Syd Metcalfe (B.1910): Habits, Culture & Belief

I started boxing at school and found that on account of my enthusiasm I beat more boys than boys beat me.”

Syd Metcalfe, ‘One Speck of Humanity’

ClaptonSyd Metcalfe’s recreational life is steeped in working-class tradition, as he recognises when he admits preferring the simple pleasures of Working Men’s clubs than fancy dining halls.

From the tennis matches that allowed him to relax with his friend Jack, to the boxing that he took part in during his school and army years, to the horse races he gambled on, sport is especially important in Metcalfe’s life. Football, in particular, becomes far more than just a game when he and his father use it to reconnect after 17 years. After his father has made contact with him for the first time in over a decade, Metcalfe says:

‘We continued to see each other quite frequently and we saw many a football match together. He obviously enjoyed my company, and once when I met him in the company of another man he remarked to his friend, “Now just listen, it’ll be dad this and dad that.” (…) At the football matches dad became the expert. Here he knew exactly what was happening and his comments and observations used to make the game doubly interesting for me. But, heavens, what partisanship, when he was watching the Orient, the team he had played for as a young man, he was blinded to half that was happening. And the result of the game had a tremendous effect on his mood for the next few hours. When his team won dad was really good company. No matter how short of dad was he was irresistibly drawn to a game of any importance. He loved his football and got much happiness from it.’ (186)

Clearly for Metcalfe’s family, football provides necessary respite from daily working life – it is a way of coming together and bonding, and a hobby that helps to raise spirits when life was hard or the money was short.

As a hard-working man, Metcalfe often saw little luxury or comfort and small pleasures stuck out as great treats: ‘Even the small things, like going into a hairdresser’s for a haircut where when he had finished the cutting he bathed my hot face in lovely-smelling, refreshing Eau de Cologne and gently patted my face dry with a soft towel.’ (52) Being pampered is a rare occasion for Metcalfe, and he clearly savours every moment of it. During his time as a sailor Metcalfe also visited a brothel, which he is first led to by a young boy shouting “Sahibs, you come see my sister?” Metcalfe’s writing about visiting the prostitutes is euphemistic but without shame.

Throughout his life Metcalfe engaged in working-class activities where he felt comfortable, not constrained by some misjudged inferiority complex. He showed no interest in religion, or politics. Whilst he had a serious head, he was by no means a serious man, and was ‘willing to break [his] neck if it got a laugh.’ (122) As with every aspect of his life, if he enjoyed it, Syd Metcalfe did it. 

 

 

 

Metcalfe, Syd. ‘One Speck of Humanity’, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiography. University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, 2:526

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