The Anti-Canon: CLR James' Beyond a Boundary by Sam Berkson

The Anti-Canon series is a collection of short essays focusing on writers less well known, positioned outside of the literary mainstream or simply deserving more attention. An alternative (but by no means definitive) list of works that have influenced the friends of Influx Press, offering a different perspective to what is, and what is not, considered ‘important’, and hopefully giving you some new books to read into the bargain…

C.L.R James came to England from his native Trinidad in 1932 with two books to write: The Case for West Indian Self-Government and, as ghost-writer, Cricket and I, the autobiography of the cricketer who later became the Britain’s first black peer, Learie Constantine. “Then,” as he writes thirty years later in Beyond A Boundary, “I would be free to get down to my own business. I had a completed novel with me. But that was only my ‘prentice hand. Contrary to accepted experience, the real magnum opus was to be my second novel.”

James’s first novel, Minty Alley, published in 1936, was in fact his last novel – or at least his last book that most people would recognise as such. His “magnum opus” was 1938’s The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L'Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution, a history of the world’s only successful slave revolt, which liberated Haiti. It is a superb piece of scholarship and eminently readable. It is not, by most senses, a novel. So what is James playing at?

Beyond a Boundary is a book about those things that James was trying to put aside so that he could concentrate on literature. It is about politics (“West Indian self-government”), cricket and I. It is full of subtle jokes and lines that are slightly, but very deliberately, awry.  One thing it consistently rages against is “categorising intellectualism” that seeks to separate, rank and hierarchise high and low culture, fiction and non-fiction, art and sport. The first joke is the title – a three way pun. Most obviously, the book is cricket reminiscences from an ardent observer of the game, watching from ‘beyond the boundary’ rope. It is also a book that brings the history and life of colonial Trinidad from the periphery to the centre. And it looks forward to a time when such notions that divide our social, intellectual and cultural lives are broken down: “we may some day be able to answer Tolstoy’s exasperated and exasperating question: ‘what is art?’ – but only when we learn to integrate our vision of [Clyde] Walcott on the back foot through the covers with the outstretched arm of the Olympic Apollo.” It is memoir, cricket book, history, aesthetics and politics. He is writing beyond a boundary.

There is too much in Beyond a Boundary to go into in this blog, but for now I want to show you from just one chapter, why, whatever you count as fiction or art, James is a great writer.

There are parts of the book which can only interest the cricket fan. It is too technical, too unashamedly geeky and if you don’t know the game, you will feel as I do reading books on architecture, or articles from The Wire. I have elsewhere written about his chapter on W. G. Grace, and put forward the theory that book is “written, deliberately, at the rhythm and tempo of a cricket innings, each chapter different for different subjects”. Let me now take you to the beginning of the book, where James is a child growing up in the British colony of Trinidad.

The motif of chapter 2, Against the Current, is the successful defensive innings and the maiden over (six balls bowled by one bowler in which no run is scored). Yet, James does not step onto the cricket field (in that he does not describe his exploits as a young cricketer) until midway through this second chapter, during his time at Government College school. In Tunapuna, then a town of 3000 inhabitants, 8 miles from Port of Spain, James certainly played cricket. He tells us so in chapter 1. He also reads avidly about it, collects clippings from newspapers and magazines and he watches games on the village green from his window positioned so exactly in line with the square that “an umpire could have stood” there. He observes and talks to the local cricketers – his family and his neighbours. He does not, however, describe any of his own cricket games, except to look forward a few years to when at 16 “my school team came to Tunapuna to play a match, in which “I took wickets and played a good defensive innings.”

The reason for his absence of cricket tales is made clear in Chapter 2. Cricket is a game of the mind: “The ultimate greatness of a bowler is in his head”, he writes. And then, not much later, “a batsman’s innings is played more in his head than on the pitch”. Thus, we must learn what is in James’s head, before we can understand his play.

