recalls how his obsession with the girl who is now dead had made him decide to speak to her as she left the shop at the end of the day’s work. But he never did so because he saw that a young man had started to meet her and escort her to the bus stop. He then opened his newspaper one evening to learn that the young man had murdered the girl. The story ends as Raynor turns from his vision of the girl to silence the increasingly noisy class by threatening them with the stick. “Mr Raynor the Schoolteacher” is a powerful study of isolation, frustration, voyeurism and sadism which works, not through abstractions, but by conveying, in a concentrated way, the dense texture of Raynor’s thoughts, feelings and memories as his attention shifts between classroom and draper’s shop, reality and reverie.

The fourth tale in Loneliness, “The Fishing-Boat Picture”, is told in the first person, like the title story of the collection. Like Smith in “Loneliness”, Harry, the narrator, is unused to writing stories. In the first paragraph, he announces that he will avoid “long and complicated words” as they would make “what [he is] going to write look foolish” (69). Harry has worked as a postman in Nottingham for twenty-eight years and been married for the same length of time – once he had got a steady job, the marriage quickly followed. At that time, in the 1920s, he was about twenty-four and Kath or Kathy, his wife, was around twenty-eight. Among their wedding presents was a trio of fishing-boat pictures from Kathy’s brother. From the start Kath was unhappy about their life together, telling her friends and family the marriage would not last five minutes. It continued for six years, however, punctuated by rows; during one of these, two of the fishing-boat pictures get smashed. The remaining picture shows a fishing boat at sunrise near a beach where a woman walks with a basket of fish on her shoulders. Harry and Kath call it “The Last of the Fleet” and Kath likes it a lot.

A row about reading precipitates their break-up after six years. Harry likes to read books but Kath hates books “like poison” (71). The row escalates when Kath, calling Harry “a booky bastard” (72), seizes his book, throws it into the fire, and works it into the blazing coals with a poker. Harry hits her and she slams out of the house. A month later Kath goes to live with a housepainter and they move to Leicester, twenty miles away. After a while, Harry adjusts to living alone and continues to do so for ten years. Then one Friday evening Kath calls on him again. They discuss the impending war, and he sees her looking at the surviving fishing-boat picture, which is still on the wall. Kath tells Harry that her housepainter partner died of lead poisoning at the age of forty-two. She has been on her own for three years and is now living in a rented cottage at Sneinton and working at Hoskins’ lace factory for forty-two shillings a week (two pounds and ten new pence). She asks if she can have the fishing-boat picture and Harry gives it to her.

A few days later, Harry is doing his postal round when he sees the fishing-boat picture in a pawnshop. He goes in and buys it for four shillings (twenty new pence), reflecting afterwards that the pawnbroker probably gave Kath only about one and six (seven-and-a-half new pence) for it – the price, at that time, of three pints of beer (this implies that Kath has sold the picture for money to spend on drink). The next week, on Thursday, Kath calls on Harry again; she sees that the fishing-boat picture is back on the wall but makes no comment. She tells him she has lost her job at Hoskins after a row with the forewoman and asks him if he can lend her half-a-crown (twelve-and-a-half new pence), which he does without question, though inwardly calculating that this would buy five pints of beer. She then tells him she has got another job – the coming war has created more employment. Just before she leaves, she does remark on the picture, saying that she always liked it a lot, but says nothing about having sold it for one-and-six.

Throughout the war, Kath visits Harry every Thursday evening without fail. They talk a little about insignificant matters, and often sit for a long time looking into the fire. At the end of the evening, she always borrows a few shillings, increasing the amount, as Harry realizes, when the price of beer rises. On each visit, she sometimes glances at the fishing-boat picture and often remarks on how beautiful it is and how Harry should never part with it. She then hints that she would like to have it but Harry resists the hints, knowing it will end up in the pawnshop. Harry observes: “I don’t think she wanted the picture especially to sell and get money, or to hang in her own house; only to have the pleasure of pawning it, to have someone else buy it so that it wouldn’t belong to either of us any more” (84). But after six years, Kathy, instead of hinting, does ask directly if she can have the picture, and Harry gives it to her. Some days later, he sees it again in the pawnshop window, but does not buy it. A few days after that, Kath, slightly drunk, is knocked down by a lorry and dies in the General Hospital. Among her effects Harry finds the fishing-boat picture, but it is “so broken up and smeared with blood” that he hardly recognizes it. Late that night, he burns it in his fireplace.

