Jack Peterson

Jack Peterson

John Peterson (1895-1972) was the son of John Scott Peterson and Christina Ann McInnes, and became known as "Jack". Born in Church Lane, Lerwick, he spent much of his early life in the westside of Shetland, at Gruting. His father was schoolmaster there.  Jack Peterson produced Shetland’s most affecting literary responses to World War One. He also wrote a novel of the war featuring a Shetland protagonist, Hakkie. The Shetland Archives holds it as an unpublished manuscript. An excerpt featured in the New Shetlander magazine, No. 137, Hairst 1981, quoted here.

Hakkie felt fear clawing at his cold hungry body

He wrote most successfully about the war in poetry, publishing two volumes. Roads and Ditches (1920) was the most direct product of the conflict. In Streets and Starlight (1923), he tackled the subject again. The two volumes are untypical of Shetland poetry. There’s little Shetland dialect in them, they are mostly set elsewhere, and the experience engaged in the bloody, continual, destruction of human beings. In his book Shetland Literature (2014) Dr Mark Smith remarks on how "the brute reality of war altered his writing in grim and powerful ways".

death raged and devoured that day, and Hakkie was his sergeant-at-arms

After the war he became a Customs and Excise officer, returning to Shetland after some time spent in the south. It’s fair to say that the Civil Service probably wasn’t the driving force in his life. He was passionately interested in writing, photography, socialist politics, and Shetland. He published a volume of lovingly taken photographs Shetland, A Photographer’s Notebook, in 1948. In 1985 The Shetland Library and Museum published posthumously, his Shetland Notebook Number Two.

the bayonet plunged to the hilt in the pale boy’s midriff

Jack was a soldier in the Seaforth Highlanders, and was wounded twice. The war influenced him deeply, although he said little of it directly. He was always on the left, and became a Communist. The Shetland Museum holds his photographs of a happy trip to Russia in 1932. A late poem, published in 1966, Seine-Netters is an evocation of Shetland working life and speech.

down they go, like limp sacks and punctured bladders

He returned to the war in some of his later poetry, Great Wars, published in the New Shetlander magazine in 1965, is an example. The war here is memory, ameliorated by returning home, and by the knowledge that time is passing. The final line is "Into the history of an age". In 1965 Jack Peterson had seven years left to live. He was still writing about the events that had formed so much of him.



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Y00221 Shetland Museum Jack Peterson
Jack Peterson, Shetland Museum.