Saturday, 17 October 2015

To Sir With Love - ER Braithwaite


I read this on the recommendation of Steve Ignorant, ex-vocalist of Crass who, in George Berger's book The Story Of Crass is quoted as saying the following: 'One day we were all talking about books around the table. Penny Rimbaud was talking about Tolstoy and I chipped in with To Sir With Love, and was met with roars of laughter, it was quite a joke. When there was the yearly clear-out of books, out it went. But the Maigrets stayed. That book To Sir With Love is about one of the first black men to go into the East End of London and teach unruly white kids how to respect themselves and other people as human beings. Which I thought was the basis of anarchism, wasn't it?'
The story is essentially just as Steve describes but its main theme is the subject of prejudice and racism as experienced by a black man in late 1940s Britain and how he translates that experience to the kids he teaches so they might learn to respect not only other people but also themselves. The school he teaches at is in the East End of London so as might be expected, they're all from very poor families. He's somewhat shocked at first by the general conduct and crude language of his pupils but come the end he loves them all dearly as they come to love him.

All in all it's a very nice story but is not without flaws. In his descriptions of some of the women - both fellow teachers and 15 year-old pupils alike - there's a fair few mentions of 'large breasts' which doesn't really sit well coming from a teacher who's on a mission to instigate respect. There's also one incident where he refers to a sanitary towel as a 'disgusting object' and the conduct of the girls in his class as 'sluttish behaviour'. ER Braithwaite wrote the book in 1959, however, and it's set in 1949 so at a stretch this attitude toward women may be forgiven because the past is, as they say, a different country. It's hard to ignore it though.

What's possibly more significant - in my eyes, at least - is what the teacher is aiming for in his bid to educate the kids in the ways of civility. They might all be unruly when he at first encounters them but at least they're street-wise and at least they're nobody's fools - and is there anything wrong in being unruly? The teacher seems to want them to be model citizens; obedient to the law, saying 'yes sir, no sir' and never causing a fuss. He wants them to be like him.
He knows, however, that British society can be conservative as hell with all its ingrained codes of crap morality and 'acceptable' racism and prejudice. He's experienced it himself and he soon comes to see that these working class children of parents he describes as looking and acting like peasants from a Steinbeck book are prejudiced against also. Not for the colour of their skin but for their class and their poverty.

He goes out on a date with a fellow teacher to a well-to-do restaurant in Chelsea and the sight of a black man with a pretty white woman immediately instigates racist behaviour and attitude from the waiter. To him it's nothing out of the ordinary but his date storms out of the restaurant in outrage and then vents her spleen upon him. In as much as she's disgusted by the racism she's just as outraged by his willingness to just sit there and take it:
"What was I supposed to do, hit him? Did you want a scene in that place?" he asks.
"Yes, I wanted a scene. I wanted a big, bloody awful scene." she replies.
"What good would that have done?"
"I don't know and I don't care. I wanted you to hit him, to beat him down, down..."
"It wouldn't help, it never helps."
"Why not? Just who do you think you are, Jesus Christ? Sitting there all good and patient. Or were you afraid? Is that it?"
"You're being hysterical, beating people up never solves anything."
"Doesn't it? Well, you tell me what does. You've been taking it and taking it, don't you think it's time you showed a little spirit?"

This particular exchange is interesting for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it reveals the extent of the teacher's vision as in how he sees the model citizen should behave. His passiveness and his unwillingness to cause a fuss is essentially allowing what's unacceptable to remain unchallenged and his silence is ultimately condoning racism and prejudice. By not causing 'a big, bloody awful scene' he's allowing the situation to continue and subsequently remaining in a position of being a victim.
So is this how he wants the kids in his class to be? To not speak up, to not challenge, to not object, refuse, reject, abuse? However much he may wish to educate his pupils and teach them good manners, are they forever meant to accept their position in society and subsequently accept the more 'fortunate' positions of others?

For anyone who knows anything about Crass, this is similar to the same impasse that they came up against in their bid to do nothing less than change the world. They were very happy to make a big, bloody awful scene but ultimately were only willing to go so far. They showed spirit, yes, but when it came to the point and the question of 'beating people up' as the teacher puts it, they capitulated and their advocacy of pacifism became a burden that led to being a major factor in them falling apart.
It's interesting that Steve Ignorant recalls his mentioning of To Sir With Love led to roars of laughter around the kitchen table from his fellow Crass members because in actual fact the book contained some pertinent messages if not a significant warning to them. Had any of them actually read it, I wonder?

Apparently the film version of the book, released in 1967 (and set in the Sixties) starring Sidney Poitier and Lulu was a huge box office success and the theme song as sung by Lulu was number One in America for five weeks. Viewed nowadays it's quaint and charming, held together by Poitier's performance. Steve also cites the film version as being an influence upon him along with A Taste Of Honey and Kes. Whilst not being on quite the same par as A Taste Of Honey and Kes (and other black and white, kitchen sink Sixties movies) it's still (in a way) part of that same oeuvre and so is an enjoyable watch if only for Poitier's performance and the often hilarious depiction of 'the wildest set of rebels London ever produced' by rather well-spoken young actors and actresses fresh from stage school.
John Serpico

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