More than life or death: CLR James’ Beyond a Boundary

James Ferguson explains why C.L.R James’ Beyond A Boundary is the definitive work on cricket and society


It was Bill Shankley, the manager of Liverpool Football Club, who once famously said that football wasn’t really a matter of life or death. It was, he added, far more important than that.

It was probably meant to be a funny remark, but it was one that C. L. R. James, one of the Caribbean’s most celebrated writers, would have fully supported. His own obsession was, of course, different. While he appreciated football up to a point, cricket was his lifelong passion, the basis of his personal ethics, the key to his understanding of his own society and its history.

There have been many books on cricket, some from the Caribbean, mostly in the form of memoirs by prominent players. Cricketers are rarely compelling writers, and their work tends more to anecdote than analysis. It took James, the Trinidad-born historian and political activist, to break this uninspiring mould in 1963 with one of the landmark works of Caribbean writing, Beyond A Boundary, a book described by the Sunday Times as “the greatest sports book ever written”.

It is a book about cricket; but, much more than that, it is a book about what cricket signifies not just in the Caribbean, but in the Caribbean’s relationship with the outside world. The period it principally covers, from the 1930s to the 1960s, saw not only some of the West Indies all-time greats — Learie Constantine, George Headley, Frank Worrell — but also the crucial developments that were to lead towards West Indian self-rule and political independence. It is precisely the connection between the sport and the society in transition, the players and the people who cheered them on, that fascinates James.

Beyond A Boundary is the story of one man’s love for cricket. It starts with a childhood image of the young James watching the local village team practise from his bedroom window. One player, in normal life an uncouth and obnoxious man, becomes transformed into a figure of grace and subtlety when batting. “Matthew, so crude and vulgar in every aspect of his life,” he remembers, “with a bat in his hand was all grace and style.”

Even as a child, James recognised the transcendental power of cricket, the sheer magic of style, the way in which it reveals hitherto unknown skills and qualities in ordinary people. This theme of cricket’s alchemical quality, of its ability to bring out the best in individuals, runs through the book.

But James’s early experiences of cricket were not all so inspiring. A scholarship education modelled on British public school lines equipped him with a love of literature, a strong streak of Puritanism and that most colonial of attributes — a sense of “fair play”. But fairness in 1920s Trinidad had its limits, mostly delineated by class and colour. The various cricket clubs were as rigidly demarcated by race and money as the most snobbish of British golf clubs. It was inconceivable that a dark-skinned Trinidadian could play for the elitist Queen’s Park Club or white-dominated Shannon Club. The institutions of the sport thus faithfully mirrored the society from which they had grown. And that society was on the edge of upheaval and change.

Rather than accept the old cliché that politics have no part to play in sport, James realised that it was precisely the political tensions that sprang from colonial inequalities which gave West Indian cricket its intensity. The sport provided the arena in which conflict could be enacted, rivalries fought out, scores settled. The Savannah, Port of Spain’s huge central open space, with its multitude of matches being played simultaneously, was hence a microcosm of the island’s “social passions which were using cricket as a medium of expression”.

Like many West Indian intellectuals of his generation, James found colonial island life constricting and frustrating. In 1932 he left for Britain, to join his friend Learie Constantine, then a professional cricketer in Lancashire. It was the decisive step in his political development, as from the outside he was able to analyse the current situation in the Caribbean and refine his case for West Indian independence.

But again, cricket was at the centre of the process, for Constantine and other West Indian cricketing exiles were not merely politically active themselves, but came to symbolise for James all that was positive and dignified about the Caribbean. Writing of the batting prowess of the Trinidadian Wilton St Hill, James recalls that “here was one of us, performing in excelsis in a sphere where competition was open.” Most importantly, “it was a performance that atoned for a pervading humiliation, and nourished pride and hope.” In short, the triumphant West Indian batsman was the living proof of West Indian creativity.

Working as a cricket journalist, James had the opportunity not just to observe the greatest performers of the age, but to develop his theory that the sport was the mirror of a given society and the symbol of its positive potential. W. G. Grace, for instance, the towering giant of English cricket, was nothing less than “a national embodiment”, the man who epitomised the rise of the sport from village green pursuit to the passion of the industrial working classes. The golden age of Victorian cricket, likened by James to the Olympic triumph of Ancient Greece, was that time when a brilliant individual represented the aspirations and enthusiasms of a society.

By the 1930s, such heroism had been replaced by the cynicism of the professional game and the calculated tactics of body-line. This decadence, writes James, merely echoed the political malaise and financial chaos of the period. Later, the dour defensiveness of the 1950s turned cricketers into “functionaries in the Welfare State”, imbued with the idea that the result was all-important, never mind the methods used to obtain it.

This distaste for the professional “win-at-all-costs” approach is what makes James’s view of cricket so original and refreshing. The sport, he insisted, was an art form, comparable to theatre, ballet or dance, where individual excellence is contained within a wider collaboration and the predetermined structure of a spectacle. And the individual is not a solitary performer, nor just the representative of his team, but involved in a much more complex relationship:

The batsman facing the ball does not merely represent his side. For that moment, to all intents and purposes, he is his side. This fundamental relation of the One and Many, Individual and Social, Individual and Universal, leader and followers, representative and ranks, the part and the whole, is structurally imposed on the players of cricket.

This is why, for James, cricket is the political sport par excellence, since it binds together the exceptional sportsman and the society to which he belongs. And, as in the case of the West Indies in the 1960s, where this society was only just emerging from colonial rule, cricket provided both a sense of the past and a taste of future possibilities. “What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?” James asked perceptively. “West Indians crowding to Tests bring with them the whole past history and future hopes of the islands.”

James died in 1989, five years before Brian Lara, his countryman, scored his sublime 375 runs against England at St John’s, Antigua. One can only imagine what James would have felt as the young Lara went beyond every boundary and proved once again that West Indian cricket could encapsulate the pride and achievement of an entire region. It was not just the sweet revenge of beating the old colonial power (and who could deny the pleasure in that?), but the ultimate vindication of James’s belief that cricket was synonymous with all that is best in Caribbean identity. Joyful, creative, but also, in the words of Kamau Brathwaite’s Islands, deadly serious, more important than life or death:

I tole him over an’ over

Agen: watch de ball, man, watch

De ball like it hook to you eye

This ain’t no time for playin’

The fool nor makin’ no sport; this is cricket!

Beyond A Boundary is published by Serpent’s Tail in the UK and Duke University Press in the US