“Billy in the Wars” by Bill Wyman, illustrated by Eoin Marron (published by Pegasus)

Tribulations of a working-class boy

Born just before midnight on Saturday, October 24, 1936 at Lewisham Hospital in working-class South London, William George Perks was a little shy of three years old and cold, hungry and poor when World War Two broke out on September 1, 1939. His life even worsened when German bombers began flying over in mid-1940 to smash the City and docks. Now he was cold, hungry, poor and fearful.
14. April 2024 5:20

William George Perks became Bill Wyman when he joined the fledgling Rollin’ Stones as their bass player in December 1962, a position he held for three decades until leaving in 1992, and he covered his childhood war years in his 1990 autobiography “Stone Alone: The Story of a Rock ’n’ Roll Band”. His new book, “Billy in the Wars”, albeit slim, covers 1936 to 1946 in greater detail and with more intimacy.

It’s Stones-free, then, except for a little context, such as the observation that throughout his early life he was always cold and hungry, and it wasn’t until July 1964, when he was 27 years old and had been in the Stones for seven months, that he was able to move into a small flat above a garage in Penge High Street, still in roughish South London, that had central heating, a bathroom, hot water and an inside toilet.

Young Billy had a “Charles Dickens poor” father who since age 14 was a bricklayer. Father was second oldest of 10 children. Mother Molly, when she met him at a Music Hall variety show in the Penge Empire, was in domestic service for a family in Dulwich. They married at Christchurch, Penge, on Christmas Day 1935 and settled in a three-up, three-down terraced house in Lower Sydenham.

By 1938, with war feared, gas masks were being distributed, the smaller childen’s ones resembling Mickey Mouse to make them less daunting. And Anderson air-raid shelters, of corrugated metal, were being installed in back gardens. Blackout regulations were imposed in buildings, with street lighting extinguished and vehicles driving on dimmed side lights. Evacuation of mothers and children came under consideration.

When war broke out, German submarines sank merchant ships bringing foodstuffs to Britain, and rationing began (not ending completely until 1954). Molly, now 22, decided to evacuate to Pembrokeshire in Wales with Bill and his two younger siblings, but they were unhappy and returned to London after a few weeks.

Lest readers doubt the memory of young Perks/Wyman, he has been the most careful of archivists throughout his life, keeping comprehensive Stones memorabilia (see his excellent coffee-table book “Rolling With the Stones” from 2002) and building substantial collections of books, cigarette cards, stamps, comics, coins, film and music hall posters, et al.

Post-Pembrokeshire, things were relatively peaceful in London, but from July 10, 1940 the Battle of Britain began and South Londoners got used to German bombers on their flight path to central London. Wyman remembers their heavy droning sound like thunder bringing everyone out into the street, not yet in direct danger. And everyone cheered together at the sight of the white trails of Spitfires and Hurricanes on the attack.

But many days and nights had to be spent in the cramped Anderson shelters as the bombing turned to the London suburbs to wear down people’s morale. Families shared mattresses that just fitted the six-foot earthen floors. Barrage balloons went up, there were anti-aircraft guns and searchlights in every park with sandbags and bunkers, and trucks with pom-pom guns on the back tore up and down streets firing at the bombers. Many Londoners took to the underground stations of the Tube for safety.

In July 1941 Mother and the kids evacuated again, just north of Nottingham in the Midlands. Young Billy/old Bill recall this as an enjoyable and adventurous time, a typical boyhood in the English countryside. But there was a brutal woman teacher who smacked Billy for no reason and ridiculed his London accent. He started to play truant. And the war wasn’t always distant, as one night his room lit up with an eerie red glow as he heard the sound of a German plane crashing nearby.

Molly started to struggle with her responsibilities and Bill was packed off to Grandmother Florence Jeffery and her home in one of the slummiest streets in Penge. But Gran was wonderful, sweet and kindly, giving him the love he craved. “Billy in the Wars” is dedicated to this woman “who had faith in me and taught me everything”.

She had the earliest photo of Bill taken, on September 1, 1942, and it is in the book, plus an illustration of it by comic artist Eoin Marron, whose several various depictions of people and war are a colourful addition to the text.

Hitler was losing the war after turning his attention to the Soviet Union, but still one day a Messerschmitt fighter shot up Billy’s street and he had to quickly take cover behind a wall. The kids collected shrapnel. Then in 1944 the feared V1 rockets, known as “doodle-bugs”, brought fresh terror. South London was “doodle-bug alley”.

In recent years Wyman found a booklet showing the war damage to the Crystal Palace, Penge and Anerley areas in the war, and one V2 rocket, 16 V1s and 38 incendiary bombs fell within a roughly one-mile radius of Gran’s house. He cannot pay enough tribute to her, and she was his role model, his surrogate mother, a blessing in disguise.

As Wyman recounts, he was an insecure, introvert and lonely child, small and afraid of the world around, but she encouraged him to fight against all odds, take risks and be daring.  She also launched him on the path to making scrapbooks and archiving.

Ultimately, it was her believing in him and teaching him the way out of the neighbourhood that led him to go against his friends’ and parents’ wishes and quit his steady job and join that uncertain little blues combo in 1962.

Wyman, now in his late 80s, is meticulous in his details, even though recalling such a young age. Apart from the reminiscing he offers advice – “You must step out of that gutter to make something of yourself. And if you’re not succesful, try, try, again – and if  you want to learn something, practise until you finally succeed – and even when you feel the whole world is against you, stand up and do battle and win the fight and move on.”

And so William George Perks took the risk and became Bill Wyman. Courage is the theme of his story, he says, as he witnessed the bravery of everybody around during the dark days of war and the hard times of his childhood. Those trials taught him the importance of persistence and resilience. His account is a rewarding read.

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