“Does one need to end up a figure of national importance to have a story to tell?”
Syd Metcalfe, ‘One Speck of Humanity’
Since he was a boy, Syd Metcalfe wanted to see the world; an adventurer in an age when adventures were tainted by the atrocities of war.
Born in 1910, to a giddy good-time-girl and an impulsive and ignorant authoritarian, Metcalfe’s childhood was a mixed bag of happy moments, and sad memories. His earliest is of attending the funeral of his baby sister: ‘If she had lived long enough to be christened her name was never mentioned in my presence’ (2), and he joyfully recounts swimming, splashing, playing in the Regent’s Canal with his friends. A messy home-life followed – he never experienced the ‘neat and comfortable homes’ (13) of his friends, often going to bed ‘ravenously hungry’ (13) once his father was sent to the frontlines of the Great War, and he realised his merry-making mother was ‘different, out of step, casual, indifferent, not a mother at all.’ (13)
But Metcalfe is not a man prone to bitterness, and maintains joviality even when reminiscing about awful events such as a vicious Zeppelin air raid during WWI: ‘I trod with my bare feet into a heap of still wet and warm horse-dung. This nauseated me. I can sense it yet. I was defiled. From that moment on I could think of nothing else… So strangely works the mind of a child.’ (9)
In fact his autobiography reveals Syd Metcalfe to be a man well-versed in pitch-perfect British understatement. His writing style is reflective and witty, high of brow yet tongue-in-cheek, evident when discussing memories of his father: ‘He called me by a name that even in this age of permissiveness I would not dare to write. So shocked did I feel at the use of this word, applied as it was to me, that I have never been able to use it since even though I have as reasonably replete a repertoire of obscenities as anyone, having spent years in the army and a spell in the merchant navy.’ (20)
“Life is subject to a whole range of ifs and buts.”
Syd Metcalfe, ‘One Speck of Humanity’
Metcalfe never married, though he came close, and dedicated his life to service – to his friends, the military, WWII-era Merchant Navy, and ending his working life as a sweeper, ‘the old boy at the end of the broom’ (i). He was thrilled to be sent to the Afghan frontier via Gibraltar, Malta, Suez Canal, Aden, Karachi. This was adventure, though he later admitted to a friend that ‘soldiering’s not for [him]’ (180). Metcalfe refuses to wax Boy’s Own tales of the glories of war, opting for a genuine account of army life; from the banal task of peeling spuds, to friendships lost, to the brutal living conditions the soldiers suffered compared to those army officers far removed ‘both physically and socially’ (156). It would be hard to argue against his assertion that the army made him a man. He was ordered to Dunkirk. He visited India and Africa. He traveled through America and Australia, and resided in New Zealand, tending to the tennis club lawns, learning French and Italian, spending Saturdays at the races, before returning home to Blighty.
His humorous, down-to-earth view of the world is what makes Syd Metcalfe’s life story so very human, and humble, and honest, giving a useful account of growing up during WWI, inter-war army life, the outbreak of WWII, and the post-war unease of a wary, weary world. Here then an amiable chap, a ‘typical Englishman’ (201), with no airs, no graces, as if he understood we’re all the punchline of some grand and cosmic joke – his life, like all lives, was just One Speck of Humanity.
‘Syd Metcalfe’, in John Burnett, David Mayall and David Vincent eds The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography Brighton: Harvester, 1984, vol. 2, no. 526
Metcalfe, Syd. ‘One Speck of Humanity’, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiography. University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, 2:526