CLR James: The black bohemian

CLR James’s writings on empire and cricket were marked by moral clarity and mischievous provocation

Cyril Lionel Robert James was a conundrum: a Trinidadian Marxist with an unwavering regard for Shakespeare, Michelangelo and especially cricket—as displayed in his most famous book, Beyond a Boundary—he was also a major intellectual and a phenomenal orator. His admirers included Paul Robeson, Nancy Cunard, Learie Constantine and Leon Trotsky. The thoughts of CLR James (known simply as CLR) were underpinned by a moral clarity and an elegant prose style, enlivened with flashes of the kind of mischievous provocation Trinidadians call picong. He knew his worth. In later life, if someone he didn’t like dropped by unexpectedly to his Brixton flat, he told his secretary to inform them that he was dead.

That last detail comes from CLR James: A Life Beyond the Boundaries, a richly researched and inviting text by John L Williams. Though Williams doesn’t genuflect in front of his subject, he is clearly enthralled by him. Works on CLR have accelerated since his death in 1989. An earlier biography by Farrukh Dhondy begins in 1952 with a description of a near-empty stand at an Oxford University cricket match: 

A tall black man in his fifties, wearing a floppy hat [watches] the game intently. Across the field an undergraduate [VS Naipaul], nudges the captain of Oxford.
“Do you know what that negro is doing?” Naipaul asks. 
“Having a day off?”
“No, he is reporting the match for the Manchester Guardian.”
The very notion gives rise to some hilarity.

The anecdote encapsulates the challenge CLR faced and would overcome throughout his rich and illustrious life. In Britain, four years after the arrival of the HMT Empire Windrush, it was still anathema to many in England to see a black man reporting for a newspaper.

Williams’s biography is mostly a chronological voyage around James. Born in 1901 in what was at the time a sleepy colonial backwater, CLR was early on identified as a child prodigy destined for one of the much-coveted scholarships to a British university. Aged nine, he received a bursary to attend Trinidad’s prestigious Queen’s Royal College, housed in an ornate Edwardian building by the vast Savannah Park in the capital Port of Spain. The school shared a belief in cricket’s civilising power which, Williams tells us, “CLR would cleave to with perhaps excessive fervour.” 

To his father’s dismay, within a few years CLR showed signs of departing from the script that had been written for him. He pursued anything that intrigued him—French literature, for example, rather than maths. He did not go to university, as expected, but gravitated to local cultural and debating societies like the Maverick Club. As a young adult, he took up a post at his old school teaching English and history. Alfred Mendes, a close friend at the time, recalled he had “a style so austere and at the same time so colourful that his pupils listened to him in thrall.”

It’s a trope that Williams returns to in the book, often quoting other texts by way of illustration. Indeed, at times the biography reads like an extensive literature review, with Williams determined not to leave out anyone who’s made a serious contribution to understanding CLR and his work. He quotes from VS Naipaul’s 1994 novel A Way in the World, in which CLR is fictionalised as the character Lebrun. Though mostly scornful, Naipaul acknowledges him as a brilliant talker, surrounded by acolytes hanging on his every word: “his spoken language was like Ruskin’s on the printed page, in its fluency and elaborateness, the words wonderfully chosen, often unexpected, bubbling up from some ever-running spring of sensibility… I was moved by the fact that such a man came from something like my own background… How had he preserved his soul through all the discouragements of the colonial time?”

Naipaul, CLR’s junior by 30 years, often recalled how his own creative spirit would have been extinguished had he remained in Trinidad. It was not a sentiment shared by CLR, who purposefully sought lodgings in impoverished Port of Spain communities whose residents, he recalled in a short story, “lived their life independently of the kind of pretence or desire to imitate the British style which so preoccupied the middle classes.” His experiences in these slums also inspired his first novel, Minty Alley (1936).

One of the delights of Williams’s biography is how he draws out CLR’s gradual recognition of his own blackness—and how he came to embrace the contradictions of his racial identity. As a young man the thought of Africa and ancestral slavery, wrote CLR, “never entered into any serious relation either actual, intellectual or psychological with my life.” He was determined never to pay much attention to everyday racism. His second wife Constance, a young white American woman, recalled: “he simply raised his head higher than ever—it was always high—tilted his chin up and became engrossed in his own thoughts.” CLR held the unshakeable conviction that he was a black European, and was loath to reject the continent’s cultural and intellectual baggage. It wasn’t until his late twenties, when involved with a popular local politician called Captain Cipriani, who voiced demands for self-governance, that the dandyish classicist had a kind of political and personal epiphany.

One of CLR’s skills was his ability to live with uncertainty. It helped, of course, if you were as charming as he was. Like many of his contemporaries, CLR eventually left for England, in 1932. In London, he established himself in a bedsit in Bloomsbury, home to a bohemian crowd. As a youngish roustabout, he found English girls turned with relief from the “glum and generally boorish” Englishmen to the “smiling and good-natured West Indians.” But the spur for his English sojourn had not been the hope of meeting girls, but rather of being reunited with the cricketer Learie Constantine, then living in Nelson and playing in the Lancashire League. CLR followed him there with a half-formed idea to write the great cricketer’s biography.

