Towards the end of Malachy Tallack’s book 60 Degrees North, there’s a scene in which he is browsing in a village shop on a Norwegian island. A couple of customers are chatting to two of the staff, and even though he can’t understand a word of what they are saying, he knows it’s affectionate, and not just about buying and selling. “I wanted to be enclosed and included within that thing of which these people were a part,” he writes. “I wanted to belong, as they belonged, to something bigger than themselves.”
That, in essence, is what his book is about. Ostensibly, it’s a record of a journey that has taken the 34-year-old writer and musician, on successive years, from his home in Shetland along the eponymous line of latitude that passes through southern Greenland, northern Canada and Alaska, St Petersburg, Finland, Sweden and Norway. But the key is in the subtitle: “Around the world in search of home”. And home, he concludes, is somewhere very much like Fair Isle, where he lived for three years when he was still making some of those journeys. There, he knew, all the warmth and sense of community that he had just witnessed in that Norwegian village shop, was just waiting for him, 200 miles to the east across the North Sea, on the last stage of his wanderings round the northern world.
Last month, when 60 Degrees North was published in a blaze of publicity (Book of the Week on Radio 4, Editor’s Choice in the Bookseller) and garlanded with critical praise by the likes of John Burnside, Robert Macfarlane and Will Self, he was asked the one question any well-travelled person always has to face: Where would you like to be right now, anywhere in the world? “Fair Isle,” Tallack replied. “Always.”
His search for home began in tragedy. He was born in England and grew up there until he was ten, when his parents separated and he followed his mother to Shetland. But that didn’t feel like home, so six years later he moved south again to live with his father, having been accepted to a performing arts school in south London. Just before term started, his father was killed in a car crash. Back he went to Shetland, grief shattering any sense of belonging anywhere, but also first putting into his mind the notion of travelling to as many other places as he could that were also – like Shetland – 60 degrees north.
I meet him in Glasgow, where he now lives. It’s his first extended interview about the book, and there’s a certain reserve about his answers. I don’t mean that he’s not pleasant, thoughtful, polite and intelligent, because he is. But left to himself, I suspect, he’d avoid the whole palaver of self-promotion. So he doesn’t bother to mention, for example, that he’s a rather excellent singer-songwriter (check him out on YouTube) whose band has supported Runrig and King Creosote, or that he has four albums and an EP to his name. He doesn’t seem to do small talk, though he’s good on the big stuff.
“Travel,” he says, “is always as much about coming back as it is about going away.” But when he did come back from his own travels, convinced that he was going to settle down for good in Shetland like his younger brother Rory and his mother, he found himself unable to do so. Shocked at his own restlessness, he moved to Glasgow.
What happened? “I don’t want to talk too much about it, but an intense and sudden bout of depression came on about the time I’d finished these journeys, though I don’t really know how related these things are.
“I moved to Glasgow about 18 months ago, but I’ll always think of myself as a Shetlander. I don’t care what anyone else says about it, that’s who I am. And in Glasgow I’m much freer to write about Shetland now that I’m not there. That’s something a lot of writers from small communities often feel.
“I feel contentment living in Glasgow, despite the fact that it doesn’t feel like home. Because I’m almost living out of a suitcase at my flat in Shawlands, there’s a sense of freedom: I could get up and go at any time. That’s not how I want to feel, it’s just how I am, how I’ve ended up being. I wish it wasn’t that, and that I could feel content and settle down, and I hope I can feel that way in the future.”
The future? Ah yes, Fair Isle. “It’s a wonderful place,” he says, relaxing into a shy smile. “I miss it every day.”
And that I can understand. I’ve only ever spent a couple of days on Fair Isle, but they were with the same people that Tallack stayed with when he first fell in love with the island. Lise Sinclair, a luminously beautiful poet and musician who died of a brain tumour two years ago at the ridiculously young age of 42, and her boatbuilder husband Ian welcomed me to their croft, as they must have welcomed Tallack; with immense kindness. I know you’ll think I’m over-romanticising the place, but it just so happened that everyone else I met did too. This, I felt, was how people ought to be but normally never are: welcoming, interested in a stranger’s well-being, keen to talk and keener still to listen.
Of course, Fair Isle isn’t easy to get to, and maybe that’s the point: the plane can’t land if the wind blows more than 25 miles an hour, and in winter the seas can be so bad that you might have to wait for days on end before the Good Shepherd IV is able to sail to Lerwick. Maybe it’s only in places where people are bound together through isolation, I suggest, that the normally empty word “community” can actually mean something.
“Certainly isolation can hold communities together,” says Tallack. “But it can do the opposite too.” I nod, thinking of what his book told me about the Vikings in Greenland. “But in Fair Isle it’s not just isolation that makes the community work; it’s reliance on one another and valuing one another. Everyone has to do everything. The first time I stayed with Ian and Lise, I had to do things like round up sheep. Living in a town, I’d never done that before.”
Although Tallack writes well about most of the stopping-off points on his northern travels, one senses that there’s a particularly warm place in his heart for Fort Smith in Canada’s Northwest Territories, 840 miles north of Edmonton. There, it’s the sheer distances – the nearest place of a similar size involves a 370-mile round trip – that compels a sense of community. Fort Smith, a town of more than 2,000 inhabitants, sounds like Fair Isle writ large; a place, notes Tallack, with “a beguiling openness”, a sense of freedom and potential.
Ah yes, I say, but what if you’d been there in the winter (average temperature in January: -20C) rather than summer? “One of the people I met there said that was when they most appreciated living there, because it was when the community came even more together. And that was the same in Fair Isle; winter was when you made the greater effort to spend time with each other, to socialise, when you valued the community most of all.” In Fort Smith, as elsewhere on his journey, Tallack’s description is deliberately unshowy, almost ego-free. In that regard, he is following the example of travel writers and nature writers he admires (the ones he has most time for blur the distinction between the two) such as Barry Lopez and Aldo Leopold.
“I don’t have a great deal of interest,” he says, “in ‘traditional’ travel writing, which seems to me to be weighed down by a kind of colonialist attitude (going out into the world to bring back exotic tales for white folks back home). For the most part I’m more interested in people writing about their own places, or places that they know extremely well, like Richard Nelson’s The Island Within or writing about familiar places in unfamiliar ways, like WG Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn.”
Tallack is unlike traditional travel writer in one even more obvious way. When I ask if he has any plans for further travels, he shakes his head. “No. I don’t really like travelling that much.”
There’ll always be one place that he’ll make an exception for – an island between Shetland and Orkney that he only left in his late twenties because he and his girlfriend split up after a couple of years there “and it’s not an ideal place to be a single guy in your late twenties”.
So really he’s just waiting to meet a girl who would love to live on Fair Isle? He gives a shy – and, ladies, rather fetching – grin. “Maybe that’s exactly what I’m waiting for.”
• Malachy Tallack is at the Book Festival with Canadian novelist Kathleen Winter on Monday, 24 August. 60 Degrees North is published by Polygon, price £12.99.