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.’
Robert 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.