Financial success mostly proved elusive for CLR James. Williams makes no attempt to disguise the fact that he was a bit of a sponge

It was in Nelson that CLR was first introduced to Trotsky’s newly published History of the Russian Revolution. “It made an immediate and profound impression,” writes Williams. In 1938, CLR published The Black Jacobins, a work of history which focused on Toussaint Louverture, leader of the revolt of enslaved people against the French colonists in what then became Haiti. Revolutionarily, the book abandoned the old narrative of black victimhood in favour of accenting the agency of the formerly enslaved who, fuelled by a desire for liberty, fought to achieve autonomy. The Black Jacobins did not, though, receive the attention CLR had hoped for. Only four decades later, when reprinted by publisher Margaret Busby, would it be talked of as a masterpiece.

Financial success mostly proved elusive for CLR. Williams makes no attempt to disguise the fact that the nomadic éminence grise was a bit of a sponge, happy to embrace all the favours that came his way. Trotsky, whom CLR attempted to befriend, concluded that he was a “freelance bohemian”—a description that chimes with his luxuriating, in the 1940s, in a swanky apartment in Harlem’s Sugar Hill, and being lavishly feted by the Johnson-Forest Tendency, a radical group within the Workers’ Party that hoped to ignite the world.

It can be difficult to keep track of all the names and the affairs—who’s sleeping with whom, who’s in or out, the shifting alliances of his acolytes in New York and London—all of which threaten to unbalance the book. However, at the story’s centre is always the imperious CLR, a magician in getting his way. CLR compared his needs to those of another self-centred genius: “Mozart’s wife sat at [the] table next to him and cut his meat for him… He needed his hands for playing and writing music. They had to be ready whenever he was ready.”

CLR was perfectly placed to take advantage of the rise of black studies and black power in the 1960s. His counsel and expertise were sought after, although sometimes young black activists found his stance puzzling. Following the outrage over Enoch Powell’s 1968 “Rivers of Blood” speech (which found vocal support among dockers and meat porters), CLR argued that working-class racism should not detract from the importance of class unity. Williams summarises CLR’s view as being that “important though racial politics are, it is still ultimately class that is at the root of revolutionary politics,” and that there was a danger of  overreacting  to immediate provocations.”

At the age of 70, CLR finally landed well-paid work. He was invited to lecture at a number of  colleges in the US—including the newly minted black studies course at Federal City College in Washington DC, then a hotbed of black radicalism. Federal, which had a majority black intake, promoted a curriculum devoted to the “decolonisation of the mind” and the eradication of “white values” held by new students. Williams muses that the students might have been perplexed by CLR’s proposed reading list: “Aeschylus, King Lear, Marx, Melville and Du Bois, plus two books on Frederick Douglass, half a dozen more books on Marxism, and no less than eleven on Abraham Lincoln,” but no James Baldwin or Malcolm X. (Later, under student pressure, he added The Autobiography of Malcolm X to his reading list.)

Again and again, CLR defied expectations and complicated the notion of what it means to be an engaged thinker. He was not much given to self-interrogation and angrily rejected any attempt to “psychologise” him. But Williams does just that. CLR, he thinks, became increasingly absorbed in the story of King Lear—an old, formerly revered man, now cast aside. Even so, according to leftist academic Paul Buhle, the elderly CLR “drew physical powers from somewhere inside” when lecturing. In his presence, Buhle said he felt “transported into a Masterpiece Theatre drama.”

After the UK’s race riots in the 1980s, CLR’s public profile rose as the media scrambled to find voices who might explain the roots of black outrage and disenchantment. At that time the magazine Race Today occupied a squat in Brixton—the epicentre of the riots—and its editor, Darcus Howe, arranged for CLR, now in his eighties, to be installed in a flat above their headquarters. From his bed he held court with a succession of admirers—the poets Michael “Mikey” Smith and Linton Kwesi Johnson, Maurice Bishop, leader of the New Jewel movement in Grenada, the writer Alice Walker and myriad others, who were always attentive to his “natural flow of unscripted oratory.”

On 31st May 1989, that oration ceased. After a final, welcome glass of milk and brandy, CLR James died at the age of 88. 

It’s a testament to this generous biography that the idiosyncratic personality of the great silver-tongued enthusiast comes shining through. James was a romancer and a dreamer who, as the African-American axiom has it, always detected “a way out of no way.” Williams cedes the final reflections to Anna Grimshaw, the last of the many young female amanuenses who worked alongside CLR in his final years: “on many afternoons I crept across the room to nap on his bed, feeling the slow fading of his life… But there were moments of happiness, such as a whole day devoted to Beethoven or to a Mozart opera—the room filled with music, the scores laid out across his lap… as CLR found a companion for his journey into the world of the creative imagination.”

In the days and weeks after his passing, there were many tributes paid to CLR. But perhaps the simplest and most profound was the old West Indian adage: “what he do, he well do.”

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