At Kath’s funeral, Harry waits by the graveside after her brothers have gone (their manner has implied that he is to blame for her death) and hopes he will cry. But he then sees a stranger, a well-dressed middle-aged man, weeping, and later confirms his inference that this is Kath’s partner. Her neighbours tell Harry she had been living with the man for six years. Harry sinks into a crisis of remorse in which he feels that he should not have let Kathy go, that her suffering had been worse than his, that his life is pointless except insofar as he had been able to help Kathy through her life to some extent, that he was born dead and has only realized it when it is too late to gain anything positive from the realization. The end of the story draws on mock-medieval imagery to evoke the collapse of attempted self-consolation into an anguished awareness of waste:

Then optimism rides out of the darkness like a knight in armour. If you loved her … (of course I bloody-well did) … then you both did the only possible thing if it was to be remembered as love. Now didn’t you? Knight in armour goes back into blackness. Yes, I cry, but neither of us did anything about it, and that’s the trouble. (86)

“The Fishing-Boat Picture” is a superbly controlled story, establishing and maintaining a subdued, downbeat tone which suits the relationship it depicts, and then breaking at the end into the sharp self-lacerations of the last four paragraphs which reveal, too late, the energies which might have enriched the marriage but which also pose the question of whether things could ever have turned out any other way.

With “Noah’s Ark”, the fifth story in Loneliness, Sillitoe returns to third-person narration. Like “Mr Raynor the Schoolteacher”, “Noah’s Ark” opens in a classroom, but this time the focus is not on the teacher, Mr Jones, but on a ten-year-old pupil, Colin. The class is studying Masterman Ready (1841), a famous novel for children by Captain Frederick Marryat (1792-1848), but although Colin likes reading, his mind is now on the adventures adumbrated nearer to hand by the noise of wagons and caravans he can hear rolling in for Nottingham’s Goose Fair – the big fair which has been held in Nottingham, with some interruptions for plague and war, since the thirteenth century and which in “Noah’s Ark”, as in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, is a place of carnivalesque subversion. The scene then shifts to show Colin and his eleven-year-old cousin Bert on the way to the Fair. Colin only has four pennies (approximately two new pence), left over after his weekly purchase of comics, but Bert is confident that he can get more. Bert steals one shilling and sixpence (seven-and-a-half new pence) from a man who is unsuccessfully trying his luck at the roll-a-penny stall but when he tries to steal two of the man’s pennies, the man clamps his wrist and accuses him of theft. Bert holds his own, however, maintaining that the pennies are his and the man eventually departs leaving two pennies behind – and the one and sixpence Bert initially stole. In an hour, Bert and Colin have spent their “riches” on “shrimps and candyfloss, cakewalk and helter-skelter” (92). But despite the shrimps and candyfloss they are hungry – “I could scoff a hoss between two mattresses”, as Bert puts it (93) – and they then raise a dozen more pennies by begging from various people and buy tea and buns. They have no money left to go on the Noah’s Ark, a roundabout with wooden animals, but Bert tells Colin he can avoid payment by getting on and moving from one animal to another, following the cash-collector so that the latter never sees or catches up with you. Bert demonstrates how to do this himself and Colin then tries it.

