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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Alan Sillitoe documentaries

The following four films discuss Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Alan Sillitoe’s 1958 novel about a Raleigh worker from Radford. Saturday Night and Sunday Morning is deeply embedded in Nottingham history and culture and stands as testament to a working class world now long gone. The film adaptation was broadcast in 1960, directed by Karel Reisz and stared Albert Finney. BFI have acknowledged it as the 14th greatest British film of all time, despite Finney’s Manc accent…

When I was asked to do a bit of filming about Sillitoe I thought it was going to be a quick Vox Pop to be collated with other commentary to be used in workshops. But it turned out to be a 10 minute documentary. I mention this because these things live on for ever and I should have been a bit better prepared, particularly given the emotional and eloquent testimonies from Henry and David. The interview was done on my lunch break in between teaching, so it was always going to be a bit raw. This is just what happens when you’re juggling lots of things at once. TV and radio both require chunks of well focused observations. You need to pick out a relevant quote or a point and then unpack it a bit. But any sane human can’t bear to hear or see themselves in such things, so if you’re currently doing similar, don’t be too hard on yourself. Just don’t watch it…

The following information is taken directly from the City Arts website:

David Sillitoe on his father

This film features interviews with Alan’s son, David, who talks about his father’s work, upbringing and inspirations. He explains his father’s distaste for being described as an ”angry young man” and discusses what it was like for him to grow up as the son of a famous writer.

Me on Alan Sillitoe

Writer, academic and former LeftLion literature editor James Walker discusses the cultural context of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. James speaks about life in 1950s and 60s Nottingham and explains the themes that the novel touches on – the relationships, social life and working life of our city’s communities.

Henry Normal on Alan Sillitoe

Henry Normal is a writer, poet, TV and film producer, and patron of City Arts. He tells us how Sillitoe’s work influenced his own writing on acclaimed TV programmes including The Mrs Merton Show and The Royle Family. Henry also speaks passionately about how Nottingham, his home town, inspires his work, the same way it did Alan’s.

Raleigh workers on working at Raleigh

This film features appearances from former Raleigh workers, some of whom knew Sillitoe personally. They speak about what it was like to work at the factory around the same time the novel was set, explain how important the business was to the local community and compare Nottingham back then to Nottingham today.

These films were directed and produced by Tim Chesney on behalf of City Arts. We have been using them as inspiration in writing workshops for Nottingham residents aged 55+, part of our Words of Wisdom project. The films acted as a launch pad for people to tell their own stories, both real and imagined, drawing on their personal lives and exploring similar themes to the novel.

City Arts is working with Nottingham UNESCO City of LiteratureNottingham City Libraries and Nottingham City Homes on Words of Wisdom. The project is funded by Arts Council England and the Baring Foundation’s ‘Celebrating Age’ fund. You can see some of the poems produced for the project here.

Photo credit: Mark Gerson

Used with permission