Malachy Tallack, journalist, musician, song-writer, is one of a new generation of travel writers for whom a journey is as much an opportunity for philosophical musings as a geographical experience. Like many of us, myself included, who spend much of our lives moving between countries and even continents that are far from our places of birth, he devotes a great deal of time to thinking about, looking for, and ultimately failing to find, the key to somewhere he might call his “real” home. A Shetlander by birth and the only child of divorced parents, he left the islands at the age of sixteen for the south of England to live with his father; the latter’s sudden and violent accidental death left the teenager distraught and disorientated, unwilling to continue with his plans for a musical training in the south and unable to reconnect to his Shetland roots. 60 Degrees North clearly grew out of a sense of pain and loss; this is an account of the boy’s sense of loneliness and the adult’s attempt to recentre himself in Shetland, albeit in a sometimes odd and elliptical way. This he tries to do by identifying a number of locations around the globe which lie on the same 60th parallel of latitude as parts of the Shetland Islands, and making a complex travel plan which will take him to each of these places.
The journey begins at Maus, Shetland, and takes him to Greenland, Canada, Alaska, Siberia, Saint Petersburg, Finland, Sweden and Norway. Although it is perhaps difficult at times for the reader to comprehend fully Tallack’s approach, the story itself is a fascinating insight into the lives and history of the northern peoples who made their homes in snow-covered wastelands, from the Alaska to the vast Steppes of Russia.
But is the object of Tallack’s exercise to rediscover Shetland per se or, rather, an attempt to relocate his identity from the south of England to the most northerly territories of the globe? From the beautifully crafted and poetic story of an unexpected love-affair with Siberia to disappointment at the exclusive nature of land enclosure in Canada, and surprise at the universality of public land ownership in Greenland, he relates everything he experiences to his own search, if not for himself, then for some kind of identity with a geographical basis.
“How can we know, I wondered, when we have found our place in the world? How can we know when we ought to cease our wandering?” This is the question Tallack asks himself on his way throughout the northern wastes of Canada. He feels like the eternal outsider who, whilst he longs for acceptance and belonging, is reluctant to allow himself to love, for fear of the pain of what he might lose; a pain he has already experienced but has yet hardly lived long enough to come to terms with. The tribes he encounters in Siberia or Alaska regard the whole of their land as their home, nurturing and protecting them in different ways and in different places and according to the seasons. Tallack is not nomadic in that sense, instead seeking a land to belong that recognises him for who he is; in other words, a substitute for the parents lost to him through divorce and death.
Tallack’s story is accompanied by a number of photographs and maps, unremarkable except in that they illustrate the harsh and isolated nature of the regions which seem to hold most attraction for him. There is much to admire in the poetic writing of the tale and much, I suspect, for a psychoanalyst to dine out on.