Beyond a boundary
Perhaps you caught director Steve McQueen’s magnificent series of films, Small Axe, broadcast on the BBC late last year. If not, they’re still available on BBC iPlayer. This is what your licence fee is for. The second of the series, the immersive and evocative Lover’s Rock, is the obvious standout, but it is the first, Mangrove, that concerns me here. Mangrove is based on a true story of police harassment of the owner and customers of a Caribbean restaurant in the late 1960s, and the trial of nine people who protested against this. The actors play real-world characters. One of those portrayed is Darcus Howe, who became a regular TV presence in the 1980s and 1990s. In a couple of scenes, the Trinidadian journalist, historian and political thinker C.L.R. James makes an appearance, played perhaps distractingly for people of my generation by Play School legend Derek Griffiths. When Howe is feeling the heat, James issues the following piece of advice: “I actively encourage you to go and live in the north of England. In East Lancashire.”
It struck me that someone watching might wonder what that was all about. Why East Lancashire? Behind that fine advice lurks quite a story.
In Nelson, about 10 minutes from the house I grew up in, on Meredith Street off the steep drag of Chapelhouse Road, a blue plaque on an end-of-terrace house overlooking a bowling green reads: Lord Learie Constantine, 1901-1971. Cricketing legend, political activist and first black peer. Lived here 1930-1949. My brother alerted me to the existence of the plaque, installed in 2011, and one Saturday morning we walked up to find it, presumably on our way to an early kick-off that had required an overnight stay in Nelson. I’d been vaguely aware of the story, but this prompted me to dig into it.
Constantine was a Trinidadian, born in Diego Martin in 1901. He was variously described as either the grandchild or great-grandchild of slaves, who would have been among the last to be snatched from West Africa and forced to work on sugar plantations under British colonial rule. He was recognised as an outstanding cricketer at an early age. Constantine was an all-rounder, renowned for being a hard hitter of the ball, a fast bowler and an outstanding fielder, quick, agile and acrobatic. He toured England as a West Indies player in 1923 and 1928, and it was on the second tour that, said to be frustrated by the barriers black people faced in Trinidad and Tobago, he signed as a professional for Nelson Cricket Club, in the Lancashire League. The Lancashire League, as you may know, is a league mostly made up of East Lancashire cricket clubs, founded in 1892. Each club is allowed one professional player, and many world-class cricketers have spent a season turning out incongruously among amateurs of varying talents in former mill towns.
This signing was a real coup, and the impact Constantine had on the previously undistinguished club was immediate and tremendous. In his 10 seasons, Nelson won the Lancashire League eight times. The club has never before or since had such a sustained run of success. Constantine was a star, a very big fish in a small pond, apparently nicknamed ‘electric heels’ by the locals. I suppose the contemporary reference would be the galvanising effect when Ian Wright signed for third-tier Burnley, except here, Constantine’s presence sustained that for a decade.
Compared to today, Lancashire League cricket then had a big following. Like football, matches were played on Saturday afternoons, after people knocked off from a half day of work. Crowds of eight to ten thousand turned up for Nelson’s home games, a huge chunk of the town’s population (38,304, according to the 1931 census), and hundreds would even watch practice sessions. Importantly, given the local climate, matches would not stop for a bit of rain.
Constantine’s commanding play must have offered a rare break from drudgery and worry. The decline of the cotton industry was already underway in the 1920s. The Great Depression hit the industrial north hard. Many were left unemployed and had to rely on limited welfare provision. Reflecting this decline, the two local professional football clubs struggled: as in the 1980s, economic depression off the pitch connected to sporting decline. Nelson FC, then the cricket club’s neighbours at Seedhill, peaked as winners of Division Three (North) in 1923, but in 1931, during Constantine’s time, finished bottom of the league and were voted out, never to return. A reformed club plays at a low level today.
Down the road, the bigger club were also in decline. Burnley’s extraordinary 1921 title win was long past, and the visionary John Haworth had died prematurely in 1924. By the 1930s, these must have seemed distant memories. Burnley FC were struggling financially, and in 1932 and 1933 we only narrowly stayed in the Second Division, where we would linger until the other side of the Second World War. Attendances slumped, record scorer George Beel moved on and key players such as George Brown and a young Tommy Lawton were sold to raise vital money.
While bringing cheer to the locals, Constantine was also, of course, the first black face most Nelsoners had seen. He was an object of curiosity and misapprehension. An account has Constantine living opposite Whitfield school, which would have placed him on Every Street, before the move to Meredith Street. Children from the school are reported to have tried to peer through the window to catch a glimpse. He experienced rudeness and received anonymous letters. But he also encountered simple inquisitiveness, which he met with openness. He played street cricket with children.
