Life of a battle scarred war poet

Vernon Scannell as a young soldier
Vernon Scannell as a young soldier
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Vernon Scannell is the forgotten man of war poetry whose troubled life is told in a new biography. Yvette Huddleston on his legacy.

MOST will be familiar with the First World War poets – the work of Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, Rupert Brooke and others regularly appear in school anthologies – but perhaps fewer will know the names, or poems, of the poets of the Second World War.

A new biography of Vernon Scannell – one of the most respected poets of that conflict – may help to redress the balance. Written by James Andrew Taylor, Walking Wounded: The Life and Poetry of Vernon Scannell tells the sometimes harrowing story of a man who fought his way out of a brutal and unhappy childhood – his father was violent, his mother cold and distant – through his love of literature, to become a writer of note. Born in Lincolnshire in 1922, Scannell spent much of the latter part of his life in Otley, where he died in 2007, aged 85, having established a connection with Yorkshire when he moved to Leeds for a while shortly after the war.

Taylor – a distinguished author, and a former journalist on the Yorkshire Evening Post in the 1970s – has long been a fan of Scannell’s work. “I had enjoyed his poetry since I was a child,” he says. “And then I came across one of his memoirs – Drums of Morning. I could see there was a fascinating life there, so I started to make enquiries and found out that no-one had written about him before.” Scannell’s executors and family were willing to co-operate and then Taylor discovered that the poet’s diaries and literary papers are held at the University of Leeds. “So I had a story and sources to tell it from,” says Taylor. “And as I went with it, the story got more and more gripping.” The book is, indeed, a thrilling, action-packed read – this is the kind of life story biographers must dream about. There was certainly plenty of incident – and no little amount of scandal – in Scannell’s long, complex and occasionally tragic life. He was a man of contradictions – a loving father, a passionate lover, violent drunk, brawler, bigamist and wife-beater.

Even his name wasn’t the one he was born with but a pseudonym he was forced to take on after deserting from the army at the end of the war. He was at various points in his life – a professional boxer, teacher, accounts clerk, proof reader, novelist and soldier.

In 1940, at the age of just 18, and mainly to escape his miserable family life, Scannell (then still John Bain) decided to enlist, joining the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. He was involved in the North Africa campaign but deserted after the battle of Wadi Akarit and had to do a stint in military prison as a result. He saw action again at D-Day in 1944 where he was wounded, taken to hospital and again absconded.

Scannell was tortured by what he considered to be his cowardice throughout his life – his poetry is peppered with references to his lack of courage – and haunted by memories of warfare. “All his life he seemed to think he was a coward but he had been through a hell of a lot,” Taylor says. “I think he has earned a bit of understanding and consideration.” Taylor argues that today Scannell would have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. He showed all the classic signs – bouts of depression, heavy drinking and episodes of violence, particularly towards the women in his life.

Taylor doesn’t excuse Scannell’s behaviour but does try to understand it and the tone of the book is non-judgmental, though he admits that discovering the darker aspects of his subject’s life did have an effect on the way he felt about him. “It’s bound to,” he says. “But I think overall he comes out of the book as a man who suffered greatly. The people around him suffered too, but he was also a victim. He inspired amazing loyalty from his family and friends.”

As for his poetry, Taylor feels it is “tragically underrated” and hopes his book will help raise awareness of Scannell’s work.

Scannell in his own words...

At the beginning of Taylor’s book is a quote from one of Scannell’s poems, entitled A Note to Biographers: “No-one is really interesting until/To love him has become no longer easy”

The title Walking Wounded is taken from one of Scannell’s best known poems, published 20 years after the war. It ends with the lines ‘When the heroic corpses turn slowly in their decorated sleep... the walking wounded still trudge down that land/And when recalled they must bear arms again.’

Walking Wounded: The Life and Poetry of Vernon Scannell, OUP, £20,