Go Down Swinging
The unlikely career of England’s poet-pugilist.
Jul 14, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 41 • By MICAH MATTIX
In 1949, Vernon Scannell (1922-2007) was working at an English fairground boxing booth, taking a fall in one fight and avenging himself on a hapless challenger in the next. Behind him were convictions for bigamy and desertion, an abusive childhood, short stints as a professional boxer and a private university tutor (despite never having gone to university himself), innumerable bar fights, and a single book of poems.
Ahead were more women, more bar fights, more time in prison, more teaching, and more poems. At the time, he was 37 and living with his divorced mother, writing little. His life seemed to be at a dead end. But as James Andrew Taylor notes in this excellent biography, an opportunity arrived, as would happen many times in Scannell’s life, to pull himself—or to be pulled—from the rubble. In this case, it was a job teaching English and history at a secondary school in West London. At other times, it was meeting a new woman, receiving a small prize or grant, or even having a chance encounter with some old friends.
The seeming incongruity of Vernon Scannell’s life and personality makes him one of the most intriguing figures of contemporary literature. He was a man of immense sensitivity who identified with the weak, the broken, and the cowardly of the world but, when drunk, was a terrible wife beater. He loved children and despised violence but fought in the Second World War and had a lifelong passion for boxing. He was one of the most talented poets of his generation, but he often felt out of place in literary circles and regularly doubted his talent.
He was talented though, and mostly self-taught. Scannell’s poems combine frank statement and penetrating insight in carefully crafted lines. In “Mastering the Craft,” which compares his two great passions—boxing and poetry—Scannell wrote that poets, like boxers, “must train.”
He was a blue-collar poet, though this does not do justice to the range of his work, which deals with love, war, sports, childhood, and, most of all, failure—often with self-effacing humor. When he was in jail in 1974 for drunk driving, his daughter Nancy wrote to ask him what a jailbird was. Scannell wrote:
This is classic Scannell: honest, direct, almost entirely defeated except for the elegant formulation of that defeat. For Scannell, a poet must know his craft, but if he lacks passion, his poems are useless. In “The Poet’s Tongue,” he writes: With industry and patience he must bring / Together his great arsenal; yet the poet ultimately ignores his “intricate machines” to use “bits of flint that hit the target square.”
Scannell was born John Vernon Bain in 1922. His father was a photographer, and Vernon, his older brother, and a younger sister grew up in the small town of Aylesbury, where a nearby RAF base provided a regular source of customers for photography services.
Life was hard at home: Both Scannell and his brother suffered regular beatings from their father. This was not the sort of firm but corrective punishment common at the time, but violent whippings, burnings, and slaps to the face, all accompanied by derisive mocking.
As the boys grew, the slaps became punches. Their mother was unaffectionate and frequently blamed the boys for provoking their father. Scannell and his brother both developed an early love of reading—against all odds, it would seem—and found some solace in P. G. Wodehouse, David Copperfield, and Sir Walter Scott—although this had to be hidden from their father, who viewed reading as the mark of a sissy.
At 12, Scannell took up boxing and discovered that he had a gift for it. He would go on to fight briefly as a professional and would use his skill, as we have seen, to earn some extra money here and there. Later, Scannell would remember his time in the ring fondly, describing an opponent’s head “jerking back as if on an invisible puppet-wire” and “a grey tidal wave of noise” sweeping over him—“warm and exalting.”
Scannell left school at 14 to work as a bookkeeper for an insurance company. He was tall, handsome, and charming. At 18 he met a young woman by the name of Barbara Phillips. She became pregnant, and Scannell quickly married her, but the two would never live together. Scannell and his brother stole close to £100 from their father and went on a weeklong drinking binge in London. Running short of cash, they enlisted in the army.
Scannell saw time in North Africa, though less than he suggested in his memoirs. He was not present at the Battle of El Alamein, but he almost certainly fought at the Battle of the Mareth Line and the assault on Wadi Akarit. He also took part in the D-Day invasion. Scannell was not the best soldier: He would regularly go AWOL during training to go on drinking binges, and on the battlefield, he tried as much as possible to avoid shooting anybody. After the attack on Wadi Akarit, however, he snapped when he saw British soldiers stealing from their own fallen comrades: “I just remember all those dead Seaforths lying out there,” he later recalled, “and our blokes going round, settling on them like f—ing flies, taking their watches and wallets and Christ-knows-what, and I just got up and walked. It was like a dream.”
He was arrested a few days later and spent six months in a military prison in Alexandria before being released for good behavior and reinstated with his unit.
Scannell’s time in a military prison was not only difficult—the prisoners were given repetitive tasks, regularly humiliated, and subjected to random punishments—but it instilled in him a strong sense of guilt and self-doubt. Afterwards, he would always see himself as a coward, despite having deserted only after the fighting ended at Wadi Akarit and going on to fight in Normandy. Taylor writes that Alexandria reinforced Scannell’s “distrust of military virtues . . . and . . . brought to his poetry a sympathy of the weak, the morally compromised.”
The day after Germany surrendered in 1945, Scannell (still Bain) packed his bags and left his post. Because this was considered a second desertion, Scannell, if caught, would be returned to military prison to finish his original sentence. In London, he fell in with a group of artists and intellectuals who had opposed the war from the beginning and who took Scannell in, providing him with a new name and work on the black market. In 1947, he was caught by military police, faced trial for desertion, and was sent to a psychiatric hospital for a short time before being released. He married again, though he had never divorced his first wife, and was subsequently charged with bigamy.
It was in London that Scannell began to write seriously. He would marry a third time, and remain married for two decades, before divorcing again. While he worked as a secondary school teacher and headmaster to support his growing family, he lived mostly by his writing and readings. According to Taylor, he was a good (if often absent) father and a loving and terrifying spouse who could become violent when drunk. He found it impossible to remain faithful to one woman.
Scannell was a prolific, as well as talented, writer: Between 1960 and 1990 he published more than a book a year. Yet while Taylor comments on some of these works, and on Scannell’s development as a writer, he gives too much space to Scannell’s binges and beatings, which make for repetitive reading.
Taylor does comment, in detail, on Scannell’s two final collections, in which we find some of his most powerful work as the poet looks back, with regret, on his life. In “Missing Things,” Scannell writes: I’m very old and breathless, tired and lame, / And soon I’ll be no more to anyone / Than the slowly fading trochee of my name. While the poet tells himself that, when dead, he will feel nothing, “like the stone of which the house is made,” he asks: Then why so sad? And just a bit afraid? The reason, of course, is that just as there is more to life than poetry, there may be more to death than silence. In one poem, Scannell confesses his need to give a full account of all / the lies and self cruelties; in another, he hears the first soft chords from far away: / the wounded music of what might have been.
Whether or not the poet found peace at the end of his life, his own “wounded music”—quiet, elegant, humble—rang true to the end.
Micah Mattix is assistant professor of literature at Houston Baptist University.