Vernon Scannell

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Vernon Scannell
Vernon Scannell.jpg
Vernon Scannell
Born John Vernon Bain
(1922-01-23)23 January 1922
Spilsby, Lincolnshire
Died 16 November 2007(2007-11-16) (aged 85)
West Yorkshire
Occupation Accountant's, Army & Boxing
Language English
Nationality British
Education University Of Leeds
Subject Poetry, English
Spouse Jo Peters
Partner Jo Peters
Children 6 children

Vernon Scannell (23 January 1922 – 16 November 2007) was a British poet and author. He was at one time a professional boxer, and wrote novels about the sport. His published poem count stands at 53.

Personal life

Vernon Scannell, whose birth name was John Vernon Bain, was born in 1922 in Spilsby, Lincolnshire. The family, always poor, moved frequently, including Ballaghaderreen in Ireland, Beeston, and Eccles, before settling in Buckinghamshire. Bain spent most of his youth growing up in Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire.[1] His father had fought in the First World War, and came to make a living as a commercial photographer. Scannell attended the local Queen's Park Boys' School, an elementary council school[2] He left school at the age of 14 to work as a clerk in an insurance office.[1] His real passions, however, were for the unlikely combination of boxing and literature. He had been winning boxing titles at school and had been a keen reader from a very early age, although not properly attaching to poetry until about aged 15, when he picked up a Walter de la Mare poem and was "instantly and permanently hooked". He frequently read both the poetry of Thomas Hardy and the thrillers of Edgar Wallace.[1]

Scannell enlisted in the army " as a lark" in 1940, shortly after war was declared. He joined the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders.,[1] and two years later was transferred to the Gordon Highlanders, a part of the 51st Highland Division.[3] The war took him into action in the North African desert. He fought at El Alamein and across the western desert during the Eighth Army's drive to reach Tunisia. Following an assault on an Axis held hill bear Gabes he watched as his Gordon Highlanders moved through the recently taken position, looting the dead, both Allied and Axis. Revolted, he walked away.[4] He was caught and court-martialled for deserting a forward area.[4] Sentenced to three years imprisonment, he spent six months in one of the harshest military penal institutions in Alexandria before being released on a suspended sentence to take part in the Normandy landings.[4] His war ended when he was shot in both legs while on night patrol near Caen. He was shipped back to a military hospital at Winwick in Lancashire before being sent on to a convalescent depot. Scannell had always very much disliked army life, finding nothing in his temperament which fitted him for the part of a soldier.[5] Following the end of the war in Europe (V.E. Day) he deserted again and spent two years on the run, earning his living with jobs in the theatre, professional boxing bouts and tutoring and coaching, all the while teaching himself by reading everything he could. During this evasive time Scannell was writing poetry and was first published in Tribune and The Adelphi. He was also boxing for Leeds University, winning the Northern Universities Championships at three weights. In 1947 he was arrested and court-martialled and sent to Northfield Military Hospital, a mental institution near Birmingham. On discharge he returned to Leeds and then went to London, where, supporting himself with teaching jobs and boxing, he settled down to writing.

Scannell, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature [3] won many poetry awards, including for war poems such as his collection Walking Wounded. A. E. Housman said that "the business of poetry is to harmonise the sadness of the universe" and Scannell quoted this with approval. Scannell's poems, with their themes of love, violence and mortality, were shaped and influenced by his wartime experiences. Scannell was awarded a Writing Fellowship in 1975 as Resident Poet in Berinsfield, Oxfordshire, an experience he recounts in A Proper Gentleman[6] and later, in 1979 he spent a term as Poet in Residence at the King's School, Canterbury.[7] His final collection, Last Post, was published in 2007; he had been working on it until not long before his death.


In the late 1950s and early 1960s he was a teacher of History, English Language and English Literature at Hazelwood School, Limpsfield, Surrey, teaching 8- to 13-year-old pupils. He brought his enthusiasm for boxing into the school and, while he did not exactly teach it, he ensured there were interesting bouts between boys ill-matched in size and weight. He was also able to write poetry about boxing.