There’s an element in this of always having to be on his best behaviour, of offering the shining exception, but in a speech he gave back home in Trinidad, Constantine said that while there were only four black people in Nelson – his wife, Norma, his daughter, Gloria, and a friend called Alfred Charles were the others – they were never made to feel inferior. Gloria went to Nelson Secondary School, later Walton. A 1945 photo of girl prefects shows Gloria, apparently known as ‘the first black girl in Nelson’, standing out in a sea of white. Constantine was reported to have turned out on occasion for the school’s staff cricket team, a very obvious ringer.
They were joined by another new, black face when James came to Nelson in 1932, lodging with the Constantine family on Meredith Street. James came to help Constantine write his autobiography, Cricket and I, which became the first book published in the UK by a Caribbean author about life in the Caribbean. James had been a gifted child with two great loves, cricket and literature. His talents won him a scholarship at Trinidad’s top school, where the children of British colonisers went, a more-English-than-England school. James was born the same year as Constantine. They were friends.
Much of what I relate here comes from James’s book, Beyond a Boundary, from which I also stole a title. This is the only book I’ve ever read about cricket, and probably will remain so. Although of course, it isn’t only about cricket; it’s about race, politics and life. But when it came to cricket, James also had some talent. He went on the books of Nelson CC, playing for the second team and in at least one friendly, but his batting let him down. He turned down the chance to play professionally for Radcliffe CC, feeling that he could not play well, given the pressure of expectation. Instead he turned his craft to his love, becoming cricket correspondent for what was then the Manchester Guardian, deputising for legendary cricket writer, Neville Cardus, and himself becoming a recognised master at writing about the game.
Before coming to Nelson, it’s fair to say that James had little good to say about the English. At school, he had come to understand the injustices of colonialism. But even beyond his country’s colonial masters, the English people he had met, as an aspiring writer, were snooty London types like the Bloomsbury Set, for whom he had little time. His spell in Nelson seems to have convinced him that some of us were alright. According to both Gloria Constantine and James, that Meredith Street house was a social hub, always with someone visiting. It was a place of conversation, of setting the world to rights. In Beyond a Boundary, James wrote: “These humorously cynical working men were a revelation… some of the best friends a man could make I made during my first weeks in Nelson.” He added, “I could forgive England all the vulgarity and all the depressing disappointment of London for the magnificent spirit of these north country working people.”
James’ preconceptions were challenged. Here’s what James wrote about Seedhill: “I had imagined a small piece of grass, fighting for its life against the gradual encroaching of cotton factories, menacing with black smoke, machine shops and tenement houses. The ground is nothing of the kind. It is full-size, level and when you sit in the pavilion, you see on three sides a hill rising gradually covered with green grass, clumps of trees, houses here and there, beautiful as it seems only the English countryside can be beautiful.” Today, away fans travelling to Turf Moor seem to share these misapprehensions, if expressing them more crudely, and rarely acknowledge the beauty of the region.
James made friends with Nelson man Harry Spencer, who owned a bakery and tearoom, and whose children were at school with Gloria. They spent hours at the bakery talking and sitting and reading together. Through Harry Spencer and his wife Elizabeth, James learned about English history and English food. They would go walking for miles and Spencer would relate every detail of local history and landscape. I can see in this that familiar East Lancashire parochialism: pride in knowing every local inch of a small world, but also a pride in sharing local knowledge with outsiders.
James had written of the small scale of Caribbean island societies. At a certain level of society, everyone knows everyone else, and it is also possible to know many people from outside your obvious circle. Perhaps he found an echo of that in the smallness of Nelson life, in the insularity of East Lancashire. James was a thinker whose intellectual position can be characterised as that of a keen outsider, always an outsider looking in. In Nelson he would have been that outsider, but looking into a community that also saw itself as outsiders.
His small island nation would go on to be recognised as a cultural powerhouse, giving the world legendary sportspeople and writers, inventing its own great musical style, calypso: punching above its weight, to use a familiar phrase. Much of this cultural footprint was in diaspora, including in the Windrush generation, which brought gifted calypsonians such as Lord Kitchener and writers such as Sam Selvon, author of the classic, the Lonely Londoners, to this country. Having to leave a place to achieve is something the East Lancashire diaspora know about too. But years before the Windrush landed, here were two Trinidadians acting as ambassadors of their land, not among the rich and famous, but among the northern working class.
It’s fair to say that James was largely not recognised as a major political thinker in his lifetime. He was not taught in universities. In recent years recognition has come, and he’s now seen as one of the most important Marxist thinkers of the global south, forging a groundbreaking critique of imperialism and argument for self-determination. Nelson seems to have had a big influence on his thinking. He was certainly busy there. While in Nelson, his first book, The Life of Captain Cipriani, making the case for Caribbean self-government, was published by a small Nelson firm, with financial backing from Constantine, and he worked on what became his seminal text on the Haitian Revolution, the Black Jacobins, still an influential text today. The Special Branch kept an eye on him.
