This is a prizewinning collection of short stories which examine the experiences of working class men in the 1930s – 50s. Most of them are set in the city of Nottingham (where the author is from). I wouldn’t say I enjoyed this book, as the stories are all grim and have a very male focus, plus there is a tendency for very long paragraphs. However, I appreciate the impact of this writing. It must have seemed fresh and daring at the time. Moreover, the overriding theme of conflict – ‘us against them’ – workers against bosses, ordinary people against the elite, sons against fathers, rival football teams – is a timeless one. The characters’ language may be outdated but the themes are not.
The title story, The ‘Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner’, is about a young offender named Smith, who is sent to borstal (a detention centre). The governor has high hopes for Smith in a cross-country running contest. Although Smith likes to run and finds freedom in it, he’s conflicted because winning the race would mean giving in to his supposed superiors. Most of the story is narrated in the form of flashbacks while he’s running, where we find out what his life was like before borstal and how he ended up there. It’s a remarkably told story which was turned into an equally good film.
The other stories in this collection are: ‘Uncle Ernest’, ‘Mr Raynor the School-teacher’, ‘The Fishing-boat Picture’, ‘Noah’s Ark’, ‘On Saturday Afternoon’, ‘The Match’, ‘The Disgrace of Jim Scarfedale’ and ‘The Decline and Fall of Frankie Buller’. I think the best of these are ‘The Fishing-boat Picture’, which is about an estranged married couple, and ‘Noah’s Ark’, which is set on a fairground ride.
First published in 1959 by W H Allen; this edition was published by HarperCollins in 2007 with extra material including an interview.