Allan Sillitoe, author of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner, died last Sunday at age 82.
The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner is one of my favorite movies. Directed by Tony Richardson, who also did Look Back In Anger and Tom Jones, The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner stars Tom Courtenay in the lead role as a young miscreant and Michael Redgraves as his nemesis, the self-important Reformatory Governor of Ruxton Towers. The movie’s rollicking, devil-may-care energy had a great fascination for me in the sixties thanks to the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and the bluesy psychedelia of the British Invasion. The members of these groups dressed like the romantic poets whose portraits were pinned reverently to the wall of my high school English class, but produced a music of dazzling melodies and passionate rhythms. “Go Now.” “Ticket To Ride.” “Needles And Pins.” "Over Under Sideways Down."
There was more to England, evidently, than the greenswards and gardens that I had more generally imagined as the country that had given birth to Chaucer and Shakespeare. Richardson’s movie greatly intrigued me because of its spirited, black-and-white look at the struggles of a working class I thought had only existed in places like the Bronx and Detroit and Cincinnati. Class divisions were far more visible in England, but their frictions and oppressions were every bit as vicious and unjust as they were in the U.S. during the 1890s and 1930s. Not to mention our own current time and the ravages of corporate America and Wall Street. CEOs who make $200 million per year in a country where the working poor live in tent cities from Tampa to Sacramento.
The sass and bravado of Richardson’s central character, 17-year old Colin Smith, embodied a spirit that was one part William Blake and one part Eddie Cochran. He had dash and fervor and wit. He did not suffer fools gladly. I loved the movie. And yet I hadn’t read the book. I had been meaning to. It was on my list. It had been on my list for decades.
Now was the time to read it. I had just finished Kerouac’s Big Sur and was left with a whetted appetite for more raw energy, for a forceful prose bursting with attitude; something defiant and full of animal instinct and boiling contravention. Sillitoe’s novella seemed promising.
I was also interested in the book’s main subject: running. I had begun running late in life, in 1992, at age 45. I had quit drinking and smoking and began routinely running a modest course of two miles. Two friends at work, both runners, invited me to do Seattle’s shore run, a 6.7 mile run from Seward Park to Madison Park on Lake Washington Boulevard. Although for some weeks I had been running a course of, at most, three miles, I figured I was ready. Another three miles would make little difference. I could feel it in my body: an inexhaustible vitality. What further piqued my interest was the rumor that my former girlfriend was going to be running in the race with her new partner, a guy who worked in her office who I perceived as the anti-me: quiet, unassuming, and sedate. Naturally, I wanted to show my stuff. I knew I wasn’t going to win her back, nor did I want to. But I did want to demonstrate the horrendous mistake she had made in dumping me. How many Mick Jaggers can there be at age 45?
Shortly after the race began, I got a nice reality check. I was ready to drop after the second mile. My legs were leaden. I felt like the mummy from the 1932 movie starring Boris Karloff as Imhotep. I maintained a pathetic stride that was more shuffle than run. I imagined swaths of raggedy cotton falling from my ancient Pharaonic body.
After that, I discovered the joy of LSD: Long Slow Distance. I increased my distance to six, to ten, and on the weekends, 14 miles. In March of 1993, I finished the half-marathon on Mercer Island in a respectable 2 hours and 20 minutes.
The fabled high of the runner is real. Something happens to you chemically to make you feel better. Your mind clears. You feel exhilarated. Confident. Worries are mitigated. Anguish is softened. Depression is diminished.
Sillitoe describes the exhilaration of running with firm, vigorous prose, gripping the page with the rhythm of a lively inner monologue after Smith shows his pass to the guard and takes to the countryside: … as soon as I take that first fling leap out into the frosty grass of an early morning when even birds haven’t the heart to whistle, I get to thinking, and that’s what I like. I go my rounds in a dream, turning at lane or foothpath corners without knowing I’m turning, leaping brooks without knowing they’re there, and shouting good morning to the early cow-milker without seeing him. 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 or that there’s a shop to break and enter a bit back from the next street. Sometimes I think that I’ve never been so free as during that couple of hours when I’m trotting up the path out of the gates and turning by that bare-faced, big-bellied oak tree at the lane end. Everything’s dead, but good, because it’s dead before coming alive, not dead after being alive. That’s how I look at it. Mind you, I often feel frozen stiff at first. I can’t feel my hands or feet or flesh at all, like I’m a ghost who wouldn’t know the earth was under him if he didn’t see it now and again through the mist. But even though some people would call this frost-pain suffering if they wrote about it to their mams in a letter, I don’t, because I know that in half an hour I’m going to be warm, that by the time I get to the main road and am turning on to the wheatfield footpath by the bus stop I’m going to feel as hot as a potbellied stove and as happy as a dog with a tin tail.
The underlying, fundamental theme of Sillitoe’s tale is being alive. Staying alive. Keeping that vital spark of divinity in us glistening and paramount. Because there are so many toxic forces that undermine and diminish us. Every time we go against our instinct to obey a rule, go contrary to our heart and intuition to do something that we don’t want to do, but must do, every time we pay obedience to someone we do not respect, we die a little. Every time we do what is expected of us instead of what we expect of ourselves, we die a little. Every time we try to adapt or conform or fit into a situation that makes us squirm and awkward and ill-at-ease, we die a little. And every time we die a little it all mounts up until there is not much left. Just enough to get drunk, watch TV, smoke a joint, do a line of coke.
It’s a bit odd admiring the spirit and sagacity of a 17 year-old at age 62. We all inherit the decisions we make in our late teens and twenties. It is rare to change course in our 30s, and a lot harder now than it used to be. The cost of an education is astronomical. The U.S. manufacturing base is all but gone. Short of getting a degree in engineering, or medicine, or law, there isn’t much left in the way of a career that will allow you to buy a house and raise a family. Life in the U.S. is far more constrictive than it was when I was 17. Sillitoe’s tale of long distance running and prison and petty crime has become more pertinent. But I wonder if the popularity of comic books and movies about superheroes hasn’t replaced the kind of yearning and redemption possible in a book such as The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner. Feelings of learned helplessness are easily appeased by fantasies of flying and superhuman strength. It is harder to convince people that freedom, true freedom, can only be found inside. In our guts. In our brains. In our muscle and blood. In the privacy of our heads where there is no limit to what can be imagined or thought or dreamed.
Never kid yourself: unless you’re born rich, you’re at war. At war with a system that wants to kill your spirit. Kill your imagination. As Smith expresses it: They can drop all the atom bombs they like for all I care: I’ll never call it war and wear a soldier’s uniform, because I’m in a different sort of war, that they think is child’s play. The war they think is war is suicide, and those that go and get killed in war should be put in clink for attempted suicide because that’s the feeling in bloke’s minds when they rush to join up or let themselves be called up. I know, because I’ve thought how good it would be sometimes to do myself in and the easiest way to do it, it occurred to me, was to hope for a big war so’s I could join up and get killed. But I got past that when I knew I already was in a war of my own, that I was born into one, that I grew up hearing the sound of ‘old soldiers’ who’d been over the top at Dartmoor, half-killed at Lincoln, trapped in a no-man’s-land at Borstal, that sounded louder than any Jerry bombs. Government wars aren’t my wars; they’ve got nowt to do with me, because my own war’s all that I’ll ever be bothered about.
Amen to that, brother.