The Library: 60 Degrees North, by Malachy Tallack

Review: Paul Scraton

What does home mean to you? This is a question that we ask all our contributors in the series of interviews on the Elsewhere blog, and it is a question that shapes an awful lot of writing on place. In 60 Degrees North, Malachy Tallack follows the sixtieth parallel from Shetland to, well, Shetland. Along the way he passes through Greenland, Canada, Alaska, Russia, Finland, Sweden and Norway, always following that invisible line, reflecting not only on what he discovers along the way but also on his own personal story, starting with the sudden death of his father, just at the moment he had moved to England to live with him, a moment when he thought he had left Shetland behind.

It is the loss of his father that is the starting point for Tallack’s changing relationship with Shetland and his eventual journey along the sixtieth parallel, and it is fair to say that loss is a central theme of this book. In Greenland he reflects on the loss of culture and tradition, and the complex issue surrounding increased opportunity via education for young people that, simultaneously, presents a threat to an old way of life. Another theme, also that he begins to discuss in Greenland but which follows throughout the book, is the question of our relationship to place and to land.

In Canada, he reflects on the people who live in the area around Fort Smith, one third of which are Dene – a group of northern First Nations, one third Metis – aboriginal people of mixed European and First Nations descent, and one third ‘white’. As in Greenland, Tallack leaves with a sense of a people for whom the connection to place is different to that in Europe, and one which is linked to existential factors such as how life is lived and how society is organised. In Greenland, all space is public because it is a society of hunters, not farmers. The notion of private property developed alongside agriculture, a process Tallack describes as a colonisation, an attempt to tame, to fence it off in order to harness the resources it offers. In Fort Smith, he finds a similar attitude at work:

“For the Dene, the land is not a resource, it is a presence; it is not something separate from their community, it is integral to it.”

This connection to land and place can be found all along the sixtieth parallel, perhaps because of the harsh reality of existence in the north. And Tallack leaves Canada with more questions than answers, for if “we” as Europeans have lost this connection to land and place, then can we ever truly be at home? This is one of many questions provoked by the journey around the sixtieth parallel, and it is no criticism of the book to say that Tallack does not have all the answers. Indeed, it is instead a strength of the book that it asks questions of its readers, and provokes a response that will be as individual as the circumstances of the person holding it in his or her hands.

Interestingly, one conclusion Tallack does come to as his journey progresses is that our attachment to place – and thus a feeling of being “at home” in a place – is not something innate, that we are born with or carried in our DNA. On reflecting on his own background and family history, Tallack is is clear:

“Certainly it means nothing when compared to the connections I have made in my own lifetime. For culture and history are not carried in the blood. Nor is identity. These things are not inherited, they exist only through acquaintance and familiarity. They exist in attachment.”

So although 60 Degrees North is a book about a journey, and a very personal journey at that, it is one which provokes in the reader their own internal discussion about place, attachment, and what it means to be home. For this reviewer, it meant putting the book down for a moment or two to be transported to a back garden in West Lancashire, a cliff top on Holy Island with a view across to Snowdonia, or walking the coastal path along the Baltic Sea in northern Germany. It asks big questions about humans and their connection to and impact on the land we live on, but it gets its power from the questions it asks of us as individuals and our own relationship to place. As a writer asking these questions, Malachy Tallack can only answer them for himself. For the rest of us, we have a lot to think about when we turn the final page.

Elsewhere No. 01 is out now - featuring writing from the Romney Marsh and Loch Fyne, Gyttorp and the Oderbruch, Bankstown and Nowa Huta, Arniston Bay and Prespa - get your copy via our online shop.