Vernon Scannell

1922 - 2007

Vernon Scannell, like Edward Lowbury, was one of the comparatively few OASIS poets who had published poetry before the Second World War. Although he left school at 14 and was largely-self educated, by the time he died aged 85 he was a wholly successful and recognised full-time poet.

He achieved this standing while living a complicated and often deliberately bohemian way-of-life. This involved a hearty acquaintance with fellow poets and hostelries in Leeds and London, and he survived most of his time for fifty years as a freelance writer, broadcaster and reviewer.

By then he had written nine novels, three books of literary criticism and four volumes of autobiographical memoirs. In 1961 he was given a Heinemann Award for Literature and in 1974 won the Cholmondeley Poetry Prize. By 1960 he was an elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and twenty years later was granted a civil list pension for his services to literature.

Vernon Scannell was born John Vernon Bain at Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, the son of photographer James Bain, and only adopted the surname Scannell while living a dissipated post-war life in Fitrovia. According to what he wrote in his last memoir, his father was a brutal domestic tyrant who darkened the lives of Vernon and his elder brother Kenneth throughout their childhood and adolescence. His father only praised him for his schoolboy boxing, regarding reading and particularly poetry as unmanly pursuits leading nowhere.

His full-page obituary note in the Daily Telegraph recalled how the young Vernon Bain loved the idyllic times when he and his brother Kenneth would walk in the Chilterns reciting to each other the poems they had discovered. Together they had experienced the joys and disappointments of poetry, literature and love. But in 1940, the two brothers, penniless, joined the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders. Vernon would later serve with the Gordon Highlanders fighting in the famous 51st Highland Division.

As The Times obituary put it, the horrors of war had a profound effect upon him, and appear either overtly or as an undertone in a great deal of his writing. After a particularly bloody battle in Tunisia he deserted, and was court-martialled and sentenced to three years in an army prison in Egypt. He was given an early release and allowed to return to his unit in time to serve in the landings in Normandy, where he was wounded and hospitalised.

Vernon Scannell would again go absent, and disappear into a vagabond life in Soho, before being caught and again appearing before a court-martial. But by then the war was over, and as he explained to his judges he had spent five years in the army, and had to escape to hold on to his humanity.

When he described himself as a poet, he was remanded for a psychiatrist's report and instead of prison was delivered to a mental hospital. Here luckily a more understanding regime allowed him to be discharged within weeks, and he was able soon to be back in London. Here he found a basement room in Notting Hill, where he found occasional jobs, drank heavily in the evenings, and wrote his first novel, "The Fight", a boxing story only moderately good.

But he was also writing short stories for radio, publishing poems in literary magazines and encountering fellow-poets such as Roy Fuller, Laurie Lee, Robert Conquest, Dannie Abse and John Betjeman.

Vernon Scannell's poems first appeared in the third of the Salamander Oasis Trust anthologies, Poems of the Second World War published in Dent's Everyman Library series in 1985. These were "War Song", "Eidolon Parade" and the much-anthologised "Walking Wounded". In an army sense perhaps the lines that best sum up Scannell's views comes in "Eidolon Parade", which is an account of a formal parade of war veterans sobered up after a night celebrating at a dance. The various celebrants include a local lothario, a Corporal best at the tango, and others who had all fought in the Western Desert or Italy.

And with them is Private Bain who:

A bunch of quarrels hanging from each wrist,
Will sluice his guts with twenty black-and-tans;
But he still stands now, sober, at attention
With that small company paraded there
Waiting for inspection.

Nobody reading his poems and army life will see him as "Idle-on-Parade".