This is a photograph of my street during coronavirus lockdown: the fallen leaves littered over disused cars reminded me of some arthouse zombie movie. In the two weeks since I took this picture, the lockdown has eased, and the streets are already beginning to return to their familiar buzz.
I recently finished reading Beyond a Boundary by Trinidadian writer and thinker C.L.R James, which has been referred to as the best book on cricket, and possibly the best book on sport, ever written. I really enjoyed the book, and highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in the sport of cricket, and its history, or just anyone who wants to get a look into the workings of a very unique and interesting mind.
The first half of the book consists of James reminiscing about his childhood in Trinidad, his exposure to cricket from an early age and dabbling in the game as a player. He writes about his interactions with famous West Indian cricketing figures, in particular Learie Constantine, who after a successful Test cricket career went on to have a significant political career in England, winning major political and cultural battles for the nascent black rights movement in the U.K. It’s all very precisely written and gives you a little window into a world you probably don’t know much about.
The second half of the book, which I personally found even more interesting, is a defence of cricket as an art-form both through a cultural analysis of its creation and most important founding player, W.G. Grace, and an analysis through the lens of art criticism, where James very explicitly makes comparisons between cricket and the dramatic and visual arts.
This really resonated with me, as someone with fairly non-sport interests in general, as a potential explanation for why I have always loved cricket. Of course there’s an element of childhood nostalgia, of memories of playing cricket with my Dad, or talking cricket with adults and trying to sound like I knew what I was talking about, of fake-it-till-you-make-it literacy in a small part of the real world. But the thing that has stuck with me about cricket in my adult life is the astounding gamut of detail available to the spectator of the game, and the pure aesthetic pleasure of it all. As James puts so well:
The total spectacle consists and must consist of a series of individual, isolated episodes, each in itself completely self-contained. Each has its beginning, the ball bowled; its middle, the stroke played; its end, runs, no runs, dismissal. Within the fluctuating interest of the rise and fall of the game as a whole, there is this unending series of events, each single one fraught with immense possibilities of expectation and realization.
I was thinking when I read this part of the book, in particular the parts on batting style, fluidity of movement, comparisons to ancient Olympians, about what James might have had to say about former Australian captain Steve Smith. So recently touted as the next Bradman, maybe even better than Bradman, Smith’s fall from grace was astonishing, and his form since his return has not (yet) reached its former heights. Even during his best days, there was much talk of Smith’s aesthetic style as a player, with many old-school orthodox players finding him ugly, albeit brutally effective, to watch. I personally don’t think James would have thought as highly of Smith as many do, or did, and this perspective has made me start to re-evaluate my own feelings about Smith.
The thing I enjoyed most about this book was the simple pleasure of reading the well-organised thoughts of an autodidact explaining thoughts he has accumulated over his long and interesting life in an eloquent and unpretentious way. James’ language is clear and evocative and precise, and he uses it to build a convincing case for the appreciation of cricket as art.
I’ve been living pretty much under lockdown for six weeks now, as I imagine pretty much anyone reading this when I’m writing in will be; for people who find this in the post-coronavirus future, hello, I hope it’s nice out.
I’ve been thinking these last few weeks about the effect of social isolation on the mind, in particular on the anxious mind. Because there’s two very different sides to this crisis: on the one hand there is a very real and frightening threat to life, stability, health and society, a high level of uncertainty and an immense amount of change in a small amount of time. And on the other hand, the lockdown produces a strange serenity, a return home, a slowing down of what has been a truly relentless pace of living.
I’ve been going through this weird lockdown experience with my wife and our young son, who was a month old when it started and is now ten weeks old: sometimes it feels a bit like we’re raising him in a cave. And here too I constantly feel the push and pull; the cabin fever and difficulty of carving out all the different sectors of your life within the same four walls, as well as the once-in-a-lifetime experience of more time with my infant son than almost any father could hope to have.
But maybe the first is just an instinctive, fight-or-flight reaction to the second. We curl up at the thought of being stuck at home, alone with our thoughts, our families, our truest and most intimate selves. And we are so averse to this and it is so foreign to us precisely because of the pace of life, the relentless movement towards the next step, the next phase. Part of me reads the factoids about Shakespeare writing King Lear while under quarantine due to the black plague and wonders where my Shakespearian creativity is, where is the necessary output from all this extra time.
I beat myself around the head trying to carve out time from my life in the past couple of weeks to write, to work on a novel project I’ve had kicking around my head for a year or so now, and the experience of battling with myself to create something in this weird time really created a lot of tension for me, out of nothing. The pressure to create is coming from an expectation I’ve manufactured for myself, it’s not really coming from a desire to express myself or express an idea I had, or if it is, that’s not the primary driver (like it usually is for this blog). Needless to say, the output, if there is any, is not as good as it could be if inspired in a spontaneous and natural way (of course, the creative process is not always like this; but I do believe that spark needs to be there at least at the beginning).
So these days, a quarantine veteran, I’m tending more towards the “just managing your life is more than enough” mantra. Doing less is good, being less busy, having less to do is a blessing. There are plenty of very tough lessons that will need to be taken from this crisis, plenty of interesting moral dilemmas about the conflict between individualism and individual freedom and the responsibilities of an individual towards the society he lives in. But I think it’s also very important to take away the memory of a very unique and valuable experience, the experience of the world slowing down and letting you breathe, if you would just remember how.