In Chapter 1, we learn about his formative influences: the puritan self-restraint and discipline of his mother and aunts; the all-round talent of his father (one of the island’s “best” school teachers; who, as a batsman, local legend has it, would hit a ball “constantly” for six between mid-off and extra-cover boundary – no mean feat as any cricketer will tell you); the subtle and intelligent rebellion of his grandfather Josh; the strong proletarian, athletic spirit of Cousin Cudjoe the blacksmith, and the native “flair” of the significantly named local “ne’er do well”, Matthew Bondman.

For James, life is political. From this upbringing and from these circumstances – and from cricket – he developed a moral code “that became the moral framework of my existence”. And from the “heterogeneous jumble of Trinidad” in his school classroom came the moral order on the cricket field that was more British than the British ever had been:

“We learned to play with the team, which meant subordinating your personal inclinations, and even interest, to the good of the whole. We kept a stiff upper lip in that we did not complain about ill-fortune. We did not denounce failures, but ‘Well tried’ or ‘Hard luck’ came easily to our lips. We were generous to opponents and congratulated them on victories, even when we knew they did not deserve it.”

His status as one of the most prominent anti-imperialist Marxists of the 20th century was achieved in defiance of all that was expected of him: an Athenian democratic “integrity” learnt from the self-organised labour of cricket. At his school, the boys elected their cricket captains, secretaries and committees and organised all details of their matches right down to the buying of equipment. “For me it was life and education”.

However, in “order to acquire this code I was driven to evasions, disobedience, open rebelliousness, continuous lies and stealing”. James was not sent to school to become a revolutionary.  Aged ten, he won an ‘exhibition’, which entitled boys from poor families to enter one of the two secondary schools. There were only four granted annually for the whole island. The route he should have taken was “exhibition, [university] scholarship, profession [law or medicine were the only options for a black people], wealth, Legislative Council and the title of Honourable. Whenever someone brought it off the local people were very proud of him.”

That James does not go down this route, he is keen to press on us, was a remarkable feat of defiance. And his first struggle was to play cricket and neglect academic honours. It was, he writes “a war that lasted without respite for eight years.” The odds are laid out:

“On one side was my father, my mother (no mean pair), my two aunts and my grandmother, my uncle and his wife, all the family friends (which included a number of headmasters from all over the island), some eight or nine Englishmen who taught at the Queen’s Royal College, all graduates of Oxford or Cambridge, the Director of Education and the Board of Education, which directed the educational system of the whole island. On the other side was me, just ten years old when it began.”

It is literature, cricket and his Caribbean upbringing which sees him through. He has for his defence “nothing to start with but my pile of clippings about W. G. Grace and Ranjitsinhji[1], my Vanity Fair[2] and my Puritan instincts, though as yet these were undeveloped. I fought and won.”

To understand James as an artist (cricketer or writer), we must, as I have said, understand him as a person. Cricket, we remember, is played in the head.

Hence, we have the chapter’s motif. We see it in the last story of the chapter: an opening stand of 100 between James and a schoolmate, Chinasing in a house match against the “demon” slow left armer Wallen. Unlike his opening partner, “I was a little more cautious”. Much was at stake: “I didn’t want him to get me out because I lived at the time in the same town as him, Arima, and we were good friends.” There is not yet any class or race consciousness, but the game is, in the schoolboy world, intensely political.

Chapter 2 starts with life, politics, empire, education, literature, but suddenly – as suddenly as is the change when you walk out to bat and you are no longer watching a game, but in it – we have cricket at its most geeky, written about in detail known only to the aficionado. The theme is defying, keeping out, not giving away your wicket, thinking your way out of a problem against better-equipped enemies. The first proper cricket anecdote is from Jim Laker, who “writes that he bowled [Don] Bradman an over and knew that he had beaten him with every ball”. This, says James, is “bowling at its highest.” Good as he was, Laker was bowling against the man universally acknowledged and revered (though perhaps not by James) as cricket’s greatest ever batsman. Significantly, James does not say that Laker got him out. The over, reading between the lines, must have been a maiden. Just as James and his schoolmates triumphed in the way that they learned to block “shooters”, the chapter is about “beating” your opponent without winning.

