Syd Metcalfe (B.1910): Politics, Protest & Class

Prince Philip was very popular with the ladies.
Prince Philip was very popular with the ladies.

I always treated my ‘lesser’ fellows decently.”

Syd Metcalfe, ‘One Speck of Humanity’

It seems that in his older years Syd Metcalfe has come to decide something which he has always suspected – that all men are born equal. His treatment of those considered to be below him in status shows that although his aware of class divisions, and in some ways adheres to them, he also sets a great price on treating people fairly.

Respect was key to Metcalfe, both giving, and earning. He says:

‘One thing I will say in defence to those who feel ready to criticise at this stage, I always treated my ‘lesser’ fellows decently. There might have been more than an element of condescension associated with this ‘decent’ treatment. I’ll not deny that, but I did seem to acquire their respect. And, in view of the general attitudes prevailing at the time, which were the immediate influence upon my way of thinking, I’m satisfied that I saw, from my own reasoning, that these characters (…) were not there for me to enjoy or abuse. Also, they were always paid on the dot for everything they did.’ (219)

Politics did not feature heavily in Metcalfe’s world. He never mentions taking part in elections, nor reveals his family’s voting patterns. Politicians are neither scorned, as they are now, nor revered, but simply do not figure in the man’s life. Metcalfe recalls the professor at his night classes telling them, ‘[w]hatever you do don’t forget to put those chairs back after you have finished, otherwise you’ll have the night cleaners after me. The cleaners run this place. After all, they can always get another professor but they can’t always get another cleaner.’ He adds, ‘We all laughed at the mock fear that he put into his voice, but at the same time we recognised that he was more than a little serious.’ (277) Whilst this shows the importance of the service workers who sustain what Marx would label the superstructure – it will all fall down without their work, behind the scenes – it is not a logic-leap which Metcalfe ever makes.

On hearing that his sister has named her son Philip, he suggests that the boy’s namesake may be Prince Philip: ‘She didn’t say why, but Prince Philip was a great favourite of the ladies about then and it was probably on account of this that he was so named.’ (281) In not remarking of his own feelings of the Queen’s consort, it displays an outward stoicism, a traditional old-world deference. Perhaps because he rarely associated with those outside of his class, even in the army the officers were separated from the soldiers, and perhaps because Metcalfe is more than anything meritocratic, these so-called ‘betters’ never come under any sort of scrutiny.

Metcalfe does, however, take issue with a certain state institution. When a Hungarian friend was convicted of murder, Metcalfe, as a witness for the defence, is passionate in his condemnation:

‘The whole business left me with a sorry feeling that murder trials are wrongly conducted. It is not the object of everyone there to arrive at the truth. The prosecuting counsel, for example, does not go into court with the thought in mind, “Let’s see if we can find out what really did happen.” Instead his aim is to prove that the accused party is guilty… It is this matter of approach that appals me.’ (279)

On balance, Metcalfe was like most people. Neither left, nor right-wing, but a mixture of the two. He was never content with his working-class roots, yet they defined him somehow, both in his acceptance of the fact, and his desire for loftier goals. This is best illustrated in his description of chasing a pretty girl: ‘She was something of an intellectual (I was reaching out now) and was a librarian at the University.’ (219)

But ultimately, Syd Metcalfe’s life was his own, and he was not a man likely to constricted by petty politics. He embodied the ideals of treating a man based on his actions, not a divisive construct such as race, gender, or class. 



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

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