Minty Alley (1971; first published Secker & Warberg, 1936)

C.L.R. James’s first and only published novel depicts working-class life in a Port of Spain barrack-yard of the late 1920s. Its larger-than-life characters, vernacular dialogues, and local intrigues offer insight into a formative period of James’s thought. He remarked to the American critic Maxwell Geismar, in response to the latter’s praise of the novel’s humanity:
The ‘human’ aspect of it which surprises so many people is the basic constituent of my political activity and outlook… The day I recognise that my instinctive response to any political situation is not a human one, then I know that my time for retiring has come, since all that I would do afterwards would be bureaucratic and fraught with [95] mischief. (13.3.61 in Grimshaw, 94-95).
 
The novel is an important reminder of James’s literary ambitions in the early stage of his career and of the connections between that literary work and his subsequent political writing.  
 
 
Minty Alley (1971; first published Secker & Warberg, 1936) by C.L.R. James, 1971. 244pp.

Content

 
As a “novel of the yard”, the book’s success lies in the humour and deftly choreographed dialogues, as well as the sensitive portrayal of class relations. As Ken Ramchand writes in his introduction: “we are made to feel that there are hidden resources even in the hedged-in people of the yard” (13). The plot follows the protagonist, Haynes, who moves to the yard from a much grander home in order to save money following the death of his mother. Once there, he spends his days reading and ruminating on the scenes of love and betrayal that take place on his new doorstep. An initial sense of alienation, of physical and psychological distance from which he observes and commentates gradually ebbs as he becomes caught up in the life of Minty Alley. He falls for Maisie, a young relative of the domineering, Mrs Rouse, the enterprising baker who rules the yard with pride and grace despite her many misfortunes. James establishes sympathy with the characters and their attempts to build relationships and share moments of joy, as seen in the high point of the Christmas lunch (148-54). Despite the characters’ parallel efforts to manipulate each other, as observed by Haynes, it is ultimately his own limitations that are revealed through James’s subtle parody of bourgeois expectations and reactions.
 
 

Production

 
This publication was part of a planned “Lost Literature” series of reprints at New Beacon which would include the early volume of poetry, Pigments (1937, GLM) by French Guyanese poet Léon Gontran Damas (7.8.69 JLR to KR, LRA/01/0698). Later reprints of two novels by Alfred Mendes (1980; 1984), another member of the Beacon group of the 1930s could be considered extensions of this idea. Kenneth Ramchand, a young critic of Caribbean Literature from Trinidad then studying for his PhD at Edinburgh and active in CAM, was closely involved in the Minty Alley project from the outset. He wrote to La Rose setting out his ambitions:
I have some precise ideas for this publication (concerning financing and distribution as well as literary presentation) and would like to be closely involved in it – so please don’t leave me out. I won’t allow you to drop it! Once we make a breakthrough with Minty Alley as we are bound to... the lost literature project is on and we might even be able to think in terms of a West Indian publishing house on a scale which might help to reverse some of the present trends in the publishing of WI literature and works in other fields related. We should be able to draw upon genuine talent and expertise in deciding what to publish and we should be attractive enough to interest those bastards with money to invest.
 
One note about “We intend to publish entirely in soft covers.” Maybe we could consider more expensively bound Library editions for institutions and private collectors – we print as usual and give out a contract for binding 500 numbered copies or so […]
 
A genuine publishing venture closely related to bookshop outlets on the islands (there is no reason why our WI middle class boys can’t be persuaded to set up New Beacon Bookshops) could help to bring about a revolution, faster. I suspect than our CAM shop by itself – although CAM should be part of the whole movement. All this is what I live for – and I would do all I can to help you. (5.4.67 KR to JLR, LRA/01/0698). 
 
1st sheet of letter from Ken Ramchand to John La Rose, dated 5 April 1967. Archive Ref: GB2904  LRA/01/0698
 
There is a sense of palpable possibility and excitement surrounding the new publishing venture characteristic of CAM’s energy.
 
Despite the camaraderie of CAM, La Rose insisted on fulfilling professional obligations as a publisher and offered Ramchand a 2.5% royalty of the published price of the book, or a fixed sum of £40. He wrote explaining: “I know you always said, and we always appreciated it, that we needn’t pay you anything. But we ourselves want to create an institution which meets its obligations to writers in the normal way, or as near normal as possible. That’s why we have insisted on this” (29.4.69, LRA/01/0698). The introduction was written and substantially delayed by two years amid upheavals in Jamaica in the late sixties, where Ramchand was then based at UWI (KR to JLR, 24.7.69, LRA/01/0698).
 
