An Algerian in England

Regarde, Étranger, vers cette île
que la lumière bondissante révèle pour ton délice.

Look, stranger, on this island now
The leaping light for your delight discovers

-W.H. Auden

“So —  you don’t like mechanical engineering? It’s either that, or you go home. Your choice.”

T. drew his brows together in consternation. He was sitting in a room in the Sheffield University Students’ Union, across the desk from a representative from the British firm, CJB (Constructors John Brown). He glanced at the man sitting opposite him, then out of the window at the dreary day outside.

Rain was slanting across the slate-grey sky like glittering strands of Christmas tinsel, and the trees, lashed by the wind, were bending their sodden canopies almost to the ground. All the people scurrying along the pavements seemed to have black umbrellas. So different from Algiers, where the sun was like a shimmering yellow diamond, flooding the city with light.

If he went home now, he would lose a whole year, as he could not start a new course at Algiers University in December. He had already lost a lot of time, striking for over a year in 1958 on FLN orders, and then wasting a few months after independence preparing for a specialised mathematics course (Math. Spé),  cancelled later in an arbitrary decision by the fledging Algerian government.

He had then embarked on the first year of a university course in Mathematics, Physics and Chemistry. But the years were passing and here he was, at twenty-three years of age, with no qualifications as yet, except for a few certificates. His mind made up, he turned resolutely back to the CJB representative. “All right -— put me down for a mechanical engineering degree,” he said.

Two months earlier, back in Algeria, a friend had excitedly shown him an advertisement in the Alger Soir newspaper. It said that a newly-formed national oil and gas company called SONATRACH was looking for English-speaking undergraduates to train as engineers and accountants in Britain, which had been chosen because the first Algerian oil pipeline, from Hassi Messaoud to Arzew, was to be laid by CJB.

T disliked most of the engineering subjects — thermodynamics, strength of materials, industrial drawing and so on — he was a mathematician and liked his maths pure.  None of this applied maths rubbish. He had, however, thoroughly enjoyed the two weeks spent in London during which his level of English had been assessed. It had been considered good enough for him to  go straight up to Sheffield to begin attending lectures.

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T in Regents Park during his first week in Britain

T thought to himself that he could just about manage to overcome his distaste for mechanical engineering if it meant staying in Britain. He had been agreeably surprised by the total lack of racism shown towards him there, especially after so many years of being considered a second-class citizen in his own country. In fact, it was simply due to the fact that the British knew absolutely nothing about Algeria or Algerians (they still don’t). A few of the more enlightened had read articles in the newspapers about an Algerian revolution, but that was all.

The description “French-Algerian” had been used so often by the media reporting on the situation in the then French Algeria, that most people only retained the first part. The result was that the Algerian students were considered as French – slightly more exotic than your average Frenchman perhaps, but French nonetheless. It also helped that T already looked the part.

The second agreeable surprise was that English girls seemed very attracted to T’s combination of long-lashed dark eyes, broad shoulders and lazy, knowing smile — as I was to be a year later. His success with the girls went slightly to his head, and during his first year, he was never without some enraptured female student or other hanging on his arm. It was the swinging sixties, and life had never seemed more carefree and exciting. So much so, that he failed his first year exams. In fact, all the Algerian students failed.

For T., however, it was like a cold shower. How could he have let himself forget his main reason for going to Britain? He revised all summer, re-sat his exams in September, passing this time with flying colours, and was the only one amongst his friends to be admitted to the second year. Everyone else happily repeated their first year. The wiliest amongst them failed practically every year, thus doubling their time in Britain.

Of course, there were downsides to student life in Britain in the sixties. The series of dismal digs and unwelcoming landladies was a given for any student at the time, but it proved especially difficult for a group of young men coming from a warm and cosy family life in a Mediterranean country.

T. had to get used to his elderly landlady knocking peremptorily on his door at seven o’clock on Sunday mornings in order to empty the gas meter. He would sit there in bed, blankets drawn up to his chin, whilst she bent over with a groan to reach the meter cupboard and start emptying out the coins into a bowl. Once she had discovered a franc amongst the shillings and he received a telling-off for his pains. Difficult to maintain your dignity when you are crouching on your bed, unshaven and bleary-eyed.

And then there was the food. I have already mentioned T’s difficulties in finding anything remotely appealing in the English meals on offer at the time. Soon, however, he was to discover hot English puddings – especially delicious when drowned in custard.  They compensated for the rest of the meal. He enjoyed the jovial company of his fellow Algerian students, the outings to various Sheffield nightclubs,  dancing at the regular Union hops, his judo training sessions and weekly trips to the cinema.

One of these outings traumatised him so badly, however,  that he still talks about it fifty years later. He had gone with some friends to see a horror film called Black Sabbath on one of their regular visits to the cinema. As coincidence would have it, I had seen the same film around the same time at our local Odeon in Blackpool. I was still in the sixth form and, with two classmates, had formed a trio of giggling schoolgirls, eating our vanilla ice-cream out of small cardboard tubs and shrieking happily at the scariest moments.

T, however, did not have quite as much fun. Around midnight, he and his group of friends had left the cinema and were making their way home, laughing and joking, along the dark streets of Sheffield. One by one they peeled off as they reached their individual digs. T had suddenly found himself alone.

He looked around him apprehensively.  Leaves scurried along the path and the breeze became keener, raising goose pimples  on his arms.The bushes and trees on each side of the street were silhouettes — the blackest of greens. The pavement stretched ahead, lit only by pools of light from the street-lamps. The wind suddenly died down, the leaves ceased to rustle, even the rumble of traffic was absent. The usual friendly scattering of stars was completely obscured by dense clouds swirling like spilled black ink in water. The occasional hoot of a hidden owl was the only sound to permeate the silence.

He sprinted the last few yards to the front door of his digs. It didn’t help that the stone-built house was dark and Victorian, with Gothic arched windows, steep gables and carved corbels. It was like entering Dracula’s castle. Fumbling slightly, he managed to put the key in the lock and turn it. Rushing into his ground-floor room, he double-locked his door, quickly undressed in the freezing cold, and dived under the bedcovers — scant protection, you would think, against a bloodthirsty vampire.

His gaze fixed fearfully on the dark rectangle of the window. No shutters — no curtains to shut out the night. At any moment, he was expecting to see the waxy face of Boris Karloff, blood dripping from his fangs, pressed against the glass.

An overactive imagination can sometimes be a bad thing.