John Sawyer (b. 1914) : War and Memory (Part 2) – Writing Lives

John Sawyer (b. 1914) : War and Memory (Part 2)

John writes about the ‘incidents’, as he refers to them, that he encountered daily during the war, especially when he moved to London. One time, he de-trained at Waterloo station when a ‘bomb hit the platform and shattered the ceiling, showering people in the station’ (p. 55). Another time, during a Sunday morning duty on the roof of his War Office, ‘one passed over the building and landed on the Guards chapel’ (p. 55). He tends to write casually about these incidents, as he stated that every day ‘was just another incident!’ (p. 55). His careless attitude regarding the constant bombings is reflective in his pessimistic speech regarding the new V.2 rockets. He declared that,

‘Upon hearing the explosion one knew that it had landed, and there was nothing to worry about. If one was at the receiving end one wouldn’t have heard it anyway, and there would be nothing left with which to worry – so why worry?’ (p. 53).

John portrays how society in general were conditioned to the daily bomb attacks, and how, whilst they were feared, they were expected, so ‘one’ shouldn’t worry.

The Daily Express ‘listening’ cartoon

John remembers and describes a cartoon that visually depicts the obliviousness that people were forced to adapt to as a result of the frequent bombings. I have managed to find this cartoon and, according to John’s vivid description, it depicts;

‘two City types, bowler hatted, with the brief cases and rolled umbrellas, heads tilted on one side, one ear pointed and six inches in length – Caption – ‘It’s absurd to say these things are affecting us.” (p. 52)

He doesn’t expand or comment on the cartoon, but its mention provides a general insight on war conditions, and how people simply got used it. He also explains how bombings were so frequent that it was pointless sounding the all-clear, as ‘there were unbroken alerts and people went about their business irrespective’ (p. 52). Whilst people did acknowledge the bombings, visually depicted through the raised ears of the civilians in the cartoon, they simply got on with it. It simply became a part of their daily life.

Devastation from a V.2 rocket.

John never expresses the inner emotions that he felt during the war and instead recalls what happened, much like a reporter or journalist. He chronologically lists the bombings that he had witnessed, and repetitively ends descriptions with the phrase ‘There were many casualties’ (p.52). He consistently refuses to divulge his personal thoughts, feelings or reactions that he had to events, and instead solely reports on the aftermath. This rejection is also evident in the change of pronouns. For most of his memoir, he uses his own pronoun (‘I’), yet when remembering the ‘incidents’, he switches to terms of reference such as ‘we’, ‘the crowd’ and ‘one’. He doesn’t present himself in these situations, which allows his descriptions to be like those of a report, rather than a personal, emotional experience. This is reflective of the Popular Memory approach proposed by Graham Dawson, who suggests that ‘war memory is “regulated and shaped” by dominant ideals of national character and gender’ and omissions are ‘indications of the distorting effects of public narrative forms.’ John’s experiences at war were different to that of the typical soldier hero, which explains his tendency to summarise his war experiences. He also maintains a resistance to reveal his reactions or emotions within his own memories, and instead become ‘displaced and marginalised within private memory.’ (2)

Eventually V.E day came, and for John, it ‘was a night to remember’ (p. 56). John could return to normality and doing what he loved prior to the war, including socialising and going to the theatre. In fact, one of the first things he did to celebrate was visit the theatre with his friends to see ‘Madame Louis’, featuring Alfred Drayton and Robertson Hare, two popular stage and film actors of that time (BFI, 2019). Despite the bonds he made during the war, eventually they were ‘confined to Christmas greetings.’ (p. 53)


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

Ashplant, T.G. & Dawson, G. & Roper, M. (2013) The Politics of War Memory and Commemoration. London: Routledge

BFI. (2019). Alfred Drayton. [online] Available at: [Accessed 25 Apr. 2019].

Images cited

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