- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 24, 2002

The game of cricket can strike the American mind as amusing, a combination of the quintessentially British spirit as in "playing with a straight bat," "winning World War I on the playing fields of Eton" and so on with a sport that in its slowness of execution and quirky language silly mid-on, short leg, bowling a maiden over or a googly has to be virtually incomprehensible.
In fact, cricket is not only a great game, as many a baseball journalist who has gone over and watched a few first-class matches has found out, but it is, or at least used to be before the current era of aggressiveness and bad manners, representative of British culture at its fairest and most discerning. Cricket has attracted complex thinkers to its reporting. The late Neville Cardus was both cricket correspondent and music critic of the then-Manchester Guardian, and his assistant cricket writer in the 1930s and 1950s was C.L.R. James, who doubled as a Marxist revolutionary.
Born in Trinidad in 1901, James (Cyril Lionel Robert for the curious, called "Nello" by his friends) may be best known on this side of the Atlantic for his book "The Black Jacobins" (1938) about Toussaint L'Ouverture's Haitian revolution. In Britain, the reader is likely to meet James for the first time in his early-1960s book, "Beyond a Boundary," a history much more personal than the political texts he turned out over the course of six decades and in which, as his new biographer, Farrukh Dhondy puts it, "ethics and art" are brought together. (The title alludes to hitting a cricket ball across, or over, the boundary of the pitch, something like a baseball home run.)
It is a book that once read is unlikely to be forgotten, James at his very best. He was the child of a black schoolmaster and his mother, an avid reader, led him to follow in her steps. He attended schools staffed by British teachers of high quality and received a rich eduction that extended to writing Latin verse. He disappointed in not getting a scholarship to a British university, which would have guaranteed a civil service post upon his successful return, and instead taught school until giving it up for a writing career at age 27 and leaving Trinidad in 1932, by which time his political radicalization had occurred.
My favorite recollection of reading "Beyond a Boundary" many years ago was James' connecting the swing of a cricket bat (or was it the arc of the bowler's arm delivering the ball?) with the spear-throwing movement of a prehistoric hunter as depicted in a cave painting at Lascaux or Altamira. This ability to make such arresting connections is key to understanding that while James was always "the revolutionary" as Mr. Dhondy puts it in his affectionate but also searching "C.L.R. James: A Life," his "politics were never divorced from the activity of civilization, be it highbrow music and literature or popular culture. James claimed the right to an intellectual ancestry that went back to the ancient Greeks… .
"In doing so he was telling blacks in the West that they were doomed to accept being a minority in a white world… . The history of the modern world had brought them, for good or for ill, to the West, to the islands of the Caribbean, to the mainland of the United States, to Britain and Europe, and there they must stay. Their destiny is part of this whole and no other."
The resulting paradox was that while James predicted the uprising of black peoples both in the Caribbean and here in the United States in the 1960s he would not subscribe to notions of black nationalism and Black Panther talk of violence or any kind of separatism. James wanted an egalitarian revolution, but he wanted it for all of the people. On this ground Mr. Dhondy finds the new fame that came James' way in old age an "undeserved fate."
James especially believed that America, where he spent much of the 1940s and 1950s, would herald the new socialist order; and despite thinking of himself as British he regarded the United States as the finest country in which he had lived. The egalitarian revolution he predicted hasn't happened here, of course. None of James' dreams have worked out, independence in the Caribbean leading rather to mayhem and destruction. (Black Africa tended to be beyond his reach, he didn't know enough about its traditions and ways.)
As Mr. Dhondy says, an uncharitable critic could argue of James that he went from country to country, being put up by friends and supporters, borne up by the love of women, while promising a world revolution that never materialized. V.S. Naipaul, another Trinidadian and who knew James in a guarded sort of way, partly modeled the character Lebrun in his novel "A Way in the World" on James. The portrait is not flattering, basically that of a con man.
In 1938, James took a leave of absence from his job on the Glasgow Herald to come to the United States and attend a conference of the Socialist Workers Party. The following year he traveled to Mexico and met Leon Trotsky. His years in America included a stormy second marriage to Constance Webb, the birth of a son and much political activism in different parts of the country. In 1952 he was deported after spending six months on Ellis Island, for having failed to regularize his immigration status.
Among James' Trinidadian friends in the runup to his deportation was Eric Williams, then a lecturer at Howard University and later prime minister of independent Trinidad. The two men were destined to fall out later, on account of James' political meddling back in Trinidad during the 1960s. Mr. Dhondy has crafted a chapter of his book with the title "Prospero's Island" and as if in the voice of Eric Williams. These pages give an indication of how James, a writer rather than a politician, could make a fool of, even endanger, himself on a bad day. When he visited Washington, he usually stayed with the Williamses:
"He came for the last time when he was being thrown out of the US. I could do nothing to help. I suggested he write to Anthony Eden, the Foreign Secretary in the British Cabinet, begging for his intervention. I said it to him as a joke.
"He took it seriously and wrote the letter.
"That was how foolish he had become. I should have read the signs. Eden's clerks replied saying that Eden could not agree that deportation to Britain was an undesirable fate."
James returned several times and quite legally to the United States in the 1970s and 1980s. Mr. Dhondy remembers taking him as an old man to the American Embassy in Grosvenor Square, where he was treated most politely, the attending official being that unlikely species, an American who loved cricket. "Revolution throws me out. Cricket gets me in," James cracked.
Mr. Dhondy, Indian-born and a former radical himself, is commissioning editor for multicultural programs for the British Broadcasting Corporation. He is author of an earlier book, "Bombay Duck" and children's books, plays and screenplays. He has done his subject honor and justice here without yielding to the temptations of friendship. James, one always sensed, had a "blind spot" for all his original thinking and silken prose. Mr. Dhondy manages to elaborate that side of the man without detracting from what was unique and fine about him. The book has endnotes and an index.
When James died in 1989, he was taken back to Tunapuna, Trinidad, for burial. Steel bands played the "International" and Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring."
C.L.R. JAMES: A LIFE
By Farrukh Dhondy
Pantheon, $24, 224 pages


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