Monday, October 04, 2010

CLR James - Beyond A Boundary

Rare is the detailed book on sport written by an avowed Marxist. Still less are books about, cricket, perhaps seen as the most establishment of sports - at least here in the UK. But the central tenet of CLR James book is summed up with the famous line, "What do they know of cricket who only cricket know" - you can't understand the sport, without understanding its context.

In this sense, the book is a very interesting piece of work. The descriptions of James' childhood, with cricket a central part of his life are fascinating in and of themselves. But the way in which he shows the sport as being part and parcel of shaping a cultural identity is also fascinating. As is the descriptions of race and class that flow from this. The battle that CLR James was part of, to make a black man the captain of the West Indies cricket team sums up the way that colonial people's had to struggle every inch of the way for their own right to nationhood.

But if I am honest, I was disappointed with James' take on sport. For someone who sees the importance of sport's cultural, political and historical context, I think he becomes inflexible with his own ideas. He dismisses out of hand the way that "Trotsky had said that the workers were deflected from politics by sports". He misses of course that it can do that, and it can be an instrument of their anger and radicalism. Trotsky was writing in particular of the effect of football on the working class in Britain - the use of sport here was a concious attempt by the ruling class to divert people's attention from their own suffering. But move several thousands of miles away and the situation is reversed. Part of the problem is no doubt James' own experiences, and perhaps his own political break with Trotsky.

But the problem gets worse I think when James begins to draw links between sports and culture. He writes that the "spontaneous outburst of thousands at a fierce hook or a dazzling slip-catch, the ripple of reognition at a long-awaited leg-glance, are as genuine and deeply felt expressions of artistic emotion as any I know".

Now of course, people enjoy watching good sportsman ship (though they are as likely to cheer a lucky shot or a badly played one, if their team gets some more runs), but I think that James is projecting his own deep love for the game of cricket onto others here. Particularly when he goes on to describe the lines made by cricketers limbs almost as an art form.

But James is better than this. Here he sums up the difference between what the sport means for different peoples (and I think, in part contradicts his earlier sentiments).

"West Indians crowding to Tests bring with them the whole past history and future hope if the islands. English people... have a conception of themselves breathed from birth. Drake and mighty Nelson, Shakespeare, Waterloo, the Charge of the Light Brigade, the few who did so much for so many, the success of parliamentary democracy those and such of those constitue a national tradition. Underdeveloped countries have to go back centuries to rebuild one. We of th West Indies have none at all, none that we know of. To such people the three W's, Ram and Val wrecking English batting, help to fill a huge gap in their consciousness and in their needs."

Leaving aside the decidedidly dodgy idea that parliamentary democracy is a success for everyone, it is a useful summing up the role of the sport in the development of West Indian cultural identity. James' understanding of class and how racism was used to divide and rule makes his take on sport particularly interesting, but his attempts to put cricket at the heart or on a par with everything else, culturally, historically and politically felt simplistic and unsatisfying to me.

Related Reviews

James - The Black Jacobins

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