2nd April 2012 - Gary Perry
Although no longer widely read, CLR James was one of the finest journalists and historians of the twentieth-century. The rebirth of the CLR James Library in Dalston means, hopes Gary Perry, that many more readers will come across a writer who inspired by both the Bloomsbury set and the racial prejudice that dogged his experiences in London.
Being a former citizen of Hackney, CLR James is a familiar name to me. Until recently, it evoked nothing but the long bus journey or even longer walk from work in Soho to home in Hackney Wick. The number of times I trekked up Dalston Lane, passing the library that bore his name, were many. The building looked tired, damp and cold. A fitting emblem of gloomy mornings on the top deck of the 38 bus and exhausting nocturnal walks. It may have been none of these things. I never went inside and, for all I know, it may have been a bastion of comfort. The CLR James Library has recently resurfaced amidst the new towers of Dalston Junction. It, like the borough in which it sits, has quickly gone up in the world. Pumpkins regularly become carriages in East London and to questionable effect. When a pumpkin becomes an elegant cart or a glossy issue of Vice, it risks losing touch with the soil. And so the library almost lost its name. Rescue came following a spirited campaign from locals. A victory that will see an exhibition dedicated to the life and works of this man whose name so many of us recognise yet whom very few of us know.
I had no idea who he was until I came across a copy of Letters from London just before Christmas. London books jump out at me and the familiar name gave this one an extra push. Upon opening it, I fell in love immediately. CLR James is a writer whose prose is difficult to dislike. He is companiable, empathetic, enthusiastic and witty. His is a simple voice that when encountered converts the reader into a defender and evangelical. I, like the Hackney campaigners, cannot let his letters disappear.
James was a Trinidad Marxist intellectual, who arrived in London during the early thirties and despatched accounts of his time there back to the Port of Spain Gazette for publication. He was intrigued by the city and besotted with his home patch of Bloomsbury. The charm of the Letters stem mainly from this affection. To such a lover of literature and ideas, Bloomsbury was mecca. TS Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Edith Sitwell and their many devotees pounded the streets. James attends lectures and stays up late into the night, discussing books and reading aloud, with fellow bibliophiles. These reports took me back to my days as an undergraduate at UCL, engaged in a romance with a part of the city that remains synonomous with education. Like James, I felt I had come home. It is with much warmth that he refers to having found his niche in the 'Bloomsbury Atmosphere'. This sense of belonging is something that we all yearn for and that many of us find within one of London's micro-communities.
Such optimism and happiness is open to accusations of being blinkered. James is honest enough to accept this and touches upon the bleaker aspects of London life. He is turned away from lodging houses on the basis of his race, encounters accusing looks on the tube and references the possibility of a second war. These evils are acknowledged with sadness and disapproval, yet the letters are not polemical. The direct confrontation with colour prejudice would come later in James' work. He accepts that his experience differs from those West Indians not within the hallowed, progressive terrain of Bloomsbury. He also confesses to periods of loneliness, experienced in the 'prison' of his lodgings. In these he finds common ground with the isolated girlfriends and bored suburban housewives, all of whom have new freedoms but too few opportunities to put them to good use. Frustration, loneliness and boredom are their frequent companions. 'And then, you see, I myself in one of those dreadful rooms have felt the same', admits James. His empathy is profound and deeply moved this reader.
This small volume is one of a select number to have won a permanent position on my bedside table. The wonderfulness of James is something that deserves to be discovered by a much wider readership. He is affectionate and convivial company. Wherever books are read and loved, his name should be known. Here's hoping that the victory on Dalston Lane kick starts a revival.