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the loneliness of the long distance runner

Currently reading my final Christmas-present book, title above.

It’s a long-ish short story about a borstal boy who is encouraged to become a long-distance runner in order to win a race on behalf of the institution’s Governor. (For those who don’t know, ‘borstal’ was prison for boys between 14-18, and was meant to imitate life in the army, severe, physically demanding and, somehow, it turned bad boys good.)

Smith, the runner of the title, goes along with the scheme. He’s a talented runner who, when it comes to the race, is winning easily but on the home straight he stops short of the line and allows everyone to finish ahead of him, thereby snubbing the good, albeit-selfishly motivated, intentions of the governor.

Smith recognises the race as a continuation of class-oppression he instinctively rejects. He likens himself to a whippet or a race-horse, a beast whose only purpose is to put the owner, the Governor, the system itself, in a good light.

But I don’t like Smith. There’s something self-destructive in him that just isn’t attractive. The final act, the throwing away of the win, that I can get. But the rest of it, the constant whining about how he’ll never subscribe, how being a thief is somehow more honest than being part of society, it just grates on me. This story was published shortly after his first novel, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning¬†and is a continuation of the same theme, but I preferred Arthur Seaton’s abrasive self-reliance to Smith’s equally defiant passive-aggressive self-defeat.

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