There is a photograph of C L R James – always C L R, never Cyril Lionel Robert – taken when he was eighteen and reproduced in John L Williams’s fascinating, highly readable if sometimes frustrating biography. The young man, surrounded by contemporaries, stands six foot three – tall now, and even more so just at the cusp of the 1920s, when the picture was taken – and looks lean, languid and handsome, replete with bow tie. Born in Trinidad, James was to become famous as a Trotskyist, cricket writer and historian, travelling regularly between the Caribbean, Europe and the United States. But from the off he was also an aesthete, someone who in his writing might appear preoccupied with the proletarian struggle but in practice preferred the sublime.
‘Never a man afflicted by false modesty’, according to Williams, James was widely acknowledged as the cleverest boy in Trinidad, and much was expected of him. At just nine, he won a scholarship to Queen’s Royal College (QRC), one of the island’s most prestigious schools, which might have set him on the path to an elite education in the motherland. The son of a headmaster and the great-grandson of a slave, James was ‘a peasant by origin’, in the words of the eminent Barbadian novelist George Lamming, ‘a colonial by education, a Victorian with the rebel seed’. The rebel seed soon flowered. To his father’s frustration, James, obsessed as a teenager with French literature, concentrated on Hugo, Lamartine and Balzac, to the detriment of his maths. He read like a maniac but went off-piste and failed too many exams. His most notable achievement at QRC was breaking the school’s high-jump record.
Marooned in Trinidad, James became a teacher, escorting the future Edward VIII around QRC on an inspection. He formed a close relationship with a similarly culturally avaricious Trinidadian, Alfred Mendes, with whom he swapped volumes of Chekhov and recordings of Brahms, Debussy and Beethoven (Williams seems curiously uninterested in James’s high cultural pursuits). He was politicised in part by the cruel gradation of Trinidadians according to skin tone, which was particularly obvious in the island’s numerous cricket clubs, and became interested in the life of Toussaint Louverture, the leader of the Haitian Revolution of 1791.
He finally arrived in London in 1932, ‘no longer that model of all propriety, a teacher’. There, he became a literary peacock, wowing the likes of Edith Sitwell. Of his Bloomsbury life, he noted, ‘both by instinct and by training I belong to it and have fit into it as naturally as a pencil fits into a sharpener’. London girls were well disposed to ‘coloured’ men, he observed, though he found the men boorish. It was in the capital of empire that he met and collaborated with the great American actor, singer and activist Paul Robeson, a brilliant man whose reputation has been tainted by his dubious political convictions and connections.
From London he headed to Nelson, near Burnley, in Lancashire, encouraged by his friend and compatriot the cricketer Learie Constantine, who was earning a good living from the semi-professional Lancashire League. Neville Cardus, a working-class Lancastrian made good, equally immersed in cricket and classical music, offered James work as a cricket correspondent for the Manchester Guardian. Harry Spencer, another friend from Nelson, gave him the modern equivalent of £6,000, with which he headed in 1933 to Paris to research the life of Louverture. The result, The Black Jacobins, inspired by Trotsky’s account of the Russian Revolution and finally published in 1938, stands up remarkably well and has inspired a flurry of recent research on the Haitian Revolution.
By this time a fully fledged Trotskyist, James headed in 1938 to America. The account of his time there is the least satisfying part of the book, often reading like an extended riff on Monty Python’s ‘People’s Front of Judea’ spoof, but without the laughs. This is not the fault of Williams, who manages as well as anyone possibly could to untangle the spider’s web of pointless political intrigues that James and his cohorts indulged in, but one despairs at the waste of James’s time, talent and energy.
Returning to England in July 1953, he became a ‘Hampstead man’, which suited him, and embarked on his other masterpiece, Beyond a Boundary. This is widely regarded as the finest book ever written about cricket, though it is much more than that. A meditation on the phrase ‘What do they know of cricket, who only cricket know?’, it was inspired by the time he had spent as a child shacked up with his grandmother and two aunts in the north of Trinidad. ‘By standing on a chair a small boy of six could watch practice every afternoon and matches on Saturdays … Thus early the pattern of my life was set’, he wrote.
V S Naipaul, a younger Trinidadian of similarly remarkable literary gifts, was among those who praised Beyond a Boundary, describing it as ‘one of the finest and most finished books to come out of the West Indies’. But Naipaul, to whom Williams gives short shrift, cast a long shadow over James’s life. James wrote of his affection and admiration for the younger man. But Naipaul followed his own path. While James almost drowned in far-left politics, Naipaul went the other way, into ‘high society’, as Williams puts it. In doing so, he was perhaps more true to himself than James. James produced two fine works; Naipaul won the Nobel Prize, producing one cold-eyed masterpiece after another.
Beyond a Boundary has never been out of print. Its admirers have included John Arlott, the greatest of cricket commentators, David Gower, whose graceful batting style James adored, and Ian Botham. The last two regularly visited him in his Brixton flat, situated above the offices of Race Today, during his long dotage. He remained an optimistic, eloquent advocate of far-left theories and pan-Africanism, though was suspicious, like many Marxists of his age, of the rabbit hole of identity politics.
His aesthetic judgement remained finely honed up until his death in 1989 at the age of eighty-eight. He was delighted by the gift of Glenn Gould’s recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, presented to him by Edward Said. Typically, James was far more interested in Said’s career as a classical pianist than in his theory of Orientalism. By the end of his life, he had whittled down his passions to what he thought the very best: Michelangelo and Leonardo; Bach, Beethoven and Mozart. His unapologetic embrace of high culture was itself a form of radicalism. C L R James remained a revolutionary to the end.