CLR James: Cricket's Philosopher King January 6, 2008

A life beyond the boundary

Stephen Fay
Readers drawn to James by his writing on cricket will learn a lot more from this book about the man who was a confidant of the likes of Trotsky and Nkrumah

CLR James: Cricket's Philosopher King by Dave Renton
(Haus Books, 202pp, £16.99)


CLR James was known formally by his initials except to a few West Indian intimates who called him Nello. He was a romantic who loved cricket and is revered by readers of cricket books, but he wrote much more about Trotskyism. James was a dedicated if unconventional follower of Leon Trotsky, the Russian revolutionary who was cast out by Josef Stalin, and killed in 1940 by an ice pick to the head. When James wrote in the preface to his classic autobiographical meditation Beyond a Boundary, "What do they know of cricket who only cricket know", he knew what he was talking about.

For 15 years, between 1938 and 1953, James lived in the United States, where his occupation was revolution. He and Trotsky met in Mexico to discuss James's book World Revolution. Trotsky thought it was a good try, though lacking the proper dialectical approach and suffering from Anglo-Saxon empiricism. Although James devoutly wished independence for his native Trinidad, he admired his colonial education and declined to divorce cricket ethics from the public-school ethos. James was an uncritical admirer of WG Grace but, unlike Grace, he never queried an umpire's decision - on principle.

Readers drawn to Dave Renton's readable biography by their love of James's cricket writing will become better acquainted than they ever imagined they would be with bitter disputes between fellow-Trotskyites. But that is precisely what Renton wants: "One hope of this book is to persuade Marxists of the joys of cricket and followers of cricket of the calibre of James and James's Marxism." In this respect Renton's biography is unique in the extensive canon of cricket literature.

James was a good school player and a successful cricketer but his credentials were that he grew up with George Headley and Learie Constantine and that he could write with great speed and fluency. He was a novelist, a reporter, an historian and a propagandist. He knew post-colonial leaders such as Eric Williams in Trinidad and Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana and fell out with them when they lost touch with their working-class supporters, but he did win his campaign to have Frank Worrell appointed the first black captain of West Indies.

James fell out with postcolonial leaders when they lost touch with their working-class support but he did win his campaign to have Worrell appointed first black captain of West Indies

One of James's admirers called him a romantic traditionalist, and a sense of it infuses his cricket reporting. He liked players to go on to the front foot and take risks. When he returned to England and cricket, in 1953, he was critical of Colin Cowdrey, Tom Graveney and Peter May for being "overly preoccupied by defence". James thought Don Bradman the greatest batsman he had seen but said he was no artist; what distinguished him was "nervous stamina and concentration".

Reputations of books written more than 50 years ago can become inflated but the cricket writing in Beyond a Boundary is first- class (I checked). Nello was so much better at cricket than making revolution.

This article was first published in the January 2008 issue of The Wisden Cricketer