There is one cricket anecdote in the chapter’s non-cricketing first half, used to demonstrate a point about how the boys of the colonial school adopted and internalised cricket’s moral code. This passage is key.

“One day when I bowled three maiden overs in succession and a boy fresh from England said to me, ‘James, you must take yourself off now, three maiden overs,’ I was disturbed. I had not heard that one before, this boy was from England and so he probably knew.”

This is Trinidad in 1917. The masters (school or society / little or big cricket) know independence will eventually come: “we do our work and in time your people will take over” the principal tells James later when he rejoins the school as a teacher. James himself became highly involved in the campaign for independence both in the West Indies and in Africa, but in his little school world the national question “did not exist for me”, and there was an “absence of any nationalist agitation outside.” The other boy “fresh from England” stops him from bowling, not because of some obscure Eton code of chivalry (if it were that, James, who had obsessively read and studied cricket, would have heard of it) but because you cannot have a negro boy being more clever than the white boy he is bowling at. I am reading between the lines here but surely this is the implication. We know James is black, but he does not tell us the races of the other two protagonists of the story: his teammate who stops him bowling and the boy on the other team who is batting. Why not? In Trinidad at large, “the race question at large did not have to be agitated. It was there. But in our little Eden [of school] it never troubled us.” We know from later chapters, the history of West Indian cricket which would continue nearly all the way to independence meant white men as batsmen (cultured, sophisticated, educated), black men as bowlers (athletic, fast, primal) and even as that distinction began to break down, white men remained as captains. Laker beats Bradman psychologically – “the decisive factor was not Laker’s off spin. It was that he had them [the Australians] on the run and kept them there.” As a bowler, James lacked the necessary “pace, the length, the command, the stamina, the concentration” – serious impediments for a fast bowler – but he learned “how to watch” as some people “study counterpoint to listen to Bach.”

This method of outthinking his opponents is what rankles the boy “from England” (whose race we also do not know, but can presume). So much so, in fact, that this boy is willing to go against the interests of his own team in order to protect the dignity of his opponent – his caste brother. At least for the purposes of James’s art (I doubt this is how it went in reality), the boy-protagonist acquiesces to this blatant injustice. At this point in the story, James has all the necessary rebellious spirit, can fight against society’s and his family’s expectations, but still for him, for the other boys of the school and for the whole of the island, “Britain was the source of all light and learning … our criterion of success was to have succeeded in approaching that distant ideal.” He can 'beat' the batsman but not yet get his wicket. He can play a 'good defensive innings' but the time has not yet come when a black West Indian will, as Frank Worrell would against Australia as West Indies' first black captain, "do the dominating".

Thus Beyond a Boundary is both about cricket and about something much wider. It “poses the question,” says James in his short preface, “What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?” [his italics]. This question, adapting Rudyard Kipling’s “What do they know of England who only England know?”, can of course substitute ‘cricket’ for any other area of knowledge, and can be flipped around. In the chapter on Grace, he complains of all the histories of Britain in the 19th century which “never once mention the man who was the best-known Englishman of his time. I can no longer accept the system of values which could not find in these books a place for W.G. Grace.” What do they know of the British Empire, who do not cricket know?

Perhaps James could have been a professional cricketer. He could certainly have been a novelist.


[1] Perhaps the two greatest cricketers of the 19th century.

[2] W. M. Thackeray’s brilliant Victorian novel which James read obsessively from the age of 10.


Sam Berkson is the author of two Influx Press books, the wonderful poetry collection Life in Transit and Settled Wanderers, a book exploring the poetry of Western Sahara through translation, original poems and essays.