CLR James (left, © Getty Images), and his most famous work, Beyond a Boundary (Photo courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)
CLR James (left, © Getty Images), and his most famous work, Beyond a Boundary (Photo courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)

CLR James, born January 4, 1901, was a social theorist, Marxist, historian, political activist and also a cricket writer. Beyond A Boundary, written by him from the mid-1950s and published in 1963, is considered a classic of cricket literature. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at his life and work.

“To begin with [Sydney] Barnes is not only 59, but looks it. Some cricketers at 59 look and move like men in their 30s. Not so Barnes. You can almost hear the old bones creaking… When every man was placed to the nearest centimetre, Barnes walked back and set the old machinery in motion. As he forced himself to the crease you could see every year of his fifty-nine; but the arm swung over gallantly, high and straight. The wicket was slow, but a ball whipped hot from the pitch in the first over, and second slip took a neat catch.”

Thus ran the account of Barnes bowling for Rawtenstall against Nelson in the Lancashire League. It was 1932. CLR James was staying with West Indian all-rounder Learie Constantine in Nelson, Lancashire. He had come over from Trinidad to help the legend write his autobiography ‘Cricket and I’, published the following year.

It was Constantine who put James in touch with Sir Neville Cardus. James sent the piece on Barnes and Cardus arranged for it to be published in the Manchester Guardian. CLR James the cricket correspondent was born. More importantly, now he had the means to support himself.

They are no better than we

Constantine had been a benefactor of James in more ways than that indicated in this one episode. It was he who had supported James during his early days in England. It was Constantine who had funded the publication of his earlier work, ‘Life of Captain Cipriani’, a biography of the Trinidadian labour leader. Besides, there was Constantine’s remark to him while playing club cricket back in Trinidad in 1923 that had gone a long way in altering the political inclinations of the then 22-year-old James.

Right from his childhood, James had devoured English Literature. He had read Thackeray over and over again. He had developed unrestrained admiration for the English culture and the supposed code of ethics, with an idealistic — and in some ways curious — view of cricket as the synthesis of all the ingredients of its loftiest character. While plagued by the colour divide and discrimination he witnessed in club cricket in the island, and elsewhere in the society, he had seldom questioned the British rule and system of education.

To the young James, even physically the British had seemed to be better fed, better built, truer athletes. It was while he was holding court about cricket morals and how low it was in West Indies that he was snubbed by Constantine who remarked, “You’ve got it all wrong. You believe in all that you read in those books. They are no better than we.”

This one remark had prompted James to question the ideas he had developed from reading and second hand evaluation of England.

The young intellectual

Born in Trinidad in 1901, as a kid Cyril Lionel Robert James watched cricket from his bedroom window, ideally situated behind a ground. He had been gifted his first set of bat and ball at the age of four. At ten, he won a scholarship to Queen’s Royal College. His father, a schoolteacher, had coached him meticulously to reach get that coveted slot.

Reading James one comes to know that from his earliest days he had been brilliant young scholar, among the most well read from his very young days. He also wrote that he had been a fine cricketer, a good defensive bat and a medium pacer who could move it both ways, especially adept at swinging late from leg and also able to break one in from off, with the ability to bowl at any reputed Test batsman. And again according to his own admission, he strictly adhered to the code of cricket, never cheated or tricked opponents on the field. No, modesty was in no way his strong suit as far as writing about his own life is concerned.

At Queens, James neglected his studies and focused on cricket, an intelligent mind’s rebellion against a rigid format of education. He continued to read voraciously, but not the subjects he was supposed to study. Literature occupied him, and he also read widely on cricket. He did not go to Oxford as was expected, but instead got a teaching job at Queens and played cricket for one of the local clubs, Maple.

The island had several cricket clubs and membership was restricted based on colour, ethnicity and status. One was reserved for the wealthy whites, another for the impoverished blacks, one for the Asian middle-class, another for their black counterparts, one for the Catholics and finally another for the local police force. This system of division jarred with the cricketing edicts of fair play that James had grown to embrace.

Another problem that plagued him was perhaps his extensive reading, which made him a misfit among the blacks in the minutely divided society. At the same time, he longed to make it as a professional cricketer, but his career did not take off beyond the local club grounds. He wrote fiction, but that was not enough for sustenance. Hence he desperately latched on to Constantine’s call to Nelson as a new lease of life. He had no compunctions about leaving his wife Juanita Young behind while getting away to the England he had always read about and formed perceptions about in his fertile mind. Anyway, according to Juanita, James paid her any attention only when he was on top of her. The marriage broke down soon after James departed for the Mother Country.

The rise of the Marxist

It was at Nelson that he underwent Marxist awakening. He witnessed the tension in the factories, between the workers and the owners in the neighbouring Blackburn and Burnley. He spent hours reading up Communist literature.

