I discovered the joys of running about 40 years before “Born to Run” was born, let alone published.
The book, or rather short story, that inspired me to take up running was “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner” by Alan Sillitoe. At the time I was a callow London schoolboy. In stark contrast to the main character in the story, Colin Smith, who comes from a northern English working-class background, I come from a north London middle-class background. Alan Sillitoe’s story is set in a borstal, whereas I was privileged to be safely cocooned in a private school, gloriously located on the banks of the Thames, bang slap in the middle of the city and drenched in history and tradition.
But despite these differences I felt a deep connection to Colin Smith. Maybe it was something to do with the sense of freedom he gets from running. I never really enjoyed team sports at school and after being forced to endure the muddy brutality of rugby and the starched formality of cricket, I was inducted into the school cross country running club. (In the middle of London? Ha ha ha!!!)
Even the “kit” you needed for running was unencumbered by dogma (oh, how things have changed!). Any old t shirt, any old pair of shorts and any old pair of cheapo Woolworths plimsolls were all you needed.
At first I was suspicious. Once I’d got my “kit” on I was set loose out onto the streets of London. “Back here in 45 minutes!” my coach told me. And that was it – freedom!
In Alan Sillitoe’s story, Colin Smith runs with almost ecstatic abandon through a forest. Substitute traffic clogged London streets and you’ve got an idea of the location for my “cross-country” runs!
I ran along the Victoria Embankment, past Captain Scott’s “Discovery” , under Southwark Bridge and then over Waterloo Bridge, humming the Kinks’ “Waterloo Sunset” to myself.
Once I was over the bridge I was in South London, which to a north London lad was like being in a foreign country. My pace quickened as I ran through Southwark, past the famous “Oxo” tower and finally back over Blackfriars Bridge, with St.Pauls and The Monument in the background.
Maybe my body was poisoned by the traffic fumes, and maybe my joints were pounded to dust through running on hard pavements in my totally suspension-free plimsolls. I don’t know and frankly I don’t care. My soul was fed and enriched by these twice-weekly training runs.
I read more of Alan Sillitoe’s books and fell in love with the whole “Angry Young Man” genre – “Saturday Night Sunday Morning”, “A Taste of Honey”, “Room at the Top”. These literary couplings finally led me to Nell Dunn’s “Up the Junction” (great song by Squeeze too!), which I can still see on the bookshelf now as I write this.
I recently read Alan Sillitoe’s story again, along with the rest of the stories in the collection, and was pleased to find that the spark was still there. First love never dies!
And talking of first love, that came along, unliterally, the following year. It led to a dramatic twist in my reading habits. I walked out of the black and white world of snarling northern English surliness and into a more colourful, Celtic literary landscape. I brushed off the chip on my shoulder and embraced, with open arms, a tickle in the ribs.