CONSTANTINE THE GREAT – HIS RECORD DESERVES TO BE WRITTEN IN STONE

By Clayton Goodwin

Learie Constantine was an exceptional cricketer. That we all know. Growing up in a country village, I never had the opportunity to meet a West Indian and Constantine was only black man whose name whose generally known. His trips with an Antillian XI – he came from Trinidad – into deepest rural Kent were an event of interest and celebration. He was also an exceptional person, whether on or off the field – and much of that is not necessarily so well-known, but it should be. Lord Constantine (of Nelson and Maraval), the first black peer to sit in the House of Lord’s, was also a prominent politician, diplomat, community worker, and so much more. He,  more than any-one else, raised the profile of, and respect for, West Indians, particularly those living in the United Kingdom.

Just the sort of man, you would think, to deserve to have a statue set up in his honour – especially at a time when contributions to race relations seem to determine for many people their judgement as to whom should and should not have such memorials raised. Yet there is not one – anywhere. That is the point which Brian Scovell, the distinguished journalist and long-time contributor to the Daily Mail, has raised in his article in the current issue of The Cricketer magazine. He told me that, in spite of the proposal gaining the support from some of the greatest cricketers of this (or any) generation, including Sir Garry Sobers and Michael Holding, the proposal has come up against a brick wall with those who could bring it about. What will our children know of this great man if there is no tangible memorial?

I do not intend to say too much here about the details of Lord Learie’s life and career. Why spoil your enjoyment at reading for yourselves in Mr Scovell’s article – especially his report of the landmark court case Constantine brought against a London hotel which refused him lodgings – and the many other books which also tell the story in informative detail. His stroke-filled innings and electrifying fast bowling caught the public imagination, and, as I said to office manager Freddie Garside, when he interviewed me for a post with Hayter’s Sports Reporting Agency, Constantine was the one cricketer whom people came just to see for his fielding. In his play Learie more or less invented the popular image of the West Indian cricketer and of the professionalism of the (Lancashire/Northern) League professional.

From his own experiences Constantine set in motion the legal and political fight for racial justice which resulted ultimately in the passing of the Race Relations Act in the United Kingdom. By his work with the Caribbean community during the Second World War, Learie was recognised as being the de facto, if not de jure, High Commissioner of the West Indies. It has been said that he could be arrogant and self-confident, but, surely, nobody without those characteristics could have succeeded in doing what he achieved. During his life-time most Englishmen considered the words Trinidadian and West Indian to be synonymous and it was only later, after the cultural impact of Bob Marley and several generations of sportsmen, that the epithet was transferred to Jamaicans.

Much has been written – and done – about race relations in the wake of the Windrush celebrations and the Black Lives Matters movement, and a lot of money has been invested and reputations made. The greater part, by far, has been well justified, and long overdue, but there has been inevitably some jumping on the band-wagon and honours received and sponsorships donated by/to people whose performance has not measured up to the standard. All well and good – it happens with every good intention. It becomes scandalous, though, when people of outstanding character and achievement are over-looked. There were West Indians who contributed substantially and significantly to this country before the arrival of the Windrush – though you would hardly think so from all the attention this celebration has received – and Learie Nicholas Constantine has been among the most prominent.

Unlike Brian Scovell, and others who knew the man well, I was not acquainted personally with Learie Constantine. The only times we met were when we found ourselves sheltering from a downpour in the same shop-doorway in Fleet Street and at a function at the Porchester Hall (Paddington) to honour Norman Manley, former Chief Minister of Jamaica. It is because of the breadth//depth of his life that many people consider that the name of Constantine, rather than of Richards-Botham, however outstanding their performances with bat and ball, should adorned the trophy to be played for by West Indies and England, two countries which he served so well.

Nevertheless, I have seen a statue to “Constantine the Great”. It stands outside York Minister, but this one is dedicated to a Roman emperor of that name. Shouldn’t we also have our “Constantine the Great” statue dedicated to a man of perhaps greater relevance to our community today. Brian Scovell thinks that we should, The Cricketer seems to think that we should, writers and the great names of contemporary West Indian cricket thinks we should – and Caribcommx and our readers think so, too.

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