Colin finds, however, that moving from animal to animal is difficult and alarming, especially as the speed of the roundabout increases. Then the cash-collector, instead of going round the roundabout only once, as he usually does, turns and starts coming back. Colin keeps dodging him but as the roundabout slows the cash-collector grabs him “by neck-scruff and waist” (98). Colin kicks his ankle and leaps off the roundabout on to the wooden surround. But he cannot walk properly at first and Bert tries to carry him on his shoulders; both of them finally crash to the ground, but this is by the bottom roundabout boards where no-one goes, so Colin has evaded capture. “Abject and beaten”, they walk around until midnight, then start to head home, arm-in-arm and singing (100). To Colin, the noise of their singing stays, “all around their heads and faces, grinding away the sight and sound of the Noah’s Ark jungle he had ridden on free, and so been pitched from” (101). By the end of the story, Colin’s illicit, dangerous ride and hazardous descent from the Noah’s Ark roundabout has become an image of life, a symbolic effect which, because it emerges from vivid and concentrated particulars, does not seem portentous.

“I once saw a bloke try to kill himself” (102). This is the striking first sentence of “On Saturday Afternoon”, the sixth story in Loneliness. As that opening suggests, the story is told in the first person by a sixteen-year-old narrator who recalls how, when he was a ten-year old boy, he was left at home one Saturday afternoon when the rest of his family had gone to the cinema. When his father returns, he asks if his son is OK, and, when the latter claims he feels ill, suggests that he goes outside and gets some fresh air. He does so but finds the air is not so fresh because the large bicycle factory is working at the end of the yard. He strolls up the yard and sits down near the back gate of a neighbour who has not lived there long, a tall, thin, undernourished-looking man with a face like a parson’s, except that he wears a flat cap and has a drooping moustache. One of the local gossips asks him what the coil of new rope he is holding is for, and he replies “It’s to ‘ang messen wi’ missis” [“It’s to hang myself with, Mrs.” (104)] which provokes her to laugh loud and long at what she thinks is a good joke.

The boy follows him to his back door and, finding it has been left open a little, goes in and echoes the gossip’s question about the purpose of the rope, eliciting a similar reply from the man: that he is going to hang himself. The boy asks him why and he replies that it is because he wants to. He fastens the rope to the light fitting. The boy watches the man’s preparations with interest and twice tells him the light fitting will not be strong enough for his purpose. But when the man tells him to be quiet, he obeys: “I didn’t want to miss it, so I said nothing” (105). The man empties his pockets and asks the boy to kick away the chair from under him once he is swinging. The boy nods in assent, then, while the man is trying to fit the rope round his neck, the boy asks him again why he is going to kill himself, the man replies that it is because he is fed-up, because he wants to, and because his wife has left him and he is unemployed. When the man has climbed on the chair and has his head in the noose, he tries to kick the chair away, and the boy, as promised, helps him: “[I] took a runner at it as if I was playing centre-forward for Notts Forest, and the chair went scooting back against the sofa” (107). But, as the boy had warned, the light fitting gives way, discharging the man to the floor. Disappointed by this botched self-slaughter, the boy leaves the house. Then he sees a police constable heading towards the man’s house and knows somebody has tipped off the authorities about the man’s suicidal intentions. He follows the policeman back and finds him cutting off the rope from the man’s neck and telling him that he could be sentenced to five years’ imprisonment (attempted suicide was illegal in England until the 1961 Suicide Act). The constable leads the man away.

Two days later, the boy hears that the man has killed himself by jumping out of a sixth-floor hospital window when the policeman who was supposed to be watching him went out to the toilet. Thinking of the man’s death, the boy reflects: “In one way I was sorry he’d done it, but in another I was glad, because he’d proved to the coppers and everybody whether it was his life or not all right” (109). But he concludes by affirming that he himself will never commit suicide. “Trust me. I’ll stay alive half barmy till I’m a hundred and five, and then go out screaming blue murder because I want to stay where I am” (110). “On Saturday Afternoon” is a black comedy and, once again, a kind of existential parable, in which one man asserts his freedom by throwing away his life while the narrator asserts his freedom by holding to life more firmly.

