Review of ‘The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner’ by Alan Sillitoe

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 The characters’ language may be outdated but the themes are not.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.


4 thoughts on “Review of ‘The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner’ by Alan Sillitoe”

  1. This sounds like an interesting read because of the timeless themes, as you say. I will keep my eye out for this book. Your review reminded me slightly of “Borstal Boy”, an autobiographical book by Brendan Behan, published just a year earlier than that by Sillitoe. Someone recommended it to me awhile ago since I am interested in criminal justice, but then I never got around to reading it.

    1. I have heard of Borstal Boy. I wonder when borstal stopped becoming a punishment? IT sounds like a cross between school and the army.

  2. I’m not much for short stories – I just can’t enjoy them. Last week I tried to read a collection of stories by a well-known author and I couldn’t do it.

    However, I recently finished an omnibus by Joseph Mitchell, “Up in the Old Hotel”, which is a collection of essays (+ a few stories) he wrote for the New Yorker from the 1930s – early 1960s. He was another one for Long Paragraphs and, while interesting, sometimes a reader gets a little fatigued when there’s no paragraph break in sight.

    1. I wish I could read more short stories but I prefer to get invested in a novel length plot. Occasionally I will read them. Long paragraphs seem to be more common in older works (the kings of these are Franz Kafka and Henry James) but I’ve seen them in more recent work too. It’s difficult to focus on large blocks of text.

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