Beyond a Boundary – Half a Century onMartin Chandler |
I would have liked to call this article It was fifty years ago today. The comparison would have been fitting. A play on the opening words of the title track of one of the most acclaimed albums of all time introducing an article about the most lauded cricket book ever written. The fact that I am unable to do so is because I cannot, with absolute certainty, establish the exact date on which CLR James’ seminal Beyond a Boundary first hit the nation’s bookstalls. That said I am confident that I am not far away, as sometime newspaper editor turned cricket writer, historian and herdsman Andrew Renshaw assures me that his birthday money, received at the beginning of May 1963, enabled him to purchase his copy on publication, a few days after his celebration.
In light of the importance of James’ contribution to cricket literature it must be right to start any article about Beyond a Boundary with the thoughts of today’s pre-eminent writer on the game, David Frith, and Cricketweb are particularly grateful to him for sharing his views with us:-
I’ve long ago lost count of the number of people who have murmured what a remarkable book is C.L.R.James’s “Beyond a Boundary”. Many have proclaimed it to be the greatest of the lot. Since there just happen to be over 10,000 cricket books, that is some statement.
Most of us have a mischievous element about us, and one way in which mine expresses itself is by asking these same people when did they actually read this book, or perhaps even how many times had they read it? To my amusement, the reply more often than not takes the form of a confession: “Well, I haven’t actually read it.” Then, after an embarrassed pause: “But I certainly intend to read it some time soon!”
Much of the responsibility for this fog-enshrouded ranking lies at the feet of John Arlott. In the book reviews section of the 1964 Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack he wrote: “1963 has been marked by the publication of a cricket book so outstanding as to compel any reviewer to check his adjectives several times before he describes it and, since he is likely to be dealing in superlatives, to measure them carefully to avoid over-praise – which this book does not need. It is “Beyond a Boundary”, by C.L.R.James and, in the opinion of this reviewer, it is the finest book written about the game of cricket.”
Arlott, king among commentators and no mean prose-writer and poet himself, went on to name two other top-shelf cricket volumes: John Nyren’s early classic Young Cricketer’s Tutor (specifically the Cricketers of My Time section) and Hugh de Selincourt’s novel The Cricket Match. But James’s book, he believed, was more profound than either. Indeed, he knew of no book on any sport which compared. It cannot be ruled out that John was heavily influenced by CLR’s political stance, which was some way left of centre.
This, then, remains the ultimate claim on behalf of any cricket book. But it was penned nigh on half-a-century ago. Since then, tons and tons of cricket books have been published, some of high class, some just about worthy of the reader’s attention, and others an insult to intelligent men. What, then, is the substance of the book? Years after first reading it, my principal recall is of some fascinating insights into school cricket and unusual players in Trinidad and profiles of some world-famous West Indies players, shifting to a broader sweep which includes references to George Headley’s bowel motions on a match day. Now that, as far as I could tell, was a subject never touched upon in the game’s literary history.
CLR was a revolutionary, fighting (with words) the black man’s cause, while broadmindedly relishing the virtues of classic English literature and culture. This could be confusing, until you accepted him as a man of broad intellect and soul. His heroes were both black and white. That’s quite rare. He was very well read.
I went to see him in the 1980s, at a small gathering in Brixton, sitting at his knee as he spoke of this and that in a high-pitched voice that sounded like fingernails scraping over glass. An exceptionally tall octogenarian with a great mop of white hair, he signed my copy of his famous book, and further personally inscribed his Modern Politics and Radical America.
“What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?” That has become the talismanic sentence from this classic book. Well, sir, the way politicians continue to mess the world up, maybe cricket is the only thing worth knowing, notwithstanding the despicable way its followers are so often treated by some who have grasped the responsibility of running the game.
Frith may be a cricket tragic, but he is undoubtedly sane. A near contemporary of his, Major Rowland Bowen, was another cricket tragic, although he was most certainly not entirely sane. This article is neither the time nor the place to discuss Bowen’s foibles, or his status as a cricket historian. But the erudite and scholarly Cricket Quarterly, which was published under his aegis between 1963 and 1971, and noted for what were without question the most acerbic reviews of cricket books ever written, described Beyond a Boundary simply as in the settled opinion of this reviewer, the best book on cricket that has ever been written.
