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January 25, 2007

The Black Man in the White Suit: C. L. R. James' Beyond a Boundary

Posted by Lincoln Allison

Beyond a Boundary
by C. L. R. James
first published 1963
Pp. 256. Stanley Paul, 1986

Available as a Yellow Jersey Press paperback, Beyond a Boundary (Yellow Jersey Press, 2005), 7.99

Lincoln Allison ruminates on C. L. R. James, cricket and Marxism. He finds that ironically the socialist, radical and nominally revolutionary C. L. R. James expressed some very fine conservative sentiments.

Important books often have their own shape and cannot be put into any category. Beyond a Boundary starts as a memoir of life in Trinidad in the early years of the twentieth century. At its core are several profiles of great cricketers; some of these, like W. G. Grace, George Headley and Learie Constantine are well known while others, like Cyl St. Hill, were less well known and at the height of their powers before West Indian cricket became of global significance.

The book ends with James, having spent the middle years of his life in the United States and away from his principal concerns, back in Trinidad and leading the successful campaign to make Frank Worrell the first black captain of the West Indies cricket team. This was, for James, not merely a sporting issue, but a major project of West Indian nationalism. In between, many things are discussed and the author is wont to tell you, in a firm but friendly conversational style, that he is or is not going to discuss any particular issue which arises.

To whom is Beyond a Boundary of interest? To students of the history and culture of the West Indies, of course, and especially Trinidad. Also anyone interested in the British Empire: here we are told, contrary to our contemporary stereotype, of James' school in the years before 1914, of his classmates of half a dozen races taught by Englishmen fresh from Oxford and Cambridge, who never seemed to assume that their black pupil was less able or had less interest in Virgil or Shakespeare than anyone else. And it has interesting things to say about England and English identity, of which more later - the author of these things is, after all, a man who regarded himself as entirely "British" despite not coming within 3000 miles of Britain during the first quarter century of his life.

And it is about cricket, much easier to read for a cricketer or cricket fan than for lesser breeds. There are many passages like this one (p. 92):

He kept the ball well up, swinging in late from outside the off-stump to middle-and-off or thereabouts. The field was well placed, mid-off fairly straight, short extra-cover to pick up the single, deep extra-cover, deep point for accidents, the leg-side well covered. Griffith had his field set and bowled to it.
Fairly familiar stuff for the likes of me, but it is amusing to reflect that this book has been widely used on "Black Studies" courses in the USA, complete with explanatory footnotes and glossaries of cricketing terms. I regard this as a kind of revenge for the American nationalist campaign against cricket which sadly proved so successful in the forty years after 1865.

It is generally accepted that some of the finest conservative sentiments have been expressed by writers who could not possibly be regarded as conservatives per se: Edmund Burke, George Orwell and Albert Camus are all cases in point. So was James. He was a socialist, a radical, nominally a revolutionary, whose scholarly reputation was based on studies of The Black Jacobins and Toussaint L'Ouverture in particular. But you would hardly guess so here: despite passing nods to Marx, Trotsky and Marcus Garvey, he is a good deal more interested in W. G. Grace.

The outline, ten second version of this book is that it is about an Afro-Caribbean Marxist who loves the English language and English literature and adores the English game of cricket and what he believes it represents in human life. "It's not cricket" has a meaning which he can accept without irony and he cannot go along with Labour politicians in England or fashionable academics in America who decry the public schools and what they represent. He cannot and will not decry the virtues of an Arnoldian education as either "bourgeois" or "white" - and there is a great deal which educationalists in a "multi-cultural society" should learn from him.

It is a constant theme of James that games (and cricket in particular) are a dimension of human life at least as important as the other dimensions (p. 241):

All art, science, philosophy, are modes of apprehending the world, history and society. As one of these, cricket in the West Indies at least could hold its own. A professor of political science publicly bewailed that a man of my known political interests should believe that cricket had ethical and social values. I had no wish to answer. I was just sorry for the guy.
He quite properly decries the liberal historians like G. M. Trevelyan who can, in all apparent seriousness, write long histories of the Victorian era without mentioning W. G. (or the Football Association, for that matter). Obviously, I agree. One would say ludicrous if it were not for the obvious etymological pun. So: Preposterous! Absurd!

