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The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner

By The Running Muse, Apr 13 2015 08:44PM

'All I know is you've got to run, running without knowing why, through fields and woods. And the winning post's no end....'

So says the narrator at the beginning of the 'The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner', the 1962 film based on Alan Sillitoe's short story about Smith, a resentful young inmate of a bleak borstal prison in the class-ridden England of the late 1950's. Through running, he finds a way to flip two fingers at the establishment values being foisted upon him.

This is a tale of running as autonomy, as wresting back control (successfully, it would seem, as our narrator is Smith himself), but this is no running 'Rocky'. When he is given the opportunity to train for a prestigious cross-country race against the local public school, Smith's solo runs through the surrounding countryside give him the space and clarity to reflect on the wretched circumstances of his life and the social mores of the time - but his defiantly 'barmy runner-brain' still chooses rebellion over rehabilitation.

At one point he acknowledges the way running gives him time to collect his disparate thoughts: 'to say that last sentence has needed a few hundred miles of long-distance running' - which may be why one reviewer suggested that Smith's account was 'not so much written about running, but by running'.

The film stars Tom Courtenay in his first film role as Smith, and Michael Redgrave as the reformatory governor who, as a former runner himself, sees athletics as part of the rehabilitation regime for his teenage delinquents. Smith is his team's best chance to win the race, thereby enhancing the governor's own reputation.

For Smith, however, running means self-esteem, not esteem for the institution, and he relishes the freedom to be himself, not just a 'racehorse getting credit for his owner', a commodity. He actually wants this kind of loneliness, 'because in the end, you're on your own, like a long-distance spectators, you have to deal with life on your own'.

Our working class anti-hero trusts no-one and has always resisted attempts by any of his supposed 'betters' to tell him his 'proper' place (as John Lennon put it, 'as soon as you're born, they make you feel small'). He delights especially in subverting the governor's self-serving expectations of him, for which his only weapons are his natural talent as a runner and his cocky repartee:

Governor: 'What's your name?'

Smith (sullenly): 'Smith.'

Governor's assistant: 'Say "Sir" when you address the governor!'

Smith: 'Sir Smith.'

I can just hear Lennon saying that.....just as I can imagine Smith onstage telling the royal family to 'rattle your jewellery' in time to the next song, as Lennon did a few months after this film was released, months which saw the ushering in of a much less deferent era.

Here's the scene when Smith is first given the freedom to run outside the prison wire - he exults in his aloneness as he runs free through the landscape to the exuberant sound of a jazz trumpet (jazz was first heard as incidental music in a film score just a few years before in 'A Streetcar Named Desire'):

Not the most efficient running form, was it? Decent cricket bowling action, though.....

We are in 'angry young men' country here, a catch-all label used to describe writers such as Sillitoe and John Osborne who were disillusioned with the orthodox values of the 1950's and the hidebound institutions hopelessly out of sync with the modern world. These 'rebels with a cause' brought a fresh, iconoclastic immediacy to their depiction of the current social alienation and damage within real lives, mostly working class ones.

British cinema would follow suit (inspired also by the French 'New Wave' with its 'vérité'), and the two strands would come together in the producers of this film, Woodfall Films, formed by director Tony Richardson and playwright John Osborne (of 'Look Back in Anger' fame).

(Spoiler alert!) At the end of the film, Smith is winning easily, savouring the countryside around him in the knowledge that the defiant gesture he is about to make will mean the end of his freedom for a while. He stops with a smile and a sneer just before the finish line, thus allowing himself to be overtaken and to feel glad that 'I'd got them beat at last'. It's back to the reformatory for him, a them-and-us world that needs revolution, not reform, according to Smith: 'I'd put 'em all up against a wall and let 'em have it', he says of all figures of authority.

You'd think he would have enjoyed beating the public school toffs in a race rather more than thumbing his nose at the governor (just as my childhood comic hero, Alf Tupper, 'The Tough of the Track', used to hunt down those posh AAA's types, just to 'show 'em').....but the 17-year-old Smith is no collective class warrior, more of a reactionary, isolated bundle of resentments.

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner has been performed on stage, and text from the book was used decades later as the cover of anarcho-punk band Chumbawumba's 'Just Look at Me Now (Borstal Boy Mix)' single. Their lead guitarist and vocalist, Boff Whalley, is a serious fell runner and has recounted his experiences in his excellent book, Run Wild, while his band's rare vinyl album, '101 Songs About Sport', is a collection of short, raw and witty musical thrashes ('tuneful' would be overstating it), each expressing solidarity with sporting rebels, underdogs and those who stand up, with one of those fingers on each hand up, to corporate influences. The stories in these songs, which we will be returning to in a later blog, are priceless. Smith would certainly approve.

Quite what he'd say to one of the biggest of those corporate influences, Steve Wozniak, I don't know - the founder of Apple credits his independent thinking to his schoolboy reading of this story - but I'm going to leave you on a deafening high with a great montage from the film, accompanied by perhaps the book's most unlikely fans, the heavy metal rock group, Iron Maiden, with their lung-bursting song of the same name:

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Any other runners out there who think there is much more to running than physical exertion?


Well, you're not alone - ever since the earliest cave paintings, the meaning and pleasure of the running experience has been explored by writers, painters and composers, by philosophers, film-makers and dramatists.


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