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To Sir, With Love - E.R. Braithwaite Looks Back

E.R. Braithwaite never wanted to be a school-teacher, let alone working in a run-down institution in the East End of London with what in the post Second World War environment might be described as juvenile delinquents. As a Guyanese immigrant and an ethnic minority in London, despite Braithwaite's succession of degrees from universities in Guyana, New York and Cambridge, where he gained a doctorate in physics, it was the only work he could get.

Despite initial hostilities, Braithwaite's new job became a life-changer, marking out a new path for him as a social worker and author of note. It also gave rise to Braithwaite penning one of the most enduring literary works of its era. Now, following a swinging sixties cinema treatment as well as a more recent radio adaptation of Braithwaite's auto-biographical novel, To Sir, With Love comes to the stage in an adaptation penned by Ayub Khan Din, who made waves with the big-screen adaptation of his own semi-autobiographical play, East Is East.

Now aged 101, Braithwaite sounds impressed by recently appointed artistic director of Hull Truck Theatre Mark Babych's production for the Touring Consortium Theatre Company and the Royal and Derngate Theatre, Northampton, when he flew in from New York for the opening night.

“I think it's excellent,” he says of the production, which features Matthew Kelly as the school's headmaster, Florian, and Royal Shakespeare Company regular Ansu Khabia as Ricky, Braithwaite's fictionalised younger self. “It was a nice experience, but I needed to be reminded of so much, which is a function of age, I suppose. Normally I don’t think about my time in the East End, and watching the play, the events it describes all seem a bit unreal to me now. In fact, I had to strain myself to imagine myself in that situation.”

Even so, Braithwaite's memories of his first day of the school are vivid.

“All I remember is that it was hell.” he says. “The students had decided to make it hell for me. I chanced upon education. It was like an accident that happened to me. Those kids in the East End made a great impression on me. They seemed so infused with life. I connected with them purely out of my own wish to survive. It struck me one day that the children didn’t have any respect for themselves, and this was why they had no respect for other people and I seized upon that idea. I challenged them to respect themselves.

“I don’t know if I changed any lives or not, but something did happen between them and me, which was quite gratifying. I didn’t keep in touch with my former pupils. I had gone to the school to do a particular job and I felt that I’d completed my work with them. However, one of the strange things about life is how often circumstances repeat themselves. I’d be walking to work and people would come up to me and say hiya, Sir! There came a point when I was Sir to the parents as well as to their children.”

Braithwaite hadn't planned to turn his experiences in the East End into a book. Only when he left teaching did he take stock of what had occurred.

"To help me teach I kept notes of each day's activities,” Braithwaite remembers. “Once I was ready to quit teaching I had no further use for these notes, and decided I would burn them when a friend suggested I keep those notes and write a book based on them.”

While Braithwaite's book was published in 1959, for many, To Sir, With Love only fully hit home via writer/director James Clavell's 1967 big-screen version, which starred Sidney Poitier as a Braithwaite style teacher. The film was a hit, partly, one suspects, because of its casting, which included Glasgow-born pop rocket Lulu playing a rather unlikely chirpy cockney. Lulu also sang the film's Don Black and Mark London penned theme song, which, while relegated to B-side status in the UK, stayed at number one in the Billboard Hot 100 in the US for five weeks. Despite the film's iconic status, Braithwaite was less than impressed by the end result.

“I was disappointed,” he says. “I was not involved in the making of the film at all. A man [Clavell] came and talked to me about the film rights, and I could see that he was not concerned at all with my interests. He made it seem as if the book and the proposed film of it were totally separate. When Clavell wrote the screenplay, he wrote his view of the book, which was very different from mine. When I saw the film, I was not impressed. Something had been lost in the transition from book to film.”

Given that one review of the time suggested that the film's 'sententious script sounds as if it has been written by a zealous Sunday school teacher after a particularly exhilarating boycott of South African oranges,' Braithwaite wasn't the only one to think this.

With this in mind, Din and Babych's new take on To Sir, With Love is more faithful to the book's original 1940s setting, when song and dance brought some life to an otherwise austere existence. A two-part radio version by Roy Williams, starring Kwane Kwei-Armah, did likewise in 2007.

Braithwaite puts the enduring appeal of To Sir, With Love down to the simple fact that “it appeals to a lot of people. They each find what they're looking for. Each person is looking for something he or she could use in their daily life.”

More than half a century on from the publication of To Sir, With Love, Braithwaite remains sceptical about any improvements in the education system regarding opportunities for children from poor or ethnic minorities backgrounds.

“I don't see much progress,” he says. “I see change, but the fundamentals remain the same. When people read my book, when teachers read it, it may lead them to some self-examination. They compare themselves to the hypothetical eye. In my view, that's unfortunate. This book provides them with a moving target and the target is me as I faced the challenges in that school.”

To Sir With Love, King's Theatre, Edinburgh, October 29th-November

E.R. Braithwaite – A Life in Letters
Edward Ricardo Braithwaite was born in Georgetown, Guyana in 1912 to parents who had both attended Oxford University. He attended Queens College, Guyana and the City College of New York before joining the Royal Air Force as a fighter pilot. Following the Second World War, Braithwaite attended the University of Cambridge, where he earned a bachelor's degree and a doctorate in physics.

While writing To Sir, With Love, Braithwaite moved from teaching into social work, finding foster homes for non-white children for London County Council. His experiences here became the basis for a second novel, Paid Servant, which was published in 1962. A Kind of Homecoming was published the same year, with Solid Lubricants and Surfaces following in 1964, and Choice of Straws in 1965.

In 1973, apartheid-era South Africa lifted its ban on Braithwaite's books, and for a visit, Braithwaite was given the status of 'honorary white'. This afforded him significant privileges compared to black South Africans, and Braithwaite recorded his experiences in his 1975 book, Honorary White.

With further novels and short stories following, Braithwaite became an educational consultant for UNESCO, permanent representative to the United Nations for Guyana, and Guyana's ambassador to Venezuela. As an academic, Braithwaite taught at New York University, and in 2002 was writer-in-residence at Howard University in Washington D.C. From 2005-6, Braithwaite was a visiting professor at Manchester Community College in Connecticut, where he received an honorary degree.

Following the 2007 radio adaptation of To Sir, With Love, both Paid Servant and Choice of Straws were dramatised for BBC Radio 4.

The Herald, October 22nd 2013



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