To commemorate the anniversary of Benny Lynch’s death, in a collaboratively written article, Christina Milarvie Quarrell and John Davis consider: why it is time to raise a statue to Glasgow’s greatly loved son, how we can learn from the context in which Benny Lynch became world champion and what messages Benny Lynch’s life and achievements have for the present day.
This last week has seen a number of events celebrating the life of Benny Lynch. On Friday the 5th August, The Glencairn provided the venue for ‘The Gorbals Legend’ group fundraiser for a statue to commemorate Benny Lynch’s life and his achievements. Saturday, the 6th of August, marked the 70th anniversary of Benny lynch’s death and on Monday the 8th of August Glasgow’s Lord Provost Sadie Doherty hosted Benny Lynch’s family members at a reception to honour the greatly loved man where she also offered her support to the ‘The Gorbals Legend’ campaign.
In addition to recent events, there is also a free standing travelling exhibition on display until the end of September at the Gorbals Library; including trophies, photographs and books. The exhibition enables local people to read about the incredible story of Benny Lynch and how his commitment to running hills (Cathkin Braes), thumping bags, jabbing shadows and avoiding the punches of his opponents, enabled him to stand up and represent the people of the Gorbals on the world stage.
Benny Lynch was a fabulous boxer and boxing fans can now watch Benny Lynch on youtube gracefully trading blows, shifting feet, and slipping punches. Indeed, Benny Lynch floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee before the great Muhammad Ali had coined the phrase. But unlike Ali, Benny Lynch began his boxing at carnival booths and on show grounds.
The boxing booths were a double edged sword. Booth wages of £7 a week were substantial at a time (john Maclean tells us) when some people in the Gorbals were trying to live off as little as £1 a week. The booths enabled those who could fight to earn upwards of 3 weeks wages a fight; they enabled men to put food on the table for hungry children; and boxer’s families to live in slightly less crowded rental flats. But, the booths were also dangerous places where boxers would fight several times a night and their bodies, faces, and hands would show the impact of constant use.
Benny Lynch was spotted in the booths on Glasgow Green by Sammy Wilson a bookie and former boxer who became Lynch’s trainer and manager. When Sammy Wilson first saw Benny Lynch he proclaimed that he would be a future world champion and, true to Wilson’s prediction, Lynch delivered. At the height of his powers: 20,000 would mark his return from his win over Jackie Brown; 50,000 people would watch him train on Glasgow Green; and 100,000 would meet him at Glasgow Central station and line his route home following his 15 round January 9, 1937 win against Small Montana of the Philippines at the Empire Pool London (Wembley Arena).
The crowds adored and acclaimed Benny lynch as our first ever undisputed world champion, our ‘best ever Scottish boxer’ and the ‘kid from the Gorbals’ who put his birth place ‘on the map’. Benny Lynch, by travelling down to England, representing his nation, beating the world champion and returning to acclaim became a modern day hero. As Joseph Campbell in the book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces tells us – a hero has to go through a rite of passage (alone or with assistance), symbolically (or actually) go to another world, take on all sorts of ‘fabulous’ opponents, win and return to their birth world to bestow great gifts and improvements in the life worlds of their fellow country folk.
On his return to Glasgow, Benny Lynch became a hero (and local people still see him as a hero now and there are still plays, songs and poems being written about him) because he empathetically connected with his people, shared his success and showed the world the quality of folk fae the Gorbals.
It is difficult to go back in time and find out what the ‘truth’ of Benny Lynch’s life was. But let us try. We could start from the position that the ‘truth’ is most likely multi-faceted, that any ‘truths’ are ever moving (in both the emotive and positional senses of the word) and, as time passes, ‘truth’ becomes more and more ambiguous as the clouds of time move in.
However, even taking into account the clouds of time, Benny’s story involves sound and consistent truisms that still have meaning for our contemporary world.
We as human beings are full of contradictions, it is easy to pick on the highs and lows of our hero’s lives when attempting to paint a picture of their identities. It is more difficult to do justice to the complexity of our hero’s existence on this earth, to understand the layers of knowledge that have made up their world and the depth of emotions, thoughts and values they have expressed over their life-time.
There will never be one ‘true’ version of Benny Lynch’s life but by standing back from the fray, by examining the times in which he lived and by understanding the connections between poverty, class, immigration, exploitation and inequality, we can better understand, not only, what Benny’s achievements said of the man but also how his achievements (and a subsequent statue in Glasgow) can represent something more than himself.
