Ali Bacon’s new novel A Kettle of Fish is set in Dunfermline, Edinburgh and St. Andrews. Here she retraces some of the paths she took as a student in the 1970s.
What does St. Andrews mean to me? Born and brought up in Dunfermline, I visited first as bearer of bucket and spade, buffeted by the wind on the West Sands or dithering on the edge of the Step Rock Pool (unheated sea-water, you would have dithered too!) before it became the infinitely more appealing St. Andrews Aquarium.
But later, for four whole years, it became my alma mater and the centre of my universe: – new friends, new interests, new experiences. For every student the St Andrews years are a watershed, a waystage, a crucial fork in the road map of life, and where better to do the living, the loving and the learning than on a chunk of rock sticking out in the North Sea?
The ‘otherness’ of St. Andrews, as explored by Robert Crawford in his The Beginning and the End of the World (Birlinn Books 2011) is part of its allure, and if by the 1970s it was hardly the back of beyond, there’s still something about that long approach from Guardbridge that sets the town apart. No more than forty miles from my home town, it might as well have been another planet.
The student population, in my day at least, was both small and transient, but during the academic year we claimed the place as our own. The shock of going back for a day-trip is not just to walk along the Scores past Swallowgate without seeing a ‘kent face’ but, worse than that, to wander into the Russell Hotel or Jannetta’s and not be recognised either! The St. Andrews remembered by alumni is unique to each of us, shaped by what we studied, where we lived and the web of alliances formed by academic families. Some of us will nurture these alliances through the rest of our lives, but in terms of time and place, maybe there is no going back.
Or is there?
As a writer I had set my fiction in places I passed through in my later life, Oxford, France, Bristol, Italy, until a visit to Fife spurred me on to write a novel set on my home turf. But Ailsa, my headstrong heroine, was heading for the big city rather than academia. St. Andrews was not going to feature, until I found myself dabbling in the history of photography. With Ailsa’s mate Danny looking for a job in photographic conservation, where better to send him than to St. Andrews, the home of photography as well as so much else? And so I went back after all, for just as long as it takes to walk from the Old Course to the East Sands and back again, a single scene, but one in which important decisions will be made.
It was a walk worth taking for me too, because it got me thinking about St. Andrews and how it shaped my life and it prompted my to start a blog of my reminiscences which has rekindled old connections and sparked new ideas. As for that photography theme, it could well be featuring in a future novel. In other words, I shall return!
Ali Bacon was brought up in Dunfermline and studied classics at St. Andrews from 1970 to 1974. Since then she has lived in the West Country where she reads, writes and reviews on http://alibacon.com. Her novel, A Kettle of Fish, is a ‘rollercoaster family drama’ out now on Kindle and in paperback from Amazon.