BBC BLOGS - Barling's London
« Previous | Main | Next »

What's in a name?

Post categories:

Kurt Barling | 15:47 UK time, Tuesday, 21 September 2010

CLR James

CLR James

Quite a lot you would think if a local authority asks you and your family to use your name above a library because of your contribution to British literary culture.

Cyril Lionel Robert James, otherwise known as CLR James, remains one of the most illustrious men of letters to emerge from the Caribbean.

A row has broken out after Hackney Council has decided to ditch his name on one of their libraries.

Born in 1901 in Trinidad he came to England with his friend, the West Indian cricketer Learie Constantine in 1932. He settled in Lancashire for a time and wrote for the Manchester Guardian.

James' ambition was to pursue a literary career and in 1933 moved to London. The same year that Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany. That puts his times in some perspective.

He soon made a name for himself as an expert critic of the colonial system and a radical political activist. To be precise he was a Trotskyist who believed in trying to infiltrate the Labour Party to bring about social change. Later on he became a firm Marxist and with his childhood friend George Padmore became part of an afro-Caribbean intelligentsia.

This intelligentsia included future African leaders like Kwame Nkrumah and Jomo Kenyatta, first Presidents both of independent Ghana and Kenya respectively.

As a playwright he put Paul Robeson on the West End stage in 1936 taking the lead role in James' play on Toussaint L'Ouverture, the Haitian revolutionary who kicked the French, British and Spanish out of the west of the Caribbean island of Hispaniola in 1804.

He wrote the first novel to be published by a Caribbean author in the UK, Minty Alley in the same year. He went on to write the seminal study of the African Diaspora through the story of the Haitian revolution in his book The Black Jacobins in 1938.

His autobiography published in 1963, Beyond a Boundary, cemented his reputation as a man of letters and a lover of that most English of games, cricket.

Why the potted literary history? Well, in 1985 a library in the London Borough of Hackney was named in his honour, the CLR James Library.

He attended the dedication and opening himself, a big fuss was made of the importance of celebrating the contributions made by black Britons to our modern City. CLR James died in 1989.

The whole event was meant as a mark of respect for his contribution towards the British understanding of the Caribbean way of life and his literary accomplishments.

Well, in its wisdom the current arts gurus in Hackney have decided to expunge his name from their new library being refurbished on the existing site. Instead of the CLR James Library, it will be called the Dalston Library and Archive.

His widow, Selma James, who just a couple of years ago was invited to toast the continued success of the use of his name, has told me of her disgust at the decision to remove her late husband's name from this place of knowledge and learning.

Supporters of Selma have already started an international petition at what they see as a modern example of disrespect.

Actually there are no crass explanations from Hackney over the name change. They're not saying he was too much of a Marxist, or nobody knows who he is, simply they want to name it after Dalston because that's where the library is.

Nevertheless, crass is quite probably an apt description of the decision by Hackney Council to change the name it not so long ago bestowed on a public building for the contribution by an Afro-Caribbean scholar.

Of course it may be that old CLR and his rather left-wing views no longer fit the mould of the modern view the Labour Party has of itself. But that would be a sort of revisionist agenda unbecoming of a local authority who simply wants to honour individuals for their intellectual contributions to the life of the community.

There are hundreds of buildings all across London named after civic leaders and people who have made a significant contribution to communities in their lifetimes. It is often a small sign of recognition for a lifetime's work.

If we were to go around changing all these names we in some way would be divorce ourselves from our past and those who helped shape it.

You can follow me on Twitter @kurtbarling


  • Comment number 1.

    A couple of years ago Hackney made the news when the council tried to ban Ian Sinclair (its highest profile writer and intellectual) from holding a book event in one of its libraries after he had dared to satirise the council. This awful decision to drop the name of the great CLR James from Dalston library is well in line with the council's desire to present itself as MOR, ie wouldn't say boo to a goose especially a blairite or tory one. I say to Hackney be proud of the Association with the great CLR James and keep his name on the library.

  • Comment number 2.

    Hackney Council would like to take this opportunity to correct some of the detail in this article and to state its position on this issue.

    The library and archive in Dalston will be a brand new £4.4 million facility, not located on the same site as the current CLR James library, bringing together a new library with the borough’s archive and local history service. It is not a refurbishment or rebuild of the current library.

    The Council is very keen to ensure that the heritage of the old CLR James library is preserved, which is why it is proposed that a room in the new building will be named after Mr James. In addition to that, there will be a permanent exhibition in the building about the life and work of CLR James and an annual event to celebrate his achievements. We feel that this will do far more to commemorate his life and to educate future generations than what is at the current site. It is certainly not a decision to ‘expunge’ his name, as suggested by Mr Barling.

    The Council has apologised personally to his widow, Selma James, for failing to consult with her on these proposals and we hope to work with her to ensure CLR James continues to be remembered and honoured.

  • Comment number 3.

    Good to see Hackney Council apologised to Selma James. Good also to see that the apology came swiftly after we raised the issue online and on BBC London radio and Selma James made her displeasure known there.

    The old CLR James Library will be closed. A new spanking library will replace it - heartening news in times of cutbacks. But it is good to see that Hackney has now decided to try and work with CLR James' widow to ensure his legacy is not lost, after the issue was raised here and elsewhere.

    The international petition to preserve the name on the library will no doubt present the case that perhaps Dalston Library and Archive Service could keep CLR James in the new moniker somehow.

  • Comment number 4.

    UPDATE: Hackney Council has decided to restore the name CLR James to its new £4.4 million library. It intends to call it Dalston CLR James Library. As long as no-one complains about it. Glad to see we sparked up a consultation that had been clearly lacking.

  • Comment number 5.

    Well done Kurt Barling in highlighting this shameful episode on the part of the mediocrities among Hackney Council's decision makers, whose actions speak volumes about how they view the Borough's long-standing African-Caribbean residents.

    Am inclined to believe that had this matter been reported by anyone else other than a high profile journalist from a well regarded media establishment, these 'arts gurus' (notice they were not prepared to put a name to their carefully spun volte-face) would have been far less forthcoming in seeking a compromise to their ill-conceived plans.

    Personally speaking, there is no logical reason for 'Dalston' to be included in the new library name; the building's location being evidence enough of its whereabouts, and merely reflects the Council's petty obstinacy in not being seen to concede in total. Guess the months ahead will reveal whether they keep to their word.


BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.