Syd Metcalfe (b.1910): Reading & Writing

“Life likes to play games with us at times, I think.”

Syd Metcalfe, ‘One Speck of Humanity’

Books inspired fictional contemporary William Brown to adventure.
Books inspired fictional contemporary William Brown to adventure.

No-one in the Metcalfe family ever read. At least according to Syd Metcalfe’s autobiography. His mother’s busy social schedule wouldn’t allow it; his painter-decorator father preferred more mascuuline hobbies. As a consequence, Metcalfe never describes his own influencing authors.

It can be assumed Metcalfe read at school, though there was no set curriculum of texts. The Bible, perhaps, Shakespeare, Dickens, or some classic tome of Britain’s Kings and Queens. He evidently enjoyed reading, later attending a literary criticism class in Australia.

Readers might find a literary equivalent in Richmal Crompton’s 11-year-old William Brown, debuting in Just William in 1922. Syd Metcalfe then 12. An irrepressible rascal, William is a boy who is rarely caught reading, though when he does it’s almost exclusively about dread pirates or heroic cowboys who electrify his imagination and rouse his passion for adventure. In this he shares the same ideals as Metcalfe – a romantic wanderlust for the playground world; society’s creativity-stifling norms designed to be broken.

One might picture William Brown crimson with jealousy had Metcalfe told him of the magical Regents Canal, where ‘[n]o country boy with river, of whatever beauty, running past his home ever extracted more sheer delight from its water than did I from my canal.’ (p21) Never mind that the canal was ‘stagnant, dark, dirty and smelly.’ (p21) Forget that his father had ‘forbidden [Metcalfe] to ever go near it.’ (p22) The Regents Canal is where Metcalfe is most happy – not stuck inside reading, but enjoying whatever life has to offer – and ‘[n]othing dad said, or anyone else said could have kept [him] away from that canal.’ (p22) Metcalfe displays an enterprising imagination that his child’s world was ‘little more than a degree or two removed from paradise’ (p21), and, like William, fails to comprehend why grown-ups conspired to ruin his fun: ‘What harm could there possibly be in a small boy diving into those inviting waters on a hot summer’s day…?’ (p23)

Those school-boy japes defined Metcalfe for life. Years later he remembers fans jumping the rails and rushing the team ‘to congratulate them’ (p6) on the momentous day Clapham Orient won their way into the First Division, and the ‘two “old boys” who clambered the rails and went with them. That was my brother and I, both well turned fifty.’ (p7) And who couldn’t imagine William Brown doing the same, much to his elderly mother’s horror?

Rather than read about adventures, Metcalfe wrote about them, lived them. Any one chapter would lend itself to a short story, and the autobiography reveals cinematic stories fit for for the silver screen. His childhood remorse for killing a cat establishes Metcalfe’s character; his war-time friendship with Jack during Dunkirk comparable to 1940s ‘brothers-in-arms’ movies; the faceless female love-interests changing with the location; the absurd romancing of ‘Chink’. And baby, Hollywood loves a tale of a lost-and-found father.

‘One Speck of Humanity’ is well-written and wholly engaging – it reflects a writer who reads. Metcalfe’s style is smart and humorously verbose, not a million miles from William Brown’s own hammering eloquence. Perhaps this is the autobiography of an adult William Brown, where Metcalfe’s life is the adventure everyone wants to read.

 

Crompton, Richmal. Just William, 1922. London: Macmillan, 2006.

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

 

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