Constantine, as a prominent and much respected man of the town, was invited to deliver numerous addresses. Soon the cricketer resorted to saying just the preliminary words before handing the sessions over to James. The erudition and the sparkling oratory of James became enormously popular. He made friends among the workers and built connections with important communist leaders. At night he read Oswald Spengler’s ‘Decline of the West’ and devoured Leon Trotsky’s ‘History of the Russian Revolution’.

In Trotsky, James seemed to come across his ideal politics. With Marxism attracting him, the Trotskyist circles beckoning him to London, and with the trickle of steady income from his cricket writing for Manchester Guardian, James went to live in Hampstead for a while. It was in London that he identified himself as a revolutionary and an authority on Marxism. Interestingly, for all the claimed expertise, it would be years before he would get around to reading ‘Das Kapital’.

All the while he kept writing about cricket — about George Headley, West Indian cricket, reports of county matches and reflections on the game.

“After the first excitement, this sort of thing becomes slightly monotonous. A bowler bowls, Bradman makes a stroke, not a single fieldsman moves, and the ball is returned from the boundary. The essence of any game is conflict, and there was no conflict here, the superiority on one side was too overwhelming.” Thus ran an account of a Bradman hundred at Scarborough.

Dabbling with communism and extrapolating the ideas towards black emancipation led James to Paris. He spent days studying the city’s archives about Haitian revolts under Toussiant Louverture, finally culminating in the book ‘The Black Jacobins’. It was also while working on the Toussiant that James befriended Paul Robeson, the legendary black activist, athlete, singer and actor. It is said that Robeson’s physical appearance captivated James and made him break away from the stereotypical conviction nurtured by his early Trinidad days, that athletic physical perfection existed only in the whites. Constantine’s words, “They are no better than we,” came back to hit him with renewed force.

The New World and Trotsky

In 1937 and 1938, James was associated with Glasgow Herald, still writing about the game. And the same year, he was invited by James Patrick Cannon, one of the founders of American Trotskyism, to visit the United States and speak for black liberation.

He left for the New World in 1938 but not before writing this glowing tribute to Frank Woolley who had announced his retirement that year: “He gave to thousands and thousands of his countrymen a conception of the beautiful which artists struggle to capture in paint and on canvas.” James would not see a cricket match in the next 15 years.

During his speeches across USA, people, both black and white, gathered in throngs to hear him, fascinated by his rhetoric. And in April 1939, James travelled to Mexico and spent a few days with Leon Trotsky himself. It was during the very period when the exiled Russian revolutionary was having his famed affair with artist Frida Kahlo.

As James spoke about his idea of independent black organisation, Trotsky was said to have been struck by his tactical ability and the weakness of his strategy. James obviously came back from the interaction believing that he had disagreed with Trotsky and had surpassed him in argument. However, he also left with a lot of respect for the Russian.

Leaving the Trotskyist school of thought, James joined fellow activists of the Worker’s Party and formed the Johnson-Forest Tendency organisation to spread their views. Part of the name was derived from James’ occasional pseudonym JR Johnson. Till 1953, before returning to England, he remained busy with creating and re-creating the ideology and plans of this new entity.

During this period in America, James perused the scores of Test and county cricket published in New York Times, but his efforts at following baseball and basketball met with disappointment. Perhaps like the archetypal hardcore communists, he saw decadence in the way American sports were contested. At least his later reminiscences suggest so.

The involvement with communism invited a lot of scrutiny from the government, namely a disturbing amount curiosity of the FBI, but James was able to find sufficient interlude to get married to actor, model and fellow activist Constance Webb. They had a son in 1949, but the relationship came to an end soon after that. Both had extra-marital affairs, Webb once and James almost always.

Return to cricket

Returning to England after all these years, James took up his old post in Manchester Guardian and continued to write about cricket as a means of earning a living. The articles flowed, but along with it burgeoned another phase. Cricket and political aspirations blurred into one. On his return to West Indies in 1958, James launched a violent, and ultimately successful, campaign to install Frank Worrell as the captain of the representative team. While gearing for this noble outcome, in some respects it smacked of way too much bias against Gerry Alexander. This was especially noticeable during the unceremonious return from India of the rogue bumper bowler Roy Gilchrist. The disciplinary action against the bowler, who had actually bowled bouncers against instructions and pulled a knife on Alexander during the tour, was construed by James as another act of racial discrimination.

This period was also the germinating phase for what many believe to be the seminal work of James.

What do they of CLRJ know…

It should be obvious by now that this is not another CLR James article that starts and ends with that quote derived from Kipling’s ‘English Flag’ — ‘what do they of cricket know who only cricket know.’ True, Beyond a Boundary is widely regarded as the best book on cricket ever written. And it is equally true that many who regard it as the best seldom go beyond that single line while evaluating the book.

