The Local Importance of C.L.R. James and Dalston Library.

By Mike Watson

In the recently built Dalston Square stands the area’s library, it is named after the Trinidadian born writer and political activist Cyril Lionel Robert James. It is an institution that has provided a large amount of the primary source material for the Local Roots / Global Routes Project. My own study of Atlantic slavery began with reading C.L.R. James’s brilliant work The Black Jacobins and I’ve been interested in his life and work ever since. This post investigates the links between C.L.R. James and the library that is named after him; firstly as a space dedicated to the legacy of an important Afro-Caribbean writer and political figure, and secondly as a site of learning that remains important to local residents today.

Figure 1 Invitation to the re-naming ceremony of the Dalston Library to the C.L.R. James Library, The George Padmore Institute LRA/01/04/29/01

Figure 1 Invitation to the re-naming ceremony of the Dalston Library to the C.L.R. James Library, The George Padmore Institute LRA/01/04/29/01

In 1985 the Dalston Library, then located on Dalston Lane, was renamed the C.L.R. James Library to coincide with Hackney Council’s ‘Anti-Racist Year’.[1] While the renaming of Dalston’s library after a black Caribbean writer can be seen as part of a broader initiative in the 1980s by many London Councils to incorporate black history into its institutions, the re-naming also resulted from calls within the local community itself. In July 1984 the Afro-Caribbean Community Librarian recommended in a report to Hackney Council Leisure Services Committee that ‘at least one library be renamed after an African/ Afro Caribbean figure of local, national or intellectual repute’.[2] In 1985 it was proposed by Hackney Leisure Services Committee ‘that the Dalston Library should be renamed C.L.R. James Library’ with the renaming ceremony to ‘take place in the last week of March 1985’.[3] While I have been unable to find any strong personal ties between James and Hackney, his public legacy as an intellectual and political figure remains relevant to the library and the community it serves.

Figure 2 Dalston Library, Exterior from Dalston Lane, Colour photograph. c.1960. Hackney Archives, P 263

Figure 2 Dalston Library, Exterior from Dalston Lane, Colour photograph. c.1960. Hackney Archives, P 263

Described in the 1985 Leisure Services Committee report as ‘one of the most outstanding Black figures alive today’, the naming of the library was a celebration of James’s achievements as a writer. [4] His novel Minty Alley (1928) was one of the first books published in Britain by a black writer from the Caribbean. Written by James ‘purely to amuse myself one summer’, the work shows a writer with an interest in issues of society even before he had left Trinidad and become involved in political activity.[5] The novel is about Haynes, a young middle-class bookstore clerk in Port-of-Spain, who comes to understand everyday life by engaging with ordinary people instead of through reading and writing books. While the book initially focuses on Haynes, its scope broadens to encompass the everyday goings-on in ‘the yard’. James’s later articulation of the importance of the ‘ordinary population’ as active agents of change can be seen in Minty Alley.[6] Partly autobiographical, the novel sets out a tension in how James has been perceived; on the one hand as an intellectual ‘man of letters’ and on the other as a Pan-Africanist political activist and independent socialist.

James was renowned for his knowledge of literature and politics. His publisher Fredric Warburg noted that James ‘could quote, not only passages from the Marxist classics but long extracts from Shakespeare’.[7] His wide-ranging interest and knowledge of politics and culture is evident upon reading his selected writings. In one essay he discusses the place of the 1917 Russian October Revolution in history and in another he analyses Shakespeare’s plays Othello and The Merchant of Venice.[8] Warburg’s quote implies a distance between the political and the cultural however James’s reading of culture was one that drew out connections between the two. In Beyond a Boundary James analyses the game of cricket, reading it as a sport that was intimately linked to Caribbean culture, society and politics. While James’s appreciation of literature is well documented, his work in this field took nothing away from his active participation in political currents of the time. Christian Høgsbjerg’s recently published book C.L.R. James in Imperial Britain (2014) warns of the danger of casting James as the ‘Grand Old Man of Letters’ – a ‘harmless icon’.[9] In discussing the importance of James today, we must make the interconnections between his political activism, his interest in literature and his career as a writer.

