Denny Jackson represented Britain in Judo during the infamous Munich Olympics. He was born in the East End of London, to a Cuban father and an English mother over eighty years ago. His father was a bare-knuckle fighter on the London barges (of which he will tell more later). He has faced discrimination his entire life and has literally had to fight for a voice at times. In fact he became one the countries finest judo fighters and made a living from singing. Although he had to bend the rules at times, he is truly a man of integrity. I met Denny only once but he made a huge impression – his warmth and wit are palpable. I think his story is inspirational.
Briefly tell me your story
My name is Denny Jackson, I am coming up to eighty one years of age. Born in the East End of London in a family of twelve. Very sporty family, had two brothers that were pro fighters, and my father was a full time bare knuckle fighter, operating on the Thames barges, that were thought to be outside of the judiciary – Bare knuckle fighting is illegal.
I am a Black Belt in Judo, and represented the UK in the Munich Olympics in 1972. I never packed up competition work until I was in my sixties.
Growing up in the East End was problematic, given that my Father was a foreigner, an illegal immigrant, and Black, originally from Cuba. My Dad married an English girl, which at that time caused a lot of problems, people would not tell you to your face exactly what they thought, but you could feel it, although as kids, it didn’t really bother us, because we were a close knit family, with a lot of respect for each other, and people learnt to give us respect, we could more than stick up for ourselves physically, and sometimes had to.
My Mother came from a family of sixteen children, so she knew about making ends meet. Times were tough. We were all christened Roman Catholic, but never practised.
During the war we were bombed out twice, in fact I have memories of sleeping on Stepney Green Station, I was probably about six years of age at the time. They evacuated us to Norfolk, despite what the Home Office wanted, which was to split all the children up and spread us throughout the country , but my Mum was having none of that, and despite officialdom she got her way.
When we arrived in Norfolk the reaction to us was, perhaps not hostile, but certainly inquisitive.
Children would point at us in the street and tug at their Mother’s skirts and say out loud “ere look at those dark skinned people” and someone else would say, “Well they come from London, it’s very smoky down there.” Once again the locals gradually accepted us, local so called tough guys learnt that we were not to be messed with. I remember having no idea of rural life, and running to tell my Mother that a chicken was having a poo, and an egg came out instead. I thought eggs were manufactured, and you only bought them in shops.
We did move back to the East End where all my sisters got jobs in the rag trade ( I had six sisters and six brothers) The rag trade was predominantly Jewish, but we always got on well with them, and were shown a lot of kindness, and generosity, though they had little more than we did. I suppose we were outsiders too, whatever, the East End Jewish Community at the time treated us as their own.
I have memories of taking a spoke from a bike, putting it up my sleeve, and then while a friend would distract the shop owner, I would dig the spoke in packets of Craven A or Woodbines , or whatever was available and hurriedly slip the cigarettes under my shirt, and sell them on street corners.
I am only a little fellow, and sometimes wonder if my lack of height was exacerbated by a rather dangerous game I played in and around the bomb sites. I used to get one of my Mum’s sheets, tie the corners up with string. I would then climb on to the roof of the damaged building, remove some of the slates or roof tiles, and slide down on the sheet, and my landing would be on soft sand, well, it was for most of the time, but sometimes there was no soft sand, and inevitably I would repeatedly crash land with quite a thump, which used to hurt my hips. One day my Mother remarked, that I was walking along as though I had messed myself, I was taken to the Doctor, who just dismissed the condition as growing pains. One day a neighbour told my Mother about my dare devil games on the rooves, needless to say she soon cottoned on to why her sheets had got so dirty. Damage had been done to my hips, the growing pain diagnosis was an incorrect one, and I continue to walk with a noticeable limp.
I developed a reasonably good singing voice, and used to make a pound or three singing in the pubs and clubs, which my Mother was not too keen on, because of the drug and underworld connections, and I suppose she was concerned for me, The Krays and the Richardson’s were quite prominent at the time, but I never got drawn in to that gangland scene.
I continued with the Judo, and my day time job making wooden packing cases, until I was called up for national service at eighteen. I was stationed in Aldershot, and threw myself into army routine, I put hours in the gym, building myself up, and getting fit. I applied to join the Para troop regiment, and was accepted. To be honest I thought my height might have been a problem, but I was fit, and keen as mustard, in fact I went through all the vigorous training with no injuries. I qualified, and got “my wings” and was immediately shipped out to Egypt, I think that was in 1952. I saw action in Trans Jordan, and pretty much did the tour of that region, with postings in Malta, Gibraltar, Tangiers and Cyprus. The duration of National Service was two years, but I enlisted for a further six, which in hindsight was a mistake.
On leaving the Army I saw an advert in the paper for paratroopers to jump from planes as a spectator sport, at the hugely popular Butlin’s Holiday camps of the time, jumping from planes at 6000ft. I was already to take up the job, but when my mother found out she was furious and reluctantly I had to refuse the job offer. One of my army colleagues did suffer a serious injury whilst doing these stunts at Butlin’s and landed up in a wheel chair, so I suppose that could have been me.
I stumbled along doing my music work, helping out on market stalls, whatever turned over a “bob” or two. My Judo training was still an important part of my life, in fact I spent three years at The Metropolitan Police training school at Hendon teaching basic judo to the young police officers.
I was married in 1957, met my wife in a night club I was singing in, I was blessed with two children, Mandy and Mark.
Where do you see yourself going in life?
Well at my advanced years I suppose all my focus is on my family, if they are Ok then so am I. I judge my life’s work on their contentment and happiness, and they are a gift to the world, so I am proud.
What is your purpose in Life?
Difficult question, but I suppose that to have my family around me is paramount, my purpose was to provide for them and set them off into the adult world, knowing they were loved, it is all I could do. One of my granddaughter’s is a teenager now, but unable to walk, and confined to an electric wheelchair ,so I have a purpose to keep her confidence up, it upsets her when she sees her pals going off “done up” on their way to meet boyfriends, and dancing and having a good time. I have to help to make her strong, and was so proud when she beat off the able bodied kids to land the part of Nancy in the school production of Oliver, she sang and acted her little socks off, no one remarked about her wheelchair, but she got the part, not because anyone felt sorry for her, but because she had spunk and charisma. Oh! She is a bright kid alright, she has taken it now upon herself to learn Japanese, that’s a challenge, and she’ll meet it.
Are there times, places or people where you find it harder to maintain the integrity of you voice?
Don’t know if this answers the question, but whatever you do, do it to the best of your ability, don’t cheat. Many times in my life I have gone back , and squared up to people and admitted that I had done wrong, if I had been dishonest with them in some way it played on my mind, and believe that I have always tried to put it right, to square the circle. I stole when I was a child, not just cigarettes but joints of meat from the butchers, or whatever. I could see my Mum was struggling to feed us, so what I did was for the family…..Yeah alright, it was quite exciting, but the bottom line was it helped the family. I told my Mum that I was given the produce from a very well dressed gentleman who admired the way that you always had us looking spick and span, and it was his gift to us…..Honest!
I could never have been a politician and smile in someone’s face promise one thing and do another, don’t think that would have been the job for me.
What advice would you give to someone seeking a more authentic life?
Be honest, don’t be sly or devious, people might be offended at first but far better, to be an open book.