Two Fingers: The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and other tales of defiance

I’ll never forget the first time I read ‘The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner’. It was very early in the morning and I was rather hungover, lying on the floor of a cold but otherwise welcoming house in Dublin. The pages of the book (my own copy, pictured above) were fragile even then. Almost as fragile as I was, what with the welcoming Dublin pubs of the night before, the Guinness and then the cold, hard floor.

The short story and its cinema adaptation a few years later are essential in what’s known as ‘kitchen sink drama’ or ‘kitchen sink realism’. There’s never anything particularly glamorous about the kitchen sink, especially if it’s Monday morning and you’ve got a hangover. But it’s there and its real. In the late 50’s and early 60’s, a new style of literature, film and theatre took a long, hard stare** at the reality of the hardships and troubles of Britain’s working classes. We have the authors, directors and actors involved to thank for some of the most compelling works of those times. And these kitchen sink tales have resonated ever since, with a crackle and intensity that’s more than obvious in many a contemporary work.

Alan Sillitoe wrote about the lives of the people of Nottingham. I’m not from Nottingham but it’s the city I call home in England now. I’m actually from Essex. The protagonist of ‘The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner’ is sent to Essex to be punished. You can read whatever you want into that.

There’s a pub in Nottingham called The Angel. It used to be called The Old Angel but is, nevertheless, as old as it’s always been. It’s old enough (we’re talking 17th century old) to have seen something of everything. As well as being a public house it was, at some or other time, both a chapel and a brothel.

I really like The Angel. I’ve had great times there. On one of my more recent visits I saw that this plaque had been put up on the wall outside.

Without wanting to give away too much about the ending of The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, I will say that it ends in an act of defiance. The kind of defiance you can read on the plaque on the wall of this fine pub in Nottingham’s Lace Market quarter.

You can get a tram (Nottingham has trams, as only the coolest cities do) from the Lace Market and in 20 minutes you can be in the city’s suburb of Clifton. Now we’re in Jake Bugg’s Nottingham. There’s an awful lot about his first record that brings to mind the kitchen sink realism of the city as it was depicted by Alan Sillitoe and film director Tony Richardson. There’s the black and white album sleeve and within songs crackling with restlessness, violence, hope despair and, yes, defiance. Take a look at the record and you’ll see the face of a defiant 18 year-old with plenty to say for himself is staring** back at you,.

«So I hold two fingers up to yesterday
Light a cigarette and smoke it all away
I got out, I got out, I’m alive and I’m here to stay»

The two-fingered salute, that very British gesture, is thought by some to have come from the times when battles were fought with bows and arrows. It’s supposed to have some connection with the fact that the English defeated the French at the Battle of Agincourt, thanks to the longbows they were using. The two fingers of defiance were those of the archers, those they used to pull back the string of the bow. Something about the French cutting off those fingers on capturing the English archers or something about waving those two fingers in defiance on winning the battle…well, it’s all very murky, but it was something like that. Maybe.What’s certain is that, for better or worse it became that very British gesture meaning ‘fuck you!’.

As the verb ‘pluck’ can mean pull on a string and the bows were supposedly made from the wood of the yew tree, and ‘yew’ is pronounced the same as ‘you’, some people might tell you there’s a connection between ‘pluck yew’ and ‘fuck you’. But that’s nonsense. Absolute rubbish. Amusing rubbish at best. Speaking of which:

So here’s the worst of British journalism and the worst of stupid British anti-European sentiment. But it’s The Sun newspaper, which has always excelled at being the worst and this is rather amusing in its own stupid way. ‘Up yours’ is another way to put the two-fingered salute into words. So proud was the newspaper of its hilarious headline that they decided to revive it some years later with reference to Gibraltar. Some bright spark among their journalists came up with the equally hilarious ‘Up Yours Senors’ as a way of making it clear to Spain how Britain felt. Totally uncalled for*. Oh, for fuck’s sake!****