The seventh story in Loneliness, “The Match”, is told in the third person, and focuses on a football match and its aftermath as it affects two spectators: forty-year-old Lennox (we do not know his forename) and his young friend and next-door neighbour, Fred Iremonger. Lennox is bad-tempered and his sight has become so poor that he looks cross-eyed; Fred is good-tempered and exuberant. Both work as mechanics and live in the Meadows, “an ageing suburb of black houses and small factories” (115). Lennox is married with three children, Fred has been married for a month and his wife has quickly become pregnant. Lennox and Fred are supporters of Notts County, who are playing at home against Bristol City; it is coming up to Christmas, and their team has not yet won a game. It looks as though this one will be a draw but then Bristol score a goal and win two-one. As Lennox and Fred walk home, they talk about the poor performance of their team; in the privacy of his own mind, Lennox is also recalling how, the previous day, he hit the mash-lad who called him “Cock-eye” (116) in front of the office girl and how the boss warned him that he would be dismissed if it happened again. But he feels that he might leave the job on his own initiative; he knows that he is a good mechanic and feels he could get a job anywhere.

Lennox and Fred part to enter their respective homes, and the focus of the story then stays on Lennox and his family until almost the end. Lennox starts grumbling as soon as he gets in; there is a fire in the living room, but he tells his wife she should also have made one in the parlour as it “smells musty” (117); he says that Iris, his daughter, can make one and, when she says has not yet finished her tea, he orders her to; she refuses and only yields when he lifts his hand to hit her. He asks what there is for tea and his wife takes two kippers from the oven. He picks the kippers to pieces, putting the bones on one side of his plate and the flesh on the other; he eats nothing himself but feeds pieces to the cat. When he feels he has fed the cat enough, he kicks it away so hard that it knocks against the sideboard. He then gives one of his sons sixpence (two-and-a-half new pence) to go out and buy a Football Guardian. After that, he pushes his plate away saying that he does not want the kippers and tells his wife she had better send someone out for some pastries and make some tea. She refuses to do either: “If you want some pastries you’ll fetch ‘em yourself. And you’ll mash your own tea as well” (118). He nods at the boy and tells his wife to send him out for some cakes. The boy stands up, ready to go, but his mother tells him to sit down and retorts to her husband:

“Get ‘em yourself […].The tea I’ve already put on the table’s good enough for anybody. There’s nowt wrong wi’ it at all, and then you carry on like this. I suppose they lost at the match, because I can’t think of any other reason why you should have such a long face”. (118-19)

“[S]hocked by such a sustained tirade”, Lennox stands up, asking what she thinks she is saying. She responds “A few home truths might do you a bit of good”. Lennox picks up the plate of fish and throws it to the floor – “That’s what you can do with your bleeding tea” – and his wife screams “You’re a lunatic […] “You’re mental” (119). He hits her three times across the head and knocks her to the ground. The small boy starts to cry and Iris runs in from the parlour.

The scene then switches, in the short final section of the story, to Fred and his young wife, Ruby, in the house next door, who have heard the row through the thin walls. Ruby tells Fred she is glad he is not like Lennox, in a rage because Notts County have lost again; Fred says “I’m not so daft as to let owt like that bother me”. He sits by the fire “with a bemused, Cheshire-cat grin” while Ruby prepares food in the scullery. It is now silent next door. The story concludes: “After a slamming of doors and much walking to and fro outside Lennox’s wife had taken the children, and left him for the last time” (119). Contrasting youth and middle-age, and the start and the end of a marriage, “The Match” implicitly poses the question of whether, in twenty years time, Fred and Ruby will be like Lennox and his wife. The story is a potent dramatization of the complex role of sport in social and personal life, and of domestic violence and the dynamics of marriage in a patriarchal culture.

