Wednesday, 19 June 2013

The Loneliness of the Long-distance runner

Let me make clear straight away that I simply adore the work of Alan Sillitoe, I have signed copies of the obscurest of his books and he is number two on my list of all time great Nottingham geezers behind Shane Meadows (third if you include honorary Nottingham geezer Brian Clough).

The story (and consequent film) the Loneliness of the Long-distance runner are both excellent works of fiction, stand out pieces of British 60s culture. The scenes are captured so vividly and brilliantly that you really think you’re there, in that shitty 60s borstal, being screwed and trying to screw the system in return.

However, as a runner, I really, really have to take issue with the title. Just to be clear, the distance run by the character in the book (and film) is 3 miles. 3 miles!!!!!!!!!!!!

3 miles! That’s less than my minimum winter run. It’s barely middle distance, certainly not long distance. I range from 6 to 15k and many serious runners sneer at the inconsequential nature of anything less than a half marathon (20k). Heaven knows what they’d say if I called my blog the Diary of Long-distance runner.

What was Sillitoe thinking? Was it a deliberate attempt to underline the restrictions and chains of borstal living by ensuring that when the prisoner is apparently off his leash, running free across open fields, he's actually never much more than a mile from the borstal. Or did he simply have no idea what the phrase ‘long distance’ means to the running community.

Of course the story was written before the first London marathon, so maybe there wasn’t a running community in the way we understand it today. Maybe the only people running were the schoolboys being punished for being schoolboys and the borstal inmates whose only taste of freedom was hard running through cold, wet fields. Maybe the middle-class, middle-aged, middle-distance runners had yet to take their first baby steps in this world. Or perhaps I'm being too clever. Does three miles simply seem a long way to the uninitiated? Like me thinking my first 13,000 word story was ‘almost a novel’.

I failed to ask him. I was lucky enough to meet the great man at a reading, I even got to ask a question, but I missed my opportunity, I probably asked some generic question about writing, or how often he trimmed his beard. I forgot to ask the one thing I really cared about. Because I do care. This is probably my favourite short story (okay the elephant vanishes comes pretty close too) but it has a really, shockingly bad title and I failed to ask him why. Now I will simply have to live with the mystery for the rest of my life.

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