Yours Sincerely, Nello

Letters from London, a new book of little-known essays by C.L.R. James, fills in a significant biographical gap in the career of this pre-eminent Trinidadian thinker, activist and theorist of cricket

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“In March 1932 I boarded the boat for Plymouth. I was about to enter the arena where I was to play the role for which I had prepared myself . . . I landed in Plymouth and ran around London for a few weeks. My money began to give out . . .”

Thirty years later, writing his magnum opus Beyond a Boundary, this is how C.L.R. James remembered one of the most crucial transitional periods in his life, the months in early 1932 after he left his home island, Trinidad, for the first time, to pursue his literary ambitions in the very capital of the empire of English letters: London.

James himself was gracefully vague about what he did in those few weeks while he “ran around” the city, and his biographers have tended to pass swiftly over this short period on their way to his successes of the mid-30s. But James scholars have long known about the existence of an intriguing record of his hectic first weeks in London: a vivacious series of essays which almost no one has read for 70 years.

Cyril Lionel Robert James — “Nello” to his friends — boarded the MS Colombia on Sunday 5 March, 1932, in Bridgetown harbour. He was travelling from Trinidad via Barbados, and stopped for a week in the smaller island — a short holiday which was to be his last taste of the Caribbean for a quarter-century. The Colombia made good time across the Atlantic, putting in at Plymouth on England’s south coast on Friday 18 March. James’s name is the last but one in the ship’s immigration records; his proposed address is simply “London.”

It was actually to be a cramped boarding-house in London’s Bloomsbury district, then, as now, a haunt of students and intellectuals, with a bohemian flavour James found dangerously enticing: “I belong to it and have fit into it as naturally as a pencil fits into a sharpener.” He frequented lectures, concerts, museums, bookshops; he met other young West Indians, and young men and women from every part of the British Empire, and sat up all night talking, arguing, reading, listening to music. Many of these new acquaintances were students, and in this milieu James came as close as he ever would to the heady intellectual freedom of undergraduate life.

But he was 31 years old, a grown man with an estranged wife behind him in Trinidad, already prodigiously educated, thanks to Queen’s Royal College in Port of Spain and his own autodidactic habits. Back at home, he was already a figure of some note, or notoriety — at least in literary circles. He had co-founded the short-lived magazine Trinidad, wrote regularly for the Beacon, and two of his short stories had been published in English magazines. By the standards of his small colonial society, these were sizeable waves. But how large or how little would this ambitious fish find himself in London’s vast ocean?

By his own account, he swam with the fiercest and the fastest, and managed to hold his own. And, about 10 weeks after he arrived in Britain, he began to write it all down. In a series of rapidly composed essays, under the title “London: First Impressions”, James recorded his observations and opinions of the city and its people and the whirl of activity carrying him along. He was intrigued by the taciturn men and the liberated women, and his uneasy relations, as a coloured West Indian, with the average British citizen. He described in obsessive detail the London row-houses in which so many played out physically constrained lives. And in a long, journal-like account of five typical days in Bloomsbury, he showed himself sparring with the literary celebrity Edith Sitwell over questions of the nature of poetry, and was careful to point out that he did not lose the bout.

James’s sharp intelligence and ambitious confidence shine out in these essays. “The British intellectual was going to Britain,” he wrote in Beyond a Boundary, and in truth he found himself the equal of anyone he encountered there. Yet it’s clear from his tone that he was eager to prove himself. Perhaps it’s because they were written with a Trinidadian audience in mind — the London essays were published in the Port of Spain Gazette between June and August, 1932 — and he wanted to demonstrate that the soundly-educated colonial was in no way inadequate to the demands of the metropolitan world. London did not impress him, he declared in the final essay: “at first I was woefully disappointed.”

But by the time he wrote this he was no longer in London. After a few months in the city he had travelled north to the town of Nelson in Lancashire, where his friend, the famed cricketer Learie Constantine, lived. James spent the next year in Nelson, and it was here that his nascent political interests matured, through his discussions with Constantine and his activity with the local Labour Party. Soon, his Case for West Indian Self-Government was published, he began writing on cricket for the Manchester Guardian, and “Nello” James was on the path of intellectual discovery that would make him one of the 20th century’s major thinkers. But the keenly observant brilliance, independence of thought and sheer nerve that were his lifelong characteristics were already at work in his fascinating account of those thrilling first weeks in London.

 

In January 2003, more than 70 years after they first appeared in the Port of Spain Gazette, James’s London essays will be collected and republished by Prospect Press, in a volume called Letters from London.