How loud would a jogger have to puff for you to hear them from your living room? Three mornings a week I jog down Robinet Road and a lady with blue hair turns to look at me. I must sound like a one-man stampede – her ears prick without fail – but although I’m not Paula Radcliffe, I’m getting somewhere.
I’m lucky, in that my running coach is Alan Sillitoe. Considering that he has been dead for thirteen years (and, as far as I can discern, had no formal fitness training qualifications while alive) this is not the least of the great Nottingham author’s achievements.
A few years ago, I dropped out of university because of a funk so large that it was recognised clinically and, in lieu of a diploma, I had sheafs of NHS printouts on physical fitness to show for it. Really, those should have been my inspiration to run, but not so – I had to wait around for the right book to kick some spirit back into me. I came back to Sillitoe’s hometown, and in Nottingham, obstinacy is what gets you out of bed.
“I’m the first man ever to be dropped into the world,” says Sillitoe’s runner Smith, “and as soon as I take that first flying leap out into the frosty grass of an early morning when even birds haven’t the heart to whistle, I get to thinking…”
D.H. Lawrence might be the bigger name, but Alan Sillitoe is the canonical chronicler of Nottingham as a stubborn city, and in ‘The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner’, he has Smith divide society along binary lines: into outlaws and in-laws. To be an outlaw isn’t quite to be criminal, but to despise performative pearl-clutching, to rub stubbornly against the grain, while in-laws are the grain against which to rub, people ‘lily white hands’ who can only conform, and make others conform too.
Smith has been sent to a faraway borstal for theft. While there he enters a cross-country race at the behest of the proud governor and trains for it day after day, before deliberately losing. The governor is an ‘in-law’, who can’t quite understand – why wouldn’t Smith want to claim his medal?
The governor’s approval is meaningless to Smith because the running is his own centre of meaning, a meditation, ‘not a thought or picture in my head’, a place where a puppeteering society can’t quite intrude. After the Second World War, when Orwell was worrying that England was becoming sterile: ‘where have they gone, those low-browed prize-fighters?’ Sillitoe knew where they were, and he put them in his books.
I’m back at uni and still running. I’ve never been to borstal like Smith, and I’m not much of an outlaw. I listen to Louis Theroux and wear a Garmin Watch. When I run, I’m mildly inconveniencing a satellite. But before you can love the world you might have to tell it where to go, and in that you and I are lucky – we were born in the right city, with the right Alan Sillitoe, the Poet Laureate of ‘up yours’.
*Cover image a still from Tony Richardson’s film version of The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner.