Books

The globetrotter who found himself at home

60 Degrees North
by Malachy Tallack
Polygon, £12.99

The best travel writing is never just the outer journey to a particular place; it also always involves an inner journey, in which the writer, as Tallack puts it, travels “around the world in search of home”.

Growing up on Shetland, the author decides on the original idea of travelling the globe along the same latitude: in other words, everywhere that is “60 degrees north”. This involves taking in Greenland, northern Canada, Alaska, Siberia, St Petersburg, Finland, Sweden, Norway and Fair Isle.

This tough journey, described vividly and impressionistically, is also Tallack’s way of coming to terms with an early tragedy: the sudden death of his father when he was 17. It meant the upheaval of leaving Sussex, where he was planning to live with his father, and returning to Shetland where his mother (his parents had separated when he was 10) had made her home. For several years Tallack admits he felt uprooted, not belonging anywhere.

The journeys described in these pages are his way of exploring regions where the inhabitants “are challenged … by climate, by landscape, by remoteness”. Everywhere the memory of his father accompanies him: in Greenland, “His was the loss that had led me to this place.” Wherever he goes one question recurs: “How can we know … when we have found our place in the world? How can we know when we ought to cease our wandering?”

In Alaska, Tallack admits that he can no longer remember the sound of his father’s voice. In Kolyma, Siberia, he quotes Solzhenitsyn on the gulag: “The pole of cold and cruelty.” In Kamchatka, the volcanic region in Russia’s Far East, he finds beauty and mystery, a “stillness at its heart”.

His book mixes history, literature and geography alongside personal encounters recounted with humour and candour. Other travellers will be familiar with the occasion when Tallack, seeking the studio of the Russian artist Ilya Repin, confesses to being lost, “in a place I didn’t know, without a map, without directions, without a single clue”. Returning home after his eccentric travels, he realises he has at last found where he wants to be.