Literary life

He received the Heinemann Award for Literature in 1961 for an early poetry volume, The Masks of Love,[6] and the Cholmondeley Award for poetry in 1974. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1960 and granted a Civil List pension in recognition of his services to literature in 1981.[8] Stephen Spender, the poet perceptively wrote to Scannell in a letter in 1953: "you write good poetry and that is all that matters."[9] Seamus Heaney in a letter to Andrew Taylor said he admired Scannell's poems "not only for their sturdy metrical pace and structure, but for their combination of mordancy and a sense of mortality".[7] John Carey, the critic commented: "Scannell nearly always works on two levels, one realistic and external, the other imaginative, metaphorical, haunted by memory and desire. A master of the dramatic monologue, his work is drenched in humanity. It resounds with memories."[10] Scannell also wrote the verse narration for BBC Television film A House that Died.[11]

He also received a special award from the Wilfred Owen Association "in recognition of his contribution to war poetry". Scannell's best-known book of war poetry is Walking Wounded (1965). The title poem recollects a column of men returning from battle: "No one was suffering from a lethal hurt, They were not magnified by noble wounds, There was no splendour in that company."

Scannell is also the author of a memoir, The Tiger and the Rose (1983). The unadorned narrative covers five years' military service and a brief boxing career. Scannell writes about the conclusion to his army life, "Twenty-five years ago, 1945...was the year I made what might seem like a desperate decision and performed what might appear to be an act of criminal folly, manic selfishness, zany recklessness, abject cowardice or even, perhaps, eccentric courage. I deserted from the Army. The first recipient of the Owen Award, Christopher Logue, author of some of the best war poetry of the past half century (in the form of versions of the Iliad), spent two years in a military prison, on a charge of handling stolen pass books. What would Owen say? He'd say: Never trust the teller, trust the tale."[12]

Historian Martin Johnes has used Scannell's 1951 novel The Fight to explore racial attitudes in 1950s Britain. He argues that its depictions of reactions to a black boxer illustrate the diversity of racial attitudes, including outright racism, better than contemporary sociological studies where private assumptions and thoughts were hidden.[13]


Scannell spent the final years of his life living in Otley, West Yorkshire, where he died at his home at the age of 85 after a long illness.[14]

Memorable lines

His obituarists heap praise on Scannell's verse and give their readers some examples of his most memorable lines:

  • From Walking Wounded (1965):
A mammoth morning moved grey flanks and groaned.
In the rusty hedges pale rags of mist hung;
The gruel of mud and leaves in the mauled lane
Smelled sweet, like blood. Birds had died or flown,
Their green and silent attics sprouting now
With branches of leafed steel, hiding round eyes
And ripe grenades ready to drop and burst...
Then into sight the ambulances came,
Stumbling and churning past the broken farm,
The amputated sign-post and smashed trees,
Slow waggonloads of bandaged cries, square trucks
That rolled on ominous wheels, vehicles
Made mythopoeic by their mortal freight
And crimson crosses on the dirty white...
The mist still hung in snags from dripping thorns;
Absent-minded guns still sighed and thumped.
And then they came, the walking wounded,
Straggling the road like convicts loosely chained,
Dragging at ankles exhaustion and despair...
Remembering after eighteen years,
In the heart's throat a sour sadness stirs;
Imagination pauses and returns
To see them walking still, but multiplied
In thousands now. And when heroic corpses
Turn slowly in their decorated sleep
And every ambulance has disappeared,
The walking wounded still trudge down that lane,
And when recalled they must bear arms again.[15]
  • From Missing Things:
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
and shadow of my presence ...
There's something valedictory in the way
my books gaze down on me from where they stand in disciplined disorder, and display
the same goodwill that well-wishers on land convey to troops who sail away to where great danger waits...[16]
  • From A Note for Biographers:
What captivates and sells, and always will,
Is what we are: vain, snarled up, and sleazy.
No one is really interesting until
To love him has become no longer easy.[17]
  • From The Long and Lovely Summers recalling idyllic times walking on the Chilterns above Wendover:
And yet we still remember them – the long
And lovely summers, never smeared or chilled-
Like poems, by heart; like poems, never wrong;
The idyll is intact, its truth distilled
From maculate fact, preserved as by the sharp
And merciful mendacities.
  • From Remembering the Dead at Wadi Akarit:
Disposed in their scattered dozens like fragments of a smashed whole, each human particle
Is almost identical, rhyming in shape and pigment,
All, in their mute eloquence, oddly beautiful.
  • From The Loving Game (1975):
A quarter of a century ago
I hung the gloves up, knew I'd had enough
Of taking it and trying to dish it out,
Foxing them or slugging toe-to-toe.[8]



