About James

James specialises in digital literary heritage projects. He spends most of his time in front of a computer screen writing about life instead of living it. Therefore, do not trust a word he says.

Twitterature: The Loneliness of the Lockdown Runner

To mark the 84th birthday of Sir Tom Courtenay, who played Colin Smith in the film adaptation of Sillitoe’s 1959 short story The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, I’ve updated the tale for the lockdown generation. This first of two blogs explains why.

During Lockdown, we’ve all found inventive ways of coping with our enforced solitude. From baking bread to learning a language, we’ve all experimented with different forms of distraction, now the pubs and restaurants are closed. But one trend that seems to be growing in popularity is the lockdown runner, or, more specifically, lumbering overweight middle-aged men.

Amid a pandemic that requires us to keep a reasonable distance from each other and to be hyper conscious of our hygiene, joggers seem to think now is the time to come panting and spluttering past like a back firing Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Worst still, you can’t even tell them to back off as they’re tethered to their headphones.

I should point out that I, too, am an overweight middle-aged man. I’m just too lazy to plod and pant my way across the streets. I prefer to saunter so that I connect with my immediate environment and count how many discarded face masks are on our street.

All of this got me thinking about Alan Sillitoe’s 1959 short story ‘The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner’. In this, seventeen-year-old Colin Smith is sent to Borstal for robbery. The governor notices he is a talented runner and puts him forward for a national long-distance running competition. Smith is athletic because ‘running had always been made much of in our family, especially running away from the police’. If he wins the race, as the governor is counting on him to do, it will vindicate the very system and society that has locked him up. It is a superb story of defiance and belligerence, casting Colin Smith as one of the greatest literary anti-hero’s of all time.

In ‘For it was Saturday Night,’ one of the comics in the Dawn of the Unread series, I brough Colin Smith back from the dead to fight against the closure of libraries. But due to rigor mortis, he was so slow he didn’t get very far. Now I’m adapting the story once more, but this time for the covid generation in ‘The Loneliness of the Lockdown Runner’

This will be published as 100 tweets on Twitter at 5pm for five evenings, starting on Thursday 25 Feb. This is to mark the 84th birthday of Sir Tom Courtenay, who played Colin Smith in the British New Wave film of 1962.

The story will incorporate large chunks of text from the original story but with a lockdown twist. Our homes have now become mini Borstals and the governor is Boris Johnson and the Tory party, imparting wisdom and enforcing restrictions while flouting the rules themselves. As Sillitoe may have wrote:

“For when the governor talked to me of being honest, he didn’t know what the word meant, or he wouldn’t have had me locked up indoors while he went trotting along in sunshine to Bernard Castle.”

I’ve decided to reimagine the story on Twitter because, like Lockdown, Twitter is a medium of constraint. It also means I can attach links to covid related articles to document the epidemic. Similarly, the story can be told in short, sharp bursts, replicating the slow-paced trot of lockdown running. I like the idea of the form reflecting the content.

David Mitchell is largely credited as writing the first ‘official’ short story for Twitter for ‘The Right Sort’ (2014). He was drawn by the challenges ‘posed by diabolical treble-strapped textual straightjackets’. I have a far simpler objective; drawing attention to one of the greatest short stories ever written, and, like the bread bakers and lumbering joggers, keeping myself occupied during lockdown.

Follow @Lockdown_Runner

Related articles

 

What Scott Snibbe can teach us about personal space in the Age of Coronavirus

We think of personal space as something that belongs entirely to ourselves. However, Scott Snibbe’s dynamic art installation ‘Boundary Functions’ (1998) shows us that personal space exists only in relation to others and changes without our control.

To illustrate this point, Snibbe marked out an area of a floor and projected lines onto it when people entered the space. The more people who entered the space, the more lines, the less space everyone had to themselves.

The installation was inspired by Voronoi diagrams. In mathematics, a Voronoi diagram is a partition of a plane into regions close to each of a given set of objects. More simply, they create dynamic geometric patterns. The more people who enter the frame, the more complex the patterns on the floor.

Thinking of personal space as something that belongs entirely to ourselves has become increasingly more relevant in the Age of Coronavirus. As we find ourselves in a third lockdown, and our contact with the outside world mediated through screens, our sense of anxiety has intensified. Now a bus journey to work or a trip to the shops has become something to dread rather than a routine everyday activity: Why isn’t he wearing a mask? Did she wash her hands before touching that? Will that person walking towards me do the polite thing and cross the road?

Never has our sense of personal space been so intensely negotiated and so passionately fought for. We could all learn a lot from watching Snibbe’s installation, though it probably needs updating to ensure participants are two meters apart…

Scott Snibbe’s website

I came across Snibbe’s work while researching a lockdown story and developing a digital storytelling module for Nottingham Trent University. For this, I’ve created a Twitter and Instagram account to discuss and share innovations in digital storytelling. Please drop by and say hello.