Beyond a Boundary – C.L.R. James
What a brilliant book. What a brilliant man. Perhaps I’m particularly moved to think this because the fact of one of the 20th century’s greatest intellectuals discussing cricket like it matters justifies all the hours I’ve wasted watching test matches and county championship games. Stylistically, however, the book is a great work of art (as James argues cricket can be too); and for those who think sport merely a distraction, there are some serious arguments that need to be dealt with. I’ll try and outline them.
James points out that almost all sports’ official regulatory bodies were formed in a single decade, 1860-1870. As The First International was founded in 1864, James amusingly points out that the start of organised games coincides with the start of organised democratic movements: “so that this same public that wanted sports and games so eagerly wanted popular democracy too. Perhaps they were not exactly the same people in each case. Even so, both groups were stirred at the same time.” (200)
Today the same problem that James faced remains. Search timelines of events in Victorian Britain in popular websites and you will find little mention of The First International and even less mention of the founding of golf’s first British open (1860), the F.A (1863), the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club (1868), the Rugby Football Union (1871) etc. – although if you search the sports websites you’ll find the contemporary ‘historical’ events.
James, in the 1963, reads back the histories of (the Liberal) Trevelyan and (the socialists) Postgate and Cole and is disappointed to discover that they “never once mention the man who was the best-known Englishman of his time. I can no longer accept the system of values which could not find in these books a place for W.G. Grace.” (208) The man is serious.
And I am serious when I say that each chapter is written, deliberately, at the rhythm and tempo of a cricket innings, each chapter different for different subjects. His prose may appear meandering but really it is a masterpiece in intellectual concentration and rhetorical style: gathering pace, defending and countering his opponents’ arguments and establishing his own individual and impressive presence. I will attempt to reproduce his argument from the chapter on Grace. It is James’s masterpiece. Glancing through other bloggers reviews of James’s book, some are unconvinced by his argument that cricket is art and sport important, though all seem to be impressed by what they read – and in James’s analysis this feeling must be something worth considering. The chapter on Grace answers the question why should we care?
Although when we think of cricket, we might think of stiff-upper lips, tea, tiffin and stiffly ironed flannel trousers, cricket, says James, is in fact a pre-Victorian game that was used and moulded by the Victorians. Cricket was created by artisans: blacksmiths, tailors, painters, men good with their hands.
At Rugby School, Thomas Arnold (1795-1842; father of Matthew) was busy creating a rigour and training that Victorian society made its own. He saw, like many of his class, a growing threat of disorder, riot, trade-unionism on one hand and the ‘immoral’ new-money on the other hand. Arnold’s great merit was his commitment to education but “what really interested them [the Victorians] was Arnold’s moral excellence and character training. His intellectual passion they had no use for.” It just wasn’t relevant right then. Instead, remember Wellington’s almost mythic (that it is probably apocryphal makes it all the more relevant to the age’s vision of itself) “The Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing–fields of Eton”; the Victorian virtues of ‘playing with a straight bat’, being a jolly good loser, playing for the team, having a ‘good innings’, and of course avoiding things that are ‘not cricket’, and you start to see his point about sport’s importance in British and colonial history.
So why W.G. Grace?
“He did what no one else had ever done, developed to a degree unprecedented, and till then undreamt of, potentialities inherent in the game. And it was this more than anything else which made possible W.G’s greatest achievement. It was by modern scientific method that this pre-Victorian lifted cricket from a more or less casual pastime into the national institution which it rapidly became.” (239)
This is resistance to colonialism, it is Fanonian. Taking the science and the method of the settlers, you reassert your native identity and culture stronger and more powerfully than before.
“He brought and made a secure place for pre-industrial England in the iron and steel of the Victorian Age” (240). In cricket W.G. Grace, like W.M. Thackerey in literature (whose Vanity Fair James read obsessively from the age of ten onwards) represents the spirit of Merry England armed with the tools and knowledge of Industrialised Britain.
James is as anti-Victorian as is my grandmother. Born 18 years before her and in the colonies rather than small town Shropshire, much better educated, he nevertheless shares with her, an Edwardian and Georgian loathing for the ethos of the Great Age that preceded them. He has analysed it too.
