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E. R. Braithwaite: To Sir, With Love (1959)

Susie Thomas

E. R. Braithwaite

Edward Ricardo Braithwaite’s autobiographical novel To Sir, with Love, which is based on his experience as a black teacher in a tough East End secondary modern school, offers a remarkable insight into the politics of class and race in postwar London. Sidney Poitier came to London to star in the film version of the novel in 1967, and later appeared in a sequel, based in Chicago, which was made for television in 1996 (‘To Sir, with Love II’, directed by Bogdanovich). Yet, surprisingly, the novel itself has been largely overlooked.

When the narrator of To Sir, with Love arrives in London in 1948 he is struck by the disparity between his expectations and the reality:

I had read references to it in both classical and contemporary writings and was eager to know the London of Chaucer and Erasmus and the Sorores Minories. I had dreamed of walking along the cobbled Street of the Cable Makers to the echoes of Chancellor and the brothers Willoughby. I wanted to look on the reach of the Thames at Blackwall from which Captain John Smith had sailed aboard the good ship Susan Lawrence to found an English colony in Virginia.

The narrator has clearly also read Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1902) and London does indeed turn out to be a city of ‘brooding gloom.’ Those who haven’t had the elite education that Braithwaite received, first at Queen’s College, British Guiana (now Guyana); then at City University in New York and, after he was demobbed, at Cambridge, may be grateful that they can turn to Wikipedia for explanations of the more obscure references in this passage. Moreover, it is perhaps ironic that Braithwaite evokes Cable Street through an allusion to a 16th century English explorer instead of summoning up Oswald Mosley and his Black Shirts — first defeated in Cable Street in 1936, but still trying to stage a come-back in Ridley Road in the 1950s.
Queen’s College, Georgetown

London as the ‘unreal city’ of the colonial imagination pervades postwar English fiction. If Braithwaite’s is the most erudite version of this trope, the most ecstatically literary is to be found in Beer in the Snooker Club (1964) by the Egyptian novelist Waguih Ghali:

I wanted to live. I read and read … and I wanted to live. I wanted to have affairs with countesses and to fall in love with a barmaid and to be a gigolo and to be a political leader and to win at Monte Carlo and to be down-and-out in London and to be an artist and to be elegant and also to be in rags.

Perhaps the most lyrical exponent of the dream city and the devastating encounter with its ‘actualities’ is found in Sam Selvon’s  The Lonely Londoners (1956), where the ‘boys’ from the West Indies are at first thrilled to be ‘coasting a lime’ by the Serpentine and rendez-vousing under the clock at Charing Cross but sooner or later find themselves despondent at the round of ‘eat, sleep, work, hustle pussy’; at being repeatedly turned down for jobs and housing and pointed at in the street. As Galahad lies in his basement room licking his wounds after one humiliating encounter he wonders: “Lord, what is it we people do in this world that we have to suffer so?”

By the time Hanif Kureishi looked back on the postwar experience of migration in the chapter about Karim’s father’s journey from British India to England in The Buddha of Suburbia (1990), the disenchantment is distant enough to be treated with irony:

London, the Old Kent Road, was a freezing shock… Dad had never seen the English in poverty, as roadsweepers, dustmen, shopkeepers and barmen. He’d never seen an Englishman stuffing bread into his mouth with his fingers, and no one had told him that the English didn’t wash regularly because the water was so cold….And when Dad tried to discuss Byron in local pubs no one warned him that not every Englishman could read or that they didn’t necessarily want tutoring by an Indian on the poetry of a pervert and a madman.

As he deftly reverses the colonial gaze, Haroon is “amazed and heartened” by how unimpressive the metropolitan centre turns out to be.

Interestingly, Braithwaite’s novel spoke directly to Hanif Kureishi as a young man. In The Word and the Bomb, Kureishi describes his search for the British equivalents of the great African American writers, James Baldwin, Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison. Although he enjoyed Forster, Greene and Waugh they did not explore the ‘profound and permanent alterations to British life which had begun with the Empire and had now, as it were, come home’:

Living in the London suburbs with an Indian father and English mother, I wanted to read works set in England, works that might help make sense of my own situation. Racism was real to me; the Empire was not. I liked Colin MacInnes and E. R. Braithwaite, whose To Sir with Love so moved me when I read it under the desk at school.

