The Mucky Duck

A pub can be a magical place.

-Rhys Ifans


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.

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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.

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T in the Union bar (with glass of Coke)

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.

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Mus

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.

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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?

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Fade To Grey

Another reworked chapter of the first book


Saying goodbye is a little like dying.
― Marjane Satrapi


All I can remember of 1968 is greyness. The greyness of the dawn light when I would get up early every Friday to take the early train to Manchester and then on to Liverpool. The grimy greyness of Liverpool itself. The lonely greyness of the small Sheffield flat in which I was spending the rest of my time. The overwhelming greyness of the two clouds hanging over my head. Continue reading

The Taj Mahal

For those who haven’t read my book, an extract.


Bliss it was at that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven.

Wordworth— The Prelude


A week or so after the party, T and I were still warily circling each other, unsure of whether to take our fledgling relationship to the next level. That is, I was the one who was unsure. I found him fascinating and unsettling in equal measure. Amongst other things, he had the kind of looks that could, at the best of times, knock me slightly off-balance. Continue reading

The Judoka

Judo teaches us to look for the best possible course of action, whatever the individual circumstances.

-Kano Jigoro


 

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One cold, wet evening in late October, 1965, I was to be found sitting in the spectators’ gallery of the Sheffield University sports hall, situated a few hundred yards from the main campus. Having nothing else to do, I’d accompanied a classmate to his fencing practice. Little did I know that I had a meeting with fate that evening — that a casual glance down would change my life.

Talking about my life, it had been quite challenging over the previous few weeks — settling into my digs, finding my way around the Arts Tower and the Union, and trying to make new friends. It was proving harder than I had thought. A few days into the first term, I had watched the Rag Day floats, full of boisterous students, crawling down Western Bank at a snail’s pace, and felt very much like the new girl in town. Everywhere I looked there seemed to be groups of laughing friends, or, what was even worse, couples with their arms wrapped tightly around each other, gazing into each other’s eyes.

When my schoolfriend, Helen, had returned to her digs, I stood there amongst the broken spars of wood and scraps of painted canvas that were all that was left of the floats, and felt a sense of piercing loneliness. I had never felt lonely before — had never lived alone. At home in Blackpool, I had family and friends. Here there was nobody. Apart from Helen, I didn’t know a soul in Sheffield. There were faces and bodies all around me, but not a single one was familiar. All  I wanted was a hand to hold or an arm about my shoulders. When none came, the world suddenly felt cold and empty.

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But I was only eighteen, after all, and soon cheered up. I had my whole life in front of me. Sitting in the spectators’ gallery, my duffel coat wrapped around my shoulders for warmth, I squinted through the clouds of testosterone wafting up from the judo club members wrestling with each other below my line of sight, and tried to make out what was going on in the fencing class at the other end of the gym.

From time to time, however, I’d look down at the new judo recruits going through their paces on the tatamis spread out on the polished wood floor. Most of them were weedy first-year students, with long, thin legs and knobbly knees. Their exposed chests were hairless and painfully undeveloped, and their skin had the pale translucence of dead fish, occasionally marred with the flaring red of an acne outbreak. My eyes slid over them without interest, then stopped and widened in appreciation.

Their coach, or trainer, or whatever he was, was standing there with his hands on his hips, unsmiling, as he watched them performing shoulder rolls on the tatami. His eyes narrowed as he followed their movements. From time to time he would demonstrate the roll himself, throwing himself forward with practiced ease. His dark hair, wet with sweat, despite the chilly temperature in the gym, flopped over his forehead until, with an impatient gesture, he pushed it back. I gazed admiringly at his broad shoulders, and, although I couldn’t see the colour of his eyes, I was captured by the fringe of long lashes veiling them.

Oblivious to my stare burning a hole in his kimono, he didn’t glance up and continued with his training session. “Too bad,” I murmured to myself, reflecting sadly that I was always attracted to the dark, brooding — and ultimately unobtainable — type. He was most certainly out of my league, as he looked to be in his early twenties, older than the eighteen-year-olds he was coaching. Perhaps a junior lecturer or a postgraduate student? It was with some regret that I tore my eyes away and turned my attention back to the fencing.

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I didn’t recognise T when he approached me in the Union a few days later — he looked different with his clothes on — and it took me a while to put two and two together. The good news was that he seemed just as interested in me as I was in him, but the bad news was that I had to share him with his judo schedule. He’d train for two or three hours every Tuesday and Thursday evening and take part in inter-university tournaments at weekends. It was fine if these tournaments were held in Sheffield, but he often had to travel to other venues with his fellow team members.

When we’d been together just over a month, and with the Christmas vacation due to start in a couple of days, he had to go to Swansea to try and obtain his next belt. Our relationship was brand new and I was apprehensive about the looming separation. I was still unsure of my feelings, but there was something about him that had me muddling my words and blushing uncontrollably whenever he was around. Looking at my miserable face, and with his friends waiting impatiently, he leaned against the wall in the Union building and pulled me to him for a long moment, before sauntering off with the rest of the team, sports bag slung over his shoulder.

But not everything about judo was romantic. Usually it meant a succession of bruised shins, broken ribs, sweaty jockstraps and kimonos -— I once dyed them pink by mistake at the launderette — and a strict ban on any kind of physical intimacy the night before a fight. Above all, there was the knot of fear in my stomach whenever I watched him step on to the tatami and bow to his opponent before a fight. I was somewhat reassured at the beginning when I saw him smiling during his fights — it couldn’t be so bad if he were smiling, surely? My confidence took a dive, however, when I learnt that he always smiled when things became really tricky.

He’d started judo soon after independence when he was at the University of Algiers. It wasn’t as well-known then, usually going under the name of ju-jitsu, and it was difficult finding anyone who actually practiced it. Ju-jitsu is the father of judo, but they are, in fact, two completely different types of martial art. T had been attracted to the whole package —  the opportunity to let off steam through sport and the ceremonial precision of it all.  He must be the only Algerian ever born never to have shown the slightest interest in football.

T became captain of the university team in his third year. Sometimes I would accompany him for the away tournaments, including one trip to Birmingham, where we had an Algerian friend, Bibi. He and I made our way up to the spectators’ gallery, and waited for T to appear. Members of each team were supposed to be evenly matched, but the problem was that the captain of the Birmingham team was a black belt. Not only that, he was over six feet tall, a huge bear of a man, with burly shoulders, a neck roped with muscle and hair sprouting everywhere, even on his back. I closed my eyes on seeing T and his opponent bow to each other and heard Bibi muttering, “Aïe! Aïe! Aïe!” to himself like an incantation.

I was praying fervently to the gods of judo when Bibi let out a loud whoop of triumph. “Il l’a fait tomber! Il l’a fait tomber!” (He threw him! He threw him!) he shouted, and flung his arms around me. I opened my eyes just in time to see the giant flat on his back with T straddling him, trying to put him in an armlock.

T didn’t win his fight, because the giant decided to park his considerable weight on his chest and he was forced to yield. But it was enough that he had been able to throw his opponent, a feat nobody had managed before. T told me later that, as he was waiting for his turn on the tatami, a member of the opposing team had been standing behind him, muttering, “Just you wait and see! He’s going to tear you limb from limb!” Luckily for me — and for T — it didn’t turn out that way.

 

If you want to read more about our university days, more information here

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. Continue reading

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. Continue reading