In search of CLR

The boyhood home of CLR James. PHOTO: John Young.

First published in Wisden Cricket Monthly, May 2015.

There is a C.L.R. James Institute in New York and a library in the London borough of Hackney but it’s hard to find signs of the author of cricket’s greatest book in his home town. John Young searched high and low.

 “Tunapuna at the beginning of this century was a small town of about 3,000 inhabitants, situated eight miles along the road from Port of Spain, the capital city of Trinidad. Like all towns and villages on the island, it possessed a recreation ground. Recreation meant cricket, for in those days, expect for infrequent athletic sports meetings, cricket was the only game. Our house was superbly situated, exactly behind the wicket. A huge tree on one side and another house on the other limited the view of the ground, but an umpire could have stood at the bedroom window. By standing on a chair a small boy of six could watch practice every afternoon and matches on Saturdays — with matting one pitch could and often did serve for both practice and matches. From the chair he could also 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.”

I was not quite as lucky as C.L.R. James in terms of the location of my bedroom window, but the house where I grew up was very close to the grounds in Port Elizabeth where Graeme Pollock played his league and provincial cricket. And so I came to love cricket. My parents also kept large numbers of books and in time, and encouraged by what I found in James, I came to love reading too.

James was born in 1901. In 2001 I visited Trinidad and decided to go in search of C.L.R. James, author of cricket’s greatest book, Beyond a Boundary. The extract printed above comprises the first few sentences of the book, to which James brings ‘his skills’, as Mike Brearley explains in a foreword to my well-worn edition, ‘as novelist, critic and social historian’.

When I followed the South African cricket team on their tour of the West Indies, James had been dead for three years. In the course of his long and active life, James made a massive contribution as an intellectual and activist to the great issues of the century. An active Marxist theorist, he was thrown out of the United States for trying to organise sharecroppers and led the campaign to have Frank Worrell as the first permanent black captain of the West Indies cricket team.

His writing was incredibly influential all over the world. I know that it helped shape my views on apartheid, cricket and politics. James was at least part of the reason I was writing about cricket on a tour of the Caribbean.

An endlessly fascinating book

After 1953 James lived in the United Kingdom and wrote about cricket for the Manchester Guardian and the Glasgow Herald. Beyond a Boundary appeared in 1963. It is an autobiography, a political treatise, a study of race and class, an explanation of the link between nationalism and cricket and a polemic on cricket as art. Novelist Louisa Young listed for Wisden Cricket Monthly some of its other concerns: literature, empire, masculinity, ancient Greece, communism, the West Indies, aunts, small boys, intellectual rigour and early 20th-century Englishness.

The book is endlessly fascinating. His demolition of the myth about West Indian cricketing success being based on ‘gay spontaneity’ helped me start to understand racism. James held up the example of a club in Trinidad, Shannon CC. “No Australian team,” wrote James, “could teach them anything in relentless concentration.” Television came to South Africa only in 1976, but sporadic film clips showing Viv Richards and his team in action built on what I had absorbed from Beyond a Boundary and banished forever the idea that black excellence was somehow unrelated to discipline and sustained effort.

All of this was an exciting prelude to getting a first glimpse of the Savannah, the big expanse of land —now the world’s biggest traffic circle—that in James’s time played host to several games of club cricket played simultaneously.

On the edge of the Savannah the Queen’s Royal College still proudly shows off its Victorian wedding cake façade. This is where James had ‘educated myself into a member of the British middle class with literary gifts and I had done it in defiance of all authority’.

But apart from the Savannah and the school building I could find no other trace of the literary and political giant’s legacy, not even in the town’s library. In the establishment citadel of the Queens Park Oval, there is similarly no sign of James.

The closest I came in Port of Spain to any reminder of C.L.R was a plate of chicken and chips at ‘Cyps’, a modest eatery on Cipriani Boulevard. James’s first book was about Captain Cipriani, the socialist mayor of Port of Spain who resisted British rule.

So, no monuments, but I was fortunate to meet some men who knew the great man. Cyril Austin, James’s nephew, had an explanation for the lack of any visible memorial. “Politically he mashed quite a number of people”, he told me on the telephone. Austin remembered that C.L.R. was revered by people outside the establishment. “We used to have street cars running here and nobody would take a fare [from him].”

Professor Lloyd Best at the memorial to CLR James. PHOTO: John Young.

