THE OLDEST MAN IN EUROPE, AND LONG-TERM RESIDENT OF W12, RECALLS HIS LIFE AND ALL THOSE HE'S LOVED OVER 117 YEARS.
Interviewed by Richard Lumsden
What made you decide to remember all those you have loved?
I’ve not forgotten the names but the faces come and go. I’d like to see them all again one last time.
How long have you lived in the area?
All my life. I was forced to live up north for a few years in the 50s. When I came back Shepherd's Bush still felt like home.
Where did you grow up?
On Trafalgar Street beside Hammersmith Creek. We played on Wormwood Scrubs and watched the airships take off and land. In the 30s Hammersmith Creek was filled in and the houses demolished. At low tide, if you look over the river wall in Furnival Gardens you can still see where the creek came off the Thames.
On Wormwood Scrubs we watched the airships take off and land
In your lifetime, what's been the area's biggest change?
I remember the white exhibition palaces and canals at White City. More canals than Venice when it was built. There was a fairground with the Flip Flap ride and big dipper. It’s that big shopping centre now. The Norland Road market got knocked down too for the motorway off the Westway, but they ran out of money before it could reach Earl's Court.
You lived here through WW1 and WW2. What was your local wartime experience?
I went to France in the Great War and drove the 88 and 17 bus through the Blitz in the Second.
For you, which war was the more terrifying?
Neither was much fun. It was the people alongside that got you through. We had no choice. You did what you had to do to get home.
Did you ever find them exhilarating?
They had their moments.
Did you ever think your number was up?
I thought my number was up many times (laughs). I was once saved by a man who caught me falling from a balloon. I watched a lot of friends’ numbers come up too. You don’t forget those faces.
Have you ever killed anyone?
That’s not a question a gentleman would want to answer.
What jobs did you do after the war?
I started as a barrow boy on a fish stall in Shepherd’s Bush Market. Then worked in a bakery after coming back from France. Dug tunnels on the underground and built roads for George Wimpey. I was a groundsman in a stately home up north before coming back to Shepherd’s Bush, and a warehouseman in Acton before retiring.
Which has been your favourite decade?
I enjoyed the colour of the sixties. It was grey before then. I liked the people who came over and changed the greyness.
Have you ever broken the law?
Yes, but I paid the price for my mistakes.
You've been trying to remember what love feels like. Over the course of your life, would you say you’ve been lucky in love?
Sometimes, but luck always has a habit of changing. That’s why I’ve never been a betting man. Fool's game, all of that.
Were/are you married?
Yes, a long time ago to a girl in Hammersmith. Unfortunately hers is one of the names I can’t recall. I was nearly married a couple of other times too, but it wasn’t meant to be.
Were you faithful?
To my wife, yes.
With hindsight, is the idea of love better than the reality?
Possibly, looking back. But before it happens, the idea of love is the best feeling in the world (laughs).
Do you deserve to be in love now?
(Laughs) I’m not sure I deserve anything now. I like a cup of sweet tea in the afternoon, and a little whisky before bed, but I’m not sure I could handle much else these days.
What's your greatest fault?
Looking back at all the things you’d change when it’s too late. The people you might have let down along the way.
Of what in your life are you most ashamed?
The time with Evie. She was my forever girl. We were both very young, I suppose. At that age you don't see the corners where life turns.
Have you forgiven yourself?
You’d have to ask her first.
Who's been your worst enemy?
Myself at times (laughs). But you have to pick yourself up, dust yourself down and start over again.
What's your greatest regret?
Not telling certain people I loved them. Not sure why. It just wasn’t something you said out loud back in those days. A lady I knew said you only ever regret the things you didn’t do. I think she might have a point.
What makes you get out of bed in the morning?
Ros and Sylvie, who look after me in the home. They say things like ‘You can’t lie there all day, Billyboy.’ I’ve tried asking them out on a date but they’ve got husbands or boyfriends or whatever, so it’s probably best that we keep things as they are for now (laughs).
What's the most important life-lesson 117 years has taught you?
Look after your feet. Finish your whisky before the ice melts.
Thank you, Billy. It's been a pleasure to meet you.
You can read about Billy’s life in Richard Lumsden's debut novel, The Six Loves Of Billy Binns (TinderPress). In case you haven't guessed, it’s a work of fiction, meticulously researched and set in Shepherd's Bush throughout the entire twentieth century. Richard is an actor and writer, and long-time local resident.
Interviewed Aug 2019
Photo: Richard Lumsden by Rocco Redondo