So what was this pre-Victorian England, whose spirit James is summoning in the large, fiercely bearded figure of Gloucestershire’s W. G. Grace? We must remember back to the beginning of the innings, the start of the chapter.
“It was an England unconquered by the Industrial Revolution. It travelled by saddle and carriage. Whenever it could it ate and drank prodigiously. It was not finicky in morals. It enjoyed life. It prized the virtues of frankness, independence, individuality, conviviality.” (208-209) And the word ‘unconquered’ is important – this England was colonised by the Victorians.
William Hazlitt (1778-1830) for James, is the age’s embodiment. Above all for his individual, uncompartmentalised approach to everything: “He takes his whole self wherever he goes; he is ready to go everywhere; every new experience renews and expands him. He writes as freely and as publically of a most degrading love-affair as of Elizabethan literature.” (209)
So beginning with studious defence against the hostile criticisms of his argument, he deflects notions that sport is unimportant and unworthy of serious study. He defeats an attack that sees cricket as only Victorian and public school. Now he goes on the attack and scores his first four of the innings. The 18th century is beginning to break loose. “In prose, in poetry, in criticism, in painting, his [Hazlitt’s] age was more creative than the country had been for two centuries before and would be for a century after. This was the age that among other creations produced the game of cricket.” (209-210)
Batting is easy now. “There was nothing in the slightest bit Victorian about it. At their matches cricketers ate and drank with the gusto of the time, sang songs and played for large sums of money. Bookies sat before the pavilion at Lord’s openly taking bets. The unscrupulous nobleman and the poor but dishonest commoner alike bought and sold matches … cricket took its start from the age in which it was born, both the good and the bad. That the good could predominate was a testimony to the simple men who made it and the life they lived.”
And so his innings continues. The glorious stroke play of his prose flowing quite brilliantly: the rambling but meticulously planned narrative reminiscent of Lawrence Sterne or Thackerey himself; the Marxist approach to history; the partisan sense of battle and the sympathy for humanity of a man deeply involved in the life of a colonised nation; the fairness of analysis of a man who knows ‘what is cricket’; and a dry wit that is all his own.
So what it is that has prevented W.G. Grace from being included in the various histories of England? What has made the Victorian predilection for hierarchical classifications and notions of ‘high’ and ‘low’ art triumph over the well-rounded approach of the pre-Victorian? What has caused sport to be dismissed as a pastime, rather than the heroic art that it was in the time of the Greeks? It is no less than “the whole crumbling edifice of obeisance before Mammon, contempt for Demos and categorizing intellectualism.” (245). And with that, James, undefeated, returns to the pavilion.
Epilogue: Cricket as art
Sport is a tool to distract the masses from politics, says Trotsky. Yes indeed, but only in the same way that music, film and television have been used and you cannot (or should not) dismiss these as ‘not art’. Religion – the famous “opium of the masses” – has brought up ideas that are still worthy of study. A blog by ‘Resolute Reader’ contains the following criticism and an extract from ‘Beyond a Boundary’ – which I need to quote in full:
‘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 recognition 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.’
On the contrary, James is aligning his love for the game of cricket with “thousands” of other people. Anyone who has been in a sports crowd (not just cricket ones) will know that the way in which a lucky or badly-played run-making shot is cheered is distinctly different from one which is, as James rightly says, spontaneously applauded as a thing of beauty. Resolute Reader has fallen into the trap of ‘contempt for Demos’. His gloss that it’s probably OK to for James to say that because the place of cricket is different in the West Indies, leads him towards even more troubled waters.
James is aware of his own prejudices and cricket’s limitations. Cricket as art “is limited in variety of range, of subject matter. It cannot express the emotions of an age on the nature of the last judgment or the wiping out of a population by bombing. It must repeat. But what it repeats is the original stuff out of which everything visually or otherwise artistic is quarried. … we may some day be able to answer … ‘what is art?’ – but only when we learn to integrate our vision of Walcott on the back foot through the covers with the outstretched arm of the Olympic Apollo.” (279; my italics)