John Sawyer (b. 1914) Home and Family – Writing Lives

John Sawyer (b. 1914) Home and Family

After finishing my first read of John’s memoir, I was surprised at two things. First, the lack of information regarding his family, and second, the lack of memories (that he expresses) of them. He never reveals his parents’ names, and I have to assume that he is an only child, as he never mentions a sibling. It has been said that working-class fathers remain ‘strangers in the midst of family’, and spent most of their time working and providing for their family (Strange, p.1009). This may be the reason for the distance that he feels between himself and his family, his father in particular.

Working Class Family (1930s)

His mother would send him to private school most days, and his neighbour’s daughter babysat him frequently. She would bring her niece, and they would all play hide and seek. Interestingly, John speaks of his neighbours more fondly and explicitly than his own family. His family members’ names remain undisclosed for the entirety of the memoir, yet he does not hesitate in revealing his neighbours’ names; Mr and Mrs Clough. They had no family, and therefore ‘took a liking to me’ (p.2). He recalls how Mr Clough would take him down ‘to River Trent every Sunday morning on the cross-bar of his bicycle’ (p.2) to help him bathe his dog. He explains how such a simple task allowed him to see ‘more of the outside world’ (p.2).

I believe that John’s alternative to family is Nancy, his wife. Upon meeting her at a dance at a Community Centre in Richmond, he falls in love instantly, calling her the ‘girl who was to play such an important part in my life’ (p.48). He expresses his love for her poetically: ‘I journeyed back to my billet in a daze, my mind full of her loveliness, wishing the hours away’ (p.48a). This is a side to John that he has never shown with any of his other love interests, of whom there were many. Nancy fills the family-sized absence that he has in his life.

Couple dancing in a dance hall (1940s)

I feel there may be an underlying reason for the disconnect that he seems to have in relation to his family: his father’s death. He mentions his father dying when he was a young child, yet doesn’t divulge any type of emotion that he felt. The fact that he doesn’t reveal his emotions, combined with the fact that he limits the amount of memories involving his family, suggest that his death might have had a long lasting effect on him. Julie-Marie Strange explains how autobiographers remembered their fathers, which was through discussion of ‘the things he did for them and the things he made them’ (Strange, p. 1009). However, throughout this memoir, there isn’t a mention of either. David Vincent argues that ‘working-class autobiographers lacked emotional vocabulary’ (Vincent, p.229). This is something that John does indeed lack, and this may be due to how he could not physically or emotionally express his grief.

According to Pierre Bourdieu, ‘home is a primary site of social identification.’ John spent fifteen of his adolescent years in the small, working-class town known as Ramsey. His initial description of Ramsey sums up the town’s demeanour: ‘It was raining, it was dark, and it was depressing’ (p.4). His reaction reflects Bourdieu’s perspective of class-consciousness, and how the ‘consciousness of class is first learned and felt in the immediate home and neighbourhood.’ John instantly understood and was repelled by his class, as he compares what he has with what the ‘aristocrats’ have: ‘no fleet of taxis awaiting the branch line train of two carriages, merely one horse drawn conveyance’ (p.4). His negative tone is revealed through the use of ‘merely’, and perhaps reveals his attitude towards his class.

Horse drawn conveyance.

As a child, he was very much involved in his small community in both Beeston and Ramsey, and recalls how many small communities, including his ‘in those days […] was all-embracing’ (p.12). Yet, the reality of his neighbourhood comes to light when he explains how ‘he had to form an alliance with the rougher element’ (p.3). The fact that he ‘naturally’ felt that he had to conform to rebellion and troublesome friends suggests he didn’t have the discipline that parents are expected to possess. In fact, throughout the entire memoir, the only experience that he writes about, that involves his family and discipline, is when he learns swear words. His parents wanted him to ‘unlearn’ them, so they conjured up a story about how the ‘policeman had called about little boys using bad language’ (p.3).

John’s poor relationship with his family members may be due a combination of different factors which overall contrasts with the standard beliefs of family relationships. It is believed that ‘family relationships remain close even when relatives do not share a household’ (Thane, p.60). John generally travelled a lot, both with his work and for his personal enjoyment, and he moved out of his childhood home for a better job. However, he does not mention his family for the majority of his memoir, in terms of when he was both in the household and outside of it, so he therefore negates this belief.


John Sawyer, One man in his time, or, the first sixty years; an autobiography. 38,000 words. Born 1914, Beeston Nottingham.

Strange, J. (2012). ‘Fatherhood, Providing, and Attachment in Late Victorian and Edwardian Working Class Families.The Historical Journal. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Vincent, D. (1980). Love and Death and the Nineteenth-Century Working Class. Social History, : Taylor and Francis ltd.

Thane, P. (2010). Happy families? History and Family Policy. London: The British Academy.

Lecture -Home and Family (Bourdieu)

Images cited

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.