Vernon Scannell

Poet of the Second World War whose work was rooted in 'recognisable human experience'
Click to follow
The Independent Online

John Vernon Bain (Vernon Scannell), poet, writer and broadcaster: born Spilsby, Lincolnshire 23 January 1922; FRSL 1960; married 1954 Jo Higson (two sons, two daughters, and two sons deceased; marriage dissolved); died Otley, West Yorkshire 16 November 2007.

Vernon Scannell was a poet who was fond of quoting Wordworth's remark that he "wished to keep the reader in the company of flesh and blood". But in looking to portray the everyday experience of life, Scannell found also the dark places, the ordinary hurts of the ordinary world. His poem "A Note for Biographers" ends:

What captivates and sells, and always will,
Is what we are: vain, snarled up, and sleazy.
No one is really interesting until
To love him has become no longer easy.

The tone of voice is characteristic: colloquial, easy, epigrammatic, honest, poised above a pessimism which is lightened with wit.

Scannell commented that his "major themes" were "violence, the experience of war, the 'sense of danger' which is part of the climate of our times; these are contrasted with poems of a more private nature which affirm the continuity and indestructibility of the creative spirit . . . the work is traditional, very direct, and firmly rooted in recognisable human experience."

He surveyed that "recognisable human experience" autobiographically, in prose as well as in verse, in The Tiger and the Rose (1971), Argument of Kings (1987) and Drums of Morning (1992). In a prefatory note to the second book, he said that he had chosen to call his "young self" by the name which appeared on his birth certificate: John Bain, "which is the name I was known by during my army service. I changed my name to Vernon Scannell when I was on the run from the army from 1945 to 1947."

John Vernon Bain was born in 1922 in Lincolnshire into a poor family: his father made a precarious living as a photographer. As a child he lived in Ireland, in Nottinghamshire, in Lancashire, and eventually in Aylesbury, where he went to a local elementary school, leaving at the age of 14 to work as a clerk in a firm of accountants.

But when he was 11 he took up boxing, reaching the final of the British Schoolboys' Championships. As he later put it, "between the ages of 14 and 17 I was being painfully torn apart by what seemed the irreconcilable passions for boxing and literature". But his call-up into the Army when he was 18 resolved the problem for the next several years by cancelling it out.

He served in the 51st Division of the Gordon Highlanders, seeing a good deal of action in Libya and Tunisia. It was near Gabes in Tunisia that, coming on the aftermath of a massacre, he wandered off, hitched a lift to Tripoli, was caught and sentenced as a deserter, and was committed to a military prison in Alexandria. After some brutal treatment, he was released on a suspended sentence so as to take part in the D-Day landings in Normandy. He was wounded and was sent to a military hospital in Lancashire. Then, in a convalescent depot in Hamilton, in the very month of the German surrender, May 1945, he went on the run again. And now he was "Vernon Scannell".

In London, he took a succession of odd jobs (including work in a dolls' head factory and as a back-stage electrician at the Coliseum). Then, much more importantly, he took up boxing again, this time as a professional, touring the small halls and doing creditably as a middleweight. But he still yearned for something else: he was reading omnivorously and writing quantities of poetry.

A chance meeting in a pub with a medical student from Leeds persuaded him to go there. In Leeds he took on some private coaching but also met two professors of English, Bonamy Dobrée and Wilson Knight, who encouraged him to attend university lectures in 1946 and 1947. At the same time some of Scannell's poems began to appear in periodicals – Middleton Murry's Adelphi, Tribune, Poetry (Chicago), Poetry Quarterly. He also boxed for the university, and took the Northern Universities Championships at welter, middle and cruiserweight. Then, in the summer of 1947, the law caught up with him: he was arrested as a deserter.

After a court martial and an examination by an army psychiatrist, he spent a few weeks in Northfield Hospital ("the nutters' joint") and then, to his surprise and delight, was discharged. He had never pretended to be other than sane. Indeed, sanity - along with a fascination for taking risks – was always a mark both of Scannell's writing and personality.

He came to reject his first book of poems, published by the Fortune Press in 1948, as too florid and posturing; but the three books that followed it, in 1957, 1960 and 1962 (especially the third, A Sense of Danger), show the standards of brisk and mordant style, unfussy intelligence and compassion which he went on reaching until the end. The Masks of Love (1960) won the Heinemann Award. The Loving Game (1975) was a Poetry Book Society Choice, and he was given a Cholmondeley Poetry Award and a Society of Authors Travelling Scholarship. He was an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.

For a few years in the 1950s and early 1960s he taught in prep schools, but in 1962 he felt confident enough to turn freelance, doing much broadcasting, reviewing, public readings, sometimes residential posts (for example at Shrewsbury School and King's School, Canterbury) as "visiting poet". He was Resident Poet, appointed by the Arts Council, to the "new" village of Berinsfield, Oxfordshire in the mid-1970s, and commemorated the ghastly experience in the witty and grim prose of A Proper Gentleman (1977).

He published nine novels, some of them drawing on his knowledge of boxing; critical books, on Edward Thomas and on the poets of the Second World War; and a good deal of poetry for children. Though two recent important anthologies puzzlingly ignored him, he has for many years provided favourite anthology poems, such as "A Case of Murder", "Dead Dog", "The Telephone Number", "Walking Wounded" and "Autumn" ("It is the football season once more / And the back pages of the Sunday newspapers / Again show the blurred anguish of goalkeepers").

P.J. Kavanagh wrote approvingly of him: "The impression is of a man – in a raincoat maybe? – wandering alone the seedier parts of a cold town, looking for love, finding it sometimes, feeling compassion, enduring disappointment, fearing death. You could say an Everyman. . ."

In this, Scannell's work seems to resemble both Louis MacNeice and Philip Larkin, poets he admired; but he had led a more adventurous, not to say ramshackle, life than either. His long marriage to Jo Higson eventually broke down: of their six children, one handicapped son died as an infant (movingly written about in The Tiger and the Rose), and another son much later died in a motorcycle accident.

In spite of illness in his later years, he kept up a high degree of productivity and excellence. Encouraged by Stephen Stuart-Smith of the Enitharmon Press, in 2000 he published both a book of poems (Views and Distances) and a novel, Feminine Endings: the latter is a playful satire based on a residential creative-writing course of the Arvon Foundation type, in which Scannell enjoyed himself with parodies of, among others, Ted Hughes and John Ashbery. In 2004 he published a short book of poems, Behind the Lines, with the Shoestring Press, and earlier this year a pamphlet of new poems, Last Post.

For the last several years of his life, when he was suffering from cancer and then emphysema, he was lovingly looked after by his companion in Otley, West Yorkshire, Jo Peters.

He was deeply fond of music, perhaps most of all Elgar and Vaughan Williams. He had many friends, not all of them literary, and enjoyed pubs and drinking with a sort of bruised and sometimes rueful amusement. His Collected Poems 1950-1993 (1993) is a big, handsome book – as indeed Scannell himself was a big, handsome man. For all his experience of violence, including boxing, he was the least aggressive of people: courteous, smiling, chuckling, without rancour and without enemies.

Anthony Thwaite