Alan Sillitoe’s first novel was ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. And it’s brilliant. Protagonist Arthur Seaton works in the bicycle factory in Nottingham, as did Sillitoe’s father. Then Saturday night happened and it was followed by Sunday morning. No one’s going to be shouting ‘spoiler alert!’ at me for that, I hope. There’s plenty of defiance in Arthur’s behaviour but, unlike ‘The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner,’ by the end of the story there’s a suggestion that the defiance might have been replaced by something else. Karel Reisz’ film adaptation is wonderful and Albert Finneys’ portrayal of Arthur is the stuff of legend.

Tell it like it is Arthur:»I’m me and nobody else. Whatever people say I am, that’s what I’m not because they don’t know a bloody thing about me!»

If you take the Manchester bound*** train out of Nottingham, within an hour you’ll be in Sheffield, hometown of Arctic Monkeys. Their first record was ‘Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I Am Not’. And it’s brilliant. Brilliant on its own terms and brilliant in how it echoes ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’ in many things from the album sleeve on out. Debut albums don’t often come so loaded with swagger (attitude+confidence) and so full of gritty but essential tales of everyday life. Nothing but tough, uncompromising realism here: «You’re not from New York City, you’re from Rotherham!»

While we’re in Sheffield, what about another of the city’s greatest bands? No way are we going to leave without listening to ‘Common People’ by Pulp. Another inspired two-fingered salute.

«You’ll never live like common people
never do what common people do
never fail like common people
you’ll never watch your life slide out of view
and then dance and drink and screw
because there’s nothing else to do»

 «Why don’t you ever take me where’s it lively and there’s people?» This is what Arthur’s girlfriend Doreen (played brilliantly by Shirley Anne Field, who stars in another kitchen sink drama – The Entertainer – also directed by Tony Richardson) says to him. Stuff happens because of what she says. This is my way of trying to avoid multitudinous cries of ‘spoiler alert!!’ here. It’s also a line from the film that inspired ‘There is a Light that Never Goes Out’ by The Smiths.

So if you get back on the Manchester bound*** train, your journey will reach its end in the city whence came The Smiths. ‘Whence’ is an archaic word meaning ‘from where’. I used it because it’s the kind of word I imagine Morrissey using back when he wrote lyrics for songs that resonate with everything we’re talking about here and before he became the vile (‘vile’ is another Morrissey style word) bigmouth of the extreme right that he now is. No way could we have imagined then that he’d betray us the way he has.

«Take me out tonight
Where there’s music and there’s people
And they’re young and alive..

Take me out tonight
Because I want to see people
And I want to see life»

So here’s to defiance when it’s called for*, whether it be in books, films or songs.

*If something is ‘called for’ it’s necessary. Unsurprisingly, if it’s ‘uncalled for’ it’s unnecessary.

**’stare’ is one of the most common of the many verbs of looking and seeing that English has. It’s a long, fixed or vacant look. You also have ‘glare’, which is for staring angrily and ‘gaze’ which is a long look of admiration or wonder. There are loads more. Do I ever get glared at in class when we have to deal with all of them and their shades of meaning? Maybe. But not by you. I know it’s never you.

***’bound is a great word. It’s the past participle of the verb ‘bind’, which means to tie or fasten something tightly. If something ‘is bound to happen’ then it certainly will. Where does the Manchester bound train go? To Manchester, of course. There are no two ways about it. When Paul Simon wrote ‘Homeward Bound’ he was living in Essex and stuck at a train station when the song came to him. You’re bound to know the song.

**** OK, so this a slightly sweary blog entry but there are a few things we can get out of this cry of exasperation. You can tone it down a bit and say ‘for God’s sake’ or even ‘for pity’s sake’ – it’s just sweary variant of these. You see it in the phrase ‘art for art’s sake’ (art needs no justification) and you might say to someone ‘I did it for your sake’, meaning that you did it for them, their benefit, in their interests and so on.

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