Why it's time to raise a statue up to the best of Benny Lynch and the Glaswegian spirit

To commemorate the anniversary of Benny Lynch’s death this month, Christina Milarvie Quarrell and John Davis examine the messages that Benny Lynch’s life and achievements have for the present day, why he was such a hero for the people of the Gorbals and what the raising up of a statue to Glasgow’s greatly loved son would enable people to learn about the history of the city.

BENNY LYNCH floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee before the great Muhammad Ali had coined the phrase. 

Beginning his boxing at carnival booths where he could earn wages upwards of three weeks' wages for a fight, Benny Lynch rose to be Scotland’s first undisputed world champion.

Writers have suggested that a hero has to go through a rite of passage in another world and return home to improve the lives of their fellow country folk. Benny Lynch was a boxing hero who, with the assistance of his trainer/manager Sammy Wilson (a bookie and former boxer), travelled to England to beat Jackie Brown and then Small Montana, and return to be acclaimed by 100,000 who met him at Glasgow Central station and lined his route home.

Benny Lynch was empathetically connected to his people, they shared in his success and cheered the fact that he had demonstrated to the world the quality of folk fae the Gorbals.

A 2003 documentary suggested Benny Lynch was 'generous to a fault'. People who knew Benny talk of him as a pied piper who was continuously generous to the children of the Gorbals whether it was giving their parents money to buy them presents, or paying for pokes of chips 'all round' when passing the chip shop.

Lynch was born on 2 April 1913 into a setting with scandalously high levels of health inequality, overcrowding, food poverty and environmental pollution. For example, illnesses 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, while tuberculosis killed more than 200 people per 100,000 in 1910. Incidences of many diseases would peak during Lynch’s life time - rates of measles (above 12,000 per 100,000), whooping cough (almost 6,000 per 100,000), diphtheria (over 2,000 per 100,000) and scarlet fever (around 5,000 per 100,000).

The men and women of Lynch’s parents' and grandparents' generations had to endure three decades of troubled times including: health epidemics; the carnage, trauma, injuries and loss of World War I; the Wall Street Crash; and a decade of depression. 

Lynch, in good times and in bad, showed the world that the people of the Gorbals were made of exceptional substance.

Lynch, himself, experienced extremely testing housing conditions, the separation of his parents and the tragic loss of his big brother James (aged only 19) - Benny’s role model, mentor, protector and first boxing instructor (Benny was just 16).

Put in this context, 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'd had to endure so much.

Glasgow in the 1920s and 1930s 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. 

Lynch, in good times and in bad, showed the world that the people of the Gorbals were made of exceptional substance.

So, 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 would not only represent him, but we would let Benny Lynch represent the incredible endurance of Glaswegians. 

A shining symbolic statue could enable us to think of Lynch - in a similar way to Andy Murray and Dunblane - as a positive example of the commitment, hope, humour, generosity, strength and resistance of the people of the Gorbals.

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 Lynch’s life tend to look for individual explanations for his relatively early death and promote deficit characterisations (e.g. depicting him as an Icarus-type personality that rose and fell from the sun).

Similarly, some writing about the time, unreflectively, reduces Glasgow’s identity down to 'sick man of Europe' stereotypes - without examining the causes of Glasgow’s inequalities. Such stereotypes ignore the fact that 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.

For example, a damning report by the Glasgow Centre for Population Health, NHS Health Scotland, the University of the West of Scotland and University College London, titled 'History, politics and vulnerability: explaining excess mortality in Scotland and Glasgow', has argued that over a period of at least six 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. 

A shining symbolic statue could enable us to think of Lynch as a positive example of the commitment, hope, humour, generosity, strength and resistance of the people of the Gorbals.

The report tells us that political mismanagement has caused 'illnesses of despair', 30 per cent more deaths from cancer, strokes and heart disease; and 5,000 premature deaths per year in Glasgow (300,000 over a six-decade period). Behind each statistic is a person loved by family, friends and communities.

So if we are looking for the source of Benny Lynch’s early death, we should avoid attempts to blame him, his mother, father, brother, family, and/or community. We should, instead, address the key issues identified in the Glasgow Effect report, such as low wages, lack of land rights, poor quality peripheral council housing, low investment in repairs, insufficient support for generations of migrants and a 'democratic defect'. 

The report defines the 'democratic defect' as poor decision-making by a Westminster influenced pre-devolution Scotland Office and local politicians, leading to "feelings of despondency, disempowerment, and lack of sense of control".

Politician’s deprived Glasgow’s citizens of the necessary housing, living conditions, social relationships, sense of self and community networks that enable people to lead healthy lives. 

Politicians, not local people, are to blame for Glasgow’s plight. 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).

A statue to Benny Lynch could stand as memory not only to the man but also to Glaswegian aspiration to overcome inequality.

Glaswegians already knew this, and when voting as a majority for independence in 2014, they stood up to decades of inequality, decades of ill health and decades of political mismanagement. 

A statue to Benny Lynch could stand as memory not only to the man but also to Glaswegian aspiration to overcome inequality.

Christina Milarvie Quarrell is a poet, photographer and artist, and the fourth of five sisters born in the Gorbals and Govanhill communities. She describes her passion as "community arts, and the creating and gathering of working class communities' culture, stories, songs and art".

John Davis is the professor of childhood inclusion at the University of Edinburgh. He researches and writes on a range of issues including childhood, disability, inclusion, social justice and anti-discrimination.

A longer version of this article and a discussion group can be found here.

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