John Sawyer (b 1914) : Life and Labour (Part 1/2) – Writing Lives

John Sawyer (b 1914) : Life and Labour (Part 1/2)

John filled his life (or the first 60 years of his life) with various jobs, all centred around the same subject: law. He started his professional journey as a junior clerk in the small, poor town of Beeston. He then progressed to a large office in the city of Nottinghamshire, a place that ‘provided more scope’ (p.19). He constantly wants to improve, career-wise, and whilst he is taken from his routine when he is drafted into the army, his arm injury results in him attaining a job as a Grade 2 Clerk decoding and sending vital messages to different offices. Due to his previous experience, the job is perfect for him and he boasts about how he excels in it, as the required number of words typed per minute is thirty, and he can do double that.

After the war he returns to ‘commercial practice’ and starts work at an International Oil Company in London with multiple responsibilities, one being to travel to the Netherlands for business meetings. Due to his desire to improve his skills, he excels in all of the jobs he attains in his life and hones the financial and leisurely gains that they provide. More importantly, he enjoys every single one.

Nottinghamshire (1949)

John’s father was the manager of a grocery store and, interestingly, his mother’s profession is not revealed. Despite having a father with an occupation ready to inherit, John doesn’t, and in fact never intended, to take over the business after he passed. Instead, he focused on his studies and ‘matured from a school boy to a member of a firm’ (p.14). He became a junior clerk in a solicitor’s firm, handing out notices and typing depositions given by witnesses for the Coroner’s Court. He therefore creates an instant distance between his family and himself, through his work choices.

John expresses how he initially felt hesitant with the contexts of his first job. This stemmed from his first experience of handing out a notice to quit to a farm worker. He admits how he ‘approached his dwelling in fear and trepidation’ (p.14), but the farmer ‘greeted me with a smile and even thanked me when I handed over the notice’ (p.14). John also confesses that ‘I had it on my conscience for some time’ (p.14). Although he doesn’t pinpoint the year he started his job, it would’ve been during the 1930s, otherwise known as the decade of mass unemployment, given the infamous event of the Great Depression. Britain suffered terribly, as the ‘world trade fell by half (1929–33), the output of heavy industry fell by a third, employment profits plunged in nearly all sectors’ (Marmaras, p.2). Whilst John didn’t personally suffer unemployment and its consequences, he was surrounded by it, as he had to hand out these notices. Therefore, the fact his first notice was on his ‘conscience for some time’ suggests that he felt insecure and guilty about what his job entailed and suggests that he felt sympathetic for the struggles that the unemployed had to face.

Farm Worker (1930s)

However, this insecurity doesn’t last long, as John then seems to write proudly when describing his job: ‘I felt that I was living in a very important world’ (p. 14). He proclaims that the job came with ‘many compensations’ (p.4) and also brags about his value to the company, stating that ‘my experience was varied and of great importance’. John’s attitude is reflective of the pre-existing societal attitude that the Victorian bourgeoise epitomised:

‘Docilely they accepted a steady decline in living standards and went on wishing for nothing more than to be “respectful and respected” in the eyes of men. For them the working-class caste structure stood natural, complete and inviolate’ (Roberts, p. 31)

He never draws attention or protests against the worsening standards of the working-class town he resides in, and simply accepts it. Respectability and self-improvement are more important to him, which is portrayed through his constant will to prove his worth within the workplace and the consistent mention of his prestigious professions throughout his memoir. This suggest that John feels his work identity represented his class identity.


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

Marmaras, E.V.(2014). Planning London for the Post-War Era 1945-1960. Athens: Springer.

Roberts, R. (1990). The Classic Slum: Salford Life in the First Quarter of the Century: Penguin Books

Images cited

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