Running against the system


He died on 25 April at the age of 82. And yet, Alan Sillitoe was still regarded as the Angry (Young) Man who wrote the novella The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner (1959). The first time I read this well-known story was in high school. And I have to admit: it was obligatory. I didn’t remember a lot of it. Except for the title, which I still regard as a poem in itself. All the more reason to reread this novella.

The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner is about a boy, Smith, who grows up in a very poor neighbourhood. After being convicted of theft, he is sentenced to serve time in a juvenile prison. There he develops a special talent for long-distance running. While running, he finds that his mind clears and he is able to think about the important things in life. He develops a theory about honesty. To him, honesty means remaining true to your own principles. Its other meaning, rightly earned through hard work in particular, doesn’t cross his mind – but that is the definition the governor of the prison uses. The governor chose Smith to run for a prize cup, and hopes the victory will help him show his human side. This is what really bothers Smith, and he accuses the governor of being unfair. The power of being able to decide to lose the race gives Smith a feeling of strength and independence. But his decisions make his life even more difficult than it is. In a symbolic sense, Smith is running against the system, against the people in power.

Sillitoe himself grew up in a very poor family. His father couldn’t hold down a job longer than two months, and his mother even worked as a prostitute for a while, to stop the family starving. Sillitoe’s anger at the people in power is very present, also in many of the other stories that are combined with The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner.

After a while you’ll find yourself needing to take a break, because the world of the protagonists is extremely raw and bitter. Sillitoe does not allow his characters (nor the reader) a moment’s happiness. But he is a gifted storyteller and, after so many years, the book still translates easily to modern times.

As Sillitoe once said: “I’ve really only got one story – mine.”


Welmoed Hoogvorst

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