For If there are to be more statues in Glasgow – why not let them be statues of people who helped their fellow man and woman? By raising a statue to Benny Lynch we will not only represent him, but we will let Benny Lynch represent the incredible endurance of Glaswegians who are not beaten, are not bowed and are not broken. The endurance of Glaswegians who, when voting as a majority for independence in 2014, stood up to decades of inequality, decades of ill health and decades of political mismanagement (Westminster and the local corporation/council).
It is remarkable, indeed almost a mystery, that despite having to experience extremely testing living conditions, Benny Lynch rose up to stand as an example of Glaswegian fortitude. Lynch’s achievements are all the more impressive when you consider that he was born on the 2nd of April 1913 into a setting with scandalously high levels of health inequality, overcrowding, food poverty and environmental pollution. For example, illness such as typhoid, cholera and tuberculosis were rife in Glasgow up to the end of the 19th century; there was an outbreak of the plague that killed at least 900 in 1900; tuberculosis killed more than 200 people per 100,000 in 1910; and incidences of many diseases would peak during Benny Lynch’s life time – rates of measles (above 12,000 per 100k), whooping cough (almost 6000 per 100k), diphtheria (over 2000 per 100k) and scarlet fever (around 5000 per 100k) topped out in 1930.
The men and women of Benny Lynch’s parent’s and grandparent’s generation’s had to endure 3 decades of troubled times. They had to live through various health epidemics of the late 19 century and early 20c century. Between 1914 and 1918 they had to survive the carnage, trauma, injuries and loss of the first-world-war and in 1929 they witnessed the impact of the Wall Street Crash and a decade of depression. Put in this context, Benny Lynch’s achievements are remarkable. Not just that (at a time so bleak) he could exhibit the necessary dedication to shine in the boxing ring, but also that he could put a smile on the face of his family, friends and neighbours who had had to endure so much.
We should think of Benny Lynch (in a similar way to Andy Murray and Dunblane), as having acted (and still acting) as an example of the commitment, hope, humour, generosity, strength and resistance of the people of the Gorbals. Benny Lynch, in good times and in bad, showed the world that the people of the Gorbals were made of exceptional substance. However, the Benny lynch story that is often told in the media – tends to promote a deficit characterisation (it depicts him as an Icarus type personality that rose and fell from the sun) and, by default, such depictions tend to label the community into which he was born as a rags – to riches – and back again, environment.
Glasgow in the 1920s and 30s was an incredibly vibrant melting pot of various immigrant cultures (Italian, Irish, Eastern European, etc.. It was a city of industry, energy and production. Benny Lynch’s achievements contributed to that sense of vibrancy but some writing about the time, unreflectively, reduces Glasgow’s identity down to stereotypes about corruption, crime and violence or continually presents ‘sick man of Europe’ characterisations that label whole communities – without examining the causes of Glasgow’s inequalities.
Benny Lynch died very young at the age of 33 (Glasgow life expectancy at the time he was born in Glasgow was around age 48) and most media portrayals of Benny Lynch’s life tend to look for individual explanations for his relatively early death. Such limited portrayals can be confronted if we take a different ‘intersectional’ perspective of Glasgow – that seeks to investigate the interconnected contexts which have, for decades, caused premature deaths in Glasgow.
Intersectionality, is a term that emerged from black feminist writing in the USA. Such writing encouraged us to explore the connections between equity issues such as disability, gender, religion, sexuality, class and ethnicity. Black American feminists argued we needed to consider how societal barriers, discrimination and injustice stem from more than one single issue and also pointed out that the voices and life stories of people who experience inequality (e.g. black working class women) are often missing from and ‘silenced’ in historical and contemporary writing.
But, intersectionality can also be employed to challenge portraits of Glasgow that seek to blame local people for their inequitable life circumstances. John Maclean complained in his diary ‘Justice’ in 1913, – the year benny was born – that local politicians failed to address chronic housing conditions because they were too focussed on ensuring that their pals could continue to drew rents from homes in the Gorbals. He argued that local politicians wanted to ensure that capitalist builders rather than corporation builders could profit from building in the suburbs. Maclean (in an echo of our present times) was also scathing of those, ‘well to do’, folk who advocated health education as a solution to the poverty of the Gorbals – rather than redistribution of wealth. Maclean would die aged 44 as a result of his mistreatment in prison. It can be of no consolation that a recent report upheld his view as to what has actually caused decades of ill health in Glasgow.
Let us think on Maclean’s position for a moment and pose the question, why is it that the ‘well to do’ folk (including those of the main stream media) feel the need to constantly pick on Glasgow and its citizens in an individualistic way that does not recognise the context in which generation after generation have been forced, by inadequate politicians, to live their lives? None of us are ever free from transgressions, shortcomings and failings, but by blaming people’s ill health on their own flaws – such commentators overlook the root and intersectional causes of health inequality in Glasgow.
