Memoir: He said he would come back

He said he would come back

Eric Johnson remembers his father, who always wanted to return home, but never succeeded.

You will have seen us at Holmsgarth, just off the Hjaltland or the Hrossey: summer visitors trundling our over-stuffed cases and looking for car- hire or taxis. This year, in August, I was among them, with my wife, our son, his wife and their two children. We came to Shetland with no claim to the islands other than a family name: my father’s name: Johnson. This name he took with him when he left Shetland in 1925, always intending to come back.

Like his brothers, my father left school at 14. It was the year the Great War ended. Among the brothers, one became a carpenter, another a blacksmith, one joined the merchant navy, another went to the fishing. One stayed at home and worked the croft with my grandparents. My father, the youngest, desperately wanted to go to sea, but against his teenage wishes he was apprenticed as a baker and confectioner in Sandwick.

At the end of his time-serving seven-years in the bakeshop he left the crowded family home and, as a qualified craftsman, he set out to start a new life in Canada. He said he would come back. I have a faded, sepia studio-photograph of four of the brothers taken when they met up in Vancouver in the mid 1920s. They look proud and confident, but uncomfortable in their best suits. Many Shetlanders must have such photographs in their family albums – photographs sent to assure relatives back home that all was well with them in the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand or wherever they had settled.

Through the late 1920s and into the early thirties my father worked in Victoria, on Vancouver Island. Amongst his personal papers is a testimonial from Drake’s Bakery, dated May 1934, which describes him as “sober, industrious and attentive to business”.

Why he chose to return across the Atlantic while his brothers stayed on in Canada is not clear. Perhaps it was an effect of the 1930s economic depression. However, now a seaman, his discharge book records that he was second baker on The Aurania, of the White Star Line, one of Cunard’s smaller liners.

The Aurania shuttled between London and New York and various Canadian Ports in the 1930s, and he was finally discharged in the Port of London, where he took a shore job in London’s East End. Here he met my mother and, as a consequence, I was born on the 23rd of August, 1938. I include these details as I celebrated my seventieth birthday in Shetland during our visit. I note from The Shetland Times that, on the very same day, it was also the 70th Birthday of Sandwick WVRS. I wonder if they had cakes from the local bakery.

Always, as I grew up in London and the South of England, my father talked of returning to Shetland. But there were always reasons why not. One reason was World War Two. Like many Shetlanders of his generation he joined the armed services and found himself, after escaping from Dunkirk, part of the back up for front-line troops. In North Africa he organised the supply of bread to Eighth Army troops and later, in 1945, to the forces of occupation in Germany. No homecoming was possible at that time.

The post-war years found him, like so many ex-servicemen, unsettled and uncertain. Consequently, as a family, we found ourselves moving from one flat above a bake-shop to another. Sadly, in England in the fifties and sixties small bread and cake shops went into decline as the giant bread and confectionary factories took over production and the little shops were bought up by mammoth, chain operators. His skills, learned as an apprentice in Sandwick, were no longer required; his niche in the world of work, disappeared. This was no time to come home to Shetland.

For a while he worked as a store-man in an engineering factory, but it offered little fulfilment or job-satisfaction and I believe this contributed to his personal decline. He died shortly before reaching retirement age, without ever returning to Shetland.

But always he had talked of coming back home. After a few drams he would tell stories of the Shetland he knew as a child and as a young man. These were stories of a self-sufficient way of life, ploughing and planting, carting peats from the hill; stories of the harvest of land and sea; cows calving, sheep lambing. He told tales of gales, storms and shipwreck; stories of tragedy and heroism. He repeated yarns shrouded with the mists of time, originally told while mending nets during the dark Shetland winter evenings in the family home. As I listened I detected in these tales a longing to return. But it never happened.

But this year, as descendants, we returned on his behalf: son, grandson and great grandchildren. We walked where he walked, visited the house where he was born and the house where he grew up. We clambered on rocks he would have known on his way to fish for piltocks. We ate bannocks and drop scones and wondered what his mother would have made of Tesco’s. We looked out to sea, now knowing so much more of the world beyond the horizon than he and his brothers knew as they set out to make their fortune.

Standing in kirkyards we read the stone-engraved names and dates of family history. His are missing from among them. We “returned” to Shetland; he did not. His remains lie in a suburban, English cemetery, next to a dual carriageway lit by sodium lights. For me, his spirit will always be in Shetland.

Eric Johnson


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