My Town: St Andrews, Scotland
All Hail King Creosote
In a university town like St Andrews, what’s the opinion on the students-- positive influence on the intellectual side of the town, or negative scourge on the nightlife?
When Prince William announced his plans to attend, the number of female applicants for his course from the United States alone numbered 400. Rates took a hike up 30%, putting an end to our local record shop lease. That aside, the town certainly buzzes when the students are back. And it’s good for local bands like ours; we've had countless pub gigs and students’ functions to play at over the years. Due to there being so many foreign students, in the early days of Fence, word of our musical exploits and our homemade CDs travelled the world at the end of each term.
Where did you go out for music and dancing in St. Andrews?
When I was still at school we could get into the union discos held over the summer holidays -- quite a buzz at age 15 or 16 -- and every few years or so the students’ committee had the savvy to book one of the touring bands. I saw the Beat International in there, but not, say, Chesney Hawkes! Every few years the pubs start putting on live bands again, but none are designed for this purpose, so there'd be no stage, or even enough room, and then folks owning the flats above would complain, so that would be that. When I moved back into the St. Andrews area after uni and a stint busking around Europe, there was nowhere to go in town to dance unless you braved the megabop in the union. Pubs a plenty, and again, sporadic live gigs mainly by student bands. When we started putting on Fence shows, it was an instant hit with students and locals alike, and we'd very little competition. Ideal.
Are there any really good restaurants you can recommend?
Ah, well I'm a vegetarian, and a fussy one at that (I don't eat fish, nor slimey veg like mushrooms and aubergines, and not overly fond of greens either), so my own tastes run as far as Italian, junk, Indian, Mexican, and at a push, Thai. There's a great Indian restaurant called The Balaka, and a good Italian place on South street called Zizzi. For veggie burgers and veggie chillis with chips etc, it's hard to beat Fife's original rock cafe Ziggy's, always impossible to get into on a weekend without a reservation.
What's the art scene like? Any particularly good galleries or homegrown artists you’re aware of?
Ah, this is trickier...they do have exhibitions in the Crawford's Art Centre. I went to one called "no noise samples" in which an artist had invented all sorts of crazy musical instruments out of household machinery (old style telephones, ironing boards, bits of bicycle, pots, hoovers, etc.) and each came with a set of headphones. They had a piece of music by the instrument on loop. Other than that I know of one other gallery on Market Street that at least one famous pop star has bought from, and then there's an incredibly busy picture framer by the cathedral wall kept on his toes by the local art club (who are always on the lookout for nude models, I might add).
There seems to be a lot of creativity focused into a fairly small area around Fife...do you think it directly inspired you? And why do you think so much good work comes out of the area?
It is a beautiful part of Scotland, as beautiful in its way as the mountainous west coast, and it is a corner far enough from the main corridors of Scotland to attract those needing inspiration and solitude in their work, hence the musicians and artists here. The poet John Burnside still lives in the East Neuk of Fife, Ian Banks once lived near St. Andrews, and author Ian Rankin hails from Fife. There must be something in the air! For me, though, it is home, and I'd find it nigh impossible to live anywhere else for any length of time. The people here have an easygoing, uncluttered attitude to life, and celebrate in the good simple things. If you have everything you need and want, why leave?
You said earlier that an being an outsider wasn’t easy in Scottish villages-– does the same apply in St. Andrews?
I think the real St. Andrews is a place no visitor would really want to go. Us locals refer to it as "The Bronx." The “real” St. Andrews as portrayed by tourist information and advertising is very much a romanticized version of the town, and so yes, very easy to experience firsthand. With regards to finding the real St. Adrian - the local - this changes month by month. Few shop workers and such can afford to live in this town, and certainly not in the centre. Students far outnumber locals in the winter, and likewise tourists far outnumber locals in the summer. St. Andrews is deserted in June. Running into one of the caddies would give you a different impression again. The town centre is very accessible to locals anyway, so you can't avoid folks like me!
What do you miss most now that you no longer live in St Andrews?
What I miss most about living in St. Andrews is the buzz of having the students and academics around, as annoying as they are when throwing flour and eggs at each other. And the fact that it is such a microcosm and therefore a law unto itself. It has a good cinema and cafes, amazing beaches and ruined architecture, and it's a wee bit of a sheltered fantasy place. The hardest thing about living there is staying on whilst your friends all leave for the real world eventually.
How does St Andrews compare to other university towns like Oxford or Cambridge? Do you think it's more or less affected by its student population?
I've only been to Oxford and Cambridge a couple of times, and usually to play shows -- drive in, find the venue, soundcheck, play gig, leave. Parking is a nightmare in all three, that's for sure. If you were looking for a school of wizardry, Oxford is most likely the place to find it.
Finally, anything or anyone else you think deserves a special mention in discussion of St Andrews?
I'd give a special shout out to Couch on Bell Street, and to the North Point Cafe on North Street. A visit to the Castle and the subterranean passage is a must, and to take yourself on a walk from the east sands, along the Scores, all the way to the end of the west sands.