  • Graves and Resurrections (1948), poems
  • The Wound and The Scar (Peter Nevill, 1953)
  • A Mortal Pitch (Villiers, 1957), poems
  • The Masks of Love (Putnam, 1960), poems
  • A Sense of Danger (Putnam, 1962), poems
  • New Poems 1962: A P. E. N. Anthology (Hutchinson, 1962), editor with Patricia Beer and Ted Hughes
  • The Dividing Night (Putnam, 1962)
  • Edward Thomas (1963)
  • The Loving Game (1965), poems
  • Walking Wounded – Poems 1962–65 (1965)
  • Pergamon Poets 8 (1970), with Jon Silkin
  • Epithets of War – Poems 1965–69 (Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1969)
  • The Dangerous Ones (Elsevier, 1970)
  • Mastering the Craft (Pergamon Press, 1970)
  • Selected Poems (Allison & Busby, 1971)
  • Company of Women (Sceptre Press, 1971)
  • Incident at West Bay, a poem (The Keepsake Press, 1972)
  • The Winter Man (Allison & Busby, 1973)
  • Wish You Were Here (1973), broadsheet poem
  • Meeting in Manchester (1974)
  • The Apple-Raid and Other Poems (Chatto & Windus, 1974)
  • Three Poets, Two Children: Leonard Clark, Vernon Scannell, Dannie Abse, Answer Questions by Two Children (1975)
  • A Morden Tower Reading (1976) poems, with Alexis Lykiard
  • Not Without Glory: Poets of the Second World War (Woburn Press, 1976), editor
  • Of Love And Music (Mapletree, 1979), poems
  • Loving Game: Poems (Robson Books, 1979)
  • New & Collected Poems 1950–1980 (Robson Books, 1980)
  • Nettles (Robson Books, 1980; as part of New & Collected Poems 1950–1980)
  • Catch the Light (1982), poems, with Gregory Harrison and Laurence Smith
  • Winterlude: Poems (Robson Books, 1982)
  • Funeral Games and Other Poems (Robson Books, 1987)
  • Sporting Literature (Oxford, 1987), editor, anthology
  • The Clever Potato – A Feast of Poetry for Children (Red Fox, 1988)
  • Soldiering On. Poems of Military Life (Robson Books, 1989)
  • Love Shouts and Whispers (Red Fox, 1990)
  • A Time for Fires (Robson Books, 1991), poems
  • Travelling Light (Bodley Head, 1991)
  • The Black and White Days (Robson Books, 1996), poems
  • Collected Poems, 1950–93 (Robson Books, 1998)
  • Feminine Endings (Enitharmon Press, 2000), poems
  • Views and Distances (Enitharmon Press, 2000), poems
  • Of Love & War: New and Selected Poems (Robson Books, 2002)
  • Incendiary
  • The Gunpowder Plot
  • House for Sale
  • Moods of Rain
  • A Case of Murder poems
  • Uncle Albert
  • Hide and Seek
  • Last Post (Shoestring Press, 2007), ISBN 978-1-904886-67-9
  • A Place to Live (The Happy Dragons' Press, 2007)[18]
  • Death of a Snow Man
  • They Did Not Expect This
  • The death of a snowman


  • The Tiger and the Rose (Hamish Hamilton, 1971),
  • An Argument of Kings (Parkwest, 1987),
  • A Proper Gentleman (Robson Books, 1977),
  • Drums of Morning – Growing up in the Thirties (Robson Books, 1992),


