Bowling to the far left of the boundary

C. L. R. James

November 16, 2007

It was John Arlott (I cannot stop myself telling you) who introduced the lanky black stranger to me with the generous words: "This is the author of the best book on cricket ever written." The stranger was C. L. R. James, and the book was Beyond a Boundary .

James discovered, with a poetic force and grace matched by no other writer, that the slow rituals and joyful spontaneity of the English national sport, taught during the days of empire to all dominions, were capable of the highest accomplishments of true art - the interplay of power and beauty, of convention and creativity, of high drama and low comedy.

Not only that, its expressiveness and subtle membership was such that the old class barrier between high and low culture could be dissolved by a game and could, moreover, effect a similar dissolution between rulers and ruled, sometime owners and onetime slaves, as the gradual world dominance of cricket by the West Indians taught their people the delicious new quantities of triumph and identity by way of a universally popular art.

Nothing in James's written achievement quite came up to that great work of literature. But his life aimed at a parallel grandeur. He was born in 1901 and died full of honours in 1989.

There are many biographies and collected works on his life, and it is not quite clear what Dave Renton's book is supposed to add to them. It has the feel of a textbook introduction, with unsurprising photographs and Renton's rather Martian prose. He goes through the chronicle without ever really bringing out James's fight, or his gaiety and impulsiveness, still less his sudden withdrawals from the world.

This was never more marked than in the marriages and affairs into which he rushed with such ardour (Renton hardly refers to his touching letters to the American poet Constance Webb), but this little book is unnervingly indifferent, for instance, to James's callousness towards the backstreet abortions he compelled his lover to undergo in 1937 and 1938.

Nonetheless, there can be no doubting his stature, whether as writer or as political figure of heroic proportions. Renton tells the story by numbers, but its energy and singularity shine through.

James came to London to write, joined The Manchester Guardian as a cricket correspondent, had his pamphlet on West Indian self-government published by Leonard Woolf, moved steadily left through the Labour Party and out the other side, and then in 1938 published his second classic, the history of Toussaint L'Ouverture and the revolution of the slaves in Santo Domingo in 1791. The Black Jacobins made James's name as one of the leading black intellectuals.

He remained in the eye of the storm of black power, spent 18 years in the US, was a friend of the exiled Trotsky and a quarrelsome leader of very uneven judgment in the Socialist Workers Party.

His belief in revolution seemed to find its moment when the African colonies came to independence. But having given his heart to the cause of Ghana he did not shrink from the bleak eventuality of the country's failure and told the story with regretful fortitude in Nkrumah and the Ghana Revolution .

It is a shame that, at a time when the Left so pressingly needs calling back to its great allegiances, a new book on such a commanding character should turn out to be so pallid.

Fred Inglis is emeritus professor of cultural studies, Sheffield University.

C. L. R. James: Cricket's Philosopher King

Author - Dave Renton
Publisher - Haus Books
Pages - 192
Price - £16.99
ISBN - 9781905791019

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