More than Cricket

C.L.R. James’s ‘Beyond a Boundary’
Harry Caldecott, The Cricket Match (Malay Quarter), 1924 (Wikimedia Commons)

The best book I read in 2018 was written in 1963—not exactly au courant. Still, few works better withstand the test of time than Beyond a Boundary, the rich, rewarding sports memoir by Trinidadian writer C.L.R. James.

Journalist, teacher, and novelist, pan-Africanist historian and left-leaning political activist, Cyril Lionel Robert James is best remembered for The Black Jacobins, his 1938 account of the Haitian revolution. But he produced many other works, some of them groundbreaking. His 1932 pamphlet “The Case for West Indian Self-Government” was the first significant manifesto for independence in the British West Indies, and his 1936 Minty Alley the first novel published in Britain by a black Caribbean writer. Son of a schoolteacher, James was born in 1901, early enough to have relatives who recalled having been enslaved. From this modest family background, he rose to become an exemplary product of British colonial education. His varied and far-flung career included long sojourns in London, a 1939 meeting with Trotsky in Mexico, and fifteen years in the United States, capped by his 1953 deportation—and a study of Melville written while the author was detained on Ellis Island.

Yet it all began, as this memoir tells us, on a cricket field in Tunapuna, a town just outside Trinidad’s capital, Port of Spain. James’s family home was adjacent to the field, and as a small boy he would stand on a chair by the living-room window and watch, awed by the action on the pitch. Cricket is the explicit subject of Beyond a Boundary. But this is a book that examines one thing in order to draw conclusions about everything. James wasn’t just watching cricket; he was studying it. His childhood passion for the sport and its heroes opens up broader musings, reflecting the process by which his recollection of those players and their exploits “ceased to be merely isolated memories and fell into place as starting points of a connected pattern.” The connections he made were not merely athletic. “Watching from the window,” he recalls, “shaped my strongest early impressions of personality in society.” What we see in these pages is a social critic in the making.

The other source of those impressions was books. In boyhood James was a prodigious reader, and Beyond a Boundary teems with references to Greek mythology, Biblical stories, and the British novelists whose works he revered, especially Thackeray’s Vanity Fair. Reveling in the novelist’s “sneer and gibes at the aristocracy,” James reread the book obsessively—so often, in fact, that he often quoted passages to schoolmates  verbatim. Thackeray led him to other nineteenth-century novelists—Dickens, Tolstoy, Flaubert—who probed the interplay of the individual and society. Such reading turned James into “a British intellectual before I was ten, already an alien in my own environment.” In his early teens, he won a scholarship to Queen’s Royal College, the elite government school in Port of Spain (where, three decades later, he would be followed by V. S. Naipaul). At fifteen, he produced two pieces for the school magazine: a historical account of an earlier Oxford-Cambridge cricket match a half-century earlier, and an essay entitled “The Novel as an Instrument of Reform.” Thus did his first two publications establish the twin poles of his lifelong intellectual orientation.

James’s love for cricket includes its showcasing of what he calls “elemental” human traits and postures—“attack, defense, courage, gallantry, steadfastness, grandeur, ruse.” He is attentive to individual players and the subtle variations in their styles. Then there is the ethical dimension of the sport. Beyond a Boundary gives living meaning to the phrase, “it isn’t cricket,” in the person of James himself, who grew up imbued with what he terms “the cricket ethic” or “the code.” “I never cheated,” he writes; “I never argued with the umpire, I never jeered at a defeated opponent…. My defeats and disappointments I took as stoically as I could.... From the eight years of school life this code became the moral framework of my existence. It has never left me.”

These reflections, offered by a man in his sixties, reveal how deeply formative British colonialism was on the character of its subjects. By the time James arrived in the United States in 1938, he had a decade of Marxist social criticism behind him, and his attitude toward the gentleman’s code had become—at least in theory—contemptuous. Yet as he sat in the stands watching baseball games, he couldn’t help feeling vexed by American norms of spectatorship. Disturbed by “the howls of anger and rage and denunciation which they hurled at players as a matter of course,” at managers and players who argued with umpires and got tossed out of games, and at “young people [who] had no loyalties to school because they had no loyalties to anything,” he glimpses a distressing image of societal deterioration. Americans were loath to take in James’s criticisms. He recalls that “they looked at me a little strangely. I, a colonial born and bred, a Marxist, declared enemy of British imperialism and all its ways and works, was the last person they expected that sort of thing from.”