Barbados-born Professor Keith Sandiford, an alumnus of the University Of West Indies amongst other renowned seats of learning, spent almost all of his working life teaching history at the University of Manitoba in Canada. Now enjoying his retirement, although perhaps not as much as he would wish the performances of his beloved West Indies, Professor Sandiford told Cricketweb:-
I regard CLR as unarguably the brightest of all Trinidadians. He was at once a novelist, playwright, philosopher, historian, sociologist and political activist. He is fondly remembered variously as music critic, editor of eclectic journals, lecturer on diverse subjects and cricket correspondent. There was, indeed, no facet of the human experience in which the great “Nello” did not manifest a keen and lively interest.
Among his umpteen articles, pamphlets and books, the best known and perhaps the most influential of his works are “The Black Jacobins” (1938), the seminal study of the Haitian Revolution, and “Beyond a Boundary” (1963) which literally spawned a new genre of scholarly writing — the historical sociology of sport. This latter masterpiece has led a multitude of scholars to ask ourselves: “What do we know of modern culture who only cricket know?” I have also been asking myself and others “What can we, who do not cricket know, really know of Caribbean society?”
It was James who forced me to rethink my cricket, my history, my politics and my sociology. He is one of the few people whom I have profoundly regretted never having met. His writing has always left me marvelling at the profundity of his thought and the phenomenal range of his knowledge. He was the Aristotle of his generation, for no other thinker of the 20th century, so far as I am aware, has written so well on such a wide spectrum of topics, Few scholars of any age have treated the emotional subjects of class, race and gender with CLR James’s understanding and sympathy.
The most obvious thing that Frith, Bowen and Sandiford have in common is that they were there when Beyond a Boundary happened. Does the book mean the same to those who came afterwards? Stuart Wark reviewed the book for Cricketweb in 2007. Stuart’s review amply illustrates the importance of the book, but makes the telling observation …. it seems popular to now criticise “Beyond a Boundary” for being overly intellectual, complicated and difficult to read. These criticisms are not without some merit, but they are to overlook the point of the book. It is a product of a time of massive change, of social, political and economic upheaval.
David Taylor is another who first encountered the book many years after publication; It was only about a year ago that I finally got around to purchasing “Beyond a Boundary”, which I know is one of the most acclaimed books on cricket ever written. It soon became apparent that this was like no other cricket book I’d read, indeed, as John Arlott noted in his review in Wisden 1964, “to some it may not seem like a cricket book at all.” Arlott lavished praise on the book and it’s not difficult to see why he, a well-read man, would have been so impressed, but it is hard going in places for those of us accustomed to more lightweight offerings from the last thirty years or so.
The book is partly autobiographical and it is clear that James was no bad player himself, although he never played at first-class, or as he usually refers to it, inter-colonial level. He was friendly with George Headley and Learie Constantine and spent much time with Constantine in England; what he has to say about these two is always worth reading. His piece on the little-known Wilton St Hill makes me wish I’d seen him in action, while the fast bowler George John sounds a singular character. There’s plenty, too, on those iconic figures Garfield Sobers and Frank Worrell, who was interviewed by James shortly after the famous 1960-61 tour of Australia.
Perhaps I’m one of those “who only cricket know.” I enjoyed this book very much while James was dealing with the cricket, but I was less taken with the politics and the philosophy. A chapter running to 23 pages entitled ‘What is Art?’ was far from a page-turner for me, while others with titles in Latin were equally off-putting. I wouldn’t want to come across as some character from an HM Bateman cartoon, “The Man who tried reading ‘Beyond a Boundary’ and found he didn’t enjoy it all that much” while learned critics look on in horror; I understand that it’s an important work, but I wonder whether it is widely read these days, and if not, whether there’s a need for it to be discovered by the IPL generation.
