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

John’s consciousness of class is evident when he compares his prestigious, upper-class positions within many Solicitor’s offices to his last job, working as an administrator in a small airport firm. He declares in a fretted tone that ‘I rather felt that I had been demoted from Lieutenant Colonel to a mere private’ (p. 115). He uses war titles to represent the gap between each job, and therefore the gap between classes. He also lists the differences of each job, affirming that in his old job as a committee secretary, he ‘gained a fairly senior post’ and had a ‘responsible position’(p.114), yet in his airport job, he expressed how he was ‘able to see at first hand how the other half worked’ (p.114). He consistently separates himself from the working-class, even with smaller details such as the room plan and the food available to him. In his old job, he had his own carpeted office, and became ‘accustomed to restaurant service with waitresses’ (p.115). Yet, in his last job, he has a plain desk, uncomfortable chair, an open plan room and he complains about how ‘instead of having morning coffee delivered by waitresses, one had to queue at the vending machine and hope that it wouldn’t dry up’ (p. 115). Evidently, class is important to him when defining his work identity, as he consistently differentiates himself from the working-class.

Lieutenant Colonel UK Army Badge

Despite condemning his working-class job at the airport firm, he does remain optimistic like he always does. He states how ‘it was very convenient’(p.114) travel-wise, and the job ‘gave me an interest and kept my mind active’ (p.114). Similarly, John speaks of how he was nervous to return to work after the war, due to how it was such a massive part of his life. He confesses how he ‘had to now get accustomed to commercial practice’ (p.59). However, on the same page, he affirms that he ‘was settling in and enjoying my work’ (p.59). The optimism he has and maintains throughout the different jobs he has, and the differing conditions he faces, reflects how working is a very important aspect of his life.

John was a money motivated man. When he formed his band (See: Habits and Beliefs) and was hounded with weekly show requests, he admits how he was ‘encouraged by our performance, and most important, we were paid for it’ (p.15/16). John also admits that they would carry on for an extra hour because their audience would do a ‘whip-round’. His hobby turned into a money-maker, and this financial gain was one of the main motivators for the longevity of the band’s existence.

Mrs Palmer, another working-class memoir writer, states that ‘there were only the rich and the poor or “Them” and “Us”. We the poor were “Us”, and if “Us” could get one over on “Them” the rich, it was rather fun, and in those days it was no disgrace to be poor’ (Palmer, p.6). This assumption clarifies John’s motivations. He never formally complained about his working-class childhood or the poor conditions he lived in, he was extremely motivated to gain an education and therefore a high-paying, and upper-class, profession, which would transfer him from ‘Us’ to ‘Them’.

Clerks in a Solicitor’s Office

However, Richard Hoggart suggests that ‘the working class generally mistrusts ‘Them’ and shows no desire to join their cultural ranks’ (Hoggart, p.55). John therefore denies this belief, as his sole aspiration in his life was to gain a high-paying, upper-class job. This is suggestible when he describes his most recent job, as he takes instant notice of the pay rate before any other aspect of it; ‘the wage was a mere pittance’ (p.114). He then mocks this change in terminology when referring to money, stating that ‘the wages (not salary) helped to pay for the groceries’ (p.115). ‘Wage’ was the typical term of reference used by working-class people for job-earned money, with ‘salary’ being a more prestigious term. Evidently, he is ridiculing the term ‘wages’ as well as the amount he was due to be paid, and therefore slyly mocks the working-class.

After learning every aspect of John’s life and personality, it is fair to say that he was literate. He was asked during an interview if he played piano, as this would give him an advantage with handling a typewriter for his job as a clerk. He instantly decided to teach himself how to use one and practised typing consistently throughout most of the jobs he had in his life. His narrative style is fluent and deeply-informative, but also very expressive, much like an author telling a story. He strings together a collection of comical incidents that happened during his first 60 years of living. His exceptional literary talent supports the presumption that ‘the less literate the writer, the less he was involved in specific activities of self-improvement (…), the greater his preoccupation with the details of his life as a worker’ (Vincent, p.62). He denies this concept, as he is both preoccupied with his life as a worker and activities of self-improvement. He details every single job he has had, his work skills, the colleagues that he befriended for life and the continental experiences that work have allowed him. Additionally, he speaks of new skills that he has acquired, otherwise known as ‘self-improvement’. This is evident through his self-taught typing and short-hand skills, as well as his progression from a ukulele banjo to a trumpet in his band.

Briggs Pianos Advertisement (Charles C. Briggs) Business Opened in 1868


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

582 PALMER, Mrs. W.E., ‘Memories of Long Ago’, TS, pp.34 (c.12,200 words). Brunel University Library.

Hoggart, R. (2017). The Uses of Literacy. New York: Routledge.

Vincent, D. (1981). Bread, Knowledge and Freedom: A Study of Nineteenth-Century Working-Class Autobiography, London: Methuen.

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