As the new edition was coming together, James was presented with a bronze bust (sculpted by Errol Lloyd) during the West Indian Students’ Unity Week celebrations. A photograph of this bust was used on the cover for Minty Alley. The presentation and the publication is further evidence of the close relationship between C.L.R. James and John La Rose.
 
Rights were transferred from the original publisher, Secker & Warberg, to New Beacon in June 1969 for the total cost of £35 after La Rose had made his initial enquiring earlier the previous year. At first Warburg granted rights of reproduction for just three years (a run of 1000 copies for a “token payment” of £5 and £5 for each subsequent 1000 copies sold) but later, with the support of C.L.R. James, New Beacon secured permanent copyright for the UK and Commonwealth (15.5.68, NBB/1/11). That Secker & Warberg initially wished to retain rights in the longer term suggests their sense that New Beacon’s reprint would be a modest, temporary, affair coupled with their awareness of the long-term significance of James’s work.
 
New Beacon flyer for Minty Alley. Archive Ref: GB2904 LRA/01/0429/4
 

Reception

 
The first print-run was for 3000 copies, soon followed by further runs in 1975, 1981, 1989, 1994. James was given a £30 advance and 7.5% royalty. He liked the new edition and wrote to La Rose in 1971 suggesting he would also seek an American publisher (CLR to JLR, 15.10.71, LRA/01/0429/4). He approached Drum & Spear and Houghton & Mifflin but with little success and a US edition not published until 1997 when the University of Mississippi Press bought North American rights from New Beacon.
 
Another sticking point occurred concerning adaptation rights for the book. The possibility of a film version was raised in the late 70s when an American agent, Alan Warhaftig, approached James seeking film, stage and television rights to the book (though a stage adaptation had been performed in Trinidad already). James was to be given 30% of all profits and he put some pressure on La Rose to rescind this clause in his contract with New Beacon. Since New Beacon had always insisted on proper contracts, this put them in a difficult position, as La Rose made clear in his correspondence with James. La Rose was clearly concerned with New Beacon’s reputation, as well as maintaining his respect for James: “A small publisher especially one like New Beacon Books with its known perspective for radical and revolutionary action should never give up any of its rights and should demand respect for them from all comers. I will continue to do so” (JLR to CLR James 27.10.82, LRA/01/0429/5). Despite these direct words, La Rose eventually relented and gave full US dramatisation rights to Warhaftig without a fee because of his concern for James’s welfare. Sarah White recalls the significance of that obstacle: “John saw the importance of the rights, that was, we had risked doing something and so we had the right to those rights. And you know, somebody like Nello with a political nouse should have realised that, and shouldn’t be putting pressure on us to get rid of something that was an asset (SW interview). The film was never made, though there have been other radio and stage adaptations in the UK and the Caribbean (by Margaret Busby and Eintou Pearl Springer, respectively).
 
Elsewhere in the archive there is sustained trace of James’s biography of George Padmore, based on talks given in the 1960s. Though La Rose mentions his work on the manuscript is nearing completion at one point, it was never published and there is no trace of this manuscript (JLR to CLR, 4.12.69, LRA/01/0429/4; JLR to CLR, 18.9.78, LRA/01/429/6). 
Letter from John La Rose to CLR James, dated 4 December 1969. Archive Ref: GB2904 LRA/01/0429/4
 
There were some indications that New Beacon would reprint The Case for West Indies Self-Government (1933, Hogarth Press) and Black Jacobins (1938, Secker and Warburg) (JLR to Norman Girvan 18.4.67, LRA/01/0328; CLR to JLR, 7.9.78, LRA/01/0429/4). However, James’s other works were reprinted by Allison & Busby in the 1970s, and now appear under an American imprint.
 

Further reading

 
Høgsbjerg , Christian. “‘We Lived According to the Tenets of Matthew Arnold’:
Reflections on the ‘Colonial Victorianism’ of the Young C. L. R. James”. Twentieth Century British History 24.2 (2013) 201-223.
Grimshaw, Anna, ed. C.L.R. James Archive: a Reader’s Guide. New York : C.L.R. James Institute and Cultural Correspondence, 1991