Choice of Straws by ER Braithwaite. London’s East End 1960. Twins Jack and Dave Bennett are a happy-go-lucky, rootless pair of Teddy boys. If they do occasionally rough-up a black guy it’s just a game to them. Until a victim in Whitechapel fights back and Dave pulls a knife. From the writer of To Sir With Love.
Mr Spencer….. Alex Lanipekun
Dramatised by Roy Williams
Director Claire Grove
About the Play
Edward Ricardo Braithwaite is best known as the author of To Sir, With Love, the 1959 novel that was adapted into the 1967 hit film To Sir, With Love, starring Sidney Poitier, and the hit song To Sir, With Love, sung by Sidney Poitier’s co-star Lulu. His lesser known novel, a Choice of Straws, was originally published in 1965.
Choice of Straws is told from the perspective of Jack, a White East Londoner, who usually follows along with his Twin Brother Dave, who, while being inadvertently stabbed while attacking and killing a Black man, ends up dying in a car crash in a car driven by another Black man, a Medical student named Bill Spencer. Jack tells the truth to his parents about what happened and tries to dodge police inquiries. He also begins to discover himself as an individual, no longer in his brother’s shadow. This involves getting a girlfriend (Ruth) and losing his virginity while pursuing a romantic relationship with Bill’s sister Michelle.
Through Jack’s relationship with Michelle, Braithwaite revisits the divisions that race and class construct in people’s lives that he explored in To Sir with Love. In To Sir, With Love, the educated and sophisticated Afro-Caribbean Teacher is a victim of racism, however his pupils are victims of classism, which has meant that they have received a completely inadequate education to prepare them for anything but work as common labourers. Jack is working-class while Michelle is middle class and has a university education. She ends up ending their relationship for fear that Jack is just using her in order to experience dating a Black girl. This has happened to her before. Even the issue of Jack and Dave attacking the Black man is complicated by the fact that late in the radio play we learn that their father was assaulted by Black men during the 1958 Notting Hill Riots.
Choice of Straws doesn’t provide any easy answers to the racial and class conflicts that still divide Britain into many small islands, but it is a great exploration of these divisions and is itself an action of walking in the “other’s” shoes.
About E. R. Braithwaite
E.R. Braithwaite was born in Guyana in 1920. He was raised in a relatively privileged Afro-Guyanese family, both his parents were graduates of Oxford University. He served in the Royal Air Force as a pilot during World War II. He attended the University of Cambridge where he earned a doctorate in Physics. Like many people of colour in Britain after World War II, despite his qualifications, he found it hard to find employment in his field so was forced to take a job as a teacher in East London. The book, To Sir, with Love, was based on these experiences. Braithwaite pursued a career in social work and ended up getting a job finding foster homes for non-White children for the London County Council. He based his second novel, Paid Servant, published in 1962.
Braithwaite’s books were banned in Apartheid-Era South Africa until 1973. At this time, Braithwaite applied for a visa to visit South Africa. His visa as granted and he was given the status of “Honorary White”, which gave him far more freedoms and privileges than the indigenous Black population. He wrote about his experiences traveling in South Africa in the memoir Honorary White, published in 1975.
Braithwaite has worked as an educational consultant and lecturer for UNESCO, as the permanent representative for Guyana to the United Nations, as the Guyanese Ambassador to Venezuela, and as Writer in Residence at Howard University. Most recently, he has been a visiting professor at Manchester Community College. He now lives in Washington, D.C.
About the Notting Hill Race Riots
The 1958 Notting Hill Race Riots raged over the August Bank Holiday in Nottingham. Although dismissed by police at the time as just hooliganism perpetrated by White and people of colour alike, In 2002, theLondon Internal Metropolitan Police released documents related to the riots which told a different story:
The Met commissioner was told that of the 108 people who were charged with offences ranging from grievous bodily harm to affray and riot and possessing offensive weapons, 72 were white and 36 were “coloured”.
It is popularly believed that the riot began on the night of Saturday August 20 when a 400-strong crowd of white men, many of them “Teds”, attacked houses occupied by West Indians. Among the victims was Majbritt Morrison, a young white Swedish bride of a Jamaican. She was pelted with stones, glass and wood, and struck in the back with an iron bar as she tried to get home.
The internal police witness statements provide graphic evidence of the motives of the mobs – at one point crowds several thousand strong roamed the streets of Notting Hill, breaking into homes and attacking any West Indian they could find.
PC Richard Bedford said he had seen a mob of 300 to 400 white people in Bramley Road shouting: “We will kill all black bastards. Why don’t you send them home?” PC Ian McQueen on the same night said he was told: “Mind your own business, coppers. Keep out of it. We will settle these niggers our way. We’ll murder the bastards.”
The fact it is believed one of the first people attacked by Whites was a White woman in a romantic relationship with a Black man just demonstrates how subversive such unions were perceived as at the time. My own mother used to be called a “Nigger Lover” and “Race Traitor” jokingly by her family members when she married my father. The level of contempt that White women who agreed to be in romantic relationships with men of colour at this time, and in some places even now, is a phenomenon which I feel has not been explored well enough in anti-racism circles’ discussions around White Privilege.
The Notting Hill Carnival, an annual street festival led mainly by Britain’s Trinidadian and Tobagonian community, began in 1959 as a community response to the Notting Hill Race Riots. The first festival was organized by Claudia Jones, a Trinidadian American Communist and journalist who had been granted asylum in Britain in the late 195os after having been imprisoned and eventually deported from the United States due to her communist activities. In 1958, she founded the West Indian Gazette, the first newspaper printed in London for the Black community. She is considered “The Mother of the Notting Hill Carnival”. Black Academic Carole Boyce Davies has written her biography, Left of Karl Marx: The Political Life of Black Communist Claudia Jones. The title of the book refers to the fact that Jones, who died in 1964 due to heart disease and tuberculosis, is buried in London’s Highgate cemetary to the left of Karl Marx.
About Gugu Mbatha-Raw
Mixed Race British actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw has recently gained recognition in the United States as the star of the cancelled J.J. Abrams’ TV Series Undercovers. I can’t help but suspect that Undercovers partly failed because it had two Black leads playing “non-traditional Black roles”. Of the top of my head, I can’t think of any American TV Series with Black Leads, other than comedy series, that have survived very long. Despite this, Gugu’s beauty and talent has been “discovered” and we will be seeing more of her on the American screen. Gugu was born in 1973 in Oxford, England to South African doctor Patrick Mbatha and English nurse Anne Raw, who met while working together at a hospital . Her full name, Gugulethu, means “Our Pride” in Zulu. She is a graduate of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London. I first saw her in the British Sci-Fi TV Series Doctor Who, portraying Tish Jones, the sister of Doctor Who’s First Black Companion, Martha Jones. In 2009, Gugu played Ophelia opposite Jude Law in Donmar West End and Broadway Production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. We will be seeing her on the big screen soon in the comedy drama Larry Crowne starring Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts and in the American Supernatural Thriller “Odd Thomas“.
To Ricky with Love by Caryl Phillips (2005 Guardian article available online)
Notting Hill Race Riots
After 44 years secret papers reveal truth about five nights of violence in Notting Hill by Alan Travis (2002 Guardian article available online)
The Forgotten Race Riot (2007 BBC article available online)
Long History of Race Rioting (2001 BBC article available online)
Profile of Claudia Jones available online
Interview (2009) in The Guardian available
Interview (2009) in The Telegraph available online
Video Interview (2010) available online
Black British Literature
Black British Literature since Windrush by Onyekachi Wambu (BBC History article available online)