It is difficult to rank books of any kind, and those on cricket are no exception. Among them, Beyond a Boundary is probably the most difficult to categorise. It is an autobiography, a study of cricketers, a history of cricket, an exposition of technique, social commentary, political propaganda and much more, all rolled into one. Through its centre runs the tale of the class struggle in the West Indies. It is indeed a book like no other.

Is it the best ever? Debatable.  It is a challenging book to read and judge without being deluded by the political and social overtones. In that mindboggling effect it is certainly unique among cricket books.

Yet, it is perhaps ranked best by many just as ‘Ulysses’ is among, without too many really evaluating the content, the consensus snowballing following the same principle that governs much in popular culture. We see this principle of consensus everywhere, in the popularity of movies, books, oft repeated quoted texts assumed to be truth or — in modern times —shared links, tweets and Facebook likes.

In portions Beyond a Boundary is brilliant. Especially when the cricketing aspects of Headley and Constantine are discussed and dissected, with the social situation of class struggle providing the eloquent backdrop. In patches it also irritates some readers, especially when James’ own cricketing credentials are laid out in full supposed splendour. And an enormous part spews lofty ideals and conceptions about cricket, merging it with art, heritage and ancient Greek Olympics. It is this intriguing juxtaposition is bound to fascinate at first glance, perhaps on the second and third glances as well, and ultimately proves to be a miraculous marvel of wishful thinking which falls to bits on careful scrutiny.

I understand that this sounds precariously similar to flogging a sacred cow. It is for that very reason that the article was commenced with an example of CLR James the cricket writer, the sparkling piece which was accepted by Neville Cardus. James could produce delectable pieces on cricket — and did so on umpteen occasions, other than when cricket became a vehement political vehicle and he wanted to justify the appeal a mere game held for a formidable intellectual such as he.

Venturing way beyond the boundary

A parallel can be drawn with Neville Cardus, another legendary cricket writer. Both of them aspired to ambitions loftier than chronicling a mere game, and for both the game and facts sometimes had to be bent beyond  recognition to fit their desired roles of penning epics of grandeur. Often they played with destinies as well, creating glittering heroes out of very mortal men with modest accomplishments. While creating odes to Bradman and Jack Hobbs, Cardus also breathed magical qualities into an honest and limited Emmott Robinson. Likewise, apart from dwelling with magnificent detail on Constantine and Headley, James deigned to spend considerable time on the modest career of Wilton St Hill.

James writes, “In my gallery, [St Hill] is present with Bradman, Sobers, George Headley and the three Ws, Hutton and Compton, Peter May and a few others.” To fit a batsman of St Hill’s record — average of 27 in First-Class cricket and 19 in Tests — into the gallery of the sublime greats necessitates abstract rather than realistic art. And that is what cricket ultimately became for James whenever it stretched beyond the boundaries of ‘only cricket’.

From a lifelong goal of becoming a music critic, Cardus was dragged into the plebeian pastime of cricket by circumstances. His evenings as a chronicler of musical soirees started way after his days in the sun. Hence, the same effusive expressions to describe a Wagner opus was transferred to Frank Woolley, a flourish of Strauss became a Jack Hobbs hit to the leg.

It was somewhat analogous in the case of James. He had devoured literature, and had spent most of his adult life wrestling with important questions of politics and society, fighting for the rights of his people. Yet, he had to earn his living as a cricket writer. Hence, we find Beyond A Boundary almost as a prolonged justification for spending a life as brilliant as his by loitering around cricket grounds.

Therefore the game is elevated into a symbol of historical, political and social ideal, to underline vociferously that it is far more important than just a game, driving home that a renowned Marxist intellectual had every business to spend half his life watching cricket and writing about it.

We are hence presented with a thesis about the purity of pre-industrial England, of how Grace, Bradman and Constantine are the followers of those ideal athletes of ancient Greece, how cricket with its conflict between batsman and bowler is like classical Greek drama, how the game has a zeitgeist of its own, how it rose with Edwardian prosperity to the Golden Age, and how it dwindled post-1914, with the decline of British imperial ambition. How the batting of Colin Cowdrey, Tom Graveney and Peter May, pre-occupied with defence, were like the Welfare States.

This is partly rosy retrospection and partly blatant opportunistic disregard for contrary examples. Stonewallers were aplenty in cricket’s golden age. The post-1914 phase produced Wally Hammond and Denis Compton among others.  And the fifties and sixties were not entirely shorn of exciting batsmen.

The primary heroes of the book, apart from Constantine and Headley, are three. Thomas Hughes, author of Tom Brown’s Schooldays, Thomas Arnold, the 19th century headmaster of Rugby, and WG Grace. Three pivotal characters who supposedly defined their eras with all the ideal codes of civilisation. And finally, James wrote that the series in 1960-61, which saw Richie Benaud’s Australians take on Frank Worrell’s West Indians, heralded the return of the golden age.

