“The fact is that very early in our family history I was made aware that both Arthur and Doona were accorded more privileged treatment than was I.”
Syd Metcalfe, ‘One Speck of Humanity’
Metcalfe’s autobiography kicks off ‘en route for a large North London cemetery’ (1) for the funeral of a sister ‘dead before she had ever learned to stand on her own feet.’ (1) Child mortality was so high and so common during the Edwardian period, that Metcalfe admits ‘there were so many children left over at the final count that the loss of the odd one here and there didn’t really matter much.’ (3)
In fact Timothy J. Hatton, in his article ‘Infant Mortality and the Health of Survivors’ published in Economic History Review, states that ‘infant mortality rates of more than 100 per thousand births were characteristic of most developed economies a century ago and for England and Wales they fell below this level only on the eve of the First World War.’
Metcalfe is the middle child, ‘well and truly hemmed in’ (3) by his younger sister and elder brother. He gives a sharp insight into his own family dynamics, saying that if any middle child ‘happens to have parents similar to mine then his case is hopeless. He hasn‘t a chance.’ (3)
Never has a man been so conflicted about his parents. Syd Metcalfe veers from fond memories to bitter. He remembers happily perching on the shoulders of his father as the soldiers of WWI march by. He remembers his mother spreading out a feast of fish & chips while his father was at war. But he also remembers his father as a man who terrified him, and the false love his mother bestowed on her children for the benefit of the new men she brought home each night. Metcalfe tells the story of a hopelessly unromantic hopeless romantic who pursues the girl from the factory. His mother and father marry against either family’s wishes. Later, his father left the family. As Metcalfe says: ‘He finally didn’t bother to even pick up his things. He’d left home. And from that time on he disappeared from our life for many years to come.’ (71) Until then it was perhaps a strange and utilitarian kind of love, which perhaps influenced the bachelor Metcalfe’s own ideas of marriage.
Throughout his life Metcalfe had multiple affairs with girls who crossed his path. He came close to marrying Ethel ‘Chink’, until her mother revealed she was 15-years-old, not 18 as she had claimed. He almost married another girl, Noreen, until she called the whole thing off two weeks before the wedding date. Metcalfe remains philosophical: ‘One extra turn or one less and our whole life is changed.’ (295) But he was quite sure he did not want to marry Phyllis, whom he met during the war, and in discussion of this girl-friend, reveals himself to be more realist than romantic: ‘She… was wanting to marry simply to be married. She was not in love with me but she was prepared to forego that small matter for the satisfaction that would be hers from being able to call herself Mrs. …How many couples marry in this fashion?’ (195)
Years later, after he returns to England, Metcalfe meets his sister, reacquaints himself with his remaining family. A brother, a sister, a brother-in-law, one niece, one nephew. Indeed, Metcalfe says of his cosy family circle: ‘Could one be smaller?’ (299)
But it would be true to say Metcalfe’s friends in the army were his family. Brothers in arms, who made the world wonderful. And he reserves his greatest affections for fellow signalman, Jack Higgins.
‘By now Jack and I were inseparable. We became known as ‘The Twins’ and I can remember I actually missed him if he weren’t there. This is a relationship, perfectly decent, akin to the love of a man for a woman. There is in it an affinity that makes one almost part of the other. Certainly there is a mental need of one for the other. And the happiness and contentment that the lover finds in the presence of his loved one is also experienced in the relationship of perfect friendship. Likewise the sense of loss when the loved one is not there is also felt. If one carried this comparison further I suppose it is a form of love.
Let us forget for a moment today’s obsession with everything having a sexual basis, for this oneness that Jack and I felt in each other’s company had nothing to do with sex. And I’m equally sure that the early, young love that most of us have experienced at some time or another for a girl also has no foundation in sex. Can’t you remember loving a girl beyond that?’ (138)
Sadly, like the rest of his transient family, after Metcalfe left the army, after 8 years elbow-to-elbow, the pair lost contact. But he never forgot his best friend, his twin.
Hatton, Timothy. ‘Infant Mortality and the Health of Survivors: Britain, 1910-50’, Economic History Review, vol. 64, no. 3. 2011. 951-972.
Metcalfe, Syd. ‘One Speck of Humanity’, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiography. University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, 2:526