“The Disgrace of Jim Scarfedale”, the eighth story in Loneliness, tells the story of Jim Scarfedale, who lived with his mother in the same terrace as the first-person narrator. The narrator is a youth in his early to mid-teens who stresses the importance of leaving home as soon as possible: “I’ll never let anybody try and tell me that you don’t have to sling your hook as soon as you get to the age of fifteen. You ought to be able to do it earlier, only it’s against the law […] As soon as I see a way of making-off – even if I have to rob meters to feed myself – I’ll take it” (120). During arithmetic lessons, he looks at an atlas under his desk and plans his escape. Jim Scarfedale’s fate is a cautionary tale of a man who does not get away.

Jim’s mother is “a big woman, a Tartar, a real six-footer who kept her house as clean as a new pin, and who fed Jim up to his eyeballs on steam puddings and Irish stew” (121). Her husband died of consumption soon after Jim’s birth and she went to work on a cigarette-packing machine at a tobacco factory to support herself and her son. In World War Two, Jim, whose physique and personality are less imposing than his mother’s, is rejected by the Army because of poor eyesight. But soon after the war, he tells his mother he is going to get married; she has had no warning of this and she explodes, furious and tearful by turns (the narrator is able to overhear this from his perch on a ledge between the factory wall and the Scarfedales’ open scullery window). The next day, Jim brings his wife-to-be, Phyllis Blunt, to meet his mother. All the neighbours expect Jim’s girlfriend to be “some poor crumby-faced boss-eyed tart from Basford, a scruffy, half baked, daft sort of piece that wouldn’t say boo to a goose” (125). But Phyllis turns out to be a self-possessed and well-spoken young woman who puts paid to Mrs Scarfedale’s suspicion of the real reason for the marriage by declaring firmly that she is not pregnant.

Jim gets married, and all the neighbours want it to be a success, because they find his mother too much of a domineering struggler – although they are all strugglers too, necessarily so because of their hard lot in life, Mrs Scarfedale is disliked because she “sort of carried a placard about saying: I’m a struggler but a cut above everybody else because I’m so good at it” (126). But their hopes for Jim’s marriage are tempered by the expectation that he will come back to his mother. For the first three months, he stays away, but then returns to his mother more and more often, sometimes spending the night there, and most recently appearing with a bandage round his head (suggesting that his wife has hit him). Within six months, he is back for good. The narrator, from his perch on the ledge by the scullery window, is able to hear Jim’s account of his marriage when he first returns to his mother on a permanent basis. From this account, it emerges that Phyllis is a middle-class, left-wing intellectual who had a romantic idea that being married to a good, honest working-class man like Jim would be preferable to marrying an office worker; but she soon got tired of her authentic proletarian and began to put pressure him to change his ways: wanting him to have a bath every night when he feels too tired even to change his clothes; burning his newspaper because of her annoyance at his interest in the football results; pulling out the plug when he is listening to the racing on the wireless; not getting his tea when he comes home from work; and sarcastically referring to him as “the noble savage” (130-1). She finally leaves him to go to London, taking the four pounds ten and threepence (approximately four pounds and fifty-one new pence) that is in a jam-jar on the kitchen shelf.

Jim pleads with his mother to have him back and she is happy to do so. But when Jim does return home, he is different: he becomes withdrawn and goes out every night, but tells no-one where, not even his mother. His face goes “pudgy-white”, his “sandy mouse-hair” falls out until he is almost bald and even his scanty freckles go pale (132). Two years later, a policeman arrives in the street; the narrator thinks he is for it, because he has stolen lead from an empty house, but the constable calls at the Scarfedales. It turns out that Jim has been taking a bus four miles across town to places where he is unknown, waiting in the dark near off-licences for ten and eleven-year old girls to come by carrying jugs for their fathers’ pints of beer, and jumping out to frighten them and abuse them sexually. He is sentenced to eighteen months imprisonment and the case attracts a lot of publicity. By the time of his release, his mother has got a new house and job in Derby and Jim is never seen in the area again. For the narrator, Jim’s story is the reason why he thinks “nobody should hang on to his mother’s apron strings for such a long time like Jim did, or they might go the same way” (134). “The Disgrace of Jim Scarfedale” effectively combines comedy with serious questions about the aetiology of a sex offender. It may of course seem to mobilize a sexist stereotype in which smothering mothers and wayward wives are seen as the source of male flaws, but it can also be related to the existential theme of the need to assert one’s autonomy against oppressive others, male or female.

