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CLR James – The Black Plato

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Cyril Lionel Robert James, universally known simply as ‘CLR’ is, thanks to the acclaim heaped upon Beyond a Boundary, one of the best known names in cricket writing. Back in 2013, to mark the fiftieth anniversary of its release we published a feature on the subject of the book, and we have now republished that here to accompany this feature.

Born and brought up in a small town near Trinidad’s capital, Port of Spain, CLR’s father was a teacher, and his mother a habitual reader who helped to foster her son’s passion for literature. His strict upbringing made sure that CLR won an exhibition to enable him, at the age of nine, to attend Queen’s Royal College, the leading school on the island.

Although he might have been an outstanding scholar CLR, having succumbed to the temptations cricket offered, did not achieve all he might have at school. He was a good cricketer, a useful opening bowler and a competent batsman, although he never appeared at First Class level. CLR’s first career was as a teacher, for a time at his alma mater where, amongst others, he taught the future Test cricketers Victor and Jeffrey Stollmeyer, and the man who would later lead Trinidad to independence, Eric Williams.

During the 1920s CLR pursued his interest in cricket, and became a close friend of the great all-rounder Learie Constantine. He also did some writing in the press, and developed his interest in Marxism and his support for Andre Cipriani, a French Creole who built a strong labour movement in Trinidad.

In 1932, by which time he was 31, CLR decided to leave Trinidad for the UK. Constantine, by now one of the world’s best cricketers, invited CLR to join him in Nelson where he was a huge star in the Lancashire League. Part of the reasoning behind the move was to assist CLR to assist Constantine with writing his autobiography. When he arrived CLR had with him the initial manuscripts of two books, the first was the autobiography which, as Cricket and I, appeared in Constantine’s name in 1933. The other book was a biography of Cipriani.

Having arrived in Nelson Constantine introduced CLR to Neville Cardus. Cardus was shown a piece written by CLR after catching sight of the then 59 year old Sydney Barnes in a Lancashire League match. Much impressed Cardus made sure the piece appeared in the Manchester Guardian in September of 1932, and CLR was taken on to the newspaper’s staff.

After six years with the Manchester Guardian CLR travelled to North America. He met Leon Trotsky in Mexico, and lived in the US until 1953 when, his visa having run out, he was threatened with deportation if he did not leave. He did not obey immediately but returned to the UK after a period of internment. There was a reunion with both cricket and the Manchester Guardian. CLR remained then in the UK until 1958 at which point he was invited, by his former pupil Williams, to return to Trinidad as independence beckoned. The job he took was an opportunity to influence events as editor of a newspaper, The Nation.

One of the issues debated in the pages of The Nation was a tentative agreement reached, in 1959, for a private West Indian tour of South Africa. It is a curious episode that I have found it impossible to discover too much about. The essence of the story, which seems to have broken in the April, was that Frank Worrell had been persuaded to take a side to South Africa. It would be interesting to know exactly what was agreed, but whatever the conditions were they seem to have been acceptable to both the visitors and the South African government. Matches against multi-racial teams were planned, but the tourists would be subject to the usual laws of the land.

In April the tour was the subject of a letter published in The Nation. The writer of the missive in question was Constantine, by now returned to the country of his birth and involved in politics. Constantine was opposed to the tour. He believed that by agreeing to the conditions placed on them by the South African government the West Indies were, effectively, condoning apartheid, and in doing so that tacit approval would suggest to the rest of the world that apartheid was acceptable.

By the time I reached my adolescent years the constant repetition of arguments like Constantine’s had become that old mantra; no normal sport in an abnormal society and as the 1970s dawned the South Africans were, finally, sent into exile as a result of the plainly abhorrent apartheid policy. It came as a surprise to learn therefore, some years later, that CLR had disagreed with Constantine on the subject of the South African tour, and felt that Worrell and his men should have gone.

CLR’s view, articulated in a response in The Nation, was that the African people should not be denied their desire to measure themselves against the outside world. He did not accept the argument that agreeing the conditions demanded by the South African government implied acceptance of apartheid, and cited the example of his own experience supporting the sharecroppers in the southern USA. CLR made the point that during his six months in that community, organising strikes, he believed that his time spent subject to the strict segregation laws in force at the time served only to undermine those laws. The reply was not a short one. CLR spent around 800 words justifying his belief the tour should go ahead.

Something else that CLR wrote of the proposed tour was that the whole world is talking about it, which makes it all the more curious that the story seems to have disappeared. In particular no mention of the proposed tour appears in Michael Manley’s History of West Indian Cricket, nor Andre Odendaal’s Cricket – The History of an African Game, both important works where mention of such a tour might have been expected.

Of course the tour didn’t happen, although it is difficult to establish exactly what prevented it. Certainly the President of the BCCI, Ratilal Patel, spoke out strongly in support of the Constantine view, but eventually it was Worrell’s decision to abandon the project. Initially swayed by CLR, who was one of the great advocates of his being appointed as captain of the West Indies, the seed for the change of mind seems to have been sown in Worrell’s mind by an old acquaintance from his days as a Lancashire League professional, the English jazz musician and great cricket enthusiast Vic Lewis. When the pair met after the tour had been set up Lewis, a white man, had just returned from a tour of South Africa and was able to pass on to Worrell his first hand knowledge of just how bad conditions in the country were.

Other than his original letter I have not been able to find anything additional from CLR on the subject of the 1959 tour, but I suspect he was in a minority, and in time he certainly changed his views. Towards the end of his life, when he was living in Brixton in South London, CLR was interviewed by The Cricketer, and expressed his support for those who condemned the West Indian rebel tours to South Africa in strident terms; they have an unanswerable case. I don’t feel South Africa has made any progress with multi-racial sport. Black people who live there say they haven’t. I have been asked to go and told I could be smuggled out of the airport and shown the country, but I have always declined. The black intellectuals would be angry.

A year later CLR left The Nation, having fallen out with Williams on questions of the creation of a federation in the West Indies and a US Naval Base in Trinidad. He returned to London in 1962 and, of course, Beyond a Boundary was published the following year. CLR continued to travel and the extent of his influence is best illustrated when, in 1965, he visited Trinidad only to find his former friend Williams, then in conflict with the Unions, was prepared to place him under house arrest for fear of the problems CLR’s presence might cause. It was only the ensuing public outcry that secured CLR’s release.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s CLR moved between the UK, the US and Caribbean and also spent time in Africa where he was involved in independence movements that swept through that region as well as the Caribbean. He lectured widely and wrote extensively on political matters leaving him little time for cricket writing.

In 1981 CLR turned 80 and was invited to London by the Race Today Collective to make a short series of speeches. It was then that he decided to relocate to London, and he rented a small flat above the Race Today Collective offices in Brixton. He wrote for the organisation’s journal, and had more time to write about cricket. The man who The Times dubbed the Black Plato was 88 when he died in Brixton in 1989.

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