C.L.R. (Cyril Lionel Robert) James was born in Trinidad and Tobago on the 4th of January 1901. As a child, he grew up observing and playing with many of the great players in the early days of West Indian cricket. He moved to England at age 31 in order to further his writing aspirations, and gained a reputation as a social theorist. Over the following years, he spent significant time in both England and the United States, and wrote prolifically on Marx, Lenin and Trotsky. James returned to his birthplace, and was a leading figure in the development of independence in the West Indies. Over all this time, James’ love of cricket remained undiminished, and he is now best remembered for his 1963 book, “Beyond a Boundary”. Over the years since its publication, Beyond a Boundary has been nominated by many readers as the greatest book ever written about sport, but it now seems to be popular to criticise it. As such, I thought it worthy of a re-review.
“Beyond a Boundary” is a combination of a personal memoir, an examination of the social history of the West Indies, and a commentary on the role of cricket within the Caribbean islands. The book is partly autobiographical, and James begins “Beyond a Boundary” with his family history, his childhood and school years. Into this mix, James commences his analysis of West Indian society and politics. James was close friends with the great Learie Constantine, and he recounts personal encounters with Constantine, and other famous cricketers of the day including George Headley, George John and Wilton St Hill.
Many people will have read the defining quote of the book “What do they know of cricket who only cricket know”. This quote serves as the basis for James to critique the game of cricket with the historical and political role that the sport has undertaken in the ongoing devleopment of the West Indian islands. It is worth noting at this point that “Beyond a Boundary” is not a book written for the masses. It is a complex analysis of politics, race and class struggles. The modern cricket book landscape is characterised by ‘ghosted’ autobiographies of players who have just completed their first year of international competition. Beyond a Boundary clashes with this current trend, and this point of differentiation is undoubtedly difficult for casual readers. James’ qualities as an academic are seen in his writing, and the language he chooses has not been simplified for popular consumption.
James discusses the role of sport since Greek times, and puts forward his views regard its importance in relation to the social history. Essays on great players such as George Headley and W.G. Grace are counterpointed to literature and events of their time. An example of this approach is seen through James’ association of Grace’s career with the book Tom Brown’s Schooldays, and argues how the written word provided a setting for Grace to gain social prominence. James also covers the unrest surrounding the English tour in 1960, and how the politics of the islands could be seen through the selection of both the national team and its varying captains.
Whilst you don’t have to be a cricket fanatic to enjoy this book, it is certainly not for everyone. The combination of cricketing anecdotes, social commentary, politics, race, class and sociology is not one that makes for easy consumption on the beach. Nonetheless, James has managed to weave these diverse and often disparate elements together into a book that is highly compelling and interesting to read. As mentioned earlier, it seems popular to now criticise Beyond a Boundary for being overly intellectual, complicated and difficult to read. These criticisms are not without some merit, but they are to overlook the point of the book. It is a product of a time of massive change, of social, political and economic upheaval. Beyond a Boundary is certainly one of the most important books about cricket ever written, and no fan of the history of either cricket or the West Indies should miss it.