The romanticism associated with the 1890-1914 England is almost puerile in parts. Stating the names of KS Ranjitsinhji, CB Fry, GK Chesterton, Bernard Shaw, Joseph Chamberlain and others, James ends by saying “even in crime it produced the unique figure of Horatio Bottomley” — and argues the Golden Age was a product of this society. Again, counter examples are blatantly ignored.

There are many flaws with James’s selective reasoning.

The last lines of the book describe the celebrations in honour of the West Indians as they make their way back after the Australian tour, defeated in the series but winner of hearts. James talks of Worrell as: “Clearing the way with bat and ball, West Indians at that moment had made a public entry into the comity of nations. Thomas Arnold, Thomas Hughes and the Old Master himself would have recognised Frank Worrell as their boy.”

This is quite preposterous. Neither Arnold nor Hughes would have claimed Worrell as his own. Ian Buruma has meticulously documented the religious fanaticism of Arnold. Hughes was a moralist and extremely parochial. Grace, of course, could have accepted Worrell, but that remains conjecture, and certainly not scholarly argument that the book masquerades as.

The re-creation of the myth of the Greek sports is, again, conveniently selective — which is necessary to link it to the rise of cricket in nineteenth-century.

What is overlooked is that the ancient Greek Olympics were confined to athletes of pure Greek blood and similarly the Englishmen of the 1890s toyed with the idea of Anglo-Saxon Olympiad. Promoter J Astley Cooper wrote ‘the honours which it affords should be those for which the flower of the Race would chiefly strive.’ So much for the 1890-1914 society and the generation of the Golden Age holding the key to emancipation.

Hence, James’s fascination — mostly bookish — for the late-19th century British sporting values, connected with ancient Greek Olympics, especially as a means to the antidote for evils of racial bias, turns out to be extremely farfetched.

James speaks of how love for cricket and English literature is akin to the boys in ancient Greece combining poetry and games. He argues that the importance given to sports in Greece was second to none. Poets wrote odes to athletes, and philosophers spoke of the virtues of the games. James uses this to argue that it would be intellectual snobbery to disregard the achievements of Grace, Bradman or Headley. He seems to take it for granted that the English inherited the sporting baton from the platonic ideal of the Greeks.

There are several flaws in the reasoning, of which we will look at two.

Greek Olympiads had no team games. Only champions were honoured and winning was everything the Greeks cared about. The aesthetics, spirit and records of cricket, the team game about which James waxes eloquent, was completely alien to Greek thought. Headley stood like a giant in defeat after defeat, and James wrote pages eulogising him. To the Greeks it would not have made any sense. There was no place for Olympic records in ancient Greece — the documentation of metre and second is a product of the modern Games. This is in stark contrast to cricket, a game built around records. Winners in Greece did not hanker after the symbolic laurel wreath. They were awarded with cash, large quantities of it, equivalent to several years of pay and free meals for life. There was no glorious amateur spirit of the Golden Age associated with their quest for the olive branch. The loser, valiant as may be, seldom found a mention in the ditties.

Finally, these Greeks were very exclusive people. They had slaves, the very evil from which James’ ancestors had just managed to extract themselves. They were secluded and racially biased, hardly the type of emancipation that James was trying to promote.

VS Naipaul, reviewing Beyond A Boundary, wrote that James’ reference to the code of the English public school was so dripping with eulogies that “twenty years ago the colonial who wrote those words might have been judged to be angling for an OBE or MBE.”

While as socio-political history and as snapshots of cricketers and cricket in the West Indies it has excellent points, the book becomes extremely convoluted and confusing when he mixes the all these and sees cricket as the way to achieving every political desire.

Later years

In 1956, James got married, for the third and final occasion, to Selma Weinstein, a young member of the Johnson-Forest Tendency. Two years later, he went back to Trinidad and edited The Nation newspaper for the pro-Independence People’s National Movement party. He immersed himself in Pan-African movement, citing the Ghana revolution as rationale for unified anti-colonial revolution — James himself was a close friend of Kwame Nkrumah. He also successfully advocated for the captaincy of Frank Worrell and voiced support for forming the West Indian Federation. All the while, Beyond a Boundary was being written.

James later returned to Great Britain, and in 1968 was invited to USA again, and taught at the University of the District of Columbia.

He spent his last days in Brixton, London, and wrote intermittent pieces on cricket — along with all his other works — till 1985. His final article was on Ian Botham and David Gower, two English cricketers who for obvious reasons captured his fancy. “The infallible sign of greatness is that somewhere in his methods he is breaking the rules, or if not rules, the practices of his distinguished equals,” James concluded about Botham.

James passed away in London on May 31, 1989. His was buried at his native Tunapuna, Trinidad. A state memorial service was held in his honour at the National Stadium, Port-of-Spain.

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix