Vernon Scannell was a thief, a liar, a deserter, a bigamist, a fraud, an alcoholic, a woman-beater and a coward. Plenty of material for a biography, then, especially
given that he was also a novelist, a critic, a memoirist, a boxer, a teacher, a broadcaster, a loyal friend, a passionate lover and ‘a fun grandfather’. Most of all, he was a poet.
Walking Wounded was the title of a Scannell poem and collection published in 1965, and James Andrew Taylor is right to use it as the title for this biography. Beaten viciously by a thug of a father, uncomforted by an unloving mother, by the time he was 19 he was himself a father (of a son he never met) and a soldier, and soon to be a deserter, wounded chronically in mind if not in body.
He escaped his loveless childhood through books (he was ‘reading fairly comfortably by five’) and boxing, which he took up with alacrity and success at around the age of 12. He became, in time, perhaps the finest poet of sport in the language.
He left school at 15, got a job as a filing clerk and began lifelong loves of sex and drink and music (the St Matthew Passion was his favourite desert island disc).
All his life Scannell, who began it as John Vernon Bain (he acquired the new name ‘by chance in a Soho brothel’), was haunted by his action following the battle for Wadi Akarit in North Africa in March 1943, when he simply walked away from the battlefield, as in a trance. Nowadays he would have been diagnosed as suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Then he was detained for months in a military prison in Alexandria. As Taylor illustrates, in both prose and poetry Scannell returned often to the subjects of cowardice and shame.
The combination of an abused childhood and a psychopathic reaction to war led Scannell to drink and, in drink, to violence. He was a 12-pint-a-night man, and he would invariably return to lover or wife and punch her, waking the following morning as though nothing had happened but complaining of a hangover. What is remarkable is the devotion of so many of these beaten women. ‘Love and violence, for Vernon, had always been closely aligned’; even as late as his 80th year he was hitting his ‘beloved’ out of sexual jealousy.
It is tempting to argue that the jealousy was not sexual, but possessive, as though he sought the unconditional, exclusive love that his mother ought to have given him.
Scannell was never wealthy and he lived at a great number of different addresses during his life, forever walking away; constant, though, was his love of poetry. Taylor mines the poetry (and the memoirs and novels) with sensitivity, always cautioning us not to take any of it as strict autobiography, the life illuminating the poetry rather than the other way round.
Scannell’s is likely to outlive much of the poetry written during his lifetime. It is always lucid, and has an apparent facility that might explain why it has been undervalued. But Scannell thought poetry ‘should be hard — for the poet’. ‘Don’t believe any of the nonsense about spontaneity’, he advised. He had little time either for the pop poetry of Liverpool (‘the direct antithesis of poetry’) or the ‘nonsensical gibberish’ of academic poets such as J.H. Prynne.
Taylor pulls no punches in his telling of this story (unlike Scannell, who was happy to take ‘falls’ in fairground boxing booths), but he cannot resist the redemptive arc that sees Scannell’s final poems, written literally on his deathbed, as heroic, and his lifelong ‘exuberant protestations of love’ matured into ‘a deeply felt and sincere love’ for the last woman in his life, Jo Peters.
This is a melancholy tale. As Scannell, in his less violent cups, remarked of the larghetto from Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet, ‘Breaks your fucking heart, doesn’t it?’, so this life, marvellously told, tells the story of a permanently scarred man doing his best to be worthwhile. One wishes he could have read it for the relief it might have brought.
Walking Wounded is a first-rate biography; we finish it feeling we know its subject, saddened by his death, with a new appetite for his poetry.
‘A Yorkshire Christmas Eve’ originally appeared in The Spectator a month after Vernon Scannell’s death in November 2007, and may have been the last poem he wrote. Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £20. Tel: 08430 600033