Books | Alan Sillitoe, channeling the angry young football man

Sillitoe

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

Taylor says that the trajectory and language of “The Match” herald a new literary perspective on working-class life. “Sillitoe,” he writes, “was almost single-handedly responsible for a shift in the way working-class characters found themselves represented in literature.” George Orwell in such works as The Road to Wigan Pier, in which he, too, muses in passing on football’s adjunct status (principally through the pools) to a working man’s days, had celebrated his subjects’ authenticity and stolidness. Orwell refers to “the curious cult of Northernness” as represented by Yorkshiremen who claim that the North offers the only “real” life, “the industrial work done in the North is the only ‘real’ work, that the North is inhabited by ‘real’ people, the South merely by rentiers and their parasites.”

Sillitoe relocated to London from Nottingham some time ago; he augments his writing space with a Nottinghamshire memento, a shoe for a lame horse as crafted by his farrier grandfather.

We do not know how often football supporters occupy principal roles in Sillitoe’s novels and travel writing. It would be hard to find a more appropriate character foil, though, than Notts County, who have experienced the most relegations in English football history (14).

Perhaps Sillitoe’s unsentimental view of the football-viewing experience and the attendant domestic misery pushed him beyond the city limits. In the 1960s, he set off on a one-man car trip, intending to drive from England to the Soviet Union. The account, Gadfly in Russia, would not be published until 2007 (see his essay “Red Wine and a New Beginning,” New Statesman, 15 Nov 07):

I set off, driving on the left to Harwich, and next day on the right, across Denmark. Sweden’s traffic in those days took me back to the left, while in Finland 24 hours later I was again driving on the right. The drill sergeant’s command of “left, right, left, right” took me down the middle of the road to Leningrad. The plan was to motor via Moscow and Kiev to Romania, over the Carpathians, the Alps, across the Channel, and then home.

Along this road Sillitoe would encounter another itinerant writer who had incorporated football into his creation: Anatoly Kuznetsov, author of Babi Yar. Kuznetsov, the native of Kyiv, fought Soviet censors over publication of the documentary novel chronicling Nazi executions in the infamous Ukraine ravine. The book also demystifies the so-called Death Match (6 Aug 1942) between a reconstituted Dynamo Kyiv and a German Luftwaffe elite (see our Dnipro Dnipropetrovs’k–Dynamo Kyiv “liveblog,” Mar 2). Sillitoe’s companion on the Soviet leg of the car journey later escorts Kuznetsov to London, where Kuznetsov claimed asylum and to which, in 1969, he smuggled the uncensored Babi Yar text.

Sillitoe along the writer’s rambling way has encountered some critics, but like Notts County—the only English club to have played in every FA Cup, beginning in 1877—he demonstrates staying power.

Update

The Times Literary Supplement in its review of Richard Bradford‘s biography of Sillitoe, The Life of a Long-Distance Writer (Peter Owen, 2008), sketches the provenance of “The Match” (D. J. Taylor, “The Start of Alan Sillitoe,” 1 Oct 08). Sillitoe based the story on a visit to a Notts County match in 1949; the story itself was first published in 1954. Its French editors, “who exclaimed over this story of domestic violence spilling out of an afternoon on the football terraces,” drew comparisons with Albert Camus, the football-savvy existentialist.

“The Match,” according to Bradford, shows how Sillitoe blends both reporting skill and artistry. The story “is a great deal more than reportage—devious, full of sly juxtapositions, odd symbolic sheens and ambiguous human traffic.”

About the Author

John Turnbull founded The Global Game in 2003. He was lead editor for The Global Game: Writers on Soccer (University of Nebraska Press, 2008) and has also written on soccer for Afriche e Orienti (Bologna, Italy), the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the New York Times Goal blog, Soccer and Society, So Foot (Paris) and When Saturday Comes. His essay "Alone in the Woods: The Literary Landscape of Soccer's 'Last Defender' " in World Literature Today was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Also for World Literature Today he edited a special section on women's soccer, "World Cup/World Lit 2011," before the Women's World Cup in Germany. The section appeared in the May-June issue. His next project is a book on soccer and faith.

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  1. [...] in a Saturday afternoon, a respite from miserable routine. A standard evocation might be that of Alan Sillitoe—author of The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, the “English 101″ staple—in [...]

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