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

Rebel Writers: Alan Sillitoe

Notts Rebels, the new weekly series made in conjunction with the Nottingham Castle Trust’s #VoicesofToday campaign, celebrates stories of fighting injustice and acts of rebellion from Nottingham’s history. Originally published on LeftLion, my contribution explored the rebellious and anti-establishment themes in the work of Alan Sillitoe, who died ten years ago on 25 April.

“For it was Saturday night, the best and bingiest glad-time of the week, one of the fifty-two holidays in the slow-turning Big Wheel of the year, but Arthur was following government advice and social isolating.”

If Alan Sillitoe’s debut novel Saturday Night and Sunday Morning had been written today instead of 1958, it would not have started like this. Arthur Seaton, Sillitoe’s most famous creation, would be the kind of knobhead who’d be getting lathered in the park, racing his mates through the empty streets, and absolutely hammering Tinder, probably claiming you can’t catch Covid-19 from a blowjob. The fact that I can vividly imagine Seaton’s reaction to events 70 years since he came clattering onto the page is testament to Alan Sillitoe’s skills as a writer.

Sillitoe didn’t go to university or enrol on a creative writing course. He left school at 14 to work at the Raleigh factory. Like many people of his generation he was self-educated. This meant reading a lot of books and figuring things out for himself. This is why his characters are so authentic; they are chiselled out of experience and imagination rather than following literary blueprints. It’s for this reason that he refused corrections from editors, retaining, like his characters, uncompromising independence.

Growing up in abject poverty, the act of buying a book was itself a rebellious act. The Sillitoe’s were moved on from place to place during his childhood and his father was imprisoned at one point for being unable to pay for what he had bought on tick. This is why Saturday Night and Sunday Morning is so authentic, it captures the rawness of place, warts and all.

“Generators whined all night, and during the day giant milling-machines working away on cranks and pedals in the turnery gave to the terrace a sensation of living within breathing distance of some monstrous being that suffered from a disease of the stomach.”

1950s Radford is a brutal, violent world where “women with battleship faces and hearts as tough as nails” have to be won over, but “you could try all you liked to be kind to them, but they wouldn’t have any of it”. It’s no wonder a local councillor wanted the book banned at the time, fearing it would damage Nottingham’s reputation forever. This is why Sillitoe is a rebel writer. Instead of serving up a sanitised version of working class life that were palatable to middle class sensibilities, he dolloped up something offensive: truth.

Alan Sillitoe, author of that novel. Image created in Pixlr.

Arthur Seaton is a lathe operator in the Raleigh factory who grafts hard in order to quench payday thirst down his local, the White Horse. When he’s not puking up over people or having drinking contests with a sailor, he likes to craftily latch his arms around the waist of any woman daft enough to fall for his patter.

Sillitoe argued that Seaton had no spiritual values because he was a product of his environment, and therefore his own survival was all that mattered. This is best exemplified when he gets a married woman pregnant and persuades her to have a ‘gin bath’. While she is doing this, he gets it on with her sister, reflecting, “Never had an evening begun so sadly and ended so well.” I can’t imagine any writer daring to pen such selfish (and honest) sentiments today, particularly given the speed by which we are held accountable by the Twitterati.

Colin Smith is another classic Sillitoe anti-hero, appearing in the short story collection The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1960) Like Seaton, Smith comes from a tough background. His father is dying, and the family are poor. He escapes his dire circumstances by getting involved in petty crime which invariably goes horribly wrong. While incarcerated in Borstal, he takes up running which acts as a form of therapy, an opportunity to escape his problems and be temporarily free. But the governor recognises his talent and has other plans, putting him forward for a cup race. Winning the race would give the governor prestige and make Smith’s life comfortable. But he’s not interested in an easy life, there’s more pleasure letting the governor know he’s not for sale. His individuality is the only thing they can’t take from him and so he deliberately loses the race, stopping at the finishing line.

“I’m a human being and I’ve got thoughts and secrets and bloody life inside me that he doesn’t know is there, and he’ll never know what’s there because he’s stupid. I suppose you’ll laugh at this, me saying the governor’s a stupid bastard when I know hardly how to write and he can read and write and add-up like a professor. But what I say is true right enough. He’s stupid, and I’m not, because I can see further into the likes of him than he can see into the likes of me.”

Alan Sillitoe didn’t choose to be a rebel writer. He would have hated this label as much as he hated being called an Angry Young Man or a Nottingham writer. Like Colin Smith, he was nobody’s puppet. He happened to write 50 odd novels because he was pensioned off from the air force at 21 after contacting TB. This afforded the time and opportunity to write. His novels, however, are rebellious and anti-establishment by nature. Sillitoe was born into unimaginable poverty which meant he had to fight every day to survive. He was writing what he knew. Or as Seaton puts it:

“Factories sweat you to death, labour exchanges talk you to death, and income tax offices rob you to death. And if you’re still left with a tiny bit of life in your guts after all this boggering about, the army calls you up and you get shot to death.”

This article was originally published on 22 April 2020 on LeftLion as part of their Rebel Writers series.

James was the LeftLion literature editor for 13 years. He is 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.