The ninth and final story in Loneliness, “The Decline and Fall of Frankie Buller”, is another first-person narrative which opens, unusually in the context of the previous stories in the volume, in Majorca, where the narrator, Alan, has a flat and a study with many books. Alan recalls how on the previous day, hearing the sound of a cuckoo when visiting the house of a friend, he was “plunged back deep through the years into my natural state, without books and without the knowledge I am supposed to have gained from them” into “the kingdom of Frankie Buller” (136). This the cue for the narrative to return to Alan’s provincial native city in the late 1930s. At the age of twelve, Alan, along with some other boys of about the same age, was a member of a gang led by a man of between twenty and twenty-five, Frankie Buller, who was backward and did not work. Frankie often falls foul of the law and is threatened with being sent to Borstal, but his offences are not, at that time, severe enough for him to be institutionalized. The gang he leads consists of boys from a street of back-to-back houses and their enemy is the boys who live on a new three-street housing estate of rehoused slum dwellers which is known as “Sodom”. The narrator gives an account of a skirmish with the Sodom boys around New Bridge, a railway bridge, in which a stone hits his head making it stream with blood, but which his gang eventually win when Frankie leads a charge against the enemy. Frankie has a passionate interest in war and hopes to fight in World War Two as his father did in World War One. In the summer of 1939, as war again draws near, his acts of of violence and vandalism multiply and he arouses increasing hostility from his neighbours. He also causes trouble by standing at the top of his street and making comments to the girls leaving the tobacco factory in the evenings. He is imitating the behaviour of his fellow twenty-year-olds, but he never makes a date and has to relieve his desires in a solitary way among the bulrushes between the River Lean and the railway line, from which he returns “pale and shifty-eyed with guilt and a pleasurable memory” (145). His comments to the girls become increasingly unacceptable and a policeman arrives to ban him from standing in the street.

When World War Two breaks out in September 1939, Frankie suggests that the gang should prepare its young members for war and they go out on a training programme. As they cross the land by the railway, a railwayman appears and confronts Frankie, who hits him over the head with a pint bottle. The next day, Alan, his brothers and sisters, and other gang members are evacuated to Worksop. Frankie is deprived of his gang and charged with trespass and assaulting the railwayman. It is two years before Alan, now thirteen and living in another part of the city, meets Frankie again. Frankie is pushing a handcart loaded with bundles of kindling wood which he sells to the houses around. Alan asks Frankie if he tried to get into the Army, and Frankie claims that he joined the Army a year ago. The conversation ends quickly.

Alan does not meet Frankie again for over ten years. In the meantime, Alan has done his National Service in Malaya and “become a writer of sorts” (149). He no longer lives in the same city but returns there to visit his family and Frankie hails him as he walks through the streets. Frankie is trying to read a cinema poster. He is now about thirty-five and seems smaller, thinner and meeker. Alan sees, from the green ribbon-medal in his coat lapel, that he served in the Home Guard during World War Two. Frankie still has a one-man business as a wood supplier and has graduated from a handcart to a pony and cart. The reason why Frankie is more subdued emerges when he tells Alan that he assaulted his father and then blacked out and was subsequently sent to a mental hospital for a year and given electric-shock treatment. Outraged by what he feels Frankie must have undergone in such treatment, Alan wants “power in me to tear down those white-smocked mad interferers with Frankie’s coal-forest world”, wants “to wipe out their hate and presumption” (151). Frankie asks Alan’s help in reading the cinema poster and Alan tells him that tonight’s film is Saratoga Trunk (1943) and explains that it is “a sort of cowboy picture. There’s a terrific smash at the end” (152). Alan’s account of the picture acts on Frankie “like a charm”. “Into his eyes came the same glint I had seen years ago when he stood up with spear and shield and roared out: ‘CHARGE!’ and flung himself against showers of sticks and flying stones”. (152). Alan and Frankie say goodbye and the narrator concludes: “I with my books have not seen him since. It was like saying goodbye to a part of me, for ever” (152). The story is notable for the way in which it combines its vivid and sympathetic evocation of Frankie with a portrayal of a writer estranged, inevitably but painfully, from his origins.

