Books | Alan Sillitoe, channeling the angry young football man


Alan Sillitoe‘s work was on the syllabus in my short-story class as a college freshman. Naturally, the story considered most representative was “The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner,” consisting of a teenage cross-country runner’s interior dialogues upon liberation each day from the Borstal fetters (“I’m a human being and I’ve got thoughts and secrets and bloody life inside me …”).

Haruki Murakami, we mentioned a few days ago, did not take a shine to Sillitoe’s 1959 collection. He calls The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, in which the story appears, “boring” (see Mar 1).

But Sillitoe’s restoration comes quickly. Today is the writer’s 80th birthday, a time for renewed appreciation (see D. J. Taylor, “The Common Touch,” Guardian, Mar 1). Taylor begins his assessment with discussion of the short story “The Match,” also contained in Sillitoe’s Loneliness assemblage.

“A brisk exercise in determinism” is how Taylor characterizes the tale, which opens on the terraces at Meadow Lane, home to Football League co-founders Notts County, the side supported by 40-year-old auto-mechanic protagonist Lennox and his younger companion, the amusingly named Fred Iremonger. Considering the importance of Nottinghamshire in Sillitoe’s work, one would expect the evocation of place, the council-estate gloam, to convince.

It does. But more intriguing is how the misty match that precedes Lennox’s teatime corresponds to his mood, the “one-track pessimism” that has him disparaging the home team, down 1–2 with 10 minutes remaining: “They’d even lose at blow football.” From Lennox’s perspective, the Notts County performance offers a disturbingly accurate rendering of his middle-aged existence, echoing the confusion that Nick Hornby experiences when his life situation becomes too closely entwined with football outcomes: “I couldn’t decide whether life was shit because Arsenal was shit, or the other way around.”

Lennox watches the Magpies and the opponent, Bristol City, in a resigned manner, certain that the world will not change:

Movement on the pitch was now desultory, for there was only 10 minutes of play left to go. The two teams knotted up towards one goal, then spread out around an invisible ball, and moved down the field again, back to the other with no decisive result. It seemed that both teams had accepted the present score to be the final state of the game, as though all effort had deserted their limbs and lungs.

The 1959 sensation

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