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The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner…

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1959)

by Alan Sillitoe

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A collection of stories with the running theme of life for the working class British man pre & post-WWII. The main focus of each piece is a character study, with their being little to even no plot. I enjoy character stories and they are well-written gloomy fare but still I must admit they just really didn't do anything for me as a whole. Fortunately, I understood the historical and societal era the tales depicted as this is where and how my father grew up. Even though the book has a brief biographical afterword about the author I do wish there had been an Introduction which introduced us to his writing.

1. The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner - A novella taking up 29% of the entire book, this story has no plot but is the running commentary of the thoughts of a 17yo in an institution for juvenile delinquents as he trains for the annual sports day competition representing the institute as their long-distance runner. I'm guessing this takes place in the late 1950s, the youth contemplates on why he will always be of the criminal element, doesn't ever plan to change and is quite proud of the fact. His thoughts all have to do with the British class system and his contempt for anyone in authority or "lords and ladies". I didn't care for the youth at all as he was a petty thief with petty ideas of "sticking it to the man." That said, the story made me think of my dad who I do respect greatly and was by no means ever petty nor a criminal, but he was raised the same as this youth. My dad was born during WWII in Yorkshire and this youth used some slang making me think he came from the same region. This youth was a Teddy Boy, as was my dad though for him it was more of a fashion statement than the accompanying rebellious behaviour. This youth's family were working class and the father died of cancer contracted from the factory industry he worked for. My father's family was the same and *his* dad died of lung cancer caused by working in the textile mills. A well-written story which touched me in a certain personal way but I didn't particularly like or agree with anything it was trying to say about man and society. (3/5)
PS - I've since learned these stories take place in Nottingham, which is south of Yorkshire, but the characters use a lot of words and turns of phrase I'm familiar with.

2. Uncle Ernest - A character study. A depressing story of Ernest, an upholsterer, survivor of WWI, suffering from shellshock but no one knows not even him. He lives a lonely life, working which he's successful at, and spending the profits at the pub, he's always dirty. He has no reason to live, thinking of his drudgery of life, no friends, no family. Then one day two hungry little girls come into the diner where he eats lunch and sit at his table. He feeds them and it becomes a regular affair, the elder of the two is aggressive and takes advantage of him eventually getting presents for themselves as well as food. But Ernest is simple and now has a reason to live, he loves these girls like daughters, they are the light of his life. People begin to notice and one day the police come to him saying they've been watching and tell him it isn't right for a man his age to be giving money and presents to little girls. He must stop and never see them again or he'll end up before the magistrate. So Ernest turns dim and walks back into a pub with the glasses of ale welcoming him back. Well-written gloomy study of a typical type of man from this time in Britain. (4/5)

3. Mr Raynor the School-Teacher - This story looks at Raynor, a teacher who sits on his high stool looking through the window lusting after the drapery shop girls across the street. It's no secret as he tunes out his class often. He is particularly remembering an 18yo who left a few weeks back as she was killed. Raynor occasionally returns attention to his current class of final year 14yo boys and eventually straps the most belligerent one which turns into a tussle but Raynor holds his own and maintains an order for his class. Raynor is certainly not likeable, but he is probably a common example of a teacher from this era and place in Britain. We come to note that as a teacher he understands his boys and isn't a bad teacher when all is said and done. There is also plenty to think about regarding the girl and her death. (4/5)

4. The Fishing-Boat Picture - A sad story of love that takes place before WWII. A young couple marries; the woman is headstrong and cocky while the man is a nonconfrontational reader. They argue a lot and six years later the woman runs off with a painter. They remain legally married. Ten years later she turns up at his doorstep, characteristically changed and visits him once a week thereafter during the war until her death. He became happy in his quiet way after she left him but after her death, he finds out the suffering life she lead during those years. He examines their relationship, and love, and perhaps how they could have done something to make it work. A bleak but soul-searching story. My favourite so far. (5/5)

5. Noah's Ark - Two boys with only a few pence set off for the fair that's arrived in town. We learn a lot about the boys and their backgrounds as they walk along. Once at the fair, the streetwise boy shows the other all the tricks to come up with money at such an event and they steal, find, trick, and beg themselves enough to have a great day. The Noah's Ark is what we commonly refer to as a carousel and the one shows the other how to ride it for free. This is the main thing the most honest boy had wanted to experience at the fair.He get's on the ride but the attendant is onto him and chases him the entire ride. Everything ends well, but it leaves you with a bittersweet feeling that people make the most of what they have, but dishonesty gets its just reward in the end. (3/5)

6. On Saturday Afternoon - This is about a man who tries to hang himself. But it's actually about the narrator reflecting back on an incident that took place when he was 10 years old and he watched, even abetted, a stranger trying to hang himself. We know little of the man but get to know the narrator's life and circumstances, working class poor. We learn a lot about the narrator's dad, the family's anger and lot in life. It's illegal for this man to have tried suicide and he is arrested, sent to hospital, because his life is not his own, The narrator disagrees about this and makes a case. I disagree as our lives are certainly not our own, they belong to God, and while not a cause to be arrested anymore, suicides should be treated with mental health resources. I did like the narrator's reasoning on why he would never kill himself because of his "stick-to-itiveness". Well-written, a good gloomy topic but again I don't agree with the sentiment it tries to make. (4/5)

7. The Match - Most of the story rambles on about a "football" match and the home team loses like they always do. The two mates talk about it as they walk home; they live next door to each other. One is newly married, in love with a pretty pregnant wife. The other, Fred, has three children ages 14 and down. The last bit of the story describes the domestic unrest and abuse going on in the home as his friend and wife hear the ends of it next door. Too bad all the sports just zoned me out on this one. (2/5)

8. The Disgrace of Jim Scarfedale - Well, this is a sorry meandering story that narrates certain events and the eventual outcome of Jim Scarsdale by a 15yo neighbour who spied in a secret cranny to hear every word that went on in his house. Jim was a mamma's boy, tied to his mam's apron springs who one day in his 40s announced he was getting married. It only lasts six months and he returns home to mamma. But what happens to him in the end, is a shocker. Quite a bit of social commentary and eventually focussing on whether his upbringing connects to his crimes in the end. A bleak story but I probably enjoyed this as much if not better than "The Fishing Boat Picture". (5/5)

9. The Decline and Fall of Frankie Buller - This a sad story of a mentally challenged man-boy. W e don't know what's wrong with him. The time is between the wars and his father won a medal in WWI and was returned shellshocked. Frankie, clearly 10 years older than the neighbourhood 15yos is obsessed and fascinated with war. He's a good tactician and leads his gang into victory over other neighbourhood gangs. The narrator was one of those 15yo boys. He then tells us of meeting up with Frankie again when he visits home, the final time realising Frankie has had electric shock therapy. I like depressing stories like this but felt disconnected from not getting any sense for the characters. (3/5)

A Biography of Alan Sillitoe by Ruth Fainlight - Written by Sillitoe's widow, this is a brief biography of the events of his life. There are pictures included. However, it sheds no light on his stories or his writing. I'm assuming there may biological elements as before WWII he quit school at 14 to work in a local factory. (not rated) ( )
  ElizaJane | May 11, 2016 |
These stories reminded me of Dickens in their portrayal of the working class of England. I enjoyed this collection and would have liked it to have been longer. ( )
  AmandaL. | Jan 16, 2016 |
It's grim up north. ( )
  deckehoe | Nov 27, 2015 |
If there was a book I would never read again, it would be this book; and I probably will not read it a second time. I could make very little sense of it - or rather, what the text/author wanted to express - and found it therefore simply dull. For me there was nothing even remotely interesting about the book and the only reason I finsihed it was because it was a compulsory school read. ( )
  Zurpel | Sep 22, 2013 |

There is a war coming. While a war between countries will grab the headlines, it is the war between the classes that is will do the most damage- because the lower classes are growing, the chasm between the bottom and the top is impenetrably deep, and the well-meaning middle class (because they want to avoid the war, or because they don't think war is really necessary) serve as tools of hegemony.

It's hard not to read Alan Sillitoe's The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner through the prism of our American fiscal cliff.

In story after story of this slim collection, the lower class Britons on the eve of the Second World War slouch from birth to death. They make terrible choices for lack of options across nine stories: robbery; a fight between a teacher and student; a man kindly assists his ex-wife in drinking herself to death; two boys beg, lie and steal to scrape together enough money to enjoy a fair; a man hangs himself with the help of a young boy; one man alleviates the misery of his life by beating his wife and children, while another exposes himself to little girls.

In the cruelest story of them all, "Uncle Ernest," the title character (a hard working upholsterer) finds joy in his hand-to-mouth existence by caring for two young girls. It's unclear if they needed his care: their mother has a job, and they go to school. When they first meet Ernest, they have the money for the bus ride home from a small cafe. Still, they accept his charity- he goes hungry and runs up debt to buy them tea and sweets. In kindness, he finds companionship and a hollow measure of happiness. The world, of course, punished him for that. A pair of coppers show up, responding to complaints or questions- some people thought the little girls were taking advantage of the old man's generosity. The police, acting on the best behalf of society, accuse him of untoward acts that have never crossed his mind, and they finally fling him into the street with orders to never contact the girls again. Uncle Ernest retreats to a bar, for the only escape society allows him.

This is how the world ends.

On both sides of our political divide, people are fighting for what they believe is best. I hold my beliefs because I think they are what would be best for the most people. I am sure that the senators and congressmen who are working against my desires belief they are striving for the same goal.

But the system is broken, badly. The wealthy have, over time, accumulated so many advantages that while it is possible for an American to move from the lower class to the middle class through ingenuity, perseverance and a little luck, the middle class is the peak of the summit.

As in The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, we make choices every day, not because they are the best choices, but because they are the only ones we are allowed. There are too many people willing to work hard and believe that good fortune will come, too many coppers doing their duty, too many neighbors listening silently through the wall who are glad when the beating ends but who do nothing to stop it.

We cannot fix a broken system from within when millions of people are working to maintain the status quo because they believe it is in their best interest. World War II broke Great Britain; the Empire was bankrupt, and re-industrialization through the Marshall Plan took a backseat to the illusion of global power. In American history, confronted with a similar stratification in the 1890s, Americans pushed back, forcing major democratizing reforms on their government in favor of the majority and against the wealthy, powerful and well connected. With another 40 years of hindsight, will Americans look at the dawn of the 21st Century as the beginning or the end of the Second Gilded Age? ( )
  jscape2000 | Jan 4, 2013 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Alan Sillitoeprimary authorall editionscalculated
Klotz, GüntherTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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As soon as I got to Borstal they made me a long-distance cross-country runner.
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Contains nine darkly comic stories of working-class men in 1950s Nottingham.

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