THERE was a packed house in the Shetland Museum and Archives on Wednesday night to hear Malachy Tallack talk about his new book ’60 Degrees North’, writes Bruce Eunson.
It began as a travelogue. That took five years. Then he took the work in a new direction – inserting his feelings, his thoughts and his past – then in five months it was finished. The challenge he set himself was to explore the sixtieth parallel – a line that marks a border between the northern and southern worlds. He went on a journey, keeping a diary, visiting places on this line, like Greenland, Finland, Alaska and Shetland.
His book launch began with the question: “Why did I write this book?” The answer remains a question: where am I? He sought a connection and a feeling of home. He was placed in Shetland, rather than being born here, and has explored that. I, along with everyone else in attendance at the book launch, am pleased and proud to say he now considers Shetland his home.
In his work as a singer songwriter, Malachy’s relationship with music is one of connecting with an audience, with the listener, in an immediate way. He performs with a heartfelt and endearing quality. This sincerity is also found in his writing.
I knew Malachy could write with feeling. I remember the wedding speech he gave to his brother Rory. There wasn’t a dry eye in the Whiteness hall. And we all laughed too, sharing in the funs the brothers have had together. Malachy is a captivating reader. He offers you the opportunity firstly to listen, secondly to feel something. Whether a song or a paragraph of prose, he speaks to you with a quiet and charming approach.
His talk at the Shetland Museum and Archives began with a more serious tone. You could tell he was keen to engage his audience, not just to launch a book, but also to speak to us about things he hopes we will find interesting.
Malachy says, “What’s outside, shapes what’s inside” and discusses the way we live our lives in places like Shetland, Canada, Russia, Norway… He speaks seriously and honestly, and while the humour, the details and the obviously dedicated research of the book heard on Radio 4 is in the back of my mind, I am taken by the immediate foregrounding of the serious side of ’60 Degrees North’.
The chapter on Greenland is where he wishes to take us first, and to the intensely personal story of his father, and his father’s death. Malachy tells us about loss, transience and how, in the lives of the people in Greenland, “There is the sense here that, at any moment, all certainty could be undermined – that the land could reach out in an instant and wipe people away…”
I think to myself that I do not like it when I feel like that, here in Shetland. He goes on to say, though, that despite the very real terror there is a comfort, too. He reads a beautiful section from the Greenland chapter, and I am reminded of my favourite part of the Radio 4 readings.
He misses a bus, by chance, by standing in the wrong place, and has to walk through “a winter afternoon, cold, cross and dejected.” He experiences a Joycean revelation, where he realises that no matter how long it takes, he will get to where he is going. That no matter how cold it gets, he will make it to a safe place.
There is a confidence and an optimism in the face of adversity to this moment in the story that I recognise and personally respond to. Sometimes we are locked in a cell, perhaps a physical cell where time and discomfort must be endured, perhaps a mental space that must be navigated out of in complete darkness. Whether dealing with intangible ideas like loss, or physical hurdles such as barren landscapes that have to be crossed, we must have the confidence to say: “I will get to where I am going, and it will be worth it.”
Malachy’s journey takes him to many interesting places – I’d never heard of Fort Smith, the Aland Islands, or Seward – and to tell you the truth, I doubt I’ll ever go to Alaska. If I do I certainly won’t wander into a forest in the middle of nowhere to go fishing. And especially not now that I know that when Malachy did, he had to arm himself with pepper spray and prepare to duel with an eight foot tall bear.
I enjoyed his descriptions of St Petersburg. I’d really like to do as he did and travel to Russia, wander the streets. When answering questions Malachy says: “this is not a memoir.” One of my favourite books is Vladimir Nabokov’s memoir ‘Speak, memory’. It is a book of parallels and seemingly disconnected connections, that tells the story of how the Russian author’s father was accidentally killed.
Before Malachy’s book was published I had never heard the phrase “the sixtieth parallel” and, even now that it has been explained to me, there is still a mysterious, poetic quality to the idea. I enjoyed hearing Malachy describe how “small communities are places where people speak to strangers” and I enjoyed the answer he gave when asked about the huge map that was projected behind him while he read to us: he said it was “a map that had been turned on its head, showing the world from a different angle.” This map is the first page of the book.
I look forward to reading the whole of ‘60 Degrees North’, and hearing the insightful comments, the illuminating and interesting details, as well as the feelings and the thoughts of a writer who now sets off on a journey to write a new novel. I hope he fills that novel with the same feeling and observations that he described at the book launch on Wednesday. It will be a pleasure to read, and to ponder while waiting for it to be published, just like it was a pleasure to sit and listen to Malachy open the stories from his life thus far, and share his journey into literature.