Thursday, July 23, 2015

60 Degrees North - Malachy Tallack

I always find it hard to write about books which elicit a really personal response, and as this one touches on something I've never been comfortable talking about (homesickness) this post will take me a while to work out.

I first read about '60 Degrees North' in Polygon's book list back in the spring and was intrigued then. I recognised Malachy Tallack's name from old bylines in The Shetland Times, and the 60 degrees latitude sign on the road from the airport has become a small but distinctive landmark on the way home. The idea of travelling the parallel, following it all the way round with home as start and finish line is attractive (though I suppose home is always the start and end of a journey). It's a line that crosses Shetland, 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. 

The thing about Shetland is that although it looks peripheral on a map of the UK when you're there it's nothing of the sort. It's 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 community - broadly speaking anyway. 

There is some discussion at the beginning of the book about what North is. I'm happy to accept the argument that the 60th parallel is as good a way as any of marking the line between almost-North and North. The long hours of daylight (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) in summer 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', the brave bit was something I was dismissive of before reading but feels fair now. 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 his son aged 17 is fishing, and later waiting for him to pick him up. 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. 

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, and also 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. 

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