Throughout, Beyond a Boundary hits an insistent note of equality, pushing back repeatedly against racialist myths of the black as a “natural” (i.e., unthinking) athlete.

Beyond a Boundary vigorously provides a hermeneutics of sport—a way of understanding not just sport’s value to players, but also the ways in which it becomes a key for interpreting politics and society. Trotsky, James notes, had believed that sports distracted workers from politics—another opiate of the masses. James disagrees; instead  he insists that cricket stands alongside art, science, and philosophy as a valid mode of apprehending the world. To prove his point, he uses cricket to sketch a sociology of the West Indies in the colonial era, with its racial caste system. Different clubs accommodated black, white, and mixed-race players; matches became proxies for race and class conflicts, the game giving expression to the deep tensions in colonial society. On the one hand were the rigid social hierarchies of colonial society, and on the other, the game and its meritocratic reckonings: “on the cricket field if nowhere else,” observes James, “all men in the island are equal.” This disparity between the real and the ideal fascinated and perplexed him, presaging his years in England, when he focused his political ideas: “Cricket had plunged me into politics long before I was aware of it. When I did turn to politics I did not have too much to learn.”

Two chapters devoted to the great 19th-century British cricketer W. G. Grace begin by chiding Trevelyan and other leading historians of 19th-century England for wholly omitting “the best-known Englishman of his time.” James offers a corrective, arguing that Grace’s life and career illuminate the Victorian era and investigating the process by which cricket was elevated to the status of a moral discipline. Along the way, James makes a case—progressive in 1963—for the style of social history he practiced himself.To understand the Victorian era, he says, we should pay less attention to intellectuals like Thomas Carlyle and John Ruskin, and more to broadly popular figures like W. G. Grace. If we do, “we shall know more what men want and what they live by,” he insists, “in the lives that they themselves lived from day to day.”

 

Written at a white-hot moment of Caribbean nationalism and published less than a year after Trinidad gained independence, Beyond a Boundary is hardly incendiary. Yet it is, indirectly and at times eccentrically, a political book, and more openly so toward its end. James hypothesizes that the Caribbean political outbursts of the late 1950s and early 1960s were sparked at least in part  by cricket—specifically by the anti-nationalist political forces, the “rich whites and their retainers” who urged visiting English teams to not merely defeat local players, but to humiliate them. We learn of James’s own campaign against the exclusion of black men from the captaincy of the West Indies team, and specifically his successful attempt to secure the position for the Barbadian star Frank Worrell. James is then heralded for his efforts by the new Trinidadian prime minister.

Throughout, Beyond a Boundary hits an insistent note of equality, pushing back repeatedly against racialist myths of the black as a “natural” (i.e., unthinking) athlete. James offers an appreciative survey of cricket luminaries down the decades, English and West Indian alike, black, white, and in between, from W. G. Grace and George Challenor to Arthur Jones, Wilton St. Hill,  George John, Percy Tarilton, D. W. Ince, and James’ fellow Trindidadian Learie Constantine, who went on to become a lawyer, politician, and the United Kingdom’s first black peer.

There is a lot of inside cricket to wade through in these pages, and American readers may skim passages devoted to baffling analyses of this or that bowler’s leg-glance from outside the off-stump. But as he writes about people, politics and literature, James is unfailingly interesting. He is alert to paradox (as he is one himself); disagreeing with T. S. Eliot on the nature and use of memory, he remarks that Eliot “is of special value to me in that in him I find more often than elsewhere, and beautifully and precisely stated, things to which I am completely opposed.” One can’t help but be impressed by the high value James places on discipline in all areas of life, and (notably for a Marxist materialist) the wry respect he has for religion, recalling that he himself played cricket “with faith in the straight bat and the genius who presides over the universe.”

Courtly, learned, both passionate and dispassionate in fine balance, as a writer James was animated by a fierce pride. It’s the same spirit one sees gazing out from his remarkable dust-jacket photo in the 1983 Pantheon reissue of Beyond a Boundary. He was old and frail by then (he died five years later), but his presence remains vivid in the pages of a book that is at once nostalgic and passionately critical. “Hegel says somewhere that the old man repeats the prayers he repeated as a child,” James muses, “but now with the experience of a lifetime.” Both he and his luminous memoir deserve a renewed audience.

Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal

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