An Engaging Traveller’s Tale
by Alastair Hamilton -
60 Degrees North: Around the World in Search of Home, by Malachy Tallack
That Shetland lies at 60˚ North is a fact that, as Malachy Tallack observes in this remarkable book, cannot escape the attention of local people or visitors to the islands. Whether it’s marked by road signs, beer labels or in the media, latitude is never far from our consciousness. Part of the task that Malachy sets himself is to explore what we in Shetland share with others at this latitude. “What exactly,” he asks, “is this club to which we so enthusiastically belong?”
To answer that question, Malachy, one of our most engaging young authors and also a singer and songwriter, plans a journey. In fact, it’s a series of journeys that take him to other places on the sixtieth parallel. He’s motivated in part by curiosity, but also by a restlessness – “that joy and curse that I have known for most of my life” which “sends me out into the world, almost against my will”. But most of all, he says, it was homesickness: “a desire to return to somewhere I belonged”.
Very early in this story, Malachy reveals the source of that restlessness. He explains that he was in the throes of moving from Shetland to London, to take up a course there; the plan was that he would stay with his father. But on what began as a very ordinary day, his father never returned to pick up Malachy from a fishing outing to a Sussex lake; he had died in a car accident.
Malachy’s life changed direction as a result, and not only in the literal sense that he returned to Shetland rather than staying in London. But the resulting sense of loss and disorientation serves to strengthen Malachy’s attachment to the places that he loves. Indeed, the relationship between people and land is something that he is particularly keen to tease out, and he does it very well. Fair Isle, in particular, clearly captured his heart, and he celebrates such remote communities. “Remoteness exposes the vulnerability of a place, and it makes clear the absolute dependence of people on each other”, something he powerfully contrasts with “’social networking’, a parody of community’. Indeed, the sense of community that he encounters in most of the places along the parallel emerges as one of the characteristics of the ‘60˚ North club’.
Malachy’s personal story is thoughtful and moving; and it helps us see the world through his lens. But the book is memorable as much for Malachy’s writing about the places he visits. He succeeds very well in capturing their essence for the reader.
The journey begins with a walk – and a boat trip – along the 60th parallel in Shetland. It takes him from the west coast, across the moors and then to the island of Mousa in the east. En route, he reflects on the work of Greek and Roman cartographers, noting that for Ptolemy, Shetland (Thule) was at the edge of the known world. He recalls tales of Shetland’s little people, the trows (trolls) who mythically inhabit the hills.
His exploration takes him westward from Shetland, to southern Greenland. He travels next to Fort Smith in Canada, then to Alaska, Siberia, St Petersburg, Finland, Åland, Sweden and Norway. Wherever he goes, his writing is illuminating, acutely observant and laced with a dry, often self-deprecating humour.
It’s no wonder that 60 Degrees North has been widely praised and was featured as a book of the week on BBC Radio 4. It’s absorbing, insightful and eclectic; I found it impossible to put down.
60 Degrees North: Around the World in Search of Home is published by Polygon at £12.99.
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