Twitterature: Reimagining Sillitoe’s classic for the covid generation

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 second of two blogs explains why Twitter was the best medium for the project.

During my A-Levels, many moons ago, I binge read every book I could get my mucky paws on by Keith Waterhouse. Next up was Alan Sillitoe. When I’d read every kitchen sink novel and play of postwar Britain, I watched the British New Wave films. Sir Tom Courtenay played the part of two of these iconic figures: Colin Smith in Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and Billy Fisher in Waterhouse’s Billy Liar. These books and films had a profound effect on me during those formative years, not least in terms of class, culture and identity.

To say thank you to Sir Tom, and as a means of passing time during lockdown, I decided to update Sillitoe’s story of defiance for the covid generation as The Loneliness of the Lockdown Runner. Sillitoe’s story is 17,209 words long. I broke it down to 100 tweets that were published over five days, starting on Thursday 25 Feb – to commemorate the 84th birthday of Sir Tom Courtenay, who played Colin Smith in the British New Wave film of 1962.

I chose Twitter for numerous reasons:

Twitter is a medium of constraint and constraint is a vital component of creativity. When you have a limited mode of expression you have to be economical with your choice of words as well as consider other ways in which you can utilize the medium to create meaning.

To create a ‘beat’ each set of 20 tweets had to end on a ‘page turner’ that would encourage people to come back and see what happened next. This also created another layer of constraint.

The form reflects the content – a story about someone running, taking slow thuds along the pavement, is, in some respects, like the methodical beat of a tweet.

Images and hyperlinks

Tweets can include images which enable another layer of meaning. This meant I could take stills from the film and update them to reflect themes from 2020. I was also able to mash-up covid slogans with popular cultural references.

Sillitoe was born in Nottingham and set many of his novels and short stories here so I wanted to include images of the city in my updated version. For example, in Sillitoe’s story, Colin Smith is running in the countryside and mentions a giant oak. I changed this to the Royal Oak pub in Basford.

Tweets could include hyperlinks, enabling the story to document key events from March 2020 – masks being dropped on the floor, furlough, contradictions in policy, a divided nation – people who follow restrictions and rules, sloganism, Joe Wicks – all set against the backdrop of Trump, Farage and Brexit.

I love digital storytelling because of the intertexual references and layering of meaning it allows. This enables the story to broaden out and possibly draw in a wider audience who may not otherwise have read the original story. As much as I love digital storytelling, all of my projects are about reminding the ‘user’ they are primarily a ‘reader’ and so guiding them back to the original text.

Sillitoe did not go to university. He did not do a creative writing course. He refused to have his work edited. This is what gives his writing such a raw authentic voice – it does not have the polish of a good edit (and in some places would benefit from one). There has been much talk recently that there are no working-class writers anymore and this is hardly surprising given the process of getting your work read in the first instance. Agents act as the first form of gatekeeping and are (understandably) driven by how a voice fits into the market and what will shift copies rather than notions of authenticity and what makes a good read. And I very much doubt that a lot of working class writers – especially those who do not have a degree – have any idea of where to send a book to.

All of which is an added reason as to why I love digital storytelling so much  – you have a platform that is accessible, you can say what you like without worrying about whether your words are marketable, and, should you have the inclination to do so, you have a quick and easy reference to refer publishers to should you wish to take your work down a traditional route.

Further Reading

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.

Picture from Dawn of the Unread.

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

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