To spread the net wider I asked Archie Mac what he thought of the book and, the man who set up Cricketweb’s Book Review section, is rather more Taylor than Frith, commenting:-
I first heard of this book while reading Brian Crowley’s Cavalcade of Cricketers, which he listed as one of the three best books ever written about cricket, – frustratingly he did not list the other two! – so I quickly added “Beyond a Boundary” to my bucket list.
By the time I finally secured a copy, some 12 years later, I had a severe case of deja vu, as it seems every second anthology that I had read featured at least one piece culled from James’ book, which may be a poignant assessment of the book’s quality. As I had spent far too many hours hungrily devouring every book I could afford on the greatest of all games and anthologies tend to be reasonably priced, they made up a large portion of my then pauper’s cricket book collection.
I found the book itself to be beautifully written, if heavily opinionated and I can still recall the writing on Constantine, which inspired me to track down biographies on arguably the greatest ever all-rounder. Although perhaps the piece of writing that has stayed with me most, is his incredulous response to USA College basketball players on the “take” and how much importance James placed on the ethics of cricket.
In the end I think I waited too long, or I simply built up “Beyond a Boundary” too much in my mind. I would not say I was disappointed because I did enjoy the book, however it would simply not make my own top ten list let alone the top three as Brian Crowley, and for that matter many other distinguished cricket writers and historians had ranked it.
I hate to admit it, but I find myself agreeing with another cricket tragic who wrote “Beyond a Boundary” would be twice the book if half the length.
I was beginning to thing that perhaps there is a generational divide, but then asking Dave Wilson his opinion reminded me that nothing is that simple. Dave’s comments on Beyond a Boundary suggest that the age at which the book is read may be of more significance:-
I can’t remember exactly when I first read the book, but I do recall I was going through a bit of an intellectual phase, and it appealed to me on more than one level, as it is part-philosophical, part-autobiographical and part-cricket.
Chapter headings such as “What Do Men Live By” and “What is Art?” were enough to satisfy my more cerebral longings, however in the final analysis it is James’s discussions on cricket which are what has given the book its lasting appeal. He brings to life his heroes of old such as Wilton St Hill and George Challenor, and of course much is shared on his lifelong friendship with the great Learie Constantine.
James has interesting points to make on the genesis of Bodyline, in that the tactics employed were of their violent time rather than to stop one man. He also intimates that if Hobbs had been born in 1910 England would have produced their own Bradman, so much had the times changed.
But it is the section on WG Grace which I enjoyed most. James admirably assesses his place in history as well as cricket, and the times and people which produced the game in the grandly titled “Prolegomena to WG”. It is perhaps ironic that Grace would never have read such a book – James tells a story of the great man rebuking another player for reading in the dressing room with a withering “I am never caught that way!”
For me the acquisition of a first edition of Beyond a Boundary, shortly after I acquired my 1964 Wisden in the mid 1980s, was my first “collector’s item”. Encouraged by Arlott’s superlatives I immediately opened the book, but found it slow going, and the arrival of a long-awaited copy of Harold Larwood’s 1965 autobiography displaced it in my reading list and, despite a couple more false starts in the interim, it wasn’t until this article was first mooted a few months ago that I actually completed it, just in time to avoid falling prey to David Frith’s “mischievous element”.
At the end of the day it is with some diffidence that I find I have to agree with David and Archie. I did greatly enjoy parts of the book, but was left scarcely moved by others. I wondered whether it might simply be a little dated, and like many publications of the period not stood the test of time quite as well as it might have. But on reflection I don’t think that is the answer. It seems to me that the simple truth is that Beyond a Boundary has reaped what it sowed. James, to a greater or lesser extent, whether directly or indirectly, has influenced every worthwhile cricket writer that followed him and the inevitable consequence is that to David, Stuart, Archie and myself his magnum opus did not break new ground in the way that it did for Messrs Frith, Bowen, Sandiford and their contemporaries. It might have been different had it been, as it was for Dave, one of our earliest forays into the literature of the game, but as time marches on new readers will increasingly start with the 21st century perspectives of the Gideon Haighs and Michael Athertons of this world, rather those of CLR James. I will therefore concede that the impact of Beyond a Boundary may not be what it once was, but I am equally certain that its importance is undiminished.