When I travelled out to Tunapuna I heard that ‘the authorities’ had gone to considerable lengths to obliterate his legacy. The James house was still standing but it was very obviously not a monument and was almost derelict. At least I could still see the portentous window, but his political opponents had apparently built public buildings on the recreation ground deliberately to spite the legacy of C.L.R.

James had been a supporter of Eric Williams and the People’s National Movement (PNM) but they fell out to such an extent that when James returned to Trinidad to cover the 1965 tour by the Australians for the Observer and The Times he was put under house arrest.

At Tunapuna I had the great good fortune to have as a guide Professor Lloyd Best. When Best passed away in 2007, the research and teaching organisation he ran with such panache was renamed the Lloyd Best Institute of the West Indies. Gracious and tremendously knowledgeable, Best was also a man of strong convictions and I imagine a wonderful conversational sparring partner with James.

His home country did finally honour James. Shortly before his death he was awarded the Trinity Cross. The Oilfield Workers Union organized the funeral and saw to it that the award went with him into the ground, and James would probably have approved. In congratulating his great friend Learie Constantine on being appointed as a lord in 1969, James wrote that he had ‘no truck with lordships, etc’.

I wasn’t able to get to the southern town of San Fernando where the union has a C.L.R. James Education Centre but it was interesting to pick the brains of two West Indian players who had met the writer. Over lunch during a Test match, Joel Garner admitted to being a bit sceptical at first about meeting James, but thereafter always looking forward to going to Brixton whenever the West Indies team were in London.

Andy Ganteaume also met James in London when he was part of the West Indies touring team of 1957. When I spoke with Ganteaume, who was born in 1921, he also had a vague recollection of James as a player for Maple CC on the Savannah, ‘as a sort of quickie bowler’. Ganteaume was much clearer in his recollection of seeing Wilton St. Hill, one of the heroes of Beyond a Boundary, at the crease. Although Gaunteaume saw St. Hill ‘in decline’ he comprehensively agreed with James’s verdict on him as a batsman. “I saw him get a hundred against Maple. Believe me, I am glad I saw it.”

Andy Ganteaume: scored a century in his only Test then was omitted to make way for a white captain. Trinidad, 2015. PHOTO: John Young

James’s detailed descriptions of St. Hill’s batsmanship resonated with me as a boy because at the time I was in awe of Graeme Pollock. In Port Elizabeth, as in Port of Spain, ‘as soon as he started to stride to the wicket everyone stopped what he was doing and paid attention’.

Ganteaume famously scored a century in the only Test he ever played and then got left out in the next game because space had to be made to accommodate a white captain.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Beyond a Boundary is the detailed description of how each club represented a different notch on the precise social scale of Trinidad, minutely calibrated to align with gradations in skin colour and class. Queen’s Park Club and Shamrock were at one end of the scale in whiteness and wealth, Stingo were, in James’s words, ‘plebian … Totally black and no social status whatever.’ The categories were precise: Maple CC was for ‘brown-skinned middle class’, Shannon for the ‘black lower-middle class: the teacher, the law clerk, the worker in the printing office and here and there a clerk in a department store’.  Learie Constantine was a law clerk.

Spartan CC, Barbados, 2015. PHOTO: John Young

When the Test series moved on to Barbados, I had the rare pleasure of being shown around by former West Indies (and Western Province) opening batsman, Carlisle Best. As Best described each of Bridgetown’s cricket clubs and their historical roots I could hear echoes of Beyond a Boundary: Pickwick CC with the great stadium catering to the elite, Spartan CC for the black middle-class and the humble facilities of Empire for the working man, which nevertheless nurtured the likes of Weekes, Worrell and Hunte – and Best. Surrounded by a noisy boundary of corrugated iron, the Empire CC field is startlingly small. “We play threes and fours here,” Best announced, “because the field is not big enough for fours and sixes”.

Empire CC, Barbados, 2015. PHOTO: John Young.

The house where Frank Worrell grew up is just outside the boundary fence of the Empire CC. When I saw it in 2001 it was dilapidated. I am sad to report that when I was writing this article I looked on the internet for any evidence that something had been done to restore the home of this West Indian cricketing hero. Instead, I found an article dated August 2014 on the website of Nationnews with the headline, ‘Rescue plea’.

Cricket buffs who want to visit the homes of Worrell or C.L.R. James might have to move quickly. I think I was lucky to visit when I did.