March 2007: C L R James' Beyond a Boundary
No game could be more English than cricket. Yet the greatest of all cricket writers was born not in Britain but in the West Indies, and in a small town on the island of Trinidad. Outside the sport, he made a name as something very different, not as a writer but as an opponent of tyrants and their regimes. He remains a political figure still widely revered in the West Indies, in Africa and black America.
Little of that future would have been apparent from his first twenty years. For Cyril Lionel Robert James was the product of a perfectly conventional colonial upbringing. Born in Trinidad on 4 January 1901 the son of a village schoolmaster, James was given a bat and ball for his fourth birthday. Aged 9, James won a scholarship to the island’s celebrated Queen's Royal College, Trinidad’s Winchester or Eton.
Under cricket’s influence, James absorbed a moral code, one that he long retained, 'I never cheated, I never appealed for a decision unless I thought the batsman was out, I never argued with the umpire, I never jeered at a defeated opponent, I never gave to a friend a vote or a place which by any stretch of imagination could be seen as belonging to an enemy or to a stranger ... If I caught myself complaining or making excuses I pulled up. If afterwards I remembered doing it I took an inward decision to try not to do it again. From the eight years of school life this code became the moral framework of my existence. It has never left me.'
By his early teens, CLR James had read Dickens, Aeschylus, Thackeray and Dostoyevsky, yet under the influence of cricket, he began to neglect his studies. His father expected James to graduate from Queen’s and win a scholarship to study at Oxford or Cambridge. But James fell so far behind with his studies, that his teachers discussed stripping him even of his original bursary.
James left school at 18 and attempted to make a career from the game. ‘I could bowl fast medium with a high action, wing the ball late from leg and break it with shoulder-and-finger action from the off. I was looked upon as one of the coming players on the island ... I have at various times dismissed for small scores St Hill, Small, Constantine, Wiles and other Test players and in my best days would have opened the bowling cheerfully against any batsman I have seen.'
In his first season, James averaged an impressive 70 with the bat, but he chose an unfancied club side Maple, and was eclipsed by the rise of truly great cricketers, not least his friend Learie Constantine, who played for Maple’s rivals Shannon, and later for the West Indies in their first Test matches with England.
Turning briefly from the game, James worked as a schoolteacher and tried his hand as an author of short stories. In 1932, Constantine invited his friend to travel with him to England, where James was to help Constantine publish a book of memoirs.
Learie Constantine was a great celebrity. Between 1929 and 1937, as well as playing occasionally for the West Indies, Constantine held down a regular career with Nelson in the Lancashire Leagues. League cricket was a one-day format, played at weekends. Its audience was boisterous and plebeian. Nelson was the best supported League side in England. The team regularly broke all records for gate receipts. Constantine was perhaps the best-paid cricketer in the world.
James shared Constantine’s house, and began writing seriously. In particular, he took note of the town’s strong trade union movement. Shortly after arriving in Nelson, James sent a letter back from England explaining his admiration for his new home. ‘In Nelson’, James explained, ‘a few years ago there were three or four talking-picture houses run by men who were strangers to the town. The Nelson people are very fond of the cinema. They flock to it in their thousands. For many, apart from the beauties of nature, an abiding love of the English people, the cinema is the only recreation.' The Nelson operators were paid at this time around 45 shillings a week, and the owners of the theatres decided to reduce their salaries. What followed was a boycott by the town's public, who refused to consent to any lowering of pay.
The point of the story lay not in the strategies of the owners but in the response of the townsfolk: 'The whole town of Nelson, so to speak, went on strike. They would not go to the cinema. The pickets were putout in order to turn back those who tried to go. For days the cinemas played to empty benches. In a town of forty thousand people you could find sometimes no more than half a dozen in the theatres. The company went bankrupt and had to leave. Whereupon local people took over and the theatres again began to be filled.’
The story was of importance to James. ‘I confess I was thrilled to the bone when I heard it ... As long as that is the spirit of which they are made, then indeed Britons never, never shall be slaves.’
Prior to 1932, his schooling, his cricketing career, and the movement in Trinidad for colonial reform had been the forces that had had the greatest impact upon James. In British terms, these influences were compatible with a range of politics, from a moderate Conservative to a radical Liberalism. Yet James was different in England, his politics changed. 'I was a Labour Party man', he later reported, 'but I found myself to the left of the Labour Party in Nelson, militant as that was.' James was inching towards a wider conception of life. After 1932, James wrote 'Fiction-writing drained out of me and was replaced by politics'.
In 1932, C. L. R. James published The Case for West Indian Self-Government, his first book. It combines a biography of Captain Cipriani with more polemical chapters arguing for West Indian home rule.
