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CLR James — A Life Beyond the Boundaries

 John L. Williams

(Constable, 2022)


Reviewed by Max Farrar


There are so many themes to pick out of this excellent book about the astonishing phenomenon that was Cyril Lionel Robert James (1901-1989), known as Nello to his intimates and as CLR to his fan base, but there is one incident which John L. Williams examines that encapsulates several aspects of CLR’s life and work.

In 1982, the BBC film-maker Anthony Wall brought together the Jamaican poets Mikey Smith and Linton Kwesi Johnson (LKJ) for a conversation with CLR in his last redoubt, the apartment above the Race Today Collective’s offices in Railton Road, Brixton. The editor of Race Today magazine at the time was Darcus Howe, a relative of CLR’s.

The film shows CLR, in his early 80s, explaining how his views on the poetry of Wordsworth, Shelley and Keats shifted when he came to England in 1932 and got involved in Marxist politics. Mikey Smith had recently been on a tour of UK venues and LKJ Records had just released his show-stopper ‘Me Cyaan Believe It’ as a 12 inch vinyl record.

LKJ asks Mikey what impact the Romantics had on him at school in Jamaica. Mikey says, ‘Never had any impact on me… I detested [them]’. Nor is he impressed with that ‘Shacky-speary’ fellow. CLR is horrified: ‘I never heard anyone in the Caribbean say Shacky-speary!’ For a second you wonder if they are going to argue, but Linton and Mikey roar with laughter, and the conversation soon turns, with CLR saying that Mikey (and he includes Linton) has quite properly rejected the English domination of the Caribbean. ‘You tackled the most fundamental part, and that is the language, and you created the dialect . . . your own use of it, which I think is splendid.’

You witness CLR’s life and thought wrapped up in one conversation. Williams shows how utterly entranced CLR was by European literature. Despite being clearly the most gifted pupil at the elite Queen’s Royal College in Trinidad’s Port of Spain, he failed his School Certificate because he spent his final year reading French literature.

The author Caryl Phillips has made the important observation that CLR should be feted as much for his literary prowess (his short stories, his novel Minty Alley (1936), his acute analyses of Melville’s Moby Dick and writers like Toni Morrison) as for his theory. Apart from its brilliance about cricket, his most famous book, Beyond a Boundary (1963), is beautifully written.

In 1969, after an unwaged lifetime of factional revolutionary politics, debating with Trotsky and creating a new political current that foreshadowed later intersectional and autonomist movements, he was offered work in North American universities. His first post was at Federal City College in Washington DC, whose mission statement included ‘decolonization of the mind’.

At Northwestern University, his reading list for students gave much more prominence to a white Western canon (Shakespeare, Marx, Melville, Abraham Lincoln) than to WEB du Bois and Frederick Douglass. His friend Richard Wright and ‘the outcast little Negro switch’ James Baldwin were not even mentioned.

John Bracey, the black professor who appointed him, recalled a discussion where ‘several comrades and I were railing against Europe and its evils’. CLR simply said, ‘But my dear Bracey, I am a Black European. That is my training and my outlook’. Reading this, I recalled the shock I felt at the UWI conference organised by David Abdullah to commemorate 100 years since his birth, when a few prominent Caribbean intellectuals derided CLR as an ‘Afro-Saxon’. (CLR’s Antiguan friend Tim Hector turned to me, laughed and said, ‘That’s me, too.’) A letter CLR sent to his comrades in 1961 makes it clear that this insight is foundational to his work:

We, the WI [West Indians], are the best example of what Europe (and the US) means to the future of the colonial and Negro peoples. We are Western and yet tied to Africa… We have something to say. We must be independent… British, French, Spanish, African, Oriental – we have everything, we are attached to everything… All the culture and discoveries of the world have been pouring on us for centuries – we have taken what we could and made such contributions as we were permitted – we are tired of this subordination.

In the BBC film, CLR moves swiftly from hearing his guru, Shakespeare, being mocked to an affirmation of the art being made by LKJ and Mikey Smith. He then follows up with further reflections on the special accretion of knowledge and analysis that colonial domination of the Caribbean has conferred on ‘West Indians’ and underscores their ability to synthesise the multiple cultures imposed upon them, create new cultures, and transform this experience into weapons for liberation.

With judicious use of the CLR archives, Williams reveals the personal life of this extraordinary thinker. Until now, readers have relied on the autobiography of his second wife, Constance Webb, CLR’s letters to her (assiduously edited by Anna Grimshaw), Farrukh Dhondy’s critical appreciation, including his time with CLR in London, and a few paragraphs in a special issue of the journal, Urgent Tasks.

What a complex and, for some, infuriating man he turns out to be. Constance Webb said he had ‘an elfish sense of humour’, and this is well expressed in the short stories he wrote and posted to their son, Nobbie. CLR loved Nobbie but was an absent father; an improvement perhaps on his own father who regularly beat him. Beyond this, Williams reveals CLR’s overwhelming need for young women to love and support him; an intellectual arrogance which made it impossible for him to hold a group together for very long; an intense opposition to any kind of psychology; and a lifetime of undiagnosed ailments, perhaps psychosomatic (and not helped by massive use of sleeping pills and benzedrine).

Despite all this, it’s easy to see why so many people adored CLR, and respected him. I personally cherish the two occasions when I met him, awe-struck. The first time, he chastised me from his bed in Railton Road for ‘working for the State’ (as an advice worker in Chapeltown’s Law Centre); the second time, as his chauffeur, he just made me laugh. Even in those brief exchanges you could see a man whose stunning intelligence, good looks and bearing attracted many lovers and acolytes. John Williams takes us behind the public persona CLR had so carefully cultivated of a refined, self-contained, revolutionary intellectual.

CLR James – BBC Arena (1982), Upon Westminster Bridge (the poetry of Michael Smith)