A more thoughtful and intersectional analysis of Benny Lynch’s achievements – would recognise his incredible fortitude when the odds were so stacked against him. Benny Lynch was successful in spite of the way Glasgow was governed, structured and ordered. He was successful even though he had little or no access to the sporting facilities, the medication, the nutritional diet or the national health services that boxers would expect to utilise today.
Thoughtful and intersectional consideration of the circumstances of Benny Lynch’s life repositions us from blame perspectives to a stand point where we can understand that context is everything. It enables us to recognise the ability of Benny and his fellow Glaswegians to rise above the terrible conditions created by those who sought to exploit everyday working people. By taking an intersectional approach we can move beyond a focus on individual flaws to acknowledge the sustained ability of Glaswegians to utilise humour, joy and tactics of resistance to give succour to the soul. At a time when there was precious little else available with which to combat the stark inequalities of the city, Glaswegian’s utilised the only thing they had left – their spirit and generosity.
Above all Benny Lynch was a hugely generous person (‘generous to a fault’) and Glasgow’s citizens have always sought (whilst still enabling people’s dignity) to combat their living conditions by being generous, pulling together and where ever possible, supporting those most in need of sustenance or those who exhibited flagging spirits of resistance. That’s is, they sought to support those who felt most worn down by the never ending struggle, the hunger, or the constant effort to support children, siblings and elderly relatives who experienced illness, disease and early death.
If the blame for poverty lies anywhere, it is not with those families imprisoned by poverty but with a society based on profit not people. Glaswegian women, for decades, have been at the centre of processes that have attempted to ameliorate poverty with generosity and the sisterly spirit of compassion understanding and respect. With dignity, humour, kindness and respect, women hold up the world in the face of multiple adversity and many Gorbals women fought long and hard to hold up and hold together their families and communities within the Gorbals.
The books about Benny Lynch’s life mention a few of these women who sought to support Benny and his brother. Women who exhibited the values of social welfare and human justice that are inherent within multiple faiths (or no faiths) whether it has been sharing the communal pot or the sharing of communal tasks.
The women of the Gorbals, whilst living in poverty, fought hard daily to maintain standards of human dignity against all odds. Similarly, older sisters, brothers, parents, grandparents, aunties, cousins taught and learned about cooperation, sharing and community through, for example, the collaborative processes of organising a humble wedding reception (borrowing chairs, tables or crockery from up and down a street; making scotch broth, steak pie, tatties, peas and a big trifle; or sharing songs, jokes and laughs).
The people of Glasgow have fought hard but most of all they have used their humour as their greatest defence mechanism. A 2003 documentary about his life tells us that Benny Lynch was fun to be with, was the heart and soul of the party, had a great sense of humour and loved to dance (at the Locarno). People who knew Benny talk of him as a pied piper who would was continuously generous to the children of the Gosbals whether it was giving their parents money to buy them presents, or paying for pokes of chips ‘all round’ when passing the chip shop. Indeed, his wife Anne McGukian had to stop mentioned things she liked because he would just go out and buy them (there is a story of him buying her at least two fur coats because she couldn’t make up her mind about which one she wanted).
The 2003 documentary points out, ‘He wasny stingy with money he would help anyone’ and that he often would throw money to local weans (was partial to a ‘pour-oot’). Again, we can see here that Benny Lynch and Muhammad Ali were kindred spirits – in more ways than one. They both sought to be generous to their fellow folk, empathise with the plight of others and share out the financial gains that came from boxing.
Yet, whilst recognising Benny’s ability to be generous to local children, we also learn from the 2003 documentary that within such communities and families, past and present, many children and young people like Benny experienced difficult childhoods. Younger siblings often had to cope, not only, with the loss of their parents but also with the loss of older sibling who had become father and/or mother figures. For example, the tragic loss of his big brother James (aged only 19), Benny’s role model, mentor, protector and first boxing instructor, was a sorrowful time in young Benny’s life (Benny was just 16).
There are echo’s between Benny Lynch’s story and that of Johnny Cash’s the American folk singer. Jonny Cash’s brother died aged 14. Jonny Cash spoke years later, in an Academy of Achievement interview, of his admiration for his brother:
‘In my little world, in northeast Arkansas on a cotton farm, it was my brother, Jack. He was my inspiration. He was two years older than I and he was killed at the age of 14. I always wanted to be like him. He was a strong person, he was a Bible student, he was in perfect shape, physically. I always wanted to be like him.”’
There were times when Jonny Cash’s life might have ended as early as Benny Lynch’s life. But, Jonny Cash had two protective factors that Benny Lynch did not have. Jonny Cash had the love of June Carter Cash and their ability to collectively sing about his troubles.
