Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Why Should I Read?...

Beyond a Boundary

CLR James, 1963

“Why Should I Read…?” has only looked at one sports book before, and that was as much for its narrative interest as its sporting theme. Beyond a Boundary is very different: unlike The Miracle of Castel di Sangro, this is a remarkably self-aware book.

Beyond a Boundary is nonetheless a complex and subtle work. James was a Trinidadian political activist – a Communist for much of his life—who spent many years in the US and Britain. A prominent journalist and writer, he was at the forefront of the campaign for West Indian independence from British colonial rule.

James was also—and here’s where the seeming contradictions start to arise—a passionate cricket lover. There is an immediate irony in James’ attraction to the most British of games even while his political consciousness was reacting against British rule.

Beyond a Boundary is a remarkable meditation. James dwells lovingly on the cricketing heroes of his youth, but always through the lens of the West Indies’ struggle for independence. In one moving chapter he writes of Wilton St. Hill, a black Trinidadian and hero to many, who was selected to tour England with the West Indies. Here he was an abject failure, and James can see this as a blow in sporting terms, but a tragedy in the political environment. “It was the instinct of an oppressed people that spoke”, he said, reflecting on West Indians’ dismay at his failure.

As late as the 1950s, it was inconceivable that a black man could captain the West Indies cricket team, even when—as was the case at this time—there was no white player worthy of a place. James campaigned ceaselessly for the appointment of Frank Worrell as captain, a black West Indian who commanded universal respect. In due course, Worrell was made captain, a role he filled with distinction for several years.

“What do they know of cricket, who only cricket know?” asked James. Beyond a Boundary is the supreme exploration of how sport can reflect wider social questions—and all retailed in prose of lyrical beauty. A great book.

How has it influenced me?

This book was perhaps the first to make me realise that sport isn’t just about what happens on the field. That, indirectly, led to the galley-racing strand of Dragonchaser, but more importantly Beyond a Boundary opened my eyes.

Lessons for the aspiring writer

Even the most trivial aspects of human existence have wider significance

If you want to write about weighty political issues, it helps to be able to write decent English

Sometimes the best way to tackle political themes is not to write directly about politics

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