‘Sixty Degrees North: Around the World in Search of Home’ by Malachy Tallack ****

Malachy Tallack’s Sixty Degrees North: Around the World in Search of Home immediately appealed to me, and has been on my radar for such a long time.  In it, the author charts his own journey as close as he can get to the sixty degree line – or sixtieth parallel – beginning his journey in his home on Shetland, a place which the line also passes through.  This sixtieth parallel ‘marks a borderland between the northern and southern worlds.  Wrapping itself around the lower reaches of Finland, Sweden and Norway, it crosses the tip of Greenland and the southern coast of Alaska, and slices the great expanses of Russia and Canada in half.’

9781846973420Robert Macfarlane calls this ‘a brave book… and a beautiful book’.  The Scotsman believes it to be ‘so original, and so compelling’.  Kirkus Reviews writes: ‘A memoir remarkable for its intimacy, wisdom, and radiant prose…  an enthralling meditation on place.’  For me, the idea is quite an original one.  I have read rather a lot of travelogues and travel memoirs, but no author whom I have come across to date has approached their journey in quite the way that Tallack has.

In Sixty Degrees North, ‘Tallack travels westwards, exploring the differing landscapes to be found on the parallel, and the ways that different people have interacted with these landscapes, highlighting themes of wildness and community, isolation and engagement, exile and memory.’  On beginning his journey, Tallack ruminates thus: ‘Shetland lies at sixty degrees north of the equator, and the world map on our kitchen wall had taught me that, if I could see far enough, I could look out from that window across the North Sea to Norway, and to Sweden, then over the Baltic to Finland, to St Petersburg, then Siberia, Alaska, Canada and Greenland.  If I could see far enough, my eyes would eventually bring me back, across the Atlantic Ocean, to where I was standing.’

Of his decision to travel around the sixty degree line, Tallack writes: ‘It was curiosity, first of all.  I wanted to explore the parallel, and to see those places to which my own place was tied.  I wanted to learn about where I was and what it meant to be there.  But finally, and perhaps most potently, it was homesickness that made me go.  It was a desire to return to somewhere I belonged.  My relationship with Shetland had always been fraught and undermined by my own past, and somehow I imagined that by going – by following the parallel around the world – that could change.’  Woven throughout his travels, and the conversations which he has with those who inhabit the sixtieth parallel, is a dialogue about what home means, and how one can define it.

Tallack’s writing throughout is rich and informative, and this is particularly so with regard to the descriptions which he weaves in to his narrative.  He has such an understanding of, and an appreciation for, the natural world around him, and this comes through strongly in Sixty Degrees North.  When beginning his journey in Shetland, he writes: ‘Soon, the lavish green that had fringed the shore gave way to this heather and dark, peaty ground.  The land flattened into a plateau of purple and olive, trenched and terraced where the turf had been cut.  White tufts of bog cotton lay strewn about the hill. Shallow pools of black water crowded below the banks of peat and in the narrow channels that lolled between.  I hopped from island to island of solid ground, trying to keep my coat dry…’.

Tallack also has an awareness of the history of each place which he visits, and the importance and impact which it still has.  ‘Shetland,’ for instance, ‘like other remote parts of Scotland, is scarred by the remnants of the past, by history made solid in the landscape.  Rocks, reordered and rearranged, carry shadows of the people that moved them.  They are the islands’ memory.  From the ancient field dykes and boundary lines, burnt mounds and forts, to the crumbling craft houses, abandoned by the thousands who emigrated at the end of the nineteenth century, the land is witness to every change, but it is loss that it remembers most clearly.’  He realises not only the positive aspects of the places in which he finds himself, but also the negatives; he does not sugarcoat anything.

There is such a purpose to Tallack’s travelogue, and he recognises just how unusual his choice of journey may seem to a lot of people.  He writes: ‘The journey north – in history, in literature, in the imagination – is a journey away from the centre of civilisation and culture, towards the unknown and the other.’  Indeed, suggests Tallack, the north is often at odds with the south: ‘The north is all that it contains.  It is a place capable of change and diversity, a place immeasurable.  It holds the preconceived, yes, but also the unimagined and the unimaginable.’

I have been lucky enough to travel to the majority of the countries which Tallack’s journey covers, and it was fascinating to compare his experiences of each place with my own.  I very much enjoyed Tallack’s reflective writing style, which is layered with the details of geographical and personal history.  He is insightful and fair as an author, and Sixty Degrees North is measured and immersive.

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One From the Archive: ‘Bloomsbury and Fitzrovia Through Time’ by Brian Girling ***

First published in September 2012.

Bloomsbury & Fitzrovia Through Time is the newest offering from author Brian Girling. It follows similar volumes which have been published in Amberley’s Through Time series on other areas of London and its suburbs, including Paddington, Marylebone and Harrow.

This volume sets out to show how the west central London districts of Bloomsbury and Fitzrovia have changed through history. It essentially shows a biography of both areas, using photographs which have not been printed before. In his own words, Girling states that ‘the principle purpose of this book is to record through photographs the changing face of the streets as they have adapted to the needs of the modern city’.

Our tour begins with a wonderful introduction which describes how the areas came into being. Girling tells us about the beginnings of ‘Blemundsbury’ in the mid-seventeenth century, the succession of authors who peopled its streets, and the founding of the University of London in Bloomsbury. Fitzrovia, with its extensive ‘Bohemian atmosphere’ and many German workers before the advent of the First World War, is also described.