James relates conversations with local socialists, and how they contributed to his political development; how, having seen Indian independence rejected by the Labour Party when it came to power in 1929, they were more cynical about the prospects of Caribbean self-determination than he was. He came to see that his observations about class divisions and structural inequality in Trinidadian society were reproduced in the British class system. James wrote that until then his ideas, gleaned from books, had been abstract. Now they were practical. In Nelson James would have seen unemployment and deprivation, but also a strong sense of community, organisation and dogged resistance.
At that time the town was something of a hotbed of political radicalism, caricatured as ‘Little Moscow’, where they painted the town hall steps red and where the council refused to celebrate King George V’s silver jubilee in 1935, saying the money should be spent on free meals for the unemployed and children. It was a time of strikes. In 1932, a mass strike lasting over a month responded to attempts by mill owners to bring in non-unionised workers to work for less. The Nelson and District Power-Loom Weavers’ Association was a politically powerful local force, with 18,000 members at its peak in 1920.
With typical Nelson insularity, the dominant political party was the Independent Labour Party, which split off from the Labour Party in 1932. Its practice was social and discursive, centred around meetings and debates. James relates him and Constantine being invited to numerous meetings, suggesting a willingness, notwithstanding Nelson insularity, to listen to these visitors from a distant land and learn from their experiences. There was a distinctively Methodist streak to these politics too, with an emphasis on learning, self-improvement and physical health. Workers were encouraged into the countryside. The Nelson ILP Clarion House at Roughlee stands today as the last of its kind, a countryside space of their own for workers, serving refreshments, with its long communal benches encouraging interaction and discussion. It’s easy to imagine James and his friend Spencer walking there, talking about books, cricket and socialism before pausing for a cup of industrial-strength tea.
James didn’t stick around long. Like many of us, he moved south, heading to London in 1933, and then on to Paris to research Haiti, financially supported by Spencer. He lived variously after that in the USA, back in Trinidad and then back to London, where in 1980s he lived his last years in Brixton. Around the corner from where I live today, there’s another blue plaque, on the corner of Railton Road and Shakespeare Road, the old headquarters of Darcus Howe’s Race Today Collective, commemorating James, compensating for his absence from the plaque in Nelson. Among his many campaigns was one, supported by Constantine, for the West Indies cricket team to be captained by a black man; they had only had white captains, and held whites-only dances when touring Britain.
In attempts to achieve political influence there is always the question of whether to pursue outsider or insider strategies: whether to stand outside and try to shape the debate, or whether to move into whatever space is available and try to change institutions from within. There’s no definitive answer to this dilemma, and often change comes when people do both. If James was always the outsider then Constantine was a consummate insider. After finishing his time with Nelson CC, Constantine’s war work was with the Ministry of Labour and National Service, responsible for Caribbean people working in Liverpool factories. He persuaded reluctant firms to take on the Caribbean workers, brought in to the do the job of men away at war, and got the ministry to place urgent orders with those firms, forcing their hand to accept the imported talent.
During the war he was given leave to play for the West Indies against England at Lord’s, but in London the Imperial Hotel refused to allow him and his family to stay, employing the crudest of racially abusive terms; he sued them and won, in what was a landmark case for racial equality. James described this moment: “the revolting contrast between his first class status as a cricketer and his third class status as a man.” Throughout his public life Constantine seems to have placed emphasis on encouraging negotiation and trying to win compromise, all to advance the principle that black and white people should live together as equals, but he wasn’t afraid to speak out at times. His 1954 book, The Colour Bar, criticised the UK as being only a little more tolerant of black people than the USA and South Africa.
He became both a barrister and politician, moving back to Trinidad to win a seat in parliament and serve in government. When he returned to the UK in 1961 it was in a more formal ambassadorial role, as his country’s High Commissioner, representing the soon-to-be independent nation. He was an inveterate board member, including with the BBC, Race Relations Board and Sports Council, sparking accusations that he had become part of the establishment. Establishment status was confirmed in 1969, and another slice of history made, when Constantine became Britain’s first black peer, with the luxuriantly intermingled title of Baron Constantine of Maraval in Trinidad and Nelson in the County Palatine. His photo still hangs on the wall of Nelson CC, making him almost certainly the only person represented both there and in the National Portrait Gallery.
I wanted to write this because growing up in Nelson, I knew nothing of this story. Yet no history of that peculiar corner, East Lancashire, from which many of us hail is complete without some acknowledgment of the time these two titans graced us with their presence. Imagine, these two friends from a different country who in their various ways did so much to enrich British life – our sport, our political life, our literature – sharing a terraced house in Nelson. Imagine them carrying the impression of East Lancashire with them in the decades that followed. So much has changed, of course. It’s hard now to imagine Nelson as a hotbed of anything, let alone of radical political thought. Today the innate scepticism of the northern working class is being channelled in another direction. But East Lancashire has something to be proud of, for its role in Caribbean history, and in black British history.
This article first appeared in the April edition of the London Clarets magazine.Share this page :