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Summary Article: Alan Sillitoe (1928–2010) from Blackwell Literature Handbooks: The British and Irish Short Story Handbook

In a long and productive career, Sillitoe wrote – besides novels, screenplays, and essays – short stories. His major short-story collections include: The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner (1959), The Ragman’s Daughter, and Other Stories (1963), Guzman, Go Home, and Other Stories (1968), Men, Women and Children (1973), The Second Chance, and Other Stories (1981), The Far Side of the Street: Fifteen Short Stories (1988), and Alligator Playground: A Collection of Short Stories (1997). A Collected Stories and a New and Collected Stories appeared in 1996 and 2005.

Sillitoe’s work is much concerned with poverty, class divisions, exploitation, and rebellion. His characters in his most widely read and anthologized fiction are from the East Midlands working class, from which Sillitoe himself came. The picture of life that emerges from his stories is often dark indeed, and offers a vision of human life not entirely dependent on social class. “The Fishing Boat Picture” (1959), for example, is a bleak account of a life of hard work and marital failure and disappointment. Sillitoe’s great achievement in short fiction is “The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner.” The central character and narrator is Smith, a lumpen proletariat everyman (he is not working-class, and has no intentions of being anything but a criminal), and yet also an individual of fierce views and complex character. In a series of analepses he recounts his life up to the story’s present. He is a young criminal, haunted by memories of a dead father, burning with a hatred of the great, good, respectable, and powerful of his world. He is caught by the police for a burglary and placed in a borstal, a prison for young offenders. Here his abilities as a runner are discovered, and the governor of the borstal seeks to use him to win a trophy in cross-country running for the institution. He is given privileges; the governor has great hopes for him. Smith, however, has no intention of letting himself be used by “them.” Demonstrating that he could win if he wished, he deliberately throws the race. The governor makes the rest of Smith’s stay in the borstal unpleasant, but Smith does not mind. His fellow inmates work out what he has done and why. The pleurisy he catches in borstal keeps him out of the Army. The end of the story sees him happily pursuing his chosen life of crime. “The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner” is a challenging story. Smith’s fierce defiance is at once political and perfectly understandable, and yet it can never be assimilated to any movement of social amelioration or change. In the end, he is a petty crook. But his running and his defiance of authority are memorable, and the story is an essential one. It and the film version, directed by Tony Richardson and scripted by Sillitoe himself, with Tom Courtney’s gaunt face staring out at one, are central to the consciousness of many who grew up in 1960s Britain.

Wiley ©2012

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