Like Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner aroused mixed review responses. For example, in the Times Literary Supplement (2 February 1959, 557), the anonymous reviewer (identified by the TLS Centenary Archive as biographer, scholar and poet Anthony Cronin (born 1928)) found fault with the narrative persona of the title story: “when he scrawls an especially eloquent phrase […] we can hear Mr. Sillitoe breathing down his neck”. Moreover, Smith’s rejection of society is unconvincing and “the attempts to jazz it up lead Mr. Sillitoe […] to bluster and sentimentality”, finally turning Smith, in utter contradiction to Sillitoe’s inferred intention, into “a self-pitying, incipient paranoiac”. In Cronin’s view, none of the stories is wholly successful, but they all show that Sillitoe “can write very well indeed”, and two are first-class though not flawless: “The Fishing-Boat Picture” and “The Match”.

The anonymous reviewer in the Times (8 October 1959, 15) contrasts “the calm and dedicated campaigns waged by Mr. Sillitoe’s characters” with “the kind of protest against poverty and injustice” found in the works of George Gissing (1857-1903) or The Journal of a Disappointed Man (1919) by Bruce Frederick Cummings (1899-1919), who wrote under the name of W. N. P. Barbellion. It “is impossible”, the Times reviewer remarks, “to imagine The Diary of a Disappointed Long-Distance Runner”. The reviewer finds Smith in “Loneliness” “remarkably free from the kind of anger that has become so fashionable” and, in contrast to Anthony Cronin’s characterization in the TLS of Smith as “self-pitying”, he feels that Smith “can at least claim that he is without self-pity”. He finds that “the smell and feel of poverty pervades all the stories” and that “the police are presented as odious”, except in “The Decline and Fall of Frankie Buller”, where it is the doctors who administer electric-shock treatment who are hateful. The Times reviewer concludes, however, that the stories in Loneliness “resemble less hymns of hate than a war correspondent’s report from some fantastic front which although it is all around us, is only sometimes visible”. They are “graphic, tough, outspoken, informal”, but “leave the reader free to exclaim ‘I don’t believe you’”, which he sometimes does.

Loneliness went into Pan paperback in 1961. This edition included, at the end of the volume, a long poem, “The Rats”, which would later, in 1960, be the title work of the second of Sillitoe’s collections of poetry (the first was a pamphlet, Without Beer or Bread, published in 1957). The paperback of Loneliness had sold 73,341 copies by the end of 1961 (Bradford (2008), 187) and its sales were further boosted by the release in 1962 of the film version of the title story, again scripted by Sillitoe (as the 1960 film of Saturday Night had been), directed this time by Tony Richardson (1928-91) and introducing in the role of Colin Smith a new young actor, Tom (now Sir Tom) Courtenay (born 1937). Like the film of Saturday Night, the film of “Loneliness” would become a classic of British “New Wave” cinema. All nine tales in The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner would become classic short stories which are vividly redolent of key elements of a distinctive historical period (the mid-twentieth century) and vitally resonant with twenty-first-century concerns.

Works cited:

Bradford, Richard, The Life of a Long-Distance Writer: A Biography of Alan Sillitoe (London and Chester Springs, PA: Peter Owen, 2008).
Laing, Stuart, Representations of Working-Class Life 1957-1964 (Basingstoke and London: Macmillan, 1986), esp. pp. 79-80 (story), 127-30 (film and story).
Sillitoe, Alan, The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner (London: Pan Books, 1961).

Tredell, Nicolas. "The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 05 June 2010
[, accessed 13 February 2016.]

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