Thoughts: To Sir, With Love, by E. R. Braithwaite

Yep, another book with a film based on it that I haven’t seen. I really want to see this one though.

It seems to have been a little bit forgotten – I put it on the list when Braithwaite died (yes, I am still in 2016 on my book list) but hadn’t heard of it before then. It’s an autobiographical novel of the author’s time teaching in a post-WWII London school, and I don’t think I’ve ever read anything quite like it, in a lot of ways.

Firstly, the school seems to have been a bit experimental – it was in the East End and the students very disadvantaged, but the headteacher was very keen on no physical discipline and having the kids write weekly reviews in which they could hold forth about anything they wanted in the way their lessons are held etc. Unsurprisingly, it was a bit of a scapegoat for the local council and media. I found it interesting to read of such a thing in the 50s, and that to all intents and purposes it seemed to be pretty beneficial – the students enjoyed classical music at assemblies, and their weekly reviews were taken seriously by the teachers, who, after all, wouldn’t want to think that they were boring students. There’s a bit near the end when the year is ending and the students give presentations to the school on things they’ve learned or that stuck with them out of their various subjects, where they pick three teachers at random and are allowed to debate with them on aspects of how the school is run. And the teachers take up the debate properly, explaining pretty transparently the reasons why, for instance, they have to have PT and Games in the specific way they do, rather than letting the lads just play football left to themselves or whatever.

That was interesting in itself, but of course the meat of it comes from the clash of privileges and disadvantages of race and class, as middle class trained engineer Mr Braithwaite comes face to face with a class of Cockney slum children, and the top class of Greenslade school comes face to face with a black man in their classroom.

I won’t say too much about how it all shakes out (read the book) but though it didn’t feel like a long book, it was A Lot. Braithwaite learning about the children’s situations and what their futures will most likely be, making the extra effort to relate the things he was teaching to their lives and experiences was pretty moving, though he writes about it quite matter-of-factly. And the kids becoming more and more protective of him, standing up for him against their parents and against strangers.

Because 50s London is pretty racist.


Braithwaite’s prose can be a little distant-feeling sometimes, a bit cool but at the same time simmering. It feels like there’s a lot underneath it. I don’t know what it is, whether it’s sometimes anger or sometimes hurt or sometimes just a general intensity of emotion. It feels like he’s sometimes holding something back; whether it’s true or not I can’t say. But it’s powerful stuff. I imagine it was powerful at the time, maybe partly because it was something kind of new, but it’s still powerful now.

It’s powerful how he pinpoints the white British (or English?) viewing of ourselves as fair, of specifically measuring ourselves against the US and finding the results in our favour, and therefore deciding that we are fine. Our racism has always been insidious. Something to remember when we continue to do exactly the same thing. It doesn’t matter what they do (it does, they should fix their shit) – we need to deal with our own issues with race.

I found the accounts of his experiences of racism alone and with white allies (students, girlfriend) powerful too. Braithwaite himself refused to even acknowledge the racism, just disengaged entirely, but the white people he was with were outraged on his behalf – and sometimes at him for not reacting to it.

Later, when his students reveal themselves to be willing to abide by the rules of prejudice they’ve been brought up with, despite the exception they’ve made for Braithwaite, he pinpoints something else that struck deep, about how people don’t change so easily. How easy it is to profess oneself tolerant, right up until one is called to act to prove it.

It’s a lot to read. I recommend it.

The ending is really lovely.

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