March 2018

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The gritty texture, the assiduously ambiguous counterpoint of colonial experience is bound to be one of the major themes of the ex-colonial writer. In fact, it doesn’t help much to suggest that it is a theme. It is as much a part of his physical and nervous structure as the pancreas or the lumbar ganglia. And among the saddest occasions in West Indian writing are those when the experience ceases to be a part of the person, or is forbidden to be a part of the person, and becomes instead an assumption, a bogus cross running with what is merely the ketchup of suffering.

Unfortunately, the exceptions are rare: Derek Walcott; John Hearne, in his last novel in particular; George Lamming, at least by honourable intent; Vidia Naipaul in “The Middle Passage,” Vic Reid in the early part of “New Day.”

Mr. C.L.R. James’ new book now obliges us to think again about what we have so easily taken for granted, and it sets a fresh and original standard in analysis and discussion. He makes ‘being a colonial’ a human experience as opposed to the casual free-masonry of crowded verandahs.

One is alert immediately to the fatuity (in the West Indies, of all places) that he has “mixed politics with cricket” and so it is worth outlining his central thesis—or rather central perception.

Important cricket makes demand upon genuine and creative human skill, skill of a kind that promotes and defines emotion.

A courageous and highly illuminating account of some forty years of Trinidad cricket obliges the reader to reflect on his previously held views of the ecology of independence and self-respect, and it is to say the least, refreshing water in an arbitrary desert, to have people like George Headley and Learie Constantine accorded creative status. History ought to make the appropriate stresses and consign Sir Alexander Bustamante, and all his air-hostesses, to a squalid footnote. He happened, is about as much as one can regretfully say.

One hears hollow, saintly laughter at the entrance to the Spanish Town Cathedral.

Mr. James makes the West Indies into a community that has lived and endured and that is coming to a fertile consciousness of itself, not a sort of plaything that local politicians invented. At May Pen a West Indian ought to cringe into the nearest bar. In Mr. James’ company he can take rewarding stock of himself.

But it isn’t at all easy to expose for investigation the centres of Mr. James’ discussion because he has one of the instinctual skills of the significant writer: experience is presented as a whole, is seen as a unity of identity and not a blank terrain for arbitrary guerilla raids. We feel with him the inevitable conflict of loyalties, the nexus of decision in a society in which you who are the society are obliged to feel that you are there on sufferance—your skill wanted but not you wanted, your bat wanted, but your face not required in the proper clubs.

Mr. James could have scaled the greasy pole of colonial ambition: scholarship, University, lawyer, member of the legislative council. But fortunately for us, qualities of mind and a sort of visceral integrity kept the man in the society or at least detained him in total commitment to its problems.

Cricket remained his central passion and Mr. James is subtle enough and generous enough to recognise that in a colonial society skills are not just skills—they are the compass bearings of identity. The Word was made flesh and people like George John, Wilton St Hill and Learie Constantine emerge with a magnanimity of stature and symbolic worth that makes Hugh Shearer look like a pawnbroker’s assistant.

But perhaps the most valuable thing about Mr. James’ book isn’t the record—we can figure that out for ourselves. It is the quality of the recording, the certainty you have that not a feeling is invented nor an attitude vamped up. When he tells us, for instance, how he felt disposed to challenge Nye Bevan when he heard Nye expending a deal of satire on a public platform at the expense of the public school ethic—that tight-lipped commitment to the exigencies and decencies of the game. One is moved that Mr. James should have felt as he did and one reverences his subtlety of analysis. His own adherence to that very ethic gave his cricket, and his vision of cricket a moral outline that could be filled with what was real—the way you actually felt, the person you actually were. And at no time does he make a feeling seem like a reflex. For instance, we can, most of us, imagine how the Trinidad cricket clubs were organised across the colour spectrum. But it requires Mr. James to get us to feel this for the first time, to get us to realise the full quality of the hurt, the bewilderment. And he makes manifest the irony of the situation: the total Puritan commitment, the ethic imposed, was met not by the lightskinned clubs but by the darkskinned ones. The Negro players had two things to depend on—the integrity of their skill and the arbitrary generosity and perception of the superior clubs. The superior clubs didn’t have anything to depend on—they were simply there and that was enough.

Mr. James leads us inevitably until that moment when the festive encounter between [Ted] Dexter and Frank Worrell at the Oval is the guarantee of essential independence, of an inner growth, at least, to manhood. As the West Indian spectators fell on to the pitch it was manifest that more was involved than a game. A black man and an Englishman met in the amity of generous victory on the one side and honourably conceded defeat on the other. That was what being yourself looks like.

Mr. James has written one of the rare books since 1949 and what one admires is not the learning he displays, which is at times a little arbitrary, not the historical generalization which often remain little more than themselves, but the creative resilience and tolerance of spirit, the frankness of self-exposure, the recognition that his experience is significant not merely because it is his but because it is the focus of the experience of a society. You don’t feel in his writing the pressures of self-importance, the complacency of supposed originality. Mr. James’ sensibility is the translucent medium through which we contemplate the living of a people. His book is indispensable reading before we move on to the “Middle Passage.” The two don’t contradict each other—they comprise a unity. The difference is the resignation of the one, and the bright-eyed juvescence of the other.

(Reprinted through the courtesy of “Public Opinion.”)

From Pelican December 1963-January 1964