Wednesday 21 November 2007
Vernon Scannell [obituary, 19 November] certainly published nine novels, as Anthony Thwaite points out, but what he fails to mention is that amongst those nine are some thrillers which aren't just not bad, but in fact are exceedingly good,
writes Jack Adrian.
The best, The Big Chance (1960) and The Shadowed Place (1961), which verge on a kind of British noir, are tough, gritty and gripping yarns set against the seedy underside of the fight game (about which Scannell himself, of course, had a fair knowledge). Even his first novel, The Fight (1953), has suspenseful undertones.
Not that Scannell enthusiasts are likely to locate copies easily. His earliest publisher, Peter Nevill, a tiro in the publishing business, nervously issued books in less than generous print runs, while his second, John Long, produced novels mainly for the lending libraries. Thus, while it would not be true to describe Scannell's thrillers as scandalously rare, there are probably more copies of Graham Greene's Babbling April around than a decent copy of, say, The Big Chance.
Romantic as it is, Anthony Thwaite's account of how the poet Vernon Scannell acquired his name while on the run from the Army towards the end of the Second World War is not quite uproarious enough, writes Paul Trewhela.
The painter and designer Cliff Holden has told me about the transformation of Vernon Bain – as he was known at the time – into Vernon Scannell. In mid-1945, Holden was living with Vernon Bains's sister Sylvia in a flat in Shepherd's Bush in London when the soldier came to visit her. Holden was at that time a member of the editorial collective of the anarchist newspaper War Commentary, which after the war changed its name to Freedom.
Holden recalls that the name Vernon Scannell was acquired from a friend who was a brothel-owner, suggested by a prostitute. Scannell's uniform was burnt in the grate in the kitchen of Holden's flat in Shepherd's Bush, and old clothes provided in its place. Though unwilling to show his work directly to Holden, the soldier-poet left his verse lying around the kitchen on little scraps of paper. It was Holden, too, who found the deserter one of his first jobs under his new identity, as a back-stage electrician at the Coliseum.
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