A game for everyone?

5 months ago 114

“I’ll never come to this house again when the West Indies are playing!” Thus, Andrew, a schoolfriend of my uncle’s, in 1976. He had just watched, on television, England getting trounced by their touring opponents at the Oval – and had done so in the company of my grandfather Roy Nelson, the Jamaican owner of the house, who roared with joy at the commanding 231-run victory.

Roy was one of many celebrating that day. Having served his “Mother Country” in the Second World War, he settled in Britain after demobilization. In climes that were cold in every way, cricket, which he’d played as a boy, was a way of keeping in touch with the world he’d left behind. Books and writing helped too. My grandmother recalls how Roy bought every newspaper the day after a big Windies fixture, and set up stumps in the driveway so that the local kids could imagine themselves star players. His relationship with cricket was in the head as well as the heart.

That was also true for C. L. R. James, as the Trinidad-born historian and activist observes in Beyond a Boundary – “a personal record of a journey through cricket country” originally published sixty years ago and reissued in 1983. Taking its author from Trinidad to Britain and on to the US before returning to its island origins, the book homes in on individuals and epochs and crosses genres, like much of James’s writing about Caribbean and world history. The result is a classic of cultural analysis and self-exploration.

James begins by telling us what he has to say in Beyond a Boundary, and what it is he will not be saying: there will be “neither cricket reminiscences nor autobiography”. Instead, and riffing ironically on Kipling’s “The English Flag” (“what should they know of England who only England know?”), he poses the question: “What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?” To find the answer “Caliban” James will be forced to “pioneer into regions Caesar never knew”.

James’s framing alerts us to the argument that the book will seek to make: that cricket is “part of the historical movement of the times”, both artistic and political. It also introduces, by way of reference to Shakespeare’s “abhorred slave” and the man who twice invaded Britain, an interplay between England and classical Europe on the one hand, and the Caribbean on the other, that runs to the final sentence. But at the start, and despite his protestations to the contrary, James cleaves to reminiscence, recalling how, as a child in Tunapuna,

Recreation meant cricket … Our house was superbly situated, exactly behind the wicket … By standing on a chair a small boy of six could watch practice every afternoon and matches on Saturday … From the chair also he could mount on to the window-sill and so stretch a groping hand for the books on the top of the wardrobe. Thus early the pattern of my life was set.

Literature and cricket thus formed a window on the world that never entirely closed. Given a bat and ball by his father, once a fine cricketer himself, James is introduced to reading by his mother. His development is hastened by admittance to the Queen’s Royal College in Port of Spain. There, opportunities for reading English, French, Latin and Greek, and playing, are “thrown wide open”. Playing is not just pleasure, but politics. On the pitch Trinidad’s “heterogeneous jumble” of white, black, mulatto and Indian “learned to play with the team … Eton or Harrow had nothing on us”.

In a letter to V. S. Naipaul, another QRC alumnus, in 1963, James described Beyond a Boundary as “West Indian through and through, particularly in the early chapters”, but also “very British”: “Not only the language but on page after page the (often unconscious) literary references, the turn of phrase, the mental and moral outlook”. “That”, he concluded, “is what we are, and we shall never know ourselves until we recognize that fully and freely and without strain.” The strain shows when James remembers himself as “a British intellectual long before … ten, already an alien in my own environment among my own people, even my own family”. No doubt he takes some pride in embodying those two words – “British intellectual” – yet the divisions of self that could be produced by an education designed by the Colonial Office leaves the reader wondering what other feelings were provoked.

Newly arrived in England in 1932, James is invited up to Nelson, just north of Burnley, by Learie Constantine, later the first Black peer, but at that point “the only coloured man” in the small Lancashire town. There he becomes a cricket writer for the Guardian and reflects that the sport “plunged me into politics long before I was aware of it”. Being in England enables him to grasp cricket’s historical dynamics. As Toussaint L’Ouverture, in James’ telling, started low and rose to lead the Black Jacobins, so cricket, that “genuinely national art form”, was “created by the yeoman farmer, the gamekeeper, the potter, the tinker … men of hand and eye”, not “rich and idle young noblemen”. There are lively portraits of high-achieving cricketers (George Headley, Wilton St Hill), though the man James credits with making the modern game is, unsurprisingly, W. G. Grace, “strong with the strength of men who are filling a social need”, who held his “bat like an axe”.

When Beyond a Boundary was published the BBC commentator John Arlott, writing in Wisden, called it “the finest book written about the game of cricket”. Naipaul, notwithstanding his vexed relationship with Caribbean letters, praised it as “one of the finest and most finished books to come out of the West Indies”. (In September 1963 James wrote to Naipaul thanking him for his Encounter review, and for making a point the book overlooked: that “cricket represented style, grace and other elements of culture in a society which had little else of the kind”.) Two decades later Derek Walcott told readers of the New York Times that Beyond a Boundary “should find its place on the team with Izaak Walton, Ivan Turgenev, A. J. Liebling, and Ernest Hemingway”.

Re-reading the book in 2023, one wonders how James would have reacted to cricket’s belated inclusion in the Olympic Games from 2028. He ranked it above every other sport, after all. One also can’t help noticing that his designation of the cricketer as “he” belies the long participation of women and the surge in popularity for the women’s game in recent years – in its own way a boundary broken. But it is what he has to say about race that lingers, especially in light of the report published in June this year by the Independent Commission for Equity in Cricket (ICEC). Drawing on testimony from more than 4,000 people involved in the sport in England, the report found that racism, sexism and elitism were “entrenched” and “widespread”. (The England and Wales Cricket Board, the governing body, has since pledged a raft of changes, including a new regulator and “enhanced” equality, diversity and inclusion education.)

James maintains that “the clash of race, caste and class did not retard but stimulated West Indian cricket”. It also marked his experience of the game. From childhood’s window he admires a “brownish Negro” batsman. In “The Light and the Dark”, a chapter on the cricket clubs of his youth, James relives the dilemma of choosing between Shannon, “the club of the black lower-middle class”, or Maple, “the club of the brown-skinned middle class”. (Queen’s Park and Shamrock, home to white people and a few “members of the old well-established mulatto families”, were out of his league.) And as a newspaper editor in Trinidad he wages a successful battle to end the colour bar, kept in place through “constant, vigilant, bold and shameless manipulation of players”, and install Frank Worrell as the first black captain of the West Indies. Because of those experiences James has no time for racists. But nor is he much of an activist himself, bemoaning his friend Constantine’s “tendency (‘rather a pity’) to lay emphasis on racial discrimination” in his later years. “There was racialism in cricket, there is racialism in cricket, there will always be racialism in cricket”, he observes unemotionally. “But there ought not to be.”

“Born to become a game for everyone”, said John Major in his foreword to the ICEC report. C. L. R. James might well add: “and for everything”. “What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?”, he asks again towards the end of Beyond a Boundary. “West Indians crowding to Tests bring with them the whole past history and future hopes of the islands.” Perhaps my grandfather’s passion for cricket was a matter not just of keeping alive the past, but also of bringing about a better future. Beyond a Boundary shows us how far a bat and ball can take a man. To underplay that would not be cricket.

Franklin Nelson is an editor and writer at the Financial Times

The post A game for everyone? appeared first on TLS.

Read Entire Article