Appreciating James


Appreciating James

IN the winter of 1959-60, the West Indies hosted England for a five match Test series. As the teams went from island to island, they were followed around by a burning controversy about the home side's captaincy. The man at the helm was F.C.M. ("Gerry") Alexander, a fine wicket-keeper-batsman and Cambridge Blue who happened to be White-skinned. Among the people playing under Alexander was Frank Worrell, who was not only more skilled at the game than the Cambridge man, but also possessed a wider experience and a more subtle cricketing intelligence. C.L.R. James, then the editor of The Nation of Trinidad, thought this an abomination. "The idea of Alexander captaining a side on which Frank Worrell is playing," he wrote, "is to me quite revolting." "Man for Man," insisted James, "the West Indies team is as good as or even better than the M.C.C.. It is bad captaincy that is causing us to be scrambling as we are doing."

The next year the West Indies were to make a trip Down Under, their first for 10 years. Who would take them on this arduous tour? James had no doubt that it should be Frank Worrell rather than Alexander.

"I hereby give notice I shall not let this question rest until it is corrected," he thundered: "This fooling with West Indies' captaincy has gone on too long."

In the event, Worrell was appointed captain of the side to tour Australia. But James's joy was tempered somewhat by a letter he received from the respected cricket critic John Arlott. The letter, posted on December 7, 1960, gently informed James that the firm of British publishers whom Arlott advised could not see their way to printing his book Who Only Cricket Knows. This — and I speak as one who has received many such — was a typical publisher's letter of rejection, poison delivered in a sugar coating. It was a "very good book indeed", wrote Arlott, but "cricket book sales — apart from star reminiscences and the occasional Neville Cardus — are struggling nowadays ... " The letter ended with a piece of advice intended to console but designed only to hurt: "I wonder if printed and published in the West Indies it might be a worthwhile proposition."

James was, as he put it, by now "hardened by rejection". However, two days after John Arlott wrote to him the first Test between the West Indies and Australia began in Brisbane. This match was marked by thrilling cricket and ended in a tie.

The other Tests were also well contested, and the series is still regarded as perhaps the most exciting in cricket history. The veteran Australian writer Jack Fingleton, to whom James had sent a draft of his manuscript, told him that "you will be able to add now a final chapter that I think will round it off — the classical success of Frank Worrell, not only as a captain and a team man, but as diplomat".

The chapter was added, the title changed, and in 1963 Hutchinson of London published C.L.R. James's Beyond a Boundary. Reviewing the book in The Observer, Alan Ross remarked that Beyond a Boundary's "range exceeds that of most books on sport". Here, for the first time, had a writer "established cricket in its proper visual, as well as literary context". Filled with "incidental pleasures and fascinating insights", this was "a remarkable book, though one marred here and there by a disfiguring militancy".

The review in the Sunday Times was written by Ross's own mentor, R.C. Robertson-Glasgow. He too found the writer's left-wing views sometimes hard to stomach. "As for Mr. James's excursions into politics," he remarked, "I see his points; but I prefer his cricket." However, once it came to the game these British liberals would set aside ideological differences. Robertson-Glasgow thus speaks of James as "a cricket writer of distinction and conscience", whose work is marked by "strong observation, loving memory and a dignity that never swells into pomposity". All in all, "this book is as individual as some national drink; or as the batting of Constantine".

Ross and Robertson-Glasgow were among the most respected English cricket writers of their time. James cherished their praise, but he would have discounted, either, the appraisal of his judgmental fellow Trinidadian V.S. Naipaul. Writing in the September 1963 issue of Encounter magazine, Naipaul compared the book to Nirad Chaudhuri's Autobiography of an Unknown Indian. Like that book, James's work was "part of the cultural boomerang from the former colonies, delayed and still imperfectly understood". "Let us rejoice over what he has given us," said Naipaul, for "Beyond a Boundary is one of the finest and most finished books to come out of the West Indies, important to England, important to the West Indies. It has a further value: it gives a base and solidity to West Indian literary endeavour."

Twenty years later, the first American edition of Beyond a Boundary was reviewed in the New York Times by a man with whom Naipaul has often been paired: Derek Walcott. (This, by the way, seems to be a double first for James: his book may be the only cricket book ever to be reviewed in America's premier newspaper, and also the only cricket book to be publicly praised by two future Nobel Laureates.)

One would like to reproduce the appreciation in its entirety but, again, one has to make do with meagre excerpts. Walcott called it "a noble book about poor, beautifully built, but socially desperate men", and drew particular attention to the richness of the historical analysis. Beyond a Boundary, wrote the poet, was a book "every writer should read", for within it was "the history of a colonial epoch: its rigours, its deprivations, and its pride".

Perhaps the most generous judgment, however, was that of John Arlott. When he first read it he thought it won't sell; but when he read it again after publication, he wrote in The Cricketer that "in the intellectual sense, it is quite the `biggest' book about cricket or, probably, any other game, ever written". This would have pleased James, but not necessarily surprised him. For he all along knew the extent of his achievement. When, in 1957, some young colleagues asked to read an early draft, he answered: "I defy (you) to read those first three chapters without at a certain stage being moved to tears." In my many readings of the book, I have been moved to tears by the later chapters as well.

The writer is the editor of the Picador Book of Cricket