A Winter’s Tale

“O, wind, if winter comes, can spring be far behind?”

– Percy Bysshe Shelley

“I don’t think it’s coming, do you?”

The snow was falling slowly, but so thickly that it almost obscured the view. Stamping our feet and rubbing our hands together to try and keep the blood circulating in our extremities, Helen, my mother and I, muffled up in duffel coats, woolly hats and scarves, were standing at the rear entrance of Manchester Exchange Station, waiting anxiously for the Sheffield bus to arrive.

The paved area outside the station looked like an unfinished painting, with much of the canvas still perfectly white, as if waiting for the artist to take up his paintbrush again. The snow on the paving stones glittered like white crystals in the murky morning light. Whenever I looked up I felt almost as though I were flying upward to the sky rather than watching the flakes fall, like oversized confetti, towards me.

We had set off from Blackpool earlier that morning in high spirits. I honestly can’t remember which university vacation it was, but it must have been early 1966 as I had already left my miserable digs on the outskirts of the city, and joined Helen in her freezing loft rooms, a stone’s throw from the University campus, and, what was even more important in our eyes, just a couple of streets away from the flat shared by T and S.

We had been back in Blackpool a week or so and were already bored. We were young enough and selfish enough to think only of ourselves and not of our parents’ pleasure in having us home. Blackpool seemed so tacky and down-at-heel, with its Kiss Me Quick hats and end-of-pier shows. No serious theatrical tradition, just variety shows. No intellectual life at all, we would pontificate to anyone willing to listen. We were increasingly impatient to return to our exciting and challenging life in Sheffield in general, and in particular, to the intoxicating company of two foreign students.

So we had concocted an excuse to go back for a day or two, under the guise of a guided tour of the city for my mother, who had never been to Sheffield. Mum, always up for any kind of adventure, readily agreed. My mother had even been known to hop on a bus to Preston at the end of the road, indulge in an afternoon’s window-shopping there, and then catch the bus back — with my father being none the wiser. He would simply remark that her walk had taken longer than expected.

That morning we had woken up to a light dusting of snow, but that was not going to put us off our mission — and our hidden agenda.  We caught a red Ribble double-decker bus going to Manchester and arrived there without any mishap, but that was the easy part of the journey. We then plodded through the snow to Exchange Station, just opposite the bus station.

It may seem strange now to think of the terminus of the bus link between two major northern cities being a simple bus stop in a railway station back yard, but it did not seem unusual to us at the time. But it was always with a certain amount of apprehension that we would climb on board the shabby fifties-vintage blue and cream single-decker buses, which would then set off in the direction of Sheffield, wheezing and groaning their way over Snake Pass.


The stop for refreshments on this teeth-rattling journey had been an isolated inn somewhere on the top of Snake Pass, with nothing around for miles but clumps of scree and rocky outcrops; nothing to see but the fog creeping in, shrouding everything in a thick white veil,  and nothing to hear but the wind whistling mournfully around the dripping eaves of the pub.

But now, we would have given anything to have seen the snub nose of the Sheffield bus, with its old–fashioned radiator grill, coming in through the gates of the station. There was no notice pinned to the post of the bus stop — no information at all. We waited and waited. We began to lose all track of time— had we been waiting for minutes or for hours?

The biting cold had chilled our fingers into clumsy numbness, seeped into our toes and spread painfully, as if it were our bare feet on the icy white ground instead of our boots. Our lips turned blue and our teeth chattered like castanets, the wind poking us with icy fingers and wrapping itself around us like a shawl woven from the snow itself.

Finally, we were forced to admit that the Sheffield bus was not coming. Snake Pass had obviously been blocked by snow, as it often was during the winter months. The only route eastwards to Sheffield was by rail. Making our way to the main road, ankle-deep in snow, we found a taxi rank and a driver willing to brave the blizzard and take us across Manchester to Piccadilly Station, where, luckily, we found the trains for Sheffield still running.

We climbed on board the next train with a sigh of relief, not least because the heating was on full blast. When the speeding train emerged from Woodhead Tunnel with a strident blast of its whistle, our mouths dropped open with astonishment. It seemed as though we were no longer in the West Riding of Yorkshire, but had been magically transported to Switzerland. A thick blanket of snow lay on the branches of every tree and the hills, their peaks wreathed in cloud, rolled away from us in wintry grandeur.

One thought, however, preoccupied us. We had sent a telegram the day before announcing our arrival at Pond Street bus station. Would our boyfriends realise that the buses weren’t running and second-guess our decision to take the train instead? Would they know at which one of Sheffield’s stations the Manchester trains arrived?

sheffield victoria station.jpg

We emerged from Sheffield Victoria station into a chaos of whirling snow. Sliding down the slope and crossing the main road, we saw two muffled figures trudging towards us. S’s wide grin could be seen above his faculty scarf, and T’s half-smile was the only indication of his relief at finding us. They took charge of Mum, shepherding her along the pavement, with T’s arm solicitously around her in case she slipped on the ice. She looked back at me, her eyes wide with delighted surprise  — she was already succumbing to their charm. I had had no worries on that score — Algerians, at least at that time,  were naturally respectful to their elders.

A quick tour of the Union, lunch there and an afternoon spent at their flat in front of the gas fire saw the hours slip quickly by. How could we manage to have some time alone? Helen and I ushered Mum back to our loft rooms, installing her in my bed — the more comfortable of the two — made her a cup of tea, switched the electric fire on and made sure she had a plentiful supply of magazines. Then, trying to keep our faces straight, we told her we were just slipping out for a while and we’d be back soon. Mum gave me what can only be described as an “old-fashioned” look, but nodded her head resignedly. My mother was nobody’s fool.

We returned to our digs around midnight and crept into Helen’s bed, trying not to make too much noise and wake Mum. Nudging each other in glee at the success of our plan, we were overcome by a fit of the giggles. Suddenly we heard a small voice coming from the direction of the other bed, saying plaintively, “I feel exactly like a child being sent to bed early, while the grown-ups go out gallivanting!”

She had never spoken a truer word.

Scan.jpegT, on the left, S on the right. with another Algerian friend on Glossop Road in winter

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.


Three Men in a Flat


University of Sheffield in the sixties

“Well, what do you think of that, eh, Wendy? I did a good job there, didn’t I?” S, one of T’s flatmates, was standing in the doorway of the living-room, brandishing a kettle and glowing with pride. I  had been sitting on the sofa, reading a book, when he burst in. The work for my English Literature course  at university consisted mainly of reading, reading and more reading, relieved by a little light essay writing. What do you do when your tutor tells you that you have to read and analyse ALL of Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets, memorise lengthy soliloquies and commit to heart every tiny detail about his sources, his publishing history and his private life? And that was only one subject amongst many. Continue reading