My young self growing up in Australia regarded beaches as a waste of good reading time. I recoiled from their broiling heat, the sandstorms that whipped out of nowhere and that stung so much that the only solution was to dive for the nearest towel and throw it over my head, their seas full of monsters ready to grip my lily-white toes between their teeth or to pull me under with their tentacles. But most of all I disliked the beach because the sun on the white sand was so dazzling that it was impossible to read my latest book from the local library, on ventriloquism, or code-breaking, or Esperanto. Esperanto led me to my father’s bookshelf, where I picked out his copy of Teach Yourself Russian. I still remember sitting in the back of the car after a day at the beach, the vinyl car seat scorching my bare legs as I picked my way through the Russian alphabet, and the thrill of deciphering the impossible, magical words, “idet sneg” (it is snowing).
One way or another that book led me all the way to St Andrews. I did a PhD in Russian, I got an academic job, and then another, and then another. I went to St Andrews as external examiner in Russian, and then, about a decade ago, I was offered a job there. I walked the West Sands then for a long, long time, so far that I was daunted when I realised how far I’d come and how far I then had to walk back. It was winter, and while it wasn’t snowing, it was bitterly cold. The sea was grey-green, vast, wondrous.
When I got home, I turned the job down. I went to South Africa, where I worked with a master printmaker, and where I drew as if my life depended on it. Sometimes in the shimmering heat of Johannesburg I’d think of the sea, and St Andrews, and would see an eidolon of myself on the West Sands, years later, sure of step, untroubled by the past, and walking into the wind.