The Guyanese writer E. R. Braithwaite died last year at the age of 104. A man of parts, he had many glittering achievements to his credit, including the resolution of a long-running dispute between Guyana and Venezuela over territory in his role as Guyana’s first permanent representative to the United Nations following independence, and he eventually became an academic in the United States. Before all that, however, he spent about twenty interesting years in England: as an RAF pilot during the war, and afterwards as a postgraduate engineering student at Cambridge —a halcyon period contrasted with the frustration and bitterness that followed when he discovered that his race prevented him from finding employment in his field, despite his considerable professional experience and excellent qualifications. Abandoning the idea of finding work as a lead engineer, he embarked upon a phase of intense social engagement during the 1950s and early 1960s, first as a teacher in an East End school for pupils with behavioural difficulties, and then as a social worker focussed on finding homes for abandoned black and mixed-race children. The two books that came out of the latter experiences, To Sir, With Love and Paid Servant respectively, are rare and fascinating glimpses into the lives of the extremely poor in the postwar era, particularly those of the Windrush generation: Braithwaite, who had arrived much earlier, was in a position to observe their difficulties and struggles up close. However, they also form a reproach —sometimes sorrowful, sometimes incandescent with fury— to the mainstream society. Braithwaite’s personal story is essentially that of loyalty betrayed: “The majority of Britons at home have very little appreciation of what that intangible yet amazingly real and invaluable export —the British Way of Life—means to colonial people,” he comments bitterly in To Sir, With Love. After the war, he discovered “that I was British, but evidently not a Briton, and that fine differentiation was now very important.”
In To Sir, With Love, his teenaged pupils eventually become Braithwaite’s salvation, lifting him out of the resentful internal morass from which he so desperately wants to escape. This is despite their initially rather unprepossessing beginnings —initial bewilderment on the part of his pupils (“they would sit and stare at me with the same careful, patient attention a birdwatcher devotes to the rare feathered visitor”) develops into open defiance and hostility, forcing Braithwaite to assert himself rather vigorously. Following this episode, and very gradually at first, a sympathy between teacher and pupils begins to develop, allowing Braithwaite the opportunity to teach them “to see all mankind from a standpoint of essential dignity.” The tension between Braithwaite’s rage at the wider society and deep affection for the pupils whom he regards as “his children” drives the narrative forward and gives this sweet and sour book much of its fascination today. In particular, Braithwaite’s indignant insistence on the class’s acceptance of his mixed-race pupil Seales (in the book a very quiet, reliable and balanced character, in the rather risible Hollywood film version with Sidney Poitier portrayed, tellingly, as volatile and violent) becomes the crux on which his ultimate relationship with the rest of the class turns. When Seales’ mother dies and the other children refuse to take a wreath to the family home, because of what people might say, “All the hackneyed cliches hammered in my head…. A West indian boy with an English mother……Never an English boy with a Negro or West Indian father. It was like a disease….and these children whom I loved….were tainted with the hateful virus which attacked their vision.” When the children manage to pull themselves together and support their friend after all, Braithwaite almost collapses with relief and love.
This is, however, not at all a simple, sentimental tale, but a multi-layered study of a complicated man in difficult surroundings. Braithwaite’s initial struggles in the job can be attributed to two obstacles, one external —the racial prejudice of the community around him— and one internal, his own extreme poshness and its effect on how he views his pupils. Braithwaite came from the Guyanese elite, and he does not spare himself in the first pages of To Sir, With Love, in which an all-too-familiar contempt cloaked in benevolence can be detected: as Caryl Phillips keenly described it, an anthropological sneer. To Sir, With Love is partly about the expansion of the human soul, not just where Braithwaite’s pupils are concerned, but also that of Braithwaite himself. When he first encounters these ill-mannered, defiant teenagers with little belief in themselves, pride in their appearance or hope for the future (to say nothing of their ignorance of Shakespeare), the shock to this confident, natty British-Guyanese bourgeois gentleman is almost too much to bear. In the course of his zealous civilising mission (visits to museums, theatres, and the opera are incorporated into the lesson plan), Braithwaite himself is softened and learns a deeper sense of compassion. He would always retain an unfortunate tendency to occasionally forget the advantages with which he had been raised, and expect a recently bombed-out East End population or new West Indian migrants to pull themselves up by their bootstraps when, in fact, they had no bootstraps left, but his empathetic powers were vastly increased by his experiences in the East End. Braithwaite’s openness about himself is remarkable —he never tries to paper over his own moments of small-mindedness or irrationality (nor, it must be said, his monotonous tendency to be distracted by an attractive figure in a well-cut suit). Compared with many of the other teachers, however, he comes off very well. The staff-room chatter is truly horrifying, sometimes downright degrading, not only of Braithwaite but also of the pupils in the teachers’ charge, as well as of the two lesbian teachers on staff.
