Book Review

A generous spirit and political spin

Matthew Engel reviews CLR James' Beyond a Boundary and Mike Marqusee's Anyone But England

CLR James' Beyond a Boundary
Matthew Engel reviews CLR James' Beyond a Boundary and Mike Marqusee's Anyone But England

Francis Wheen, in his foreword to Anyone But England, notes that "two of the greatest books about the game have been written by chaps who were not only foreigners but socialists". He is referring to this pair, both now considered worthy of reissue: in CLR James's case 42 years after his book's debut, in Mike Marqusee's case 11.

The soft word "socialists" actually understates the case. James was a Trinidadian intellectual who wrote briefly on cricket for the Manchester Guardian in the 1930s, then spent 15 years fomenting revolution in the United States. Marqusee calls himself "a deracinated American Marxist" who has been trying to foment revolution in the equally unpromising territory of English cricket.

Both books have acquired a particular status in that they are quoted endlessly by undergraduates and the undergraduate-minded anxious to prove themselves as cricketing intellectuals. This is enough to turn anyone against them and I returned to Beyond A Boundary, after a decade or so, with something of a snarl. It could not last: it is a wonderful book. Some of the chapters about 50-year-old West Indian cricket politics have lost their bite and relevance. But the mixture remains beguiling. Beyond A Boundary is a sort of autobiography, in which James filters his life through the game of his youth. It is full of earnest erudition of a kind only ever found in the old colonies, and only James could mention Kant, Eliot, Gibbon and Gubby Allen on the same double-page spread without sounding phoney.

This is a book full of insights about culture and history as well as cricket. It is also beautiful, a paean to the cricket of his youth, what it meant and what it taught him: "Every individual did not observe every rule. But the best and most respected boys were precisely the ones that always kept them."

Mike Marqusee's Anyone But England

At the same time it is sharp-tongued and highly politicised, with at its core the battle against the prejudice that was part (if not, as in South Africa, parcel) of West Indian cricket. But James keeps his good nature throughout. It is and will remain the sacred text of West Indian cricket, providing its own light while the temple flame flickers.

Anyone But England makes a good companion piece, if only for purposes of comparison. Mike Marqusee's great achievement is his contrapuntal romp through the game's history which dominates the first third of the book. It was a wonderful and necessary challenge to the MCC-centric works that used to dominate this area, though his analysis (which is unashamedly Marxist) and his interpretations are at least as limited as those of HS Altham and EW Swanton. It is based entirely on cherry-picking secondary sources. Marqusee is a gifted propagandist, not a historian. And the years have not been kind. Marqusee was dependent on the disputes of the early 90s, and the mood of self-abasement in English cricket, to make his case. In essence, this is that, in all cricketing disputes, the English view is wrong. This may be a necessary corrective to imperial arrogance but it creates many nonsenses of its own. His account of the England-Pakistan ill-feeling at the time, in which the Pakistanis are portrayed as heroic victims, is ludicrously one-sided. Now the game has moved on; the book has not.

This edition includes two additional chapters. The first, written in 1998, was time-sensitive. The second, sketched last Christmas, oddly misses the most significant development of the decade in cricket politics -­ the collapse of English influence at the ICC ­- a long-hop Marqusee might have smashed for four. Instead he ties himself into knots trying to argue that the case for boycotting Britain is as strong as the case for boycotting Zimbabwe. It is not: Robert Mugabe has taken over and subverted Zimbabwean cricket; Tony Blair does not control the ECB.

Beyond A Boundary is a classic because it grasps the connection between cricket and politics. Anyone But England cannot separate the two. In the process it misses the generosity of spirit that is at the heart of James's book -­ and of cricket itself.

Anyone But England - An Outsider Looks at English Cricket. Buy Now

Beyond A Boundary