Social and historical context
Vernon Scannell (1922–2007)
Vernon Scannell was born in 1922, in Spilsby, Lincolnshire, with the surname Bain.
Scannell left school at 14 and got a job in an accountant’s office, but his real interests were boxing and literature. He was a very good boxer at school and loved reading.
In 1940, when he was 18, Scannell joined the army and saw action in North Africa and then the Normandy invasion.
His Times obituary reported that war had a profound effect on him and subsequently appeared as a theme in much of his writing (either overtly or as an undertone). In Tunisia, Scannell deserted after seeing the consequences of a massacre and was then sent to prison in Alexandria. After he was released on a suspended sentence, he was wounded while taking part in the Normandy landings.
Scannell was then shipped back to a military hospital. While convalescing, on an impulse, as the end of the war in Europe was announced, he deserted and went on the run, changing his name from Bain to Scannell to avoid arrest. He earned money from a variety of jobs including teaching, writing poetry and professional boxing bouts (he fought successfully for Leeds University).
In the end his desertion caught up with him – in 1947 he was arrested and court-martialled. After he was released he continued his writing career.
Scannell won many awards for poetry, much of it dealing with his wartime experience. In 1961, he won the Heinemann Award for Literature and in 1974, the Cholmondeley Poetry Prize. He also received a special award from the Wilfred Owen Association, ‘in recognition of his contribution to war poetry’.
Vernon Scannell died in West Yorkshire in 2007.
The poem ‘Nettles’ first appeared in New & Collected Poems 1950–1980 (Robson Books, 1980).
‘Nettles’ would appear to focus on a real incident involving one of Scannell’s sons. It demonstrates an intense empathy with the suffering of the child (and indeed children everywhere).
It could be argued that there’s a sense of strong personal tragedy in Scannell’s work. Of his six children, we are told that ‘one handicapped son died as an infant (movingly written about in The Tiger and the Rose), and another son much later died in a motorcycle accident’ (independent.co.uk/news/obituaries/vernon-scannell-400943.html).
Scannell, Vernon, Of Love and War: New and Selected Poems (Robson Books, 2002) – a very accessible anthology of Scannell’s poetry which touches on the main themes of his work