Syd Metcalfe (b.1910): Purpose & Audience


“For the whole story we need to go back to the very beginning and work our way slowly through.”

Syd Metcalfe, ‘One Speck of Humanity’

'One Speck of Humanity' was written to be read.
‘One Speck of Humanity’ was written to be read.

Syd Metcalfe is old-fashioned in his story-telling. He starts at the beginning, and when he reaches the end he stops. Metcalfe chooses a chronological account, simply ‘because certain events happened that others followed. It is because of these things that I became what I am.’ (ii)

The foreword depicts an old caretaker, ‘an innocuous fellow coming to the end of his days, a picture of a wasted life’ (i) – This is Syd Metcalfe’s introduction to himself. At the threshold of death, he engages in telling his life-story. In part, a cautionary tale then, not of decisions made by Metcalfe, but of Fate which ‘takes no account of stature or status. What it holds in store is on offer to all.’ (ii)

Metcalfe is not a man apologetic about his past, but proud of it – not for warm and fuzzy political notions, but simply recognising it as part of his identity. Metcalfe explains his raison d’etre: ‘[D]oes one need to end up a figure of national importance to have a story to tell, to have lived a life with interest? Were my loves any less tender, any less passionate because I am unheard of? Were my dreams as a child any less intense, my idealism any less sincere because of my lowly beginnings?’ (ii)

“We all like to read of people who remind us to some extent of ourselves.”

Syd Metcalfe, ‘One Speck of Humanity’

Like most memoirs and autobiographies, working-class or otherwise, ‘One Speck of Humanity’ begs the world, screaming at its people to look deeper than an old man, an old broom. However where many memoirs engage in narcissistic navel-gazing, Metcalfe eschews the ego. As if to otherwise might invalidate his authenticity. This is a constant theme of Metcalfe’s autobiography, which dispenses of the heroics in favour of the honest. When he might be machine-gunning Jerry during WWII, he’s peeling spuds. When he should be making love to a beautiful woman, he’s worrying about her confession that her sister lied to Metcalfe’s best mate about being pregnant.

Syd Metcalfe’s ‘One Speck of Humanity’ was published by Charnwood in 2000. Clearly, in bringing his memoirs to a wider audience, Metcalfe isn’t just preaching the gospel of Syd Metcalfe to Syd Metcalfe. He wants to share his life with the reader. ‘One Speck of Humanity’ is not simply a autobiography, but a study of Metcalfe’s philosophical position: a man’s life is worth no more, and no less than the next, whether king or caretaker.



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

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.