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

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Coronavirus and Literature: What we can learn from Michel de Montaigne

Being banged up in the house for 3 weeks has been tough for many of us, but French philosopher and essayist Michel de Montaigne would have pissed his way through lockdown as he chose to self-isolate for 10 years… 

Michel de Montaigne (28 February 1533 – 13 September 1592) was a Renaissance philosopher, statesman and writer best known for making the essay a literary genre. Blending anecdotes about the mundane (he wrote a lot about his aging body) alongside intellectual expositions, he was deemed self-indulgent by his contemporaries. Montaigne is of interest today because he chose to self-isolate for 10 years, which isn’t that surprising when you consider his formative years.

Despite being born into wealth, Montaigne’s father injected a bit of realism into his life early on when he was ushered off to a peasant family for three years to “draw the boy close to the people, and to the life conditions of the people, who need our help”. After this, he was brought back to the family château to learn Latin, spiritual meditation, and be awoken each morning by a servant playing a new instrument. His father was a stickler for rules, putting in place a comprehensive programme for education that would ensure his son craved intellectual liberty as an adult rather than becoming a wealthy layabout. It worked. He became a courtier between 1561 – 1563 and was awarded the collar of the Order of Saint Michael.

Montaigne got married in 1565 and had six daughters, all of whom died, except one. When his father followed suite a few years later, he inherited the family fortune and retired from public life in 1571. Whereas we are obliged to social distance to stop the spread of coronavirus, Montaigne decided to self-isolate to pursue his favourite hobby – himself. To do this, he locked himself away in his library with 1,500 works for company. His isolation would last for nearly ten years, culminating in the publication of three volumes of Essays. To remain motivated, he had inspirational quotes from classical philosophy carved into the wooden beams of the library, as well as his own motivational ponderings:

“In the year of Christ 1571, at the age of thirty-eight, on the last day of February, his birthday, Michael de Montaigne, long weary of the servitude of the court and of public employments, while still entire, retired to the bosom of the learned virgins, where in calm and freedom from all cares he will spend what little remains of his life, now more than half run out. If the fates permit, he will complete this abode, this sweet ancestral retreat; and he has consecrated it to his freedom, tranquility, and leisure.”

Although a vociferous reader, Montaigne was quite happy to give up on a book if it didn’t spark his interest, advising, “I am not prepared to bash my brains for anything…if one book wearies me I take up another.” I guess this isn’t a problem when you’ve got 1,500 to choose from.

Montaigne was not one for reverence. He railed against stuffy academics and pompous intellectuals for whom abstract dogma acted as an intellectual cage that led to hubris, fanaticism and other social nasties. Life, he wrote, “consists partly in madness, partly in wisdom”. Liberty comes from striking a balance between knowledge and pleasure. In modern parlance, he kept it real. Or as he put it, “Kings and philosophers’ shit, and so do ladies.”

Montaigne’s determination to focus on his art is a reminder to all writers that discipline and dedication are equally as important as talent and creativity. It doesn’t matter how great your ideas are if you don’t get them down on paper. It’s in this spirit we should view Lockdown as an opportunity to finish that incomplete novel, now that public distractions are a distant memory.

Of course, it’s easier to write when you’re overlooking the Dordogne from your inherited tower. But writing is magical wherever it happens. It allows temporary escape from our lives as we inhabit other characters and worlds. For Montaigne, writing acted as a form of therapy, an opportunity to escape dark thoughts by getting them down on paper. Writing during Lockdown could be good for our mental health too.

His Essays explore the human condition from various perspectives – fear, happiness, childhood, possessions, fame, with wonderful confessions on the failings of the body – he was as happy writing about poo and impotence as he was a philosophical treatise. Underpinning all of this was gnôti seauton – know thyself.

Coronavirus is forcing us to think about the human condition in terms of poverty, globalisation, pollution, community, health – and how we might live differently when this epidemic passes. Let’s hope our splendid isolation is not for 10 years.

This blog was originally published on the Nottingham UNESCO City of Literature website on 20 April.

I am currently working on Whatever People Say I Am, a graphic novel serial challenging stereotypes, and D.H. Lawrence: A Digital Pilgrimage, a memory theatre exploring Lawrence through artefacts.