Saturday, 2 August 2014

Review of Beyond a Boundary by CLR James - jointly best sports book in my pantheon


(Note - the other best sports book I have read is reviewed here:


If you love cricket, you will already have heard of Beyond a Boundary by the black Trinidadian writer, CLR James (1901-1989) - but otherwise you may not have. It is a one-off wonderful book, with 'something about it', probably the style itself, which I have described as intoxicating.

If you read a biography, there is so much against CLR James ( that it is utterly amazing how he was able to write a masterpiece. Indeed, until I contributed to the Wikipedia entry, cricket was not even mentioned - the focus was entirely on James's revolutionary communism, black nationalism and the rest of it.

But James was brought up under the British Empire, in a Public School ethos for which he had an immediate and lasting affinity and never discarded; and this is one major reason for his success with Beyond a Boundary, which contains vivid and memorable accounts of such Victorian luminaries as Thomas Arnold (of Rugby School), William Makepeace Thackeray (author of the novel Vanity Fair) and WG Grace (the most famous and influential cricketer of all time).

James's writings on race in Trinidad are fascinating, and would probably be a revelation to Americans, I have little doubt - whose supposed 'one drop' definition of 'blackness' was both bizarre and unique in world history: Trinidad was much more representative of how multiracial societies used to organize things.

The social status in Trinidad was organized by shades of blackness - but modified by wealth, talent, beauty and other factors. For instance, James was a dark skinned black, for whom the cricket club was Shannon; but as he was very skilled at cricket (and also an academically-gifted scholarship boy at his private school)  - therefore he was invited to play for the lighter-skinned 'mulatto' cricket club Maple - and (after a crisis of conscience) he accepted the invitation.

Later, James was a secretary to the great all-rounder black Cricketer (lawyer and politician) Learie Constantine - who in the 1930s played as the professional in the club Nelson in the Lancashire Leagues (as well as being a nationally known figure back in Trinidad and also famous in England) - the two of them were just-about the only black men in Lancashire (the county which is focused on Manchester, and which forms the third largest and densest centre of population in England).

The whole book is an education and an enchantment in terms of its purity of idealism and lyrical celebration of cricket as the epitome of the best of Victorian values; and a mine of arcane information.