As the foregoing makes clear, Braithwaite had many fine qualities, but an ability to maintain any sort of professional distance on his charges was not one of them. He took this intense engagement with him into his new position as a social worker for the London County Council, which resulted in the even more interesting Paid Servant. This examination of the workings of fostering and adoption in post-war England is simultaneously enlightening and enraging, a book light years ahead of its time. Braithwaite, fiercely partisan on behalf of his cases, consistently rushes in where angels fear to tread, and insists on chemistry and sympathy between the children and prospective adopters —heresy to the trained social worker at the time, and only now beginning to gain a slight amount of traction. Braithwaite’s approach in general is highly interventionist, and it is clear that his colleagues viewed him as something of a loose cannon. He conducts home visits to families in crisis outside of working hours, and even, on one hilarious occasion, engineers a family reunion and attendant marriage proposal. This ball-of-fire, hands-on attitude seems to be due to his different cultural background and intensely social instincts. Braithwaite’s insights into child psychology are also sometimes unintentionally amusing: “Victor, the youngest, was inclined to show off in order to attract attention to himself; but this is a normal characteristic for the smallest member of any family group.”
The core of the story is a little boy of mixed race. This lovely (and, Braithwaite insists, profoundly English) child’s struggles to find a home become a mirror in which the shibboleths and horrifying moral failures of post-war adoption policy, and wider social neuroses about race, are reflected. Local authorities refused to adopt black or mixed-race children to any families but black ones in a strict race-matching policy which proved remarkably durable throughout the decades that followed, and prevented many children from ever finding a family. During the time when Braithwaite was working, this was predicated on racist beliefs about the innate tendency of black children to revert to some sort of unwelcome type (though later on it would be based on concerns about providing an appropriate cultural environment for the child). At times the book is hard to read, as one possibility after another comes to naught: for example, a lovely Jewish couple are turned down because they are too ‘intellectual’ (the local authority was fully kitted out with the contemporary roster of prejudices, then). When Braithwaite’s determination has finally conquered his superiors’ insistence on a race match or no match at all, and finds a loving family for the child in Middlesex, the entire enterprise nearly comes a cropper on a territoriality dispute between the London and Middlesex County Councils, leading to nail-biting tension and a harrowing description of the boy’s despair.
The insistence on race-matching as a policy temporarily fell out of official favour in the years following Braithwaite’s book, and it would be interesting to know whether there was a causal connection. The book contains many other shocking revelations about social work at the time, such as the apparent lack of financial support for unwed mothers, due to the expectation that the father —who had usually vanished— could be found and forced to pay child support. This led to mothers placing their babies in care while they searched for a job which could support both mother and child.
Here again, as with the staff-room conversation in To Sir, With Love, any belief that we might have had in the ‘good old days’ is torpedoed, not only by the alarming attitudes expressed by Braithwaite’s fellow social workers, but also by the deplorable dinner party conversation to which he is privy as a member of the fashionable set in his free time. The essential frivolity and lack of moral fibre of the chattering classes (“some of them put the case for or against Jews as a minority group,” Braithwaite reports) suggest that it would be unfair to expect better from the local authority, given the quality of the overarching establishment.
The secondary focus of interest in Paid Servant is the recent arrivals from the West Indies, and here the book provides a window on a little-known era, after Windrush and before 'Rivers of Blood.' Braithwaite discusses the snobbery and internalised racism that he found amongst West Indians themselves (“the invidious demarcations between manual worker, office worker and student groups; between dark-skinned and light-skinned; between the educated and the unlettered”), and provides a fascinating interview with the dynamic Caribbean staff of the Migrants’ Services Division of the Colonial Office, who were contending with a migration wave which needed “more of us and a few small miracles.” There is also a first-hand account of the 1958 Notting Hill race riots and the responses to them, although it is obfuscated by victim-blaming —for which Braithwaite offers no evidence— of the sort that later enraged black South African readers of his book Honorary White.
Braithwaite is particularly incisive on the harm caused by refusal to acknowledge the complexity of mixed-race people, the damage done by forcing a choice of one 'side' and a rejection of the corresponding parent. Of a mixed-race adult whom he encounters, he writes, “He mentioned that his father had been a West Indian, but said nothing about his mother….he had long ago been pressed into alignment….Perhaps he never said ‘My mother’s English.’” Here, as in To Sir, With Love, Braithwaite is firm on his cases’ right to Englishness: “they were born in England….although one or both of the parents might have been Irish or Scots or Welsh or West Indian or African or Asian,” he explains in exasperated response to a question about the children’s nationality.
In the end, of course, England lost Braithwaite after twenty years of service. In these books’ chronicling of a fundamentally well-meaning man’s alienation through relentless snubs and belittlement, and in the glimpses of a similar syndrome at work in the lives of other West Indians immigrants whom Braithwaite encounters, there is a wider historical point about the way in which the personal experiences of Caribbean elites in England would galvanise the nascent independence movements, as Braithwaite himself prophetically suggests. This drifting apart was inevitable in an Empire in which the periphery was more emotionally invested than the war-exhausted core. The manifestations of rejection that Braithwaite describes, in sometimes incensed, always immediate prose, are both geopolitical (England as an indifferent mother to her Caribbean peoples) and heartbreakingly individual and personal: all those children who never had mothers of their own.--Isabel Taylor