Cyril Lionel Robert James, from Trinidad – Marxist, journalist, prolific author and cricketing enthusiast – is a towering figure for the African Caribbean community, particularly in London, where he lived much of his life. He attended the ceremony where the library was renamed in his honour in 1985.
Author Ngoma Bishop is chairman of the Black and Ethnic Minority Arts Network (BEMA) in Hackney. The network and its affiliates are behind the petition to save the library’s name, not just to honour CLR James’s memory but because, he says, the name is a recognition of the important role played by the African-Caribbean community in Hackney. Bishop says “I was fortunate enough to be there during the naming ceremony in 1985. It represented such a positive statement by the council. To drop the name now feels like a statement in the opposite direction.” While conceding that this may not be a conscious slap in the face to African-Caribbeans, he feels that is the impact of the decision and that the council has not taken local views into account. More than 100 people have signed the petition since its launch.
However, Hackney Council defends its decision, saying it is important for the names of its libraries to reflect their location, and to be consistent across the borough. In that case, argues Bishop, why not call it the CLR James Dalston Library? But a spokesman for the council says it is not that simple: “We also had to consider the fact that Hackney’s archive service will also be situated in the building. As a result, the new facility will be named Dalston Library and Archives when it opens in spring 2011.”
He denied any attempts by the council to bury the memory of CLR James: “This is the not the end of the council’s affiliation with CLR James, who we are proud to be associated with. As part of the new library, there will be a permanent exhibition to chronicle the life and works of CLR James; an annual event in his memory and we are pleased to report the state of the art education room will also be named after this influential figure.”
Local website Loving Dalston, which was the first news outlet to uncover the threat to the library’s name back in February, is throwing its weight behind the campaign. Its author, journalist David Altheer, told East London Lines: “I have admired CLR James since I read Beyond A Boundary in my youth. But what I think of James is unimportant – what is important is that the name on the library represents an aspect of Hackney and black history that matters to us all.
“That is why I investigated the issue of the name for the replacement library near Dalston Junction, why I pushed the council to think more deeply about the matter and why I tried to raise community consciousness about it. So the posting of an internet petition this month has delighted me.”
The CLR James Library is currently at 24-30 Dalston Lane. From next spring, the council will rent premises from the Barratt Homes development at Dalston Square.
The last word should perhaps go to CLR James, with this passage from Beyond a Boundary, thought by many to be the finest book on cricket ever written, a passage that is also enscribed on his grave in Trinidad:
“Times would pass, old empires would fall and new ones take their place, the relations of countries and the relations of classes had to change, before I discovered that it is not the quality of goods and utility which matters, but movement; not where you are or what you have, but where you have come from, where you are going, and the rate at which you are getting there.”