Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of Karel Reisz’s film adaptation of The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. I’d originally planned to celebrate this by running the Great North Run with Tony Roe and then stopping at the finishing line and reading the story out aloud. A bit dramatic, but that’s the kind of thing you have to resort to when you’re trying to raise the profile of a voluntary organisation such as the Alan Sillitoe Committee. However, these plans were scuppered when I got the commission for The Space which has dominated the last six months of my life. It had nothing to do with laziness. ..

Loneliness was the title of Sillitoe’s second publication, a collection of short stories that also contains two other classics in Uncle Ernest and On Saturday Afternoon. I first read Loneliness in my late teens, which was probably the best time as I, like Colin Smith, was trying to figure out my place in the world. I still am. Through Colin Smith I learned that respect was something that was earned rather than a given and that it was alright to question authority, morals that have stayed with me throughout my life.

It was with great excitement, then, and a little trepidation, that I made my way to the Playhouse to see Roy Williams adaptation. Tom Courtney is as synonymous with Colin Smith as Albert Finney is with Arthur Seaton and so this was no easy task. One way to resolve this problem was by casting a mixed-race kid (superbly played by Marcus Romer) against the backdrop of the 2011 riots, which has raised similar questions regarding class and youth. This was a clever move and worked well.

The play included snippets of speeches by David Cameron, a politician certainly for turning given that he went from hugging a hoodie to hanging them. The aftermath of the riots saw incredibly harsh and disproportionate sentences handed out, particularly those regarding social media. It demonstrated a government completely out of touch with large proportions of society.

I agree with Williams that the questions Sillitoe was asking about Britain, then, are still as relevant today. However, I differ with his emphasis on greed in the riots. He said “the riots last year seemed to be very different to the eighties; they seemed to be more about a chance to get their hands on new trainers or whatever. We have this ‘fast-food’ culture where we are made to want things we don’t need and can’t afford. I think that was definitely an issue in the riots last year, and in a way that made it more disturbing because there was no cause.” This emphasis on the ‘fast-food culture’ has influenced his interpretation of Sillitoe’s story and as a result I think it loses the rawness and anger of the original, as well as Smith’s cockiness in the face of authority. But as a contemporary reaction it works very well.

The riots were instinctive – a mixture of boredom, opportunism and apathy. This is why some rioters showed such a lack of ambition in the shops they attacked – something alluded to in the play. It was more about the thrill of smashing something up than profiteering. Sillitoe writes about this in The Ragman’s Daughter, when a young thief derives greater pleasure from dumping his loot in the Trent and hearing it splash than in possessing things. Is there any better criticism of consumer society?

Sillitoe’s depictions of working class life are so brutal that he’s been accused of hating his own. But truth has always caused offence. This was why David Cameron was so harsh on the rioters as they were an embarrassment to Brand Britain, making us no different to the Arab Springs. No regime change under my watch.

Sillitoe wrote in his essay Poor People: “Voting can never make any difference to their plight. It would take too long. They want to get out of it now, this minute, this week at the most. When you live from day to day, how can you believe anyone who says he will alter things in a few years? The years ahead are an empty desert, without landmarks of any kind, beyond the imagination. Poor people live in the present.” Colin Smith certainly lives in the present as did the rioters. It was a guttural reaction to a malignant and offensive political system and one that will return with greater fury when 80% of the cuts kick in next year.

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, Nottingham Playhouse, 23 – 27 October

Interview with playwright Roy Williams

I shall be tweeting LOTLDR (with images) to get you in the mood to see the play @thespacelathe or look out for #LDR2012



Who’s Alan Stiletto?

When I joined the Alan Sillitoe Committee, I thought it would take a year to raise the money for a statue. Now, with a bit more experience and a few events under my belt, I’d estimate three years. So let’s call it five for cash. It’s very different to events I’ve put on with LeftLion because ‘having a good time’ is not good enough. It’s about end results, or to quote my father, ‘a salesman is only as good as his figures.’ But no matter how difficult things get I keep reminding myself of when I first read The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (SNASM) as an impressionable and somewhat lost teenager. They were absolutely integral in defining my moral outlook and ethics. When things get difficult, I think of the stubborn self-belief of Colin Smith and refuse to give up. I also remember that when I wrote to Alan, he wrote back. How many writers today would take the time to respond to a book-loving nobody?

It’s for this reason I’ve done something I’ve never done before; I’ve applied for an Arts Council Grant of £21,000 for their The Space project. I’ve thought about doing this for LeftLion before but have always been put off by the hellish bureaucracy that it entails, figuring any amount of money is not worth the wanton waste of hours such form filling requires. But on this occasion, I’ve seen each question like a lap being run by Colin Smith and have refused to give in. I’m not going to say what the bid was for because it’s such a fantastic idea, someone else may rob it. As Sillitoe said, ‘if it’s not tied down, tek it.’ I find out on the 21st December if we’ve made it to the shortlist and if we’re lucky, then the real bureaucratic agony will begin. I hope so because it’s a fantastic opportunity that will bring national coverage as well as offering access to the BBC archives and digital support.

One great thing about raising funds is the way that members of the public approach you with ideas or are keen to support in numerous ways. For example, John Aram recently performed a night of music inspired by SNASM and kindly allowed us to go around with the collection buckets and allowed Alan’s son, David to give a brief talk about our plans prior to the concert. Alan, I’m sure, would be touched by the many different ways in which his work is being kept alive and by the genuine support of the local community.

Another recent event Who’s Alan Stiletto? was organised by Mark Shotta, a local DJ who put on a music event at The Maze on 1st December, featuring local bands Old Basford, Wholesome Fish, and Howlin Black. My highlight of that night was seeing author and Basford Ward Councillor Cat Arnold moshing to the music of Old Basford. Talk about wholeheartedly supporting anything to do with her ward! I wonder if the Councillor responsible for Badger’s Mount near Farnborough or Batchelor’s Bump near Hastings takes things quite so literally.

Joking aside, both events illustrate how flexible and varied you can be when raising money and that you don’t need to limit yourself purely to readings or spoken word performances when looking for literature related funding. It is with this in mind that we encourage any member of the public to come to us with ideas or even drop an email about anything that you think we should be aware of – particularly if Albert Finney or Tom Courtney are promoting or performing anything in the UK. Please feel free to contact me directly via this website or contact us through the Sillitoe website. Now did I really agree to run that marathon next year? When am I going to find the time to train? New Years Eve Resolution: Three hours sleep a night. Five is an unnecessary indulgence.

The Alan Sillitoe Committee website