Vernon Scannell was born in 1922 in Spilsby, Lincolnshire. The family, always poor, moved frequently: Ballaghaderreen in Ireland, Beeston, Eccles, before settling in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, where his father, who had fought in the First World War, developed a reputation as a good portrait photographer and the family’s severe financial difficulties began to ease. Scannell left the local council school at fourteen and got a job in an accountant’s office. 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 fifteen, when he picked up a Walter de la Mare poem and was ‘instantly and permanently hooked’.
In 1940 Scannell enlisted in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. The war took him into action in the North African desert and then the Normandy invasion, where he was wounded near Caen and shipped back to a military hospital before being sent onto 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. So ‘on impulse’, after V.E. Day, with the war over as far as he was concerned, he deserted 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 The Tribune and 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 London, where, supporting himself with teaching jobs and boxing, he settled down to writing.
Scannell won many poetry awards, including war poems such as ‘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. His final collection 'Last Post' was published in 2007; he had been working on it until not long before his death.
Vernon Scannell died at home in West Yorkshire on 17 November 2007, aged 85.
In the late 1950s he was a teacher of English Literature and poetry at Hazelwood School, Limpsfield, Surrey, teaching 8 to 12-year-old pupils. See this for a comment by Sir Simon Jenkins on Scannell as a teacher: www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2007/nov/23/comment.poetry
He received the Heinemann Award for Literature in 1961 and the Cholmondeley Poetry Prize 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.
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 delightful and candid memoir, The Tiger and the Rose (1983). The delight derives from the unadorned narrative, taking in five years' military service and a brief boxing career. The candour lies in Scannell's willingness to write 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.a