No writer of the 1950s and 1960s, not even V.S. Naipaul, the laureate of disenchantment, plumbs the depths of colonial aspiration and metropolitan disappointment quite as devastatingly as E.R. Braithwaite. In his years as a pilot in the Royal Air Force he had never encountered racial prejudice but after the war he is turned down for a job for which he is eminently qualified simply because he is black. Despite having risked his life for ‘the ideal of the British Way of Life’ he is seen as an alien. After his rejection he steps out of the ‘grand, imposing building’ in Mayfair: ‘disappointment and resentment were a solid bitter rising lump inside me; I hurried into the nearest public lavatory and was violently sick.’ Remembering the joyous celebrations on each Royal visit to British Guiana, he concludes: ‘Yes, it is wonderful to be British – until one comes to Britain’.

Cable Street and around – map of 1952

And so, without any sense of vocation, as he candidly admits, he becomes a teacher in an East End school because that is the best job he can get. It’s a dark and gloomy building located in a rubbish-strewn bomb-wrecked area, which he compares unfavourably with his light and cool schoolhouse in sunny Georgetown. Life around Cable Street turns out to be hard and not just for the narrator. At first he is rather snobbishly shocked by  working-class East Enders whom he sees as ‘peasants’; a term that Albert Angelo also uses about his East End pupils in B.S. Johnson’s eponymous novel (1964).  Braithwaite resists seeing the children as victims despite their damp, impoverished and overcrowded conditions at home:  ‘hungry or filled, naked or clothed, they were white, and as far as I was concerned, that fact alone made the only difference between the haves and have-nots’. But by the end of the school year Braithwaite has had an education in class and has come to ‘love them, these brutal, disarming bastards’.

The climax of the novel occurs after the death of the mother of one of his pupils.  Braithwaite arranges for the class to send a wreath to the family but none of the children will deliver it because they can’t be seen going to a ‘coloured person’s home’.  The children are friendly to Seales, who ‘was born among them, grew up among them, played with them’ but they cannot break the social taboo, which seems primarily to be about miscegenation:

A coloured boy with a white mother, a West Indian boy with an English mother. Always the same. Never an English boy with a Negro or West Indian father. No, that would be placing the emphasis on his Englishness, his identification with them.

The narrator is bitterly disappointed in his kids and thinks that he has been wasting his time (a common complaint among teachers!) but he is overjoyed to discover that his tolerance and patient goodwill has paid off: his pupils, looking washed and smart, attend the funeral – proof of the efficacy of his pedagogy and a triumph for humanity. It’s a pity, as Bruce King says, that ‘Braithwaite seems too insistent on proclaiming his abilities, attractiveness, intelligence, judgement, and unassertiveness’. But given the pervasive prejudice he encounters, it is hardly surprising that he should sometimes cast himself as the hero of his own story especially since, unlike ‘the boys’ in Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners ,Braithwaite has no one he can run to when he is insulted on the bus or on the tube. He lives with a kindly white couple, whom he calls ‘Mom’ and ‘Dad’, but beyond that has no community. As Caryl Phillps says in his introduction to the Vintage edition of the novel: ‘we do feel sympathy for this somewhat isolated, patrician man who attempts now to make a community out of the pupils in his charge and his fellow teachers in the staffroom’.

Cable Street, 1957
Good Friday Procession on Cable Street, 1953

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the novel is not the narrator’s occasional self-congratulation but his quietism. When one of the boys attacks the bullying sports teacher for his sadistic treatment of a fellow pupil Braithwaite insists that the boy must apologise to the ‘master’. The class is shocked by what they consider to be this double injustice but the narrator counsels against rebellion:

“I’ve been pushed around, Seales” I said quietly, “in a way I cannot explain to you. I’ve been pushed around until I began to hate people so much that I wanted to hurt them, really hurt them. I know how it feels, believe me, and one thing I’ve learned, Seales, is to try always to be a bit bigger than the people who hurt me.”

Although the speech is given in front of the whole class it is directed particularly at Seales, the mixed race boy, even though he is not the culprit. It is as if Braithwaite fears that Seales, above all, is the one who will need to learn the lesson of self-discipline, or risk being provoked into reaching ‘for a knife or a gun’ and finding himself in deep trouble.

