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.