Alan Sillitoe's (1928 to 2010, UK) most famous work in his long short story, "The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner". In the obituaries that appeared in the major English journals after his death from cancer he is characterized as the chronicler of the lives of the very poor marginalized people in England in the 1950s. England struggled to return to prosperity after World War Two and Sillitoe tells the story of the forgotten people, "the angry young men". It was a time of class distinctions in which old values no longer held.
In addition to the title story, there are eight other stories as well as a very moving biography by his wife in the new E book from Open Road Media. I found all of these stories deeply moving. Sillitoe brings out with near heartbreaking vermisilitude the consciousness and the life experiences of the people in his fictions. They are tales of a brutal world with few illusions or hopes. There is deep wisdom and humanity in these stories. They are the product of a fierce intelligence that misses very little.
"The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner" is Sillitoe's best know work. This near novella length story centers on a young man in his late teens detention facility for young criminals. The story is from his point of view. It took a bit of adjusting for me to be comfortable with his speech patterns but once I found by feet with it I enjoyed his slang ridden argot. The boy's father died recently of cancer, sometimes he worked, sometimes on the dole. He was occasionally a violent drunk but mostly sunk in lethargy with no hope or even thought of a better life. His mother is an occasional prostitute, she entertains her clients in the new bed bought with the death benifit' from his father. The boy was arrested for a petty burglary in partnership with a mate. He loves long distance running. When he checks into the facility the warden gives him a lecture about how they will turn him into an honest young man fit for decent society if only he follows the rules. There are big athletic meets in which different detention facilities compete with each other and the warden tells the boy that if he wins the long distance race he will "take care of him". The boy sees those in the adult world as like living dead zombies with no grasp of the realities of life. We see in his memories how he came to feel this. Something very unexpected happens on race day. This is a very good work, extremally perceptive, and brings to vivid reality the brutal world of the boy. I am very glad I read this great story.
From the movie based on the story
"A middle-aged man wearing a dirty raincoat, who badly needed a shave and looked as though he hadn’t washed for a month, came out of a public lavatory with a cloth bag of tools folded beneath his arm. Standing for a moment on the edge of the pavement to adjust his cap—the cleanest thing about him—he looked casually to left and right and, when the flow of traffic had eased off, crossed the road. His name and trade were always spoken in one breath, even when the nature of his trade was not in question: Ernest Brown the upholsterer. Every night before returning to his lodgings he left the bag of tools for safety with a man who looked after the public lavatory near the town centre, for he felt there was a risk of them being lost or stolen"
If you saw the lead character in "Uncle Ernest" you would quite likely do your best to block him him out of your consciousness, and for sure you would want to be down wind from him. Ernest was badly shell shocked in the war, it does not matter which one. He is evidently a pretty good upholster, we don't really learn how he picked up this skill. He gets paid when he finishes a job. When he has decent money he goes to his normal diner and has a meal. Then he drinks himself into oblivion or at least until his money runs out. One day he is enjoying a treat breakfast, having just got a good pay, of tomatoes on toast. Two pre-adolescent girls come in the restaurant and asks what they can eat with the small money they have. Ernest buys them a nice breakfast. Soon the girls ate expecting a daily meal. Ernest begins to give them small gifts. The older girl senses his extreme loneliness and begins to exploit Ernest, who now has a purpose in life. He is not at all a pedophile or such, just a very lonely man with few human contacts. I had to say to much but in a sad as can be seen Ernest is warned by the police to stay away from the girls if he does not want trouble. I notice the police don't come off real well in the world of people in these stories. Authority figures in general are denigrated.
"Mr Raynor the School Teacher"
"The one feasible plan was to keep them as quiet as possible for the remaining months, then open the gates and let them free, allow them to spill out into the big wide world like the young animals they were, eager for fags and football, beer and women and a forest of streets to roam in. The responsibility would be no longer his, once they were packed away with the turned pages of his register into another, more incorrigible annex than the enclave of jungle he ruled for his living."
All the boys in Mr Raynor's leaving term class in a working class neighborhood know that he likes to look at the bodies of the girls in the school. He makes little effort to be stealthy. The students are rough and could not care less about learning. Mr. Raynor sees his job as just to keep them under control under they are ready for the factory or the army. There is a very dramatic scene that closes the story in which Mr. Raynor gets into a brawl with one of the students.
Every wonder how soccer holligans act at home after their team lost from a bad call by the referee? "The Match" shows us what happens when two married men return home. In one case it is horrible brutal and nasty and in another quite decent.
"The Downfall of Frankie Butler"
"And so on and so on, items that have become part of me, foliage that has grown to conceal the bare stem of my real personality, what I was like before I ever saw these books, or any book at all, come to that. Often I would like to rip them away from me one by one, extract their shadows out of my mouth and heart, cut them neatly with a scalpel from my jungle-brain. Impossible. You can’t wind back the clock that sits grinning on the marble shelf. You can’t even smash its face in and forget it."
The plot action of this story is one man just into adulthood talking about his always in a bit of trouble with the police friend Frankie Butler. The story is a good one but I like most the reflections on the ways of the reading life the quotation above from the thoughts of the narrator brought to my mind. Some people are kind of born into the reading life. Others enter it later. In the world of the stories of Alan Sillitoe no one grows up in a house with books, no one's father loved to read. In these stories you have to find your own way into the reading life and define your consciousness where you are without any reading role models. This is probably not the dominant thing most will get from the story but I found it powerful.
There are four other very interesting, attention holding, very well done stories in the collection.
The collection is worth reading just for the two opening stories.
This collection is published by Open Road Media. The next time you are looking for something to read, especially if you prefer E reading as I do, take a look at their very well done webpage. They have on offer books by over 2000 authors, all very well described and fairly priced.
I will soon read Sillitoe's novel Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.