Benny Lynch’s outlets were boxing, dancing, the cinema and the theatre (particularly pantomime) but it is not clear that he was able to express his feelings in the way that Cash did. When Benny Lynch subsequently separated from his wife and his manager Sammy Wilson, the stable influences in his life had been removed.
It is worth thinking about how men might be encouraged to open up more to their feelings and how poetry, art and song can all be creatively employed to enable self-expression. For example, no one can listened to the Glasvagas song ” Daddy’s gone” without admiring the songs ability to express emotional loss.
‘I won’t be the lonely one Sitting on my own and sad A fifty year old Reminiscing what I had I won’t be the lonely one, Sitting on my own and sad, Forget your dad, he’s gone’
Opening up and talking about your experiences is important but we should also be aware, in keeping with Maclean, that the solutions to poverty (in the longer term) have to go beyond understanding, empathy and kindness and centre on processes of material, structural and cultural change.
The 2003 documentary sought to explain Benny’s death at the age of 33 as being caused by personal grief and the constant drain that boxing placed on his body. But this explanation fails to place Benny Lynch’s life in context. Such explanations prevent us from understanding and addressing the fact that inequality and decades of political mismanagement have caused ill health and premature deaths in Glasgow – for every Benny Lynch there are thousands more who died prematurely and who possessed less celebrated names but were, no doubt, just as equally loved by family and friends.
The political context of premature deaths in Glasgow is rarely written about in any depth or with any complexity. For example, the finer details and political implications of a recent report into the ‘Glasgow effect’ have, mostly, been overlooked by the main stream media.
The May 2016 report by the Glasgow Centre for Population Health, NHS Health Scotland, the University of the West of Scotland and University College London, entitled; ‘History, politics and vulnerability: explaining excess mortality in Scotland and Glasgow’ argues that over a period of at least 6 decades, Westminster and Glasgow based politicians failed to take decisions that enabled protective factors (factors that helped people to stay healthy) to develop in Glasgow.
Let us pause for a moment and reflect on the Glasgow Effect. The report explained why people in Glasgow are 30% more likely to die from the big three (cancer, strokes and heart disease); ‘despairs’ illnesses (e.g. suicide) and despair conditions linked to drugs and alcohol. The report stated that Scotland experiences ‘excess mortality’ of citizens under the age of 65 (more deaths than would be expected when compared to countries with similar socio economic profiles) and that excess mortality was and is
‘greatest in and around the post-industrial West Central Scotland (WCS) conurbation and, in particular, Glasgow’.
This report is not simply about numbers. Indeed, in a rare human statement from professionals obsessed with statistics, the report asks us to look beyond the numbers and consider the impact of the Glasgow effect on families and communities:
‘5,000 more people die every year in Scotland than should be the case. This excess plays a major role in explaining why Scotland has both the lowest life expectancy, and the widest mortality inequalities, in Western Europe. Although usually expressed in statistical terms (such as standardised rates or ratios or expected years of life), behind such summary epidemiological expressions lie genuine human tragedies: individual stories of shortened, wasted lives, pain, sickness, early death and grief, affecting individual men, women and children, their families, friends and communities.
So if we are looking for the source of Benny Lynch’s despair – we should avoid attempts to blame his mother, father, brother, family and ultimately Benny Lynch himself.
The new report on the Glasgow effect – moves away from blaming the people of Glasgow ‘en masse’ – to posing questions about the way powerful people constructed, managed and developed Glasgow. The report suggests that historical depravation, such as overcrowding, during the 20th Century (if not earlier) had a disproportionate and long term ‘lagging’ impact on Glasgow’s citizen’s health. It also argues that inadequate physical environments (‘specifically in relation to levels of vacant and derelict land’) were never recognised nor addressed.
The Glasgow Effect report also points the finger at the Scottish Office policies on new towns. The new town policies, from the 1950s onwards, moved young families away from Glasgow rather than deal with the needs of the population (please note for our younger readers this was the Westminster dominated, pre-devolution, Scottish office). Politicians and academics are criticised for failing to produce adequate measurements that sufficiently captured differences in the:
‘complex, multi-dimensional, ‘lived reality’ of deprivation and poverty in Scotland, and especially in Glasgow, compared with elsewhere in Great Britain and the UK.’
In as damming a report as you could ever read, the local authority and Scottish office are accused of generating the Glasgow effect by providing inadequate support to the different phases of migrants coming to the city, carrying out ‘larger-scale slum clearances and demolitions’ that broke supportive local relationships; creating ‘larger within-city (poor quality) peripheral council house estates’; putting ‘greater emphasis on high-rise development; and failing to invest in quality housing. The report specifically states that there, ‘crucially’, was:
‘much lower per capita investment in housing repairs and maintenance of the public housing stock’.
