I read Alan Sillitoe’s The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner for the first time over the holidays. I felt familiar with the story even though I’d never read the book. That picture of Tom Courtney flashed into my mind every time it was mentioned. Like Kes it was unusual, distinctive, belonging to an era when defiance could be discussed in secondary schools. We all knew Kes; it was the book with the boy raising two fingers to all on its cover. That was enough to make it well known if not well read.
Kes
In TLLDR it was the voice that leapt out – fierce but not desperate, someone who had sized up the world and found it wanting.

‘You see, by sending me to Borstal they’ve shown me the knife, and from now on I know something I didn’t know before: that it’s war between me and them.’

Immediately before TLLDR I’d read Tony Parker’s brilliant study of life-criminal. ‘Bob’, The Courage of his Convictions. Written three years or four years after LLDR Bob compliments Sillitoe on the ‘truth’ of his fictional criminal. The narrators in both books follow the path of Approved Schools, Borstals, jail, and even conclude on the same mythical hope of ‘one last job.’ All the way through, neither narrator can be diverted from their lines. There is never any real hope of change, of another world.
Courage of his convictions
I can’t remember a time when I ever wanted to be a farmer but, as a kid, I did enjoy helping out and feeling useful. I would be up and out to feed the animals every morning before school. The farm was my entire world and we knew very few people who were not in that life. On those early mornings my dad would sometimes point out a fox running home across the flat dark fields. There was no real animosity towards the fox even when it took our chickens. Like with the weather, it was up to you to protect yourself. Dad wouldn’t even allow the local hunt to cross his land – an act of defiance against what he saw as showy and pointless. The fox could only be seen in a particular field where there was a long unobstructed view. Then you could glimpse its russet shape zigzagging for the safety of the trees. I didn’t see a fox close up until I lived in a city and they were tearing up my bin bags.

Once when I was looking out for the fox I saw a line of figures in white t-shirts and shorts racing across the same field. “Bad Boy’s school,” Dad told me. Never any more explanation than that, but it made sense to me, that there was a school where you were sent when you’d been so bad that even the slipper wasn’t enough. At that time I felt the worlds of the fox, and that of the Bad Boys, were totally separate from mine.

There must always have been fear of different worlds meeting. My Dad can remember the local public school visiting his village school during the war, a token gesture that they were all in it together. My dad remembers his own father not allowing him to make the reciprocal visit: “Thought it might turn my head.”

So the worlds stay separate, each in its own orbit. I was about ten at this time and reading Robert Heinlein’s Tunnel in the Sky. I loved this book so much I took it out twice from the mobile library. Even after all these years I can immediately spot the cover of the edition that I read.
Tunnel in the Sky
Tunnel in the Sky is a less vicious Lord of the Flies. Teenagers stranded on a planet fight for survival, but it was the close of the novel when the main character Rod refuses to return home after rescue that truly startled me. That was the first time a book really surprised me. He’d chosen a different world, refused to accept returning home where he would be safe but would lose his status.

Without books we stay in our own worlds. I read an awful lot of science fiction in the 70s & 80s. Some good, some dreadful, all of it fuelling a desire to get away. To Leave It All Behind. A desire for the new and the strange, far away from familiar fields.

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