Figure 3 Programme for C.L.R. James Week in Hackney (25tth-29th to cerebrate the renaming ceremony of Dalston Library to C.L.R. James Library. From The George Padmore Institute LRA/01/0429/01

Figure 3 Programme for C.L.R. James Week in Hackney (25tth-29th to cerebrate the renaming ceremony of Dalston Library to C.L.R. James Library. From The George Padmore Institute LRA/01/0429/01

As a venue for events that are open to members of the public, the C.L.R. James Library facilitates the type of lectures and discussions that James might have attended. Throughout his life he participated in events across the world speaking to audiences in Africa, Europe, the Caribbean and North America. The various London addresses at which James resided throughout his life became hubs for political discussion frequented by several important individuals, including the writer and revolutionary Walter Rodney who was a student of history at SOAS in the 1960s. Alfie Roberts, a member of a Montreal-based group that congregated around James during this time, provided an insight into James’s composure as a public speaker. He described how even when the audience was small ‘he took his watch out, put his watch down, and proceeded to say what he had to say as if he was talking to 300 people’.[10] James’s skills as a public speaker were honed during his first long stay in Britain in the 1930s, when he took an active role in political movements. Arriving in Britain in 1932 from Trinidad, he soon became known as an important speaker on Caribbean self-government, the anti-imperialist struggle in Africa and later as a member of the British Trotskyist movement. This activism and work in organizations took place alongside James’s career as a writer. Noel Ignatiev likened James to ‘a great athlete who pulls off amazing feats on the court’ in terms of his ability as a public speaker, adding that this was due to ‘the countless hours he put in off the court or lectern’.[11]James’s political activism was intertwined with his career as a writer. His understanding of the world was rooted in his readings of many of the great writers of the time, as much as they were a reaction to the events that were taking place around him.

The C.L.R. James Library has kept its name since its relocation to Dalston Square in 2012. The on-going importance of the library’s links to James is apparent from the local campaign and petition of 2,500 people to reverse the decision by Hackney Council to change the name of the library. The naming of public institutions after important writers and political activists is certainly something that should be celebrated, but the library’s dedication to James’s life and work shouldn’t end there. Stuart Hall has stated in his portrait of James that ‘major intellectual and political figures’ are ‘not honoured by simple celebration’ but rather ‘by taking his or her ideas seriously and debating them, extending them, quarreling with them and making them live again’.[12] This is what the C.L.R. James Library can facilitate; access to important works of literature and non-fiction and a space for assembly and discussion. This is a true testament to the vital importance of C.L.R. James’s work.

[1] ‘C.L.R. James The Black Jacobin’, Booklet, published by Hackney Council for Anti-Racist Year 1985, Hackney Archives Department 920 JAM P

[2] Leisure Services Committee, 3 July 1984 Work of the Library Services, Community Library- Afro Caribbean, Hackney Archives.

[3] ‘Renaming of Dalston Library’, Leisure Services Committee, 29 January 1985, Hackney Archives.

[4] ‘Appendix’, Leisure Services Committee, 29 January 1985, Hackney Archives.

[5] K. Worcester, C.L.R. James: A Political Biography, (New York: State University of New York Press, 1996), p.19.

[6] C.L.R. James, ‘The Making of the Caribbean People’, in David Austin (ed) You Don’t Play with Revolution, (Oakland: AK Press, 2009) p.46.

[7] P. Buhle, C.L.R. James: The Artist as Revolutionary, (London: Verso Books, 1988) p.63.

[8] See also C.L.R. James, ‘Peasants and Workers’ and C.L.R. James, ‘Othello and The Merchant of Venice’, in Spheres of Existence: Selected Writings (London: Allison and Busby Limited, 1980) pp.113-130, pp.141-150.

[9] C. Høgsbjerg, C.L.R. James in Imperial Britain, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014) p.5.

[10] A. Roberts, A View for Freedom: Alfie Roberts Speaks on the Caribbean, Cricket, Montreal and C.L.R. James (Montreal: The Alfie Roberts Institute, 2005) p.71.

[11] N. Ignatiev, ‘Introduction’, in C.L.R. James, Modern Politics, (Chicago: PM Press, 2013) p.10.

[12] S. Hall, ‘C.L.R. James: A Portrait’, in P. Henry, P. Buhle, (eds) C.L.R. James’s Caribbean, (Durham: Duke University Press, 1992) p.3.