Category Archives: 24.10. non-fiction

60 DEGREES NORTH:  Malachy Tallack

Dundee Literary Festival

Saturday 24th October

What does it mean to be ‘home’? Can we define home as bricks and mortar,  family and community? Or is there something far more elemental at play, an indefinable geographical sense of connection which links us to that dot on the map?

These are some of the fascinating questions posed by Malachy Tallack as we gather, rather fittingly, in the D’Arcy Thompson Zoology Museum, a dot on the map where many world treasures have come to rest. Our host, writer and literary critic Stewart Kelly, describes Tallack as ‘a man who is interested in everything, and who makes everything interesting’.

Tallack is indeed a man of many talents: writer, editor, singer/songwriter and adventurer. His debut work, 60 Degrees North, has been a BBC Radio 4 ‘Book of the Week’ and is shortlisted for the 2015 Saltire First Book Award. One gets the sense, though, that having set his course to follow the 60th parallel of latitude, Tallack’s quest has always been about the journey, rather than the book. This line on the globe passes through his Shetland home; Greenland; parts of Canada and Alaska;  Siberia; the former Russian capital, St Petersburg; Finland, Sweden and Norway. The journey ends at the ancient broch on the isle of Mousa, exactly where it began.

Tallack speaks movingly of how he left home to find a sense of himself. Having settled in Shetland with his mother at the age of nine, he found it hard to come to terms with the move. Shetland never felt like ‘home’ to him, and he struggled with being the outsider. The tragic death of his father when he was sixteen further added to his disaffection. He was curious about how people are defined by their location, not just by the physicality of their surroundings, but by the way in which the land shapes their culture, art and spiritual beliefs.

A one hour slot doesn’t do justice to Tallack’s adventures, but he does share with us an exciting, and often humorous, passage from his book in which he was tracked by a large bear in Canada. Kelly asks him about the ‘man versus nature’ stereotype of the people living in the far north, but Tallack’s experience is that frontier life, for all its harshness and isolation, actually breeds a sense of community.

Kelly suggests that there is a sharp political edge to Tallack’s work. The book has shed new light on the issues of land ownership and  nationhood, and has served to challenge perceptions on the centrality of the north. Tallack argues that the northern islands have always been a place of ‘setting out’; for traders, whalers and fishermen – to them, it has always been a central location.

The subtitle of 60 Degrees North reads simply Around the World in Search of Home. Has Malachy Tallack found the answers to his questions? I ask him if he has another journey in him. Where would he go, and why? After some thought, he replies, rather tellingly, that for now he is content to stay at home.


Sandra Ireland

Human Being, with Gavin Francis and Prof. Sue Black (3:30pm)


A Grand Tour from the Cranium to the Calcaneum

This event had the largest audience of all the Dundee Literary Festival 2015 events I’ve been to. It was held in the larger hall on the ground floor of the building, and almost every seat was taken by the time I arrived, five minutes before the starting time. As I quickly and quietly took my seat and unpacked my notebook, music began to play and Gavin Francis and Sue Black entered, walking up the centre aisle and onto the stage to take their seats. Laughing, Sue Black explained that the musical intro had been provided by “naughty people behind the scenes”. I forget the name of the tune, but she explained its personal significance, as it was a melody used as a “warm up” by her piano playing father. This kindly introduction set the mood for the entire discussion that contained laughter and light-hearted comments, as well as serious and somewhat emotional topics.

Having never read the book Adventures in Human Being by Gavin Francis, only the Literary Festival programme description (which captured my interest), I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect from today’s talk. Sue chaired the discussion, introducing Gavin (who is a practicing GP as well as a writer), who Sue playfully commented had studied, unfortunately, at Edinburgh and not Dundee. This remark generated laughs from the audience and was a reflection of her admiration for Gavin’s expertise. Sue then allowed Gavin to talk about Adventures in Human Being before beginning to ask questions about the book and his general approach to medicine and being a doctor.

The book is “essentially eighteen essays examining different parts of the body”, Gavin began. He explained how the approach is not only scientific, but also takes into account cultural and historical perspectives. He talked about two particular chapters in his book, namely the one concerning the heart and pulse, and the other the human face. Playfully, Gavin asked the audience to find their pulse, showing us how to do this, and everyone placed their fingers onto their neck as he demonstrated. He explained some facts about the pulse and explained that the idea of a pulse is relatively new – only three/four hundred years ago did the idea of the heart pumping blood come to light. He also touched upon the “exhilarating” experience of finding a baby’s heartbeat, particularly when the pregnant woman has visited, anxious that they haven’t felt the baby move for a couple of days. It was through moving comments like these that Gavin’s love for what he does became highly evident.

Although the discussion had a very factual, practical level concerning the human body and its functions, there were also strong emotional aspects to some of the topics touched upon, such as “bequeathers” (organ donars), and those who are terminally ill – how different people take the information and also how can you train a doctor to give fatal news? From questions such as these, the talk also took a slightly different direction – a somewhat more philosophical approach, peeling back the edges of questions such as what it is to be human and the complicated but fascinating relationship between the mind and the body.

I found the talk today with Sue and Gavin honestly fascinating and I feel no review (including this one) could do the event justice. Even though I have not read Adventures in Human Being, I am moving it to the top of my ‘to read’ list.

Frances Kelly