60 Degrees North by Malachy Tallack

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Reviewed by Hayley Anderton

When I first read about 60 Degrees North in Polygon’s book list back in the spring I was intrigued. I recognised Malachy Tallack’s name from various sources but had never properly investigated his work. I also grew up in Shetland, where Tallack starts and finishes his journey so am not only aware that it’s on the 60th parallel but it’s also the first place I think of in terms of North.

The idea of travelling this line on the map, following it all the way round from home until you arrive back on your doorstep at the end of the circle is attractive. It crosses the southern tip of Shetland and the southern tip of Greenland, Canada, Alaska, Russia (a lot of Russia – much of it Siberia but also, and exceptionally, St Petersburg which must be the largest centre of population on the parallel by some way), Finland, Sweden, and Norway.

Starting in Shetland, which has been Tallack’s home too, gives home the opportunity to reflect on the nature of communities that may look peripheral when viewed on a map, but which when you’re there are nothing of the sort. Shetlands cultural links are as much with Scandinavia as with the UK but more than that it’s a place that feels extremely confident of its own culture and traditions. It’s not on the edge of anything, but the centre of its own world – broadly speaking anyway.

There is some discussion here about what North is; the 60th parallel is as good a way as any of marking the line between almost-North and North. The long hours of daylight in summer (at 60 degrees the sun is above the horizon for 19 hours a day around midsummer, and for a few weeks at least it doesn’t get really dark at all) hint at the need to adapt to the elements that challenging winter weather makes explicit. This near North is the accessible part of something that is almost as much idea as place on a map. Where life is quite supportable but there are constant reminders of something wilder, of places that can’t be tamed.

Robert Macfarlane calls this ‘a brave book…and a beautiful book’. And it is a brave book in that Tallack shares enough of himself to invite the opinion and commentary of any passing reader on parts of his life which for all they’re quite public are also deeply personal. In this it has something in common with Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk in that it deals in part with the sudden death of a father. Tallack’s father is killed in a car crash whilst the author aged 17 is fishing, and later waiting for him to pick him up, wondering why he’s late. It’s not much of a spoiler – it’s how the book opens – and inevitably it derails his life. That sense of loss is present throughout the book: it’s not the raw grief that Macdonald describes but it’s there nonetheless, most especially in Tallack’s search for somewhere to think of as home, and perhaps in his desire to travel as well.

Beyond the autobiographical element it’s part travel writing, part natural history, and partly something else. The something else is a meditation on place and community and a lament for the way we’re losing our connection to the land we live on. At the beginning of the book Tallack talks about the Shetland ‘hill’ – common ground where sheep and ponies roam at will and which he sees as being ‘in many senses, an in-between land…where time itself seems to move at another pace…’ I know just what he means, as I also do when he says the land inhabits the people just as much as they inhabit it. It’s why one of the hardest changes to accept when I go home is seeing so much of the hill that was open is now enclosed by fences. No longer a shared space but a claimed and bound one. It probably makes for better farming but there’s also a sense of something being carelessly discarded, and that I think, is exactly what Tallack is looking for.

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Hayley blogs at Desperate Reader and lives in what she considers the south whilst dreaming of the North.

Malachy Tallack, 60 Degrees North, Around The World in Search of Home. (Polygon: Edinburgh, 2015) 978-1846973369, 230pp., hardback.

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