Syd Metcalfe (B.1910): Researching Writing Lives

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

Syd Metcalfe, ‘One Speck of Humanity’

I had two feelings in representing Syd Metcalfe and his beautiful autobiography, ‘One Speck of Humanity.

Fear.

I was terrified that I might not do justice to the life of such a well-travelled and intelligent fellow. It might be so easy to forget that he wasn’t just some lead character in a book; the well-written exploits of a fictional protagonist. Syd Metcalfe was a real man, who led a real life, experienced real emotions. I did not want to let the man down. 

Honour.

In re-telling Syd Metcalfe’s story for the internet age, I felt tremendous honour. Ah, honour. An old-world construct which has fallen out of favour in more narcissistic times, but one which Metcalfe, a man who both respects, and is respected by, those he meets, might easily understand. Where possible, of course, I have used words used by the man himself, rather than paraphrase or read between lines which are not there. 

I began working of Metcalfe’s story the old-fashioned way. I read his autobiography. Having an interest in history helped; a sucker for historical documentaries, I found reading the book easy not only to comprehend, but also visualise. Out side of the first-hand research, I also began browsing Google Images for hours, reading articles both contemporary and modern. Here I discovered the horrific scale of infant mortality in the years Metcalfe grew up. Metcalfe, thankfully, never sugar-coats any aspect of his life and that society. He explains to readers customs and views which, like honour, have drifted from the public conscience. His descriptions of places he visits are not the sickeningly flowery prose of a romantic travel-writer, but of a man who can see every side of a cube. The good, the bad, and the downright ugly. And the reader goes with him, taken on a strange, globe-trotting journey with the pictures he draws in their minds.

And then I struck gold.

A BFI film of London in colour gave me a hitherto unseen glimpse of the world the teenage Metcalfe grew up in.

Video: London in Colour, 1927
Video: London in Colour, 1927

Death. We all have to face it. I faced Metcalfe’s; scouring the death certificates for various S. Metcalfe’s online until I found one likely source. Sydney James Metcalfe, of Dorset, England, died in 2000. I was playing detective. The unpublished copy of ‘One Speck of Humanity’ was entered into the Brunel archives in 1987, with a location stamp of Weymouth, Dorset. If this was our man, that put him at 90-years-old when he passed away, having come full circle and returned to England. His autobiography was published by Charnwood in the year of his probable death.

Perhaps the most irritating issue I’ve had is being unable to locate Metcalfe’s remaining family. Though he never married, his brother and sister both had children, and one might assume his family had some input in publishing. It would have been a terrific to discuss the man’s life with the remaining Metcalfes, and uncover more about this fascinating chap. Pictures, perhaps, or untold anecdotes. How did he hold himself, how did he speak? We might assume in the same broad Cockney accent that he taught his budgerigar to talk, but did he have any verbal tics? Or peculiar habits, such as always putting his right shoe before the left, but lacing the left one first?

I felt a great attachment to the loyal Metcalfe while researching his life, with our working-class upbringing, strained parental relationships, and a desire to adventure around the world borne from the constraints of a mundane, routine, grey-day life. I’m grateful that Syd Metcalfe was a terribly open man, self-aware and witty with words, but the trouble with an autobiography, any autobiography, is that we know precisely what the author wants us to know. No more, no less. We might make assumptions about someone based on what s/he tells us – or doesn’t tell us – but we can never know the feel of the hand that holds the pen.

 

 

‘Colour Film of London in 1927.’ YouTube.com. 2013. Web. Accessed 5 January 2013.

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

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