In short, politician’s deprived Glasgow’s citizens of the necessary housing, living conditions, social relationships and community networks that enable people to lead healthy lives. Politicians, not local people, are to blame from Glasgow’s plight. Politicians, not people like Benny Lynch, created the conditions where, what the report calls, ‘diseases of despair’ took hold, multiplied and flourished.
The politicians in socio-economically comparable cities such as Liverpool and Manchester sought to address poverty, build new council housing and improve public amenities in ways ignored by Glasgow politicians and the Scottish Office. The actions of the politicians in Liverpool and Manchester created ‘protective factors’ that could have lengthened 5000 lives a year in Glasgow. That is more than 300,000 lives (over a six decade period) that were lived longer (beyond the age of 65) by people from similar backgrounds in Manchester and Liverpool.
However, of even greater significance to current political events – the report also blames decreased life expectancy in Scotland and Glasgow on a systemic democratic deficit that exists and has existed for decades in our politics:
‘The vulnerability of the Scottish (including Glaswegian) population was potentially enhanced by the negative impact of the so-called ‘democratic deficit’ of that period, characterised by feelings of despondency, disempowerment, and lack of sense of control (recognised ‘psychosocial’ risk factors with links to adverse health outcomes).’
That is posh language for – ‘Are Youse Yes yet?’ You couldn’t get a clearer example of the arguments made by the Yes side in the 2014 election.
The Yes campaign argued that we needed to be an independent country because a democratic deficit was prematurely killing our people (our people – where ever their descendants came from).
Lesley Riddoch’s book (entitled Blossom) explained this very well prior to the 2014 independence referendum. In the book she compared the lives of people in tenement’s that were taken over by residents (rather than knocked down) with those where the council retained control.
The residents who organised their own association – self-empowered, possessed a greater sense of community and lived longer.
The Glasgow Effect report tells us that the politicians of the 20th century were, sadly, only too adept at disempowering the people of the Gorbals and creating just the type of illnesses of despair that ended Benny Lynch’s life. The Glasgow Effect report tells us that there continues to be a pressing need to:
‘mitigate against the effects of future vulnerabilities which are likely to emerge from UK government changes to social security and reduced public spending’
But, the report also states that current Westminster policies are likely to kill more people prematurely unless we do something about it.
We are not over stating the report here – the need for a different Scottish politics is clearly set out in the report:
‘1. National (Scottish) economic and social policy. Given all the evidence that economic policies have profound implications for population health, the report urges that all opportunities available within Scotland are taken to redistribute income and wealth across Scottish society. Specific measures relating to ownership of capital, income and corporate taxation, wealth and asset taxation, ‘fair work’ (including adequate wage levels), industrial policy, social security, addressing the cost of living, and ‘poverty-proofing’.
Indeed, there is an echo of the report’s analysis in Benny Lynch’s son’s words – who explained, in a newspaper report, that he and his mother received no support from the council when his father was ill (Just as a young Benny had received no support from the council when his aunt and uncle had to take him in). It is a terrible indictment of current Westminster politics that we find echoes of inadequate 1920’s, 30s and 40’s social policy in present day Tory austerity.
In pre-war Glasgow there was plenty of overcrowding, poor housing, poverty and despair but insufficient politically developed ‘protective factors’ and for decades afterwards this situation was not properly addresses. It is no surprise that Glasgow provided a majority vote for yes in the 2014 independence referendum. The people of Glasgow did not need the academics of the Glasgow Effect report to tell them that there was a democratic deficit. They did not need an academic report to tell them that the unionist parties had, for more than six decades, maintained a political system that consistently failed to protect the lives of working class Scot’s. They had come to the conclusion themselves that unionist politics did not work for them.
One key conclusion to draw out from Benny Lynch’s story is that rather than blaming individuals for illnesses of despair, it is time to hold the unionist establishment to account for their negligence. It is time to remove the democratic deficit that limits life expectancy in Glasgow and Scotland. The time for an independent solution to Scotland’s ‘illnesses of disappear’ is now over-due.
Christina Milarvie Quarrell is a Poet Photographer Artist. The fourth of five sisters born in the Gorbals and Govanhill communities where as children we learned the values of people before profit. ‘Community Arts and the creating and gathering of working class communities culture stories songs and art is my passion’.
John Davis is the professor of Childhood Inclusion at the University of Edinburgh he researches and writes on a range of issues including the childhood, disability, inclusion, social justice and anti-discrimination.