Colin Smith is sent to Ruxton Towers, a stately home which has been turned into a Borstal institution. Son of a £9 a week factory worker who died of cancer, Colin is by nature a rebel, an anarchist. His mother splashes the £500 employer’s compensation for his father’s death on a new carpet and a “telly”, then takes up with a fancy man whom Colin loathes.
A weekend spent with his friend Mike and a couple of girls at Skegness ends in frayed tempers and a dispiriting return; the exhilaration of the robbery, carried out with Mike’s help, ends in bullying police enquiries and arrest. Colin feels no guilt at finding himself in Borstal, only contempt for Society – an inimical image most strongly embodied for him in the bland well-meaning presence of the Borstal Governor.
The one thing Colin does well is run, and the Governor trains him to win the first long-distance cross-country race ever arranged between the institution and a team of amiable young men from a neighbouring public school. But the Governor’s obsessive faith in Colin urges the boy to set up a record not in running but in sheer, basic bloody-mindedness.
He runs his rival into the ground then, within striking distance of the tape, stops dead.
His victory solitary but sweet, he is sent back to his old, useless job in the workshops, stripping down gas-masks.