This year marks the 50th anniversary of CLR James’ wonderful, groundbreaking work Beyond a Boundary. To call it a book about cricket is a bit like calling cricket a ‘game’. Beyond a Boundary blends politics and memoir, history and journalism, biography and reportage, in a manner that transcends literary, sporting and political boundaries. V S Naipaul, not a man given to offering easy praise, described it as ‘one of the finest and most finished books to come out of the West Indies’. John Arlott, that most wonderful of cricket commentators, wrote of Beyond a Boundary, that it was ‘a book so outstanding as to compel any reviewer to check his adjectives several times before he describes it and, since he is likely to be dealing in superlatives, to measure them carefully to avoid over-praise – which this book does not need’.
Beyond a Boundary was a book that CLR James had to write, and that only he could write. Novelist and orator, philosopher and cricketer, historian and revolutionary, Trotskyist and Pan-Africanist – there are few modern figures who can match the intellectual depth, cultural breadth or sheer political contrariness of Cyril Lionel Robert James. He was a lifelong Marxist, yet one with an uncommonly fierce independence of mind that expressed itself both in his rejection of conventional Marxist arguments and in his refusal to repent of his politics even when it became fashionable to do so. He was an icon of black liberation struggles, and yet someone whose politics was steeped in a love of Western literature and Western civilization. He was a man whose affection for cricket was matched only by his love for Shakespeare. The book is in the image of the man himself. Brilliant, complex, contradictory, beautifully observed, deeply insightful, but sometimes also romantic and naïve. And, of course, boundary-crossing.
More than any other sport, cricket has been immersed in politics, especially the politics of race, class and empire. It was the Victorians who gave cricket its special place in English life, viewing it as a way both of transmitting the values of discipline and national pride to the new working class and of training the ruling class as guardians of Empire. Lord Harris, a past MCC secretary and governor of Bombay, introduced cricket to India, he claimed, to teach ‘moral lessons to the masses’. It is not surprising that when Norman Tebbit looked for a metaphor to describe national attachment, he turned to the cricket test.
Nowhere was the interlacing of cricket with race, class and empire more apparent than in the West Indies, where cricket clubs were graded according to the shade of one’s skin colour. Cricket played a unique role in symbolizing hierarchies of colonialism and the stratification of colonial society. ‘Cricket’, James observed, ‘had plunged me into politics long before I was aware of it. When I did turn to politics I found out that I didn’t have much to learn’.
A Marxist he may have been, an anti-imperialist to his bones, but James drank deeply also from a Kiplingesque well. ‘‘I never cheated’, James wrote. ‘I never appealed for a decision unless I thought a batsman was out. I never argued with the umpire . . . From the eight years of school life this code became the moral framework of my existence. It never left me.’ Leftists’, the writer Mike Marqusee has observed, ‘are often taken aback by James’ reverence for the English public school ethic.’
As with his love of Shakespeare and Austen, however, this was not for James an exercise in nostalgia, or an expression of a conservative sensibility, but, in his eyes, part of the process of seizing the weapons necessary for liberation. ‘I denounce European colonialism’, James wrote in his 1966 lecture ‘The Making of the Caribbean People’, ‘but I respect the learning and profound discoveries of Western civilization.’ And in his 1969 essay ‘Discovering Literature in Trinidad’, he added that ‘We live in one world, and we have to find out what is taking place in the world. And I, a man of the Caribbean, have found that it is in the study of western literature, western philosophy and western history that I have found out the things that I have found out, even about the underdeveloped countries.’
As with literature, so with cricket. James saw cricket not simply as a building block of empire, but also as a vehicle for forging an anti-imperialist consciousness and a sense of national pride. As Mike Marqusee has observed,
what he saw in this [public school] ethic, as embodied in cricket, was something that fit the needs of an emergent West Indian society, a self-discipline that was part of the struggle for freedom and equality. In his view West Indians were not only victims of imperialism, but agents able to seize the tools of the oppressor and use them for self-assertion and self-development. That’s the lens through which he understands cricket. In its story he sees West Indians adopting and adapting the culture and technology of their masters, making it their own, turning its disciplines to their own purposes.
In the Sixties, as the editor of the Trinidadian newspaper The Nation, James successfully campaigned for Frank Worrell to be selected as the first black captain of the West Indies, when it was still assumed that the West Indian team had to be led by a white man. And throughout his life, James viewed cricket as a means of helping unite a disparate set of islands, of establishing a West Indian as opposed to an island mentality. He had little difficulty understanding why Norman Tebbit should make cricket the basis of his loyalty test – or why most black people should fail it. ‘Social and political passions’ James wrote, ‘denied normal outlets, expressed themselves so fiercely in cricket (and other games) precisely because they were games.’
The most famous line in Beyond a Boundary – ‘what do they know of cricket who only cricket know?’ – is typically adapted from Kipling. ‘What should they know of England who only England know?’, asked Kipling in his poem ‘The English Flag’. James took a lament for Empire and turned it into an aphorism about the consciousness necessary for liberation from empire.
For an introduction to CLR James, to cricket and to the culture out of which he emerged, here’s Mike Dibbs’ wonderful 1976 film called, inevitably, Beyond a Boundary: