Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Book Club: Sunday 29 January 2012

2012 Black Reading Groups reading year will begin with To Sir With Love by E.R. Braithwaite.The overarching theme of the discussion will be “Is there a Black British Classic?" We shall meet on Sunday 29 January, 3pm in Waterstones’ Piccadilly (London) branch. Go to the 5th floor – turn left out of the lift and go through the arch, we’ll be at the big round table on the left.

To Sir With Love was originally published in 1959 and so there will be many editions about, but if you get the 2005 Vintage Classics edition, that would be great, as it has an introduction by the author and professor of English, Caryl Phillips. (My review of his latest book Colour Me English.)

What’s it about?

When a woman refuses to sit next to him on the bus. Rick Braithwaite is saddened and angered by her prejudice. In post-war cosmopolitan London he had hoped for a more enlightened attitude. When he begins his first teaching job in a tough East End school reactions are the same.

Slowly and painfully some of the barriers are broken down. He shames his pupils, wrestles with them, enlightens them and eventually comes to love them. To Sir With Love is the true story of a dedicated teacher who turns hate into love, teenage rebelliousness into self-respect, contempt into consideration for others – the story of a man’s integrity winning through against all odds.

About the author 

E.R. Braithwaite was born in 1922 in British Guiana and educated there, in the United States. He served in the RAF during World War 2, he attended Cambridge University after the war. His publications include To Sir With Love (1959); Paid Servant: A Report about Welfare Work in London (1962); A Kind of Home-Coming: A Visit to Africa (1963); A Choice of Straws (1965) and Honorary White (1975).


This is a re-reading of E.R. Braithwaites wonderful book. I cannot even remember when I first read it, though like most people I probably saw the film 1967 film, with Sidney Poitier, Lulu and Patricia Routledge (film info here) long before I read the book. Reading the book again afters so many years, it is fascinating how much of its issues and messages still resonate (as in remain unresolved) and are in fact totally contemporary. Topics such as education, and most specifically how to keep young adults engaged in learning. Getting your career started: you have the right the skills, the best qualifications, and the bitter realisation that despite everything that they are never going to hire you. Workplace politics. Mixed race relationships. It feels as though some issues have hardly changed and we are still talking about the same things. Even the economic phrases last used post-war such as ‘austerity times’ are back in vogue now. So most definitely a valuable read for a contemporary audience, particularly those interested in secondary education.

Braithwaite is part of an exclusive West Indian elite (both his parents were Oxford graduates, and he attended Cambridge University), as Phillips states in the introductory essay, he was not typical of the West Indians that would have arrived in the UK during this time. He’s superior and not easy to like, but his powers of observation are absorbing, through his eyes you get a complete sense of the exhausted and down at heel East End of London. His skills as a teacher are clever and life changing for both him and his students – at least for the time that they are within in his classroom. They come to love him and he they, and most certainly the descriptions and analysis of life in the school with the pupils, and the other teachers is the most expressively told and the where the greatest changes are seen. I particularly enjoyed the first part of the book, and the failed interviews section of the book is an essay in draining despair. The final sections I found less engaging – less flowing and a bit rushed even.

When I selected this book for the Black Reading Groups' first read of 2012, I was thinking that To Sir With Love would be one that we could consider a classic.  I am less sure on re-reading it. I think that the issue is, while I don’t think that a British classic should particularly mirror an American one, I am more clear now, that maybe as with say a Zora Neale Hurston or say an Alice Walker, or Richard Wright, a Black British classic should say something about black life in the UK.  And while To Sir With Love does give us a sense of British life, Braithwaite’s role as the observer of the indigenous Brits, however insightful and beautifully written, says very little about how life was for most Black Britons at that time. We have to go elsewhere for that. What do you think? Is there a Black British classic? What should it be about? Looking forward to the discussion.

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