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

Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of Karel Reisz’s film adaptation of The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. I’d originally planned to celebrate this by running the Great North Run with Tony Roe and then stopping at the finishing line and reading the story out aloud. A bit dramatic, but that’s the kind of thing you have to resort to when you’re trying to raise the profile of a voluntary organisation such as the Alan Sillitoe Committee. However, these plans were scuppered when I got the commission for The Space which has dominated the last six months of my life. It had nothing to do with laziness. ..

Loneliness was the title of Sillitoe’s second publication, a collection of short stories that also contains two other classics in Uncle Ernest and On Saturday Afternoon. I first read Loneliness in my late teens, which was probably the best time as I, like Colin Smith, was trying to figure out my place in the world. I still am. Through Colin Smith I learned that respect was something that was earned rather than a given and that it was alright to question authority, morals that have stayed with me throughout my life.

It was with great excitement, then, and a little trepidation, that I made my way to the Playhouse to see Roy Williams adaptation. Tom Courtney is as synonymous with Colin Smith as Albert Finney is with Arthur Seaton and so this was no easy task. One way to resolve this problem was by casting a mixed-race kid (superbly played by Marcus Romer) against the backdrop of the 2011 riots, which has raised similar questions regarding class and youth. This was a clever move and worked well.

The play included snippets of speeches by David Cameron, a politician certainly for turning given that he went from hugging a hoodie to hanging them. The aftermath of the riots saw incredibly harsh and disproportionate sentences handed out, particularly those regarding social media. It demonstrated a government completely out of touch with large proportions of society.

I agree with Williams that the questions Sillitoe was asking about Britain, then, are still as relevant today. However, I differ with his emphasis on greed in the riots. He said “the riots last year seemed to be very different to the eighties; they seemed to be more about a chance to get their hands on new trainers or whatever. We have this ‘fast-food’ culture where we are made to want things we don’t need and can’t afford. I think that was definitely an issue in the riots last year, and in a way that made it more disturbing because there was no cause.” This emphasis on the ‘fast-food culture’ has influenced his interpretation of Sillitoe’s story and as a result I think it loses the rawness and anger of the original, as well as Smith’s cockiness in the face of authority. But as a contemporary reaction it works very well.

The riots were instinctive – a mixture of boredom, opportunism and apathy. This is why some rioters showed such a lack of ambition in the shops they attacked – something alluded to in the play. It was more about the thrill of smashing something up than profiteering. Sillitoe writes about this in The Ragman’s Daughter, when a young thief derives greater pleasure from dumping his loot in the Trent and hearing it splash than in possessing things. Is there any better criticism of consumer society?

Sillitoe’s depictions of working class life are so brutal that he’s been accused of hating his own. But truth has always caused offence. This was why David Cameron was so harsh on the rioters as they were an embarrassment to Brand Britain, making us no different to the Arab Springs. No regime change under my watch.

Sillitoe wrote in his essay Poor People: “Voting can never make any difference to their plight. It would take too long. They want to get out of it now, this minute, this week at the most. When you live from day to day, how can you believe anyone who says he will alter things in a few years? The years ahead are an empty desert, without landmarks of any kind, beyond the imagination. Poor people live in the present.” Colin Smith certainly lives in the present as did the rioters. It was a guttural reaction to a malignant and offensive political system and one that will return with greater fury when 80% of the cuts kick in next year.

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, Nottingham Playhouse, 23 – 27 October

Interview with playwright Roy Williams

I shall be tweeting LOTLDR (with images) to get you in the mood to see the play @thespacelathe or look out for #LDR2012