Caribbean Lives: Learie Constantine May 23, 2009

Story of the boundary-breaker

David Conn
A look at the far-reaching life of Learie Constantine, which successfully captures his extraordinary achievements

The premise of this illuminating biography is to revive appreciation of Learie Constantine, the original West Indies cricket icon and pioneer in so many fields that he seems to have packed four lives into the one he was born into, in Trinidad in 1901. Readable, well-researched, admiring but not wholly uncritical, the book achieves its purpose, bringing to vivid life a remarkable man and period of history.

Constantine's journey was epic. The grandson of a slave in racially segregated Trinidad, Constantine bowled, batted and most notably fielded his "panther-like" way to a distinctively West Indian cricketing style. He fought endemic English racism, became a writer and broadcaster, was a key political figure in Trinidad's 1962 independence, becoming the first black man in the House of Lords, his national-treasure status confirmed by an appearance on Desert Island Discs. Peter Mason delivers the facts, stats and details comprehensively and sums up authoritatively.

In childhood Constantine and his brother, Elias, would practise throwing and catching by hurling crockery at each other while washing up, but adult life was a struggle and cricket became Learie's escape. At 26 he determined to make his name on West Indies' tour of England in 1928 and win a professional contract.

He landed it with heroics against Middlesex at Lord's; 86 in the first innings, 7 for 57 in the opposition's second innings, then a match-winning 103 that had Lord's members "hoarse from cheering" and boys dashing on to the pitch. Denis Compton, who joined Middlesex years later, found the old pros in the dressing room still talking about it.

Constantine, his wife Norma and daughter Gloria then spent 20 years as the only black people in the Lancashire mill town of Nelson - surely one of cricket's great stories. He was one of Britain's highest-paid sportsmen and delivered consistently good value for it in the Lancashire League. They were objects of curiosity, but bore it well and made crowds of friends. Constantine even experienced his political awakening there, helping to finance the publishing of the Case for West-Indian Self-Government, written by his friend and collaborator CLR James.

There are many other achievements: Constantine's landmark 1944 legal victory after his family was turned away from London's Imperial Hotel by a manageress saying "We will not have niggers in the hotel"; his welfare work for Caribbean workers during the war; a career in island politics for which he was not ideally suited, his contribution important nevertheless.

This fine account thoroughly justifies Mason's concluding judgment of Constantine as "a great man", or in James' words, "a man of character".

Caribbean Lives: Learie Constantine
by Peter Mason
Signal Press, pb, 212pp, £9.99

This article was first published in the June 2009 issue of the Wisden Cricketer. Subscribe here