CLR James on cricket and humanity

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Rob Harris reviews CLR James’s Beyond a Boundary for Spiked. Here’s an excerpt, with a link to the full review below.

The book is neither cricket reminiscences nor autobiography. It poses the question, What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?

Just published for the first time on Kindle, Beyond a Boundary, by the twentieth-century black intellectual and radical CLR James, is a passionate book about cricket. But, as its title and its famous rephrasing of Kipling quoted above, indicates, it goes further than that. It is also James’ effort to communicate the spirit, confidence and development of the people of the West Indies as he was writing in the 1950s and early 1960s, and it is arguably the clearest articulation of his approach to Marxism as he had worked it out over the preceding 25 years. In this book, James writes about the significance of popular cultural forms in political change and emphasises individual talent, risk and the idea that ‘freedom is creative universality, not utility’ over what he saw as the safe, centralised, security-minded developments in the West – the so-called ‘Welfare State of Mind’.

James’ undisputed classic The Black Jacobins was written in the 1930s, as a kind of blueprint for the struggle for independence. In contrast, Beyond a Boundary was written as the anti-colonial movements James had encouraged and influenced were achieving their aims. By the time of its publication in 1963, James’ native land of Trinidad and Tobago had achieved full independence from British rule, and other Caribbean nations were in the process of achieving the same. Through the lens of cricket, James charts the rise of the Caribbean and its peoples, heirs to a golden age that died in Europe in 1914 on the eve of the outbreak of the First World War. Through his description of the great personalities of the cricket field, he explores this sense of adventure, innovation and newfound self-assurance that he saw as characterising and invigorating the whole of Caribbean society.

Whereas, structurally, The Black Jacobins is a linear history (albeit one expertly told) of what happened during the Haitian Revolution, Beyond a Boundary can appear more like a collection of essays touching on memoir, biography, social history and art theory, though built around a common theme. Yet while the subject and style shifts around, Beyond a Boundary is nonetheless a cohesive and unifying work that skilfully synthesises its diverse elements. The evocative opening introduces the reader to the young James – ‘the Boy at the Window’ – watching local cricket matches overlooking his house in Tunapuna, colonial Trinidad in the early 1900s. Cricket is immediately established as something stitched into the fabric of the world James grew up in, with its assortment of personalities and heroes. Those who would be forgotten were it not for this book are revealed as worthy of remembrance – for example, the unpicked and unfulfilled promise of the dark-skinned wicketkeeper Piggott and local n’er-do-well Matthew Bondman, who ‘so crude and vulgar in every respect of his life, with a bat in his hand was all grace and style’.

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This is brought full circle by the end of the book, as one of those West Indian local heroes, Frank Worrell, has been made the first black captain of the West Indies (with no little thanks to a public campaign run by CLR James as editor of the Trinidadian state newspaper The Nation) and is celebrated as an international hero by the Melbourne crowds following the 1960/61 West Indies tour of Australia. The West Indies had arrived, as a cricketing team, but more importantly, as a people. In between, the book fuses its disparate styles to describe the specific historical, social and artistic developments in cricket that led to these achievements.

[. . . ]

Perhaps most famously, in Beyond a Boundary James shows us the hierarchy of local clubs that existed in Trinidad when he was growing up, representing the ‘different social strata in the island’ – from the ruling whites who played for Queen’s Park Club to the club of the black plebeians, Stingo. It was the club of the dark-skinned lower middle classes, Shannon, which James argues had the most potential and produced the best players, such as Constantine and St Hill. And this was not simply chance or a matter of skill, for Shannon played ‘as if they represented the great mass of black people in the island’, and as such are the ‘foundation pillar’ of James’ book. In fact, when considering which team to join himself, James’ own rejection of Shannon for the lighter-skinned middle classes in Maple club is a decision he describes in the book with regret. ‘[C]utting myself off from the popular side delayed my political development for years’, he laments.

In his acceptance (and even celebration) of these clubs divided by colour and status, James is not blindly accepting the colonial racial mindset. He writes unapologetically that it ‘was in its time and place a natural response to local social conditions… If I had the power I wouldn’t alter one selection, one over of it.’ To try to do so would have been to deny the social reality that existed. For it was only through this that the contradictions endemic in colonial society could be laid bare.

In this book, James is writing about the specific historical and social conditions of the West Indies in the early to mid-twentieth century, and about cricket in particular. But the book can be more widely understood as an exploration of the human spirit. Indeed, it has to be admitted that the importance of the game of cricket in the public mindset has declined in recent times, both in the UK and in the Caribbean, but its universal, humanist themes elevate it above mere nostalgic curiosity, as James so brilliantly shows us.

For the complete review go to http://www.spiked-online.com/review_of_books/article/clr-james-on-cricket-and-humanity/15996#.VDgcjUuWGAQ

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