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CLR James: A Life Beyond the Boundaries: A scholarly and vibrant biography

Book review: John L Williams has written a superb account of Trinidad’s greatest intellectual

CLR James: A Life Beyond the Boundaries
Author: John L Williams
ISBN-13: 9781472130136
Publisher: Constable
Guideline Price: £25

“What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?” asked CLR James, Trinidad’s greatest intellectual. He did write the finest book on the sport, treating a beautiful cover drive by David Gower as an artistic example of what Bloomsbury critics called “significant form”.

When in old age he was visited by Viv Richards, Ian Botham and David Gower, it was to Gower he warmed the most for his elegant and pure (if risky) shot-making. Richards, who like James hoped for a career in West Indian politics, must have been bemused by the relative coolness of his own reception. And Botham might have expected to be deemed marginal, for his agricultural whacks (though supremely effective) had once led James to dub him “a youth of mediocre talent”.When Edward Said visited shortly afterwards, James showed little interest in the politics of Orientalism but became vibrant on hearing that Said was also a concert pianist.

James first encountered cricket while looking over the wall of his parents’ compound at games in progress. He became a good bowler but the batting shots which he rehearsed in search of “significant form” in front of a large mirror often lacked timing. His contribution to cricket was immense, nevertheless. He accompanied Learie Constantine who played for Nelson in the English Lancashire Leagues, teaching law to the great all-rounder who was destined for a major role in West Indian legal system. And he wrote Beyond a Boundary, a sporting classic that chronicled (among other things) the campaign to make a black man, Frank Worrell, the deserved captain of an all-time-great West Indian team.

At the core of that book are ideas taken from the demos of Ancient Greece: “every cook can govern”. James believed in self-government for the West Indies. Having won the top scholarship available to boys on the island, he was part of a proud emergent black bourgeoisie, who knew their Shakespeare, spoke perfect English and modelled their prose on the rhythms of the King James Bible.

Whatever about style, the content of James’s books was something else again: he based his history of cricket in the islands on Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution. A memorable scene at the centre of John Williams’s superb, scholarly and vibrant biography has him meeting the Old Man not long before Trotsky was murdered by a Stalinist agent, who plunged an ice-pick into his head.

Charismatic

James was handsome, charismatic and likely to attract followers wherever he went. Neville Cardus and John Arlott helped to recruit him for cricket journalism, much of it done for the then Manchester Guardian. His descriptions of players are often classic vignettes. Sydney Barnes, one of the bowling greats, played even at the age of 59 against Constantine in the Lancashire League: “His face could belong to a great lawyer or a statesman without incongruity. He holds his head well back, with the rather long chin lifted. He looks like a man who has seen as much of the world as he wants to see.” Yet Barnes took seven wickets for 30 runs in that match.

In particular, James proved irresistible to radical young women, who often cooked and sewed for him, as well as doing primary research for his books on the history of capitalist exploitation. In his own old age, during the early waves of the modern feminist movement of the 1960s, James offered a kind of mea culpa: “Marx pointed out many years ago that women were more exploited than the proletariat. (This is a remarkable thing for him to have said).” Yet it was James’s name alone that appeared on the books that made his fame.

Preach socialism

When he went to preach socialism in the United States, he came up with astonishingly original ideas, which long predate current cultural studies. At a time when even such radicals as Richard Hoggart sneered at American ads and movies, James argued that even soap operas contained the utopian yearnings of the underclass – and that from their global popularity “it is possible to deduce the social and political needs, sufferings, aspirations and rejections of modern civilisation to an astonishing degree”.

Eventually he was thrown into an American jail. While there – again with the help of inmates and outside collaborators – he wrote a study of Moby-Dick, in which he praised Melville’s depiction of the monomaniac captain Ahab as prophetic of modern forms of industrial tyranny. Melville, he said, was second only to Marx as a theoretician of the modern world. Melville was like Michelangelo: “He takes the traditional mode of expression and carries it to its utmost limit.”

The Black Jacobins, written with help from French friends, is a major study of the uprising by slaves in Haiti, seeking to extend the rights of the French Revolution to themselves at the start of the 19th century. It was turned into an opera featuring Paul Robeson; and provided Edward Said with much rich material for Cultural and Imperialism. Though challenged recently by the more scholarly Black Spartacus, it will surely remain an anti-colonial classic. Its weakness, as Williams admits, is that it discounts religious fanaticism in America, just as his celebration of the Athenian demos overlooks the slavery on which it was based.

Obsession with class

All his life James wanted to write a grand climactic book on Shakespeare: “He came at a time of transition from one world to a new. We are in the same position today… The same newness that West Indians bring to cricket, they bring to the classic writers.” In his obsession with class, he even went so far as to insist that Othello is not a play about race: “You could strike out every reference to Othello’s black skin and the play would be essentially the same. Othello’s trouble is that he is an outsider.” For him, Othello was another Frank Worrell, passed over in an underdeveloped country for others with more modern qualifications. John Williams rightly opines that James wouldn’t have been surprised by the emergence of tyrants like Trump or autocrats like Johnson: these types “were well known to Shakespeare”.

James survived into an honoured old age, which rediscovered all his neglected books. Addicted to sleeping pills and often confined to bed, he was a sitting duck for radical-chic visitors. “Tell them CLR James is dead!” he implored one of his minders, so that he could watch the TV cricket in peace. But dead is something his ideas will never be.

Declan Kiberd teaches at Notre Dame (Dublin). He is writing England and Eternity, a study of cricket and national character.