Cllr James in 1938. Photo: Constantine Collection
Cllr James’ obituary in The Times described him as “Black Plato”.
When CLR died in 1989, he had lived a life that encompassed a childhood in Victorian Trinidad, a youth that saw him embedded in the study of literature, and a political awakening that took him on a path of depression through the drawing rooms of Bloomsbury – the art of the era in England. He was a major player in American radical politics – focusing on issues of both class and race – and mentored both key figures in the anti-colonial Pan-African movement but also worked to create a federation of Caribbean island states.
A writer and revolutionary, CLR – who spent his time in the UK in Bloomsbury and Hampstead – became synonymous with British black politics, Trotskyite communism and cricket.
Now, a new biography by John L. Williams explores CLR’s character to create a rounded and fascinating picture of a man who was involved in one of the great political discourses of the 20th century.
John, who previously wrote extensively on politics, music and sport, noted how CLR’s written output – his two best-known books, The Black Jacobins and Beyond a Boundary are considered classics of their kind – contained no detailed account of his life.
“I’ve always been interested in the CLR and there wasn’t really a biography,” he said re-evaluation.
“He was someone who had a big influence on me. I read all his books, I’m a cricket fan and I was involved with Rock Against Racism so his work resonated.
“He combined politics and sports in a way that was unusual at the time.”
By dissecting CLR’s politics and critiquing his views, John sought to explore the circumstances that produced his political awareness that was deeply intertwined with an understanding of English literature – and how the written word had the power to influence.
Born in Trinidad in 1901, he was the son of a school teacher, a family descended from people stolen into slavery.
An intellectual parent, at the age of nine he won a scholarship to Queen’s Royal College – the island’s leading school, modeled after an English public school. Winning the scholarship marks him as the brightest student on the island. But instead of evolving, the CLR rebelled – but in an intellectual way, throwing away hours of maths and science study, immersed in William Thackeray and Victor Hugo.
Author John Williams
He began teaching at the age of 20 and left the island in 1932 to work in London.
Surprisingly, given the class and race issues in Trinidad, CLRs are not politicized here, says John.
“When he was in Trinidad, he was really a literary figure,” says the biography.
“He wanted to write the great Trinidadian novel. When he came to Britain he immersed himself in the progressive atmosphere of Bloomsbury as well as the radical working class of northern England.”
John spoke to people who knew CLR personally – and benefited from reams of letters held in archives in New York, Trinidad and Detroit.
“What got me into CLR were his letters,” Williams says.
“He wrote thousands of really dense letters to his comrades. Mostly about political thoughts and actions – but then, often, the man himself would bubble over. He will start talking with real honesty, for example, about his relationships.
“A lot has been written about the CLR’s intelligence and her intelligence but what really comes out in reading the letters is her fragility.”
This sprawling, richly written and illuminated biography marries the crucible of 20th century political philosophy, the struggle between different strands of left-wing thought, with his other great passion – cricket. It reveals how sport is used as a metaphor for the battles we play between competing interests. It also shows how the written word can form a looking glass for studying a life.
Although CLR’s life was fraught with both internal and external problems – poverty, health, relationships, racism, war – her story ended on a liberating and happy note.
“When he was growing up, he was sure that nobody was interested in him, sure that nobody cared what he thought, what he wrote,” says John.
“His books were largely ignored and he felt that his time and influence had disappeared.”
But at the age of 80, he left the quiet contemplation he provided in Trinidad to face the politics of Thatcher’s Britain.
He was a voice that was needed.
“When he came back, people started showing interest in his words,” observes John.
“Young people were coming to him. His work is being reissued.”
His place in our collective cultural life was confirmed when the BBC asked him to write and narrate five shows about Shakespeare.
“He was an inspiration and remains one today,” John added.
“CLR understands the issues of identity politics and being aware of your cultural history. He always wanted to know more, he wanted to learn from everyone and this is why his politics could grow and develop. He never lost interest in the lives of others: he would ask details of those he met, where they came from, what their background was. He always wanted to know more about the world: he had the attitude you learn from everyone.
• CLR James: A Life Beyond the Boundary. By John L. Williams. Little Brown, £25