Go Down Swinging
The unlikely career of England’s poet-pugilist.
Jul 14, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 41 • By MICAH MATTIX
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.