A pub can be a magical place.
If you had strolled into a certain public house in Sheffield one rainy evening in late autumn, 1966, you’d have been confronted with a strange scene — not at all the usual gathering you would have expected to see in The Black Swan, known to all Sheffielders as The Mucky Duck.
Located on Snig Hill, near the city centre, The Black Swan of the fifties had been a single-storey remnant, all that was left after a Luftwaffe bombing raid. But, by the sixties, the original pub had been demolished and a new one built on the original footprint. It still retained, however, the famous soot-covered Black Swan or “Mucky Duck” pub sign, re-mounted on the modern frontage. Otherwise, everything remained the same. Whenever the double doors opened, a blast of stale beer fumes would still waft over the heads of the people waiting patiently at the bus stop outside.
There had once been a mysterious wooden door located in the corner by the shops below, mentioned in a spoof article in the Twikker student rag magazine. During the one evening we spent there, though, I can assure you that I didn’t see any raincoat-clad men sidling through it. To be perfectly honest, pubs weren’t our usual habitat, as neither T nor I drank alcohol, and we were quite happy drinking our glasses of orange juice or Coke in the Student Union bar, although T would sometimes go to a pub with his judo teammates after a fight. He would still only have a soft drink, though.
Not all the Algerian students were like him. Some of them were quite dedicated drinkers and found the English pub entertaining and instructive. They would sit there quite happily for hours, cigarette dangling from their lips, their pint of bitter in front of them on a beer-stained wooden table. Either that, or they would prop up the bar with their foot posed nonchalantly on the brass foot rail, doing their best to blend in with the locals and soak up the atmosphere.
The atmosphere? Well, in the English pub of the sixties, it was usually made up of one part cigarette smoke, one part beer fumes, and the rest a blend of wet dog, damp wool and mouse droppings. Dusty, smoke-darkened curtains would droop forlornly from their brass rings, and your shoes would stick to the floor as you walked across it. The Mucky Duck, alas, was no exception to the rule.
That night, however, it was different. T’s best friend, Mus, was in Sheffield on a visit from his university in Paris and, whenever he arrived on the scene, everything changed. Mus was already known to some of the other Harrachi students from their high school there. Some of them had even been members of the same group of friends hanging around the beaches of Algiers soon after independence, enjoying their new-found freedom.
Mus was the original party animal — never happier than when he was boogie-ing along, snapping his fingers to the latest hit playing on a loop inside his head. Impossible to imagine that he would be dead a mere six years later – poisoned by his French girlfriend for the insurance money.
Most of the early evening had been spent in the Union bar with the other Algerian students and their girlfriends, but Mus had not found it exciting enough, so, at someone’s suggestion, we all piled into three cars and set off for The Black Swan. Climbing out of the cars, laughing and joking, arms flung around each other’s shoulders, we drew curious glances from the staider members of the Sheffield populace going quietly about their business on the rainy streets.
On the pavement ahead, the uneven slabs had a rainbow sheen – all that had been left of a childish game of hopscotch. The outline was still there, a ghostly shadow of what it had been before the heavy rain had pounded the city. One of our friends, forgetting himself for a moment and lost in childhood memories of games of la marelle played on the streets of Algiers, did a little hop, skip and jump on the numbered squares before stopping in embarrassment.
Above, the sky was dominated by tumbling greys — smoky and silver. Rain poured down from the sky as if it meant to wash us away, or keep soaking us until we smudged like an Impressionist painting. Our shoes sodden with water, our hair stuck to our faces and heads, we splashed through the torrents of rainwater flowing down the steep hill to where the pub lights were shining out on to the wet pavements. We finally tumbled in through the doors of The Mucky Duck, laughing and joking in a mixture of French, English and Arabic — all twelve of us.
Once inside, fifty pairs of eyes swivelled in our direction.
Little groups of two or three of the pub’s usual customers were seated, steaming gently in the warmth, at the little wooden tables scattered around the large room. Most of the men were wearing flat caps, with mufflers looped around their necks. Sometimes their hands would be resting on the handle of a walking stick, sometimes on the head of a hairy mutt of indeterminate parentage sitting patiently under their chair. Their wives were sitting next to them, powdered and rouged, hair freshly permed and covered with a chiffon scarf, sipping daintily from their glasses of advocaat or sweet sherry.
Dragging twelve chairs into a large circle, we ordered drinks and sat there, laughing and joking as we did most lunchtimes in the Union Upper Coffee Lounge. The volume of normal Algerian conversation is very loud anyway, but it grows even louder when tongues, and inhibitions, are loosened by a few pints — and good company.
One of our friends then decided he wanted to sing a song. And not just any song. No — a chanson paillarde, the French equivalent of a bawdy rugby song. It was lucky that my French at that time was not up to understanding some of the more risqué lyrics, or I would not have joined in the chorus so readily. The first song was followed by another, then another — all accompanied by clapping hands, stamping feet and thumping of beer glasses on tables.
When we had finally come to the end of our repertoire, we noticed that a woman dressed in an evening gown was sitting at an upright piano on a small stage at the other end of the room, singing and pounding the piano keys, her dangly earrings swaying in time to the music, desperately trying to make herself heard above the din we were making.
Then Mus had a brilliant idea. “I know,” he said, “I’ll ask her if she can sing Black Is Black!” And so he galloped across the room, climbed up on to the stage and asked the pianist politely (he had beautiful manners) in his broken English, whether she would be so kind as to sing the latest hit by Los Bravos. Her eyes popping in her efforts to continue warbling Moon River more or less in tune, she shook her head vehemently, and Mus returned crestfallen to our table.
When the landlord finally rang the bell for closing time, we spilled out of the doors to stand around on the pavement in the cold night air for a few minutes before returning to our cars. Leaning against T and tucking my hands under his jacket for warmth, I suddenly felt his body tense as someone tapped him on the shoulder from behind. Turning around, he found himself confronted by one of the other customers. “Nah then, young man …..” the man began, his bristly eyebrows drawing together.
My heart sank as I looked at him, sure that we were going to be given a dressing-down for all the noise we had made. But, much to our astonishment, a smile of pure delight spread across the man’s florid face and, shaking T’s hand, he proceeded to thank us all for an unusual and highly entertaining evening. Something out of the ordinary. “Summat a bit different, like,” as he put it so eloquently. Soon we were surrounded by a group of well-wishers, all pumping our hands and slapping us affectionately on the back.
Is it any wonder I loved Sheffield?