In another scene the mother of one of the girls in the class comes in to complain about her daughter’s bad behaviour. The girl, Pamela, confides in her teacher: she is upset about the men who call on her widowed mother and in particular about something that happened that she cannot bring herself to mention. Again the narrator warns against rebellion and insists that Pamela should be an obedient and ‘courteous’ daughter. His message to the children seems to be: the world will do its dirty job; there’s no use kicking against the pricks; try to maintain your dignity; that’s the best you can hope for.

At several points in the novel Braithwaite is publicly humiliated. On the bus an Englishwoman refuses to sit next to him. He guesses that she is secretly enjoying herself: “What a smooth, elegant, superior bitch!” he  thinks to himself but he says nothing. On the tube, taking his pupils to the Victoria and Albert Museum, two elderly well-dressed women start ‘muttering darkly about ‘shameless young girls and these black men’ until one of the pupils, Pamela, shouts at them: “He is our teacher, do you mind?” Again, Ricky is silent and so maintains his dignity.

The stoicism infuriates his white English girlfriend. When they go to an expensive restaurant in Chelsea, the waiter keeps them waiting for a very long time and then deliberately spills his soup. Gillian insists on storming out but Ricky, we assume, would have remained at the table in a dignified way — or would have sucked it up. How the reader sees his stance probably depends on whether one thinks that black people’s long walk to freedom is best pursued by following Dr Martin Luther King’s path of non-violent action or the way of Malcolm X (‘by any means necessary’).

At the end of the novel Braithwaite spells out his philosophy:

I made it clear that … coloured people in England were gradually working for their own salvation, realising that it was not enough for them to complain about injustices done to them, or rely on interested parties to agitate on their behalf. They were working to show their worth, integrity and dignity in spite of the forces opposed to them.

To Sir, with Love is mainly remembered today because of the 1967 film version starring Sidney Poitier, which updated Braithwaite’s particular and surprising postwar story into a swinging sixties Blackboard Jungle movie with a wailing theme tune sung by Lulu.  In an interview with Burt Caesar conducted for Radio 4’s ‘To Sir, with Love Revisited’ (produced by Mary Ward Lowery in 2007) Braithwaite admitted to ambivalent feelings about the film, although its success guaranteed that the novel would never sink into oblivion. It provided him with some measure of financial security but he still loathed it from the soles of his feet, particularly because of its betrayal of the novel’s interracial romance, which he felt was essential to the protagonist’s escape from his isolation.

A major strand of To Sir, with Love concerns the love affair between Ricky and Gillian, but you wouldn’t know it from watching the 1967 movie. Poitier may have been one of the biggest box office draws of his day (‘Guess who’s coming to dinner’ and ‘Heat of the Nigh’t came out in the same year) but he was not considered worthy to win the heart of the English rose on screen. We only have to think of the critical reception of Ira Aldridge in the 19th century and Paul Robeson in the 20th century when playing Othello to understand why this was so. A novel can persuade readers through its voice but on stage or in the cinema, as Braithwaite knew all too well, people tend to see ‘only the skin’ and not the person inside it.

In the novel Ricky and Gillian strike up a friendship in the staffroom which gradually develops into a romance. The main obstacle seems to be his worry about the effect of a racist society on her: ‘How long would our happy association survive the malignity of stares which were deliberately intended to make the woman feel unclean, as if she had abjectly degraded not merely herself but all womanhood?’ Meanwhile, she wants him to stand up to racists whether on the tube or in the restaurant. Once they decide to marry they have to overcome her father’s unwillingness to grant his consent. He objects: “You might have children; what happens to them? They’ll belong nowhere, and nobody will want them”. When racists were not complaining that black men were ‘taking our women’ they pretended to be concerned for the mixed-race children who, they argued, would not know who they were. Braithwaite assures Gillian’s father that their children “will belong to us and we will want them”. But he also prefaces this article of faith by saying “If Gillian and I marry”. Since To Sir, with Love is a fictionalised autobiography it would be very interesting to know whether Braithwaite got his girl in the end; and what happened then.