And this argument has a special force in the colonial context (p. 225):
West Indians crowding to Tests bring with them the whole past history and future hopes of the islands. English people, for example, have a conception of themselves breathed from birth. Drake and mighty Nelson, Shakespeare, Waterloo, the Charge of the Light Brigade, the few who did so much for so many, the success of parliamentary democracy, those and such as those constitute a national tradition. Underdeveloped countries have to go back centuries to rebuild one. We of the West Indies have none at all, none that we know of. To such people the three W's, Ram and Val wrecking English batting, help to fill a huge gap in their consciousness and their needs. In one of the sheds on the Port of Spain wharf is a painted sign: 365 Garfield Sobers.
I am not much enthused by James' fairly constant assertion that cricket must be understood as art. This is most developed in Chapter 16, "What is Art?" (pp. 191-206), in which he labours the development of an argument that cricket is as much concerned with notions of classical form as any other genre. (I am happier with the broader notion that "artistic qualities" are to be found in cricket.) Frankly, I don't like the modern, all-embracing concepts of "Art" and "the Arts", which imply that art does for a humanist society what "religion" does in a theist context. W. B. Gallie famously classified art as an "essentially contested concept" (like democracy), but I think he would have done better to have applied to it one of his other categories and called it a "radically confused concept". Whether or not Mars Bar wrappers, Tracy Emin's bed, Morris Minors or table tennis qualify as art forms are not answerable questions and even if they were the answers would not be interesting. Thus on the question of whether cricket is an art form I am inclined to borrow from Bill Shankly: it's far more important than that.

But I am persuaded by some central parts of James' account of some important aspects of English culture and identity. He describes himself (frequently) as a "Puritan" and identifies a trinity of Thomases - Arnold, Hughes and Brown - as the inventors of modern sport and education. But he also insists that we cannot make sense of cricket except by harking back to an unpuritanical, pre-Victorian, bucolic England which lives in a state of permanent creative tension with the New Thomism (p. 164):
Cricket and football provide a meeting place for the moral outlook of the dissenting middle classes and the athletic instincts of the aristocracy.
That is the thesis at its simplest and I would prefer the word "sporting" to "athletic", but it is an important insight. It directs our view towards the colossal figure of W. G. Grace, the great Victorian who was not in the least "Victorian": an egotistical, rule-bending, ultra-competitive showman - and the product of a clannish rural family, not a public school, a figure, as James correctly points out, who looks back to Squire Brown, Tom's father. But also, we might add, forward to Shane Warne!

Marxist and Tory coincide on the issue of amateurism (p. 212):
The cricketer needs to be returned to the community (as so many of our professional experts in so many spheres of modern life need to be returned). He must do a job of work with his fellows so that cricket, essentially an artistic expression of life, becomes an artistic expression of his own individual life.
Fat chance, insofar as this was written in 1962, at precisely the time that the amateur ethos was beginning to wash away forever, largely because of television.

I have two personal connections with C. L. R. The first is that he lived in my neck of the woods: in 1932 he moved to Nelson in Lancashire to live with his friend Learie Constantine, the cricket professional for the town's club. I am from Colne, which is contiguous with Nelson. Constantine took Nelson to seven Lancashire League titles and went on to become Baron Constantine of Nelson and Trinidad. He was very well remembered, though not as many people recalled his slightly built friend who wrote for a living, but who was also a good enough cricketer to be offered professional terms; he rejected the offer, even though he needed the money, because he thought that he lacked the stamina and application to take people's money for playing the game.

The other connection is that I met him, at a New Society Christmas party in the early 1980s. He was an old man then (born in 1901), dressed in a white suit and wearing a Panama hat even indoors. His accent was still Trinidadian, his voice by now gravely - a very listenable combination. I had written some pieces on cricket, including one called "W. G. Grace - Superstar" and we sat and talked for a while. He detested Geoffrey Boycott and adored David Gower.

Beyond a Boundary was written in 1962. Frank Worrell was the captain of the West Indies cricket team and they had just contested with Australia what many people claim is the finest Test series of all time. They were on the verge of greatness and domination of the game. The book ends with the sentence (p. 252):

Thomas Arnold, Thomas Hughes and the Old Master himself would have recognised Frank Worrell as their boy.
Lincoln Allison retired from an academic career in 2004 to become a freelance writer and broadcaster. He remains Emeritus Reader in Politics at the University of Warwick and Visiting Professor in sport and leisure at the University of Brighton. His previous Retrospective Reviews can be read here.


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