Bloomsbury & Fitzrovia Through Time has been incredibly well set out. Each page features an old photograph, all in sepia tones, at the top, along with the approximate date in which the picture was taken. A paragraph of text then follows, outlining the history of the buildings and streets which are featured. A modern photograph has then been placed at the bottom of the page, which shows the same view. It is incredibly easy for the reader to pinpoint the many changes between the photographs, and the entire book makes for an incredibly interesting social and physical history of the area.

Girling has included a variety of different pictures, from shop fronts to the Scala Theatre, and from Wilkinson and Sons’ Brass Foundry to The Muchmore Art Co in Great Russell Street, which specialised in making picture frames. The historical information included throughout – the names of local pubs casting ‘cheery light’ and the price of a haircut in 1920, for example – are nice touches and really add a more personal feel to the book.

The only information which seems to be missing from the book is what each building is used for today. Although some of the paragraphs do explain the modern uses of the buildings, some merely feature anonymous-looking courtyards and tower blocks, and no effort has been made to explain their modern day usage.

Regardless, Bloomsbury & Fitzrovia Through Time is an interesting book which will delight residents of both areas as well as tourists intent on seeing the history of London for themselves. The volume has been well printed on glossy paper and will make a lovely addition to any coffee table or bookcase, as well as a wonderful gift for anyone interested in the sometimes incredible alterations which have almost transformed the city of London.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Fabled Coast: Legends and Traditions from Around the Shores of Britain and Ireland’ by Sophia Kingshill and Jennifer Westwood ****

First published in July 2012.

Folklore is still inherently entrenched into life in the United Kingdom and, indeed, in a vast number of countries and communities on an international scale. The introduction of The Fabled Coast: Legends and Traditions from Around the Shores of Britain and Ireland states that ‘… the coastline of the British Isles plays host to an astonishingly rich variety of local legends, customs and superstitions’, all of which the authors have tried to incorporate into the book. Their main aim, they tell the reader, is to ‘examine the facts behind the legends’.

The introduction, both far-reaching and well-written, describes how such legends came to be. The traditions of storytelling are outlined and then elaborated upon, and instances of the earliest recorded folklore of the sea have been included. Many historical figures also feature on many of the book’s pages, ranging from Sir Francis Drake to Grace O’Malley, ‘the sixteenth-century pirate queen of Connaught’.

The book is split into a variety of different sections, all of which encompass different counties and districts around the Britain and Ireland. These range from Wales and the Scottish Lowlands to Southern Eire and East Anglia. Every stretch of coastline has been included, as have the majority of the islands which are dotted around our shores. ‘Legends flourish in these borders between land and sea,’ we are told, and such places provide ‘a setting for some of the most beautiful, terrible, and memorable tales of folklore’.

Maps have been included at the start of each section in order to pinpoint the exact areas which the following text refers to. In each separate section, a host of different places have been incorporated, along with the legends, lore and tales which are believed to have originated in them. All are in alphabetical order, hence why the first section on ‘South-West England & Channel Islands’ deals with Abbotsbury, Bideford, Bodmin and Boscastle, and the ‘North-East England’ section ends with entries about Skinningrove, Staithes, Whitby and York.

The legends and folklore which the authors have included have been taken from almost every period in the history of Britain and Ireland, and the stories which are so wonderfully evoked are both ancient and modern. These range from a tale originating in seventeenth-century Bristol regarding a ship believed to have been ‘infested with witches’, to the unexplained phenomenon of St. Elmo’s Fire in Norfolk; from Mrs Leakey, the whistling ghost of Minehead, to the legend of King Arthur’s sword; and from the tale of how the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland came to be, to the ‘drowned city’ of Dunwich in Suffolk. These stories, ranging from the amusing to the chilling, are incredibly well-balanced, and great care has been taken to ensure that no two similar events have been included. References are made to similar tales occurring in other parts of the United Kingdom, but there is an ingrained sense of astuteness on the part of the authors throughout to make certain that each tale can be viewed with the fresh eyes of the reader.

Not just legends and folklore people this volume. Double paged spreads dotted throughout reveal what we know and believe about such stories as Atlantis, the Flying Dutchman and smugglers and wreckers, as well as pages which explain the origins of figureheads and the naming of ships. Events of historical significance, findings from various archaeological digs, mythical creatures and the influence of sea gods upon ancient communities are all woven into the book, creating rather an astoundingly multi-layered volume. Various primary and secondary sources are referenced and quoted throughout the book, and the bibliography and list of references are both impressive in their scale in consequence.

The Fabled Coast is wonderfully set out. The headings are bold and the typeface throughout is consistent. Two sections of glossy pictures can be found in the book, most of which are in colour. A whole host of black and white illustrations have also been placed next to the appropriate text throughout, adding a wealth of information to the stories they relate to.

Kingshill and Westwood’s book is a rich and far-reaching account, filled with exquisite historical detail. A lot of work has clearly been put into the volume and it is meticulous in its detail. The Fabled Coast is a must-read for anyone interested in folklore, the origins of British traditions and superstitions, or merely as our heritage as a nation. It is perhaps not a volume to read all in one go (as this reviewer did), but one to dip into here and there. Such a book is an incredible achievement, a vast collection of folklore and tradition which deserves to reach an extremely wide readership.

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