  • The Fight (Peter Nevill, 1953), novel
  • The Big Chance (John Long, 1960), novel
  • The Face of the Enemy (Putnam, 1961), novel
  • The Shadowed Place (1961), novel
  • The Big Time (Longmans, 1965), novel
  • Ring of Truth (Robson Books, 1983), novel


  • How to Enjoy Novels (Piatkus Books, 1984)
  • How To Enjoy Poetry (Piatkus Books, 1983)
  • A House that Died Verse Narration to BBC TV film.

Further reading

  • James Andrew Taylor: Walking Wounded: The Life and Poetry of Vernon Scannell, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013, ISBN 978-0-19-960318-3
  • Barry Fox's blogsite: It contains stories and photographs of Scannell as teacher and teacher at Hazelwood. Taylor admitted he had erred in not reading it,


  • Bierman, John; Smith, Colin (2002). Alamein : War Without Hate. London, England: Viking.  [19]
  1. ^ a b c d Bierman and Smith 2002, p. 272.
  2. ^ Scannell, Vernon, Drums of Morning, London: Robson Books, 1992. ISBN 1861052464
  3. ^ a b Cover note, Not Without Glory, London: Woburn Press. ISBN 0713000945
  4. ^ a b c Bierman and Smith 2002, p. 394.
  5. ^ Cover note An Argument of Kings, London: Robson Books. ISBN 978-0-86051-444-2
  6. ^ a b Cover note, New & Collected Poems 1950 - 1980, London: Robson Books, 1980. ISBN 0860511049
  7. ^ a b James Andrew Taylor, Walking Wounded: The Life and Poetry of Vernon Scannell, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013. ISBN 9780199603183
  8. ^ a b "Vernon Scannell (obituary)", The Telegraph, 19 November 2007.
  9. ^ Scannell Vernon, Tiger and the Rose, London: Hamish & Hamilton, 1971. ISBN 978-0-241-02054-8
  10. ^ Foreword to Taylor, Walking Wounded: The Life and Poetry of Vernon Scannell, 2013.
  11. ^ Cover note, Tiger and the Rose, London: Hamish & Hamilton, 1971. ISBN 978-0-241-02054-8
  12. ^ "Network your poetry", The Times, 27 July 2007.
  13. ^ Johnes, Martin. "Texts, Audiences and Postmodernism: The Novel as Source in Sport History". 
  14. ^ "News in brief". The Observer. November 18, 2007. Retrieved March 22, 2016. 
  15. ^ Walking Wounded by Vernon Scannell – Poetry Archive
  16. ^ Alan Brownjohn, "Vernon Scannell (obituary)", The Guardian, 19 November 2007.
  17. ^ Anthony Thwaite, "Vernon Scannell Obituary" Archived 20 November 2007 at the Wayback Machine., The Independent, 19 November 2007.
  18. ^ "A Place to Live by Vernon Scannell". Retrieved 30 September 2009. 
  19. ^ Bierman and Smith 2002.

External links

  • A sample of Scannell's poetry
  • Poetry reading on CD by Vernon Scannell
  • Vernon Scannell on Desert Island Discs 1987
  • "Vernon Scannell, painter and poet", article in the TLS by Paul Trewhela, 5 December 2007
  • Obituary in The Times, 20 November 2007
  • Vernon Scannell at the Poetry Archive
  • War Poets' Association Entry for Vernon Scannell
  • Alan Brownjohn, "Vernon Scannell (obituary)", The Guardian, 19 November 2007
  • "Vernon Scannell (obituary)", The Telegraph, 19 November 2007
  • Anthony Thwaite, "Vernon Scannell Obituary", The Independent, 19 November 2007
  • Hazelwood School where Vernon Scannell taught History and Boxing
  • Simon Jenkins, "Created on a canvas of needless pain: a poet who inspired the underbelly", The Guardian, 23 November 2007
  • Archival material at Leeds University Library
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