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CLR James sends us his 'Letters from London'
Posted: Tuesday, December 31, 2002

By Kim Johnson

Prospect Press' newest book, a small collection of essays by CLR James, Letters from London, is a delight for his fans.

These seven short essays were written in 1932, mere weeks after the 31-year-old James arrived in England.

Originally published in the Port of Spain Gazette, they comprise his observations of London and, in the last pages of the final essay, of Nelson, where he went to live with Learie Constantine.

The topics are: the Science and Art Museums; the Bloomsbury atmosphere; the houses; Englishmen; Englishwomen; the nucleus of a great civilisation.

Long before he left Trinidad James was already a vastly-read, self-educated intellectual. So he is not dazzled by the bright lights of London.

On the contrary, James is disappointed; the reality of London does not live up to the idealised images he had mentally constructed in Trinidad.

Crowds and traffic do not impress him. The large buildings, once their novelty have worn off, are ugly. Politicians whose speeches were marvellous in print, well, "To read them is one thing. To hear them is another."

As for the newspapers, they contain mostly lurid accounts of sex and murder: the domestic life of a murderess; the diary of her murdered husband; accounts by the wife and daughter of a perverted priest; the marriage and honeymoon of Lord Inverclyde.

Yet James's worldliness is thin. Through it you can see a country boy testing what he learnt on his small tropical island, but absorbing new knowledge like a sponge.

He attends a talk by a famous lecturer. She mentions but refuses to name a brilliant new American writer.

"Of course, that was easy," recounts James. "I told her at once that it was William Faulkner and she rather blinked."

In the question period James easily corners her in an argument about poetry.

So the CLR of later years is recognisable.

For instance, his revolutionary populism is formed.

His concluding celebration of the English spirit is contained in a story about when Nelson cinema owners attempted to reduce the operators' salaries.

"The Nelson people got wind of the matter. There were meetings and discussions. They decided that the salaries of the cinema operators should not be lowered," enthuses James.

"It was magnificent and it was war. I was thrilled to the bone when I heard it. I could forgive England all the vulgarity and all the depressing disappointment of London for the magnificent spirit of these north country working people."

He hasn't yet acquired the grand theory that unifies his understanding of culture, civilisation and class struggle, and which endears him to West Indians.

So Letters from London has little for those who read James to be edified.

But the James who is read for its own pleasure is there.

There's the James voice, now coming into its own. You can hear it: unselfconscious, confident, honest, playful.

It is the conversation of a teacher, not in a classroom, but amongst his friends.

The voice blends personal anecdote, opinion, observation and logic with an ease and frankness. It reminds me of Bertrand Russell's more than anyone else.

You feel that all of this man's opinions are completely integrated with his morals, his experience and his vast knowledge.

This is fully developed in his mature works, from The Black Jacobins and, especially, in Beyond A Boundary.

But in Letters are found aspects of James which he lost later on. There is James the diarist, who describes his crowded daily routine minute by minute, like an intellectual Samuel Pepys.

There's none of the gory sexual detail Pepys recounted, but you can see James delight in the fairer sex, and his irresistible charms.

Although he spends hours talking with women who are clearly attracted to his intelligence, good looks and blackness, yet he's no philanderer, and he flees from a woman who sidles up to him in the cinema.

"Now take a boy of 18, a coloured boy living in the colonies, where the social question is what we know it is," he moralises.

"Drop him in London, to live on his own… he is at a critical age, the age when he is apt to believe that sex and a woman are one and the same thing — an age which many may never outgrow. Round him flutter red and white faces with blond hair, red caps and red and white scarves… it is not surprising that some of the boys get spoilt."

James had completed Minty Alley in Trinidad, and in England he has the eye of a novelist. He observes things and people, and describes them memorably.

"The plane is the most beautiful thing in the (Science) Museum and one of the most beautiful things I have seen in London," he says. And then the image:

"It is like one of the graceful women you catch glimpses of on a morning stepping from the pavement to the Rolls-Royce or the Daimler, nothing superfluous, all cut and line."

You'd imagine her to be mature, at least in her thirties. Well, think of when she was a gauche teenager and you'll get a sense of pleasures Letters from London has to offer.

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