As for the accuracy of To Sir, with Love, it has been argued that Braithwaite got it all wrong. In his self-published memoir, An East End Story, Alfred Gardner recalls being a pupil in Braithwaite’s classroom: he ‘was a tall, humourless disciplinarian’ who ‘struck fear into us by favouring corporal punishment. Although banned by the headmaster, I saw him on more than one occasion strike a child.’  It may have been the case that Braithwaite’s own strict education in the colonial school system made him appear a bit of a Victorian stickler to some of his pupils but the discrepancy between Gardner’s account of ‘mutual resentment’ between the kids and their teacher and the novel’s representation of a developing love and respect comes as a shock.

The novel ends with Braithwaite being given a leaving present and card addressed “To Sir, with Love” whilst Gardner asserts that the children hated him so much they cheered when he left the school. Gardner goes on: ‘There was also a rumour that some of the older girls sometimes felt uncomfortable around him’. At this point, one begins to distrust Gardner’s version of events: his insinuation seems to tap into fears of the black man’s superior sexuality that were rampant in postwar discourse about why Britain should stay white. Braithwaite seems to have been conscious of this fear and did his best to reassure his readers (quite amusingly) that ‘he sincerely hoped he achieved no special notoriety as a boudoir athlete.’ In the novel, Braithwaite suggests that one of the girls, Pamela, has a crush on her teacher, as teenage girls often do. Gillian warns him to be very careful indeed never to be alone with Pamela. Reading Gardner’s memoir makes one realise how easily Braithwaite could have been falsely smeared and ended up in a very different story – a patrician version of Tom Robinson’s in To Kill a Mocking Bird.

Although Gardner’s portrait of Braithwaite is uncomplimentary, his account of the children’s hero- worship of their headmaster does seem to be reliable. The novel’s ‘Greendale Secondary School’ was based on St George-in-the-East Secondary Modern on Cable Street, whose head was the charismatic and innovative educationalist Alex Bloom (called Alex Florian in the novel) who died in 1955. Bloom was a passionate advocate of a radical, democratic schooling that was neither competitive nor authoritarian and which encouraged both the individual’s development and commitment to the wider community. Braithwaite is initially shocked by the school’s ethos: the children ‘are encouraged to speak up for themselves’, even if what they say is ‘alarming or embarrassing’; and there is no corporal punishment or ‘any other form of punishment’.  Pupils write weekly reviews of their lessons, participate in School Council meetings and help decide on their own curriculum. Much to his surprise, Braithwaite discovers that this libertarian education does not lead to chaos or violence in the classroom; instead the children are encouraged to develop a ‘disciplined freedom’.  He is gradually won over by the head teacher’s philosophy: listen to the children; let the children dance (to their own music during the lunch hour); and teach them how to learn from their mistakes instead of punishing them.

St George’s school became known as the Summerhill of the East End; A. S. Neill gave it his seal of approval and it attracted international attention. Alex Bloom’s work is still greatly admired by academics such as Michael Fielding at the University of London’s Institute of Education. To Sir, with Love still has a lot to teach us about class and race in London in the 1950s, and about the education system then – as now.

Perhaps surprisingly the major histories of Black British Literature have largely ignored To Sir, with Love. It has to be admitted that Braithwaite is not a brilliant stylist: he does not sing like Selvon or sting like Naipaul. But To Sir, with Love, and Braithwaite’s equally ground-breaking memoir, Paid Servant (1962), about a black social worker hired to supervise the adoption of black and mixed race children in London, tell important stories that were not heard before and still are news. Braithwaite’s novel, A Choice of Straws (1965), narrated by a white racist who kills a black teenager, is uncannily prescient of the murder of Stephen Lawrence. Braithwaite may be almost wholly absent from the English literary canon but his fellow creative writers still find his work inspiring. To Sir, with Love became a Vintage Classic in 2005 thanks to the novelist Caryl Phillips; the novel was adapted for Radio 4 by playwright Roy Williams with Kwame Kwei-Armah as Ricky Braithwaite in 2007; a stage adaptation by Ayub Khan Din was performed in autumn 2013.

OpenStreetMap: Cable Street

References and Further Reading

Bruce King, The Internationalization of English Literature , Oxford History of English Literary History, Vol. 13, 1948-2000 (Oxford UP, 2004).

Alfred Gardner, An East End Story (Alfred Gardner, 2002).

E.R. Braithwaite, Reluctant Neighbours (New English Library, 1973)

Stuart Hall, ‘Absolute Beginnings’, a review of To Sir, with Love, and Colin MacInnes, Absolute Beginners in Universities and Left Review (Autumn 1959).


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