First published forty years ago, Argument of Kings was initially well-received and made the transition to paperback in 1989, a new edition following almost a decade later. Yet I only came upon it by chance in a second-hand stall while waiting to see a film, the kind of discovery that vindicates all those hours of fruitless browsing. I knew of Vernon Scannell as a poet without ever having read his work; but this is a memoir told in the third person about his experiences in the second world war. It presents a vision of that conflict which may seem jaundiced, even heretical, but would surely convince all except the most blinkered of patriots with its candour about the home front as well as the beaches. Not a great book if judged by the highest standards, still it manages to do most of what we hope for in a story, providing a strong narrative with agile changes of backdrop and pace at the same time as challenging our assumptions.
A boxer of some resolve, John Bain (Scannell’s original name) was no coward; yet he became a serial absconder from the army in circumstances easily characterised as desertion. Moral distaste, a common-or-garden bolshiness, sexual appetite, impatience to be demobbed: his motives varied but had in common a dislike of authority and following orders. There was fear as well, his own and his comrades’, the temptation to do a bunk always present, some minor wound (a so-called ‘blighty one’) the best that could be hoped for. This view of men under arms is remorselessly unheroic – excessively so, you may be tempted to think, but a bracing corrective to the usual pieties, what Larkin called the ‘solemn-sinister / Wreath-rubbish in Whitehall’. I realise halfway through that it is also about class, as any honest book on the subject of England is bound to be. The squalid self-preservation on display was born in the slums and factories – likewise the suspicion of anything more rarefied like Scannell’s interest in poetry. The picture drawn of being on leave in Manchester is particularly unstinting, with few resources, inner or social, to draw on, leaving drunkenness as the only form of release.
This is one of several claims made by the book to authenticity. No punches are drawn with regard to language, either the obscenities with which everyday speech was littered or their mantra-like repetition in moments of danger. The description of life in a military prison is harrowing, a system as inhumane as anything Hitler devised. And the effect on Bain of his friend’s death in action, a routine fatality numbing in its pointlessness, is poignant without being sentimental, a slow-release trauma from which the author and those close to him suffered for many years. There is a paradox at work in our attitudes to such things, a risk of unintended consequences. By honouring the dead and making their sacrifice seem worthwhile we run the risk of dignifying war, which only makes the next one more possible. Scannell’s book is as far removed from the standard version of events – and from any prospect of consolation – as it is possible to conceive. It is also commendably free of moralising. Yet in looking so squarely at the horror, degradation and wastefulness of a conflict still shrouded in national myth he did the rest of us a great service while seeking to exorcise his personal demons.