James was particularly influenced by reading two books: Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West and Leon Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution. By 1934, he was living in London and was active in British radical circles.
He began to play a prominent part in the struggle for colonial freedom. Angered by the Italian war against Abysinnia, he helped to found an International African Friends of Ethiopia. Afterwards, with an old school friend and long-time Communist George Padmore, James set up an International African Service Bureau. Its members, including James, Padmore, Jomo Kenyatta and Ras Makonnen, would be active in the first generation of African independence struggles.
In 1936, C. L. R. James published a novel, Minty Alley. It tells the stories of the yard society of urban Trinidad. In 1938, James’ next book appeared, The Black Jacobins: a history of Toussaint l’Ouveture and the Haitian revolts of the eighteenth century, which broke the back of the British and French slave trades. The book was soon widely read across the colonial world. The censors of apartheid South Africa would later ban The Black Jacobins. Yet, copies of the book were circulated: the thick volume stripped into clusters of a few pages, to be handed round between friends, a little at a time.
In April 1939, James travelled south and spent around a week with Trotsky in Mexico. James and Trotsky discussed the slogans that should be used to lead a black movement in the United States.
James remained in the United States for fifteen years. He formed the great romance of his life, with the actress and writer Constance Webb. He published books of philosophy, of literary criticism, and more on revolutionary theory. James was jailed by the American authorities and eventually deported.
In 1958 he returned to Trinidad, where he became a leading figure in the national independence movement. James’ former student Eric Williams became President of Trinidad and with Williams' backing, James edited The Nation, the region’s foremost political newspaper. One of James’ campaigns was a drive to secure for Frank Worrell the captaincy of the West Indies cricket team. Worrell was eventually successful, becoming the team’s first black captain, a powerful symbol of the post-colonial order.
It was from Trinidad in 1963 that James also published his great work on cricket, Beyond a Boundary, a remarkable text, written in strong, rhythmic prose and with a substantial autobiographical element. In it James demonstrates that cricket could work either to reinforce authority or as a site of resistance. James develops this dual argument through a study of the lives of the great inter-war West Indian cricketers, including Wilton St. Hill, Percy Tarilton, George Challenor.
Beyond a Boundary pays off several long debts of gratitude. One is to the English public school system. Another is to James’ old friend Learie Constantine, whose success is treated as the first sign that West Indies cricket could match England's. 'All that we did, thought and hoped for ... was carried to the heights by Constantine.'
The genius of Beyond a Boundary lies in its strong literary quality: almost unique among those who write about sport James had a theory of cricket, one that took in history and politics as well as memoir 'Times would pass’, he wrote, ‘Old empires would fall and new ones take their place, the relations of countries and the relations of classes had to change, before I discovered that it is not quality of goods and utility which matter, but movement; not where you are or what you have, but where you have come from, where you are going, and the rate at which you are getting there.'
As well as writing, he continued to have a life outside the game. In the 1930s and 1940s, James had come to know several of the leaders of the later African independent states, including Kwame Nkrumah, the first President of independent Gold Coast, today’s Ghana. James corresponded with Nkrumah in the 1940s and 1950s, but broke with him at his old friends’ first signs of authoritarianism. In 1974, James helped to initiate the Sixth Pan-African Congress: a great gathering of liberation struggles from across Africa.
While James' experience of London had previously been one of isolation from all but his closest allies; by the early 1980s he was in demand. C. L. R. James spoke regularly on public platforms, appeared on BBC and Channel 4, and was even invited to speak on Radio 4's Thought for the Day.
For all the praise that James writing drew in different fields, it was cricket that caught the imagination. As a schoolboy, James had claimed to have found in the game a code of ethics, to guide his later life. We might say rather that cricket was the love of his youth and political change the real passion of his adult years. Born a subject of the British Queen, reaching maturity in the 1920s while Britain was in evident decline, James identification with the values of the game led him to challenge the world for both the empire's continuing strength, including chiefly its support of race and class privilege; and for its weakness, taking in its failure to hold firm in the face of its rivals. Britain lacked both the generosity of a mother, and the firmness of a father. It could not play even by its own rules.
Having judged the empire corrupt and having insisted on the absolute right of Trinidadians to self-government, James did not stop there. He continued by offering his powers of empathy to black against white, to the poor, to women, to all workers against their boss. Such was the cricketing Marxist. It is hard not to wonder what his former schoolteachers would have made of the adult man.
James' death came in May 1989, following a brief chest infection. His body is buried at Tunapuna Cemetery, not far from where he had been born.