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Published: Scotland on Sunday, 4 October 2009

Sara Wheeler
Jonathan Cape, GBP 20

THERE’S a strange sense of unease running through this latest travelogue from Sara Wheeler – a tension between the author’s evident desire to draw attention to the potentially calamitous effects of man-made climate change on the fragile Arctic environments she visits, and her awareness that, by her very presence in the far north, she is part of the problem.

And let’s make no bones about this, even for a travel book, The Magnetic North has an almighty carbon footprint. Wheeler starts off in Chukotka in north-eastern Russia and then makes a full lap of the Arctic Circle, taking in Alaska, northern Canada, Greenland, Svalbard and Lapland, weaving personal experience and natural and cultural history as she goes, before ending up back in Russia on the shores of the White Sea.

Only the author knows how many tonnes of greenhouse gases were emitted during that journey but the figure for her flights alone must be well in excess of the 14 tonnes produced each year by the average citizen in the UK.

Rather than deal decisively with the elephant in the room at the outset, however, Wheeler opts to allude to it at intervals, like a child picking at a scab. Only in the penultimate chapter, during a voyage through the Arctic Ocean on board a tourist ship, does she finally tackle the issue head-on.

“We were absorbed in the wonders of the natural world having burned up hydrocarbons by the tonne to reach them. Knitting at the guillotine? Or fiddling while Rome burned? Either way, this particular ship of fools illustrated the environmental conundrum of our time.”

The other problem with The Magnetic North is that a lot of it feels distinctly second-hand. There’s nothing wrong with thorough research, and there are plenty of fascinating anecdotes here gleaned from secondary sources, but I would estimate that the author could have written about a third of this book from the comfort of her own home. If the on-the-road sections were crammed full of penetrating insights, that might not be such a problem, but flitting around from one place to the next, Wheeler doesn’t produce much of substance from her first-hand experiences – just some attractive passages of purple prose and a sense that, since the white man turned up, life has been pretty rough for the indigenous peoples of the north.

All